Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

HOMER: The Odyssey (Books 13-16)

There’s an old saying: Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story. Odysseus might very well have been the guy who started it. Over and over again Odysseus is given a chance to tell who he is. Over and over again he instead invents a long story that has nothing to do with the real truth. They’re great stories. They’re just not true. So which do you want – a great story or the truth? Actually the real story of Odysseus is a great story in itself. Homer’s a great storyteller and can stack up a tale within a tale several times and still not lose the thread of the main story line. But what about telling the Truth? Is Homer not concerned about that? Homer’s a poet, not a philosopher. A good question we might ask is this: is Truth the same no matter whether you’re a poet or a philosopher or an ordinary guy? Is it the same for me as it is for you? This is a harder question to answer than you might think. Another deceptively simple question is: should people tell the truth? The deceptively simple answer is: that depends on the situation.

Jonathan Swift once wrote about Gulliver traveling to a magical land of talking horses. These horses are noble and much more rational than mere human beings. Ask them the same question: should people tell the truth? They would answer: why would you ever want to say that which “is not”? In other words, why in the world would anyone ever lie about something? They don’t even have a word for what we call “lying.” For these noble horses the purpose of language is to communicate that which is. Why anyone would ever want to intentionally confuse the situation is beyond them. That would defeat the whole purpose of having a language in the first place. Besides, there’s enough confusion in the world already. Words should be used to clarify things; not to muddy up the mind. These are noble creatures. They have lofty goals, practice kindness and courtesy to family and friends, and die as gently and graciously as they lived.

They’re noble creatures alright. But they’re not men. They live in a very different world than the world Odysseus lives in. In Odysseus’ world telling the whole truth might well get you killed. Stretching the truth might well save your life. The Greek gods themselves aren’t above bending the truth when it suits their purposes. The goddess Athena has this to say about Odysseus: “Prudent and wily must one be to overreach you in craft of any kind, even though it be a god who strives to match you. Bold, shift, and insatiate of wiles, will you not now within your land cease from the false misleading tales which from the bottom of your heart you love? But let us talk no longer thus, both being versed in wiles; for you are far the best of men in plots and tales, and I of all the gods am famed for craft and wiles.” If the gods themselves take pride in being “crafty” then what should we expect from mortal Greeks? Besides, Odysseus can also tell the truth when it serves his purposes. When he appears to his own son after being gone for twenty years Telemachus is startled at first: “Stranger, you seem a different person now and a while ago. Your clothes are different and your flesh is not the same. You surely are one of the gods who hold the open sky.” Odysseus responds: “I am no god. Why liken me to the immortals? I am your father (and) I will tell you the truth. The Phaeacians brought me here.” In the Greek world there’s a big difference between men and the gods. There’s an even bigger difference between men and talking horses. But that’s another story.


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