Amazing, Wonderful Lies: Isocrates, Odysseus–Correspondence and Coherence

Isocrates, Helen 1-3

“There are some people who get puffed up if they manage to talk about something tolerably after they have themselves selected a strange and impossible subject. Men have also grown old claiming that it is impossible to say or disprove a lie or to speak two ways about the same matters. Others claim that courage, wisdom, and justice are the same thing, that we have none of these by nature, and that there is a single knowledge about them all. Others waste their time in conflicts which bring no benefit, which can only create more trouble for those who approach them.

I, if I saw that this superfluity had only just emerged in speeches and that these men were eager for honor in the novelty of what they discover, I would not be a surprised at them. But, now, who is such a late-learner that he does not know Protagoras and the sophists who were active at his time and that they left to us these types of things and speeches even more excessively composed than these? How could anyone overcome Gorgias who dared to say that nothing exists at all or Zeno who tried to demonstrate that the same things are possible and impossible or even Melissos who—although some things are countless in number—tried to provide a proof that everything is one!”

Εἰσί τινες οἳ μέγά φρονοῦσιν, ἢν ὑπόθεσιν ἄτοπον καὶ παράδοξον ποιησάμενοι περὶ ταύτης ἀνεκτῶς εἰπεῖν δυνηθῶσι· καὶ καταγεγηράκασιν οἱ μὲν οὐ φάσκοντες οἷόν τ᾿ εἶναι ψευδῆ λέγειν οὐδ᾿ ἀντιλέγειν οὐδὲ δύω λόγω περὶ τῶν αὐτῶν πραγμάτων ἀντειπεῖν, οἱ δὲ διεξιόντες ὡς ἀνδρία καὶ σοφία καὶ δικαιοσύνη ταὐτόν ἐστι, καὶ φύσει μὲν οὐδὲν αὐτῶν ἔχομεν, μία δ᾿ ἐπιστήμη καθ᾿ ἁπάντων ἐστίν· ἄλλοι δὲ περὶ τὰς ἔριδας διατρίβουσι τὰς οὐδὲν μὲν ὠφελούσας, πράγματα δὲ παρέχειν τοῖς πλησιάζουσι δυναμένας.

Ἐγὼ δ᾿ εἰ μὲν ἑώρων νεωστὶ τὴν περιεργίαν ταύτην ἐν τοῖς λόγοις ἐγγεγενημένην καὶ τούτους ἐπὶ τῇ καινότητι τῶν εὑρημένων φιλοτιμουμένους, οὐκ ἂν ὁμοίως ἐθαύμαζον αὐτῶν· νῦν δὲ τίς ἐστιν οὕτως ὀψιμαθής, ὅστις οὐκ οἶδε Πρωταγόραν καὶ τοὺς κατ᾿ ἐκεῖνον τὸν χρόνον γενομένους σοφιστάς, ὅτι καὶ τοιαῦτα καὶ πολὺ τούτων πραγματωδέστερα συγγράμματα κατέλιπον ἡμῖν; πῶς γὰρ ἄν τις ὑπερβάλοιτο Γοργίαν τὸν τολμήσαντα λέγειν ὡς οὐδὲν τῶν ὄντων ἔστιν, ἢ Ζήνωνα τὸν ταὐτὰ δυνατὰ καὶ πάλιν ἀδύνατα πειρώμενον ἀποφαίνειν, ἢ Μέλισσον ὃς ἀπείρων τὸ πλῆθος πεφυκότων τῶν πραγμάτων ὡς ἑνὸς ὄντος τοῦ παντὸς ἐπεχείρησεν ἀποδείξεις εὑρίσκειν;

Theogony 26-28

“Rustic shepherds, wretched reproaches, nothing but bellies,
We know how to say many lies similar to the truth
And we know how to speak the truth when we want to.”

“ποιμένες ἄγραυλοι, κάκ’ ἐλέγχεα, γαστέρες οἶον,
ἴδμεν ψεύδεα πολλὰ λέγειν ἐτύμοισιν ὁμοῖα,
ἴδμεν δ’ εὖτ’ ἐθέλωμεν ἀληθέα γηρύσασθαι.”

Odyssey 19.203

“He was like someone speaking many lies similar to the truth.”

ἴσκε ψεύδεα πολλὰ λέγων ἐτύμοισιν ὁμοῖα·

Od. 13.256-273

“I heard of Ithaca even in broad Krete
Far over the sea. And now I myself have come
With these possessions. I left as much still with my children
When I fled, because I killed the dear son of Idomeneus,
Swift-footed Orsilokhos who surpassed all the grain-fed men
In broad Krete with his swift feet
Because he wanted to deprive me of all the booty
From Troy, over which I had suffered much grief in my heart,
Testing myself against warlike men and the grievous waves.
All because I was not showing his father favor as an attendant
In the land of the Trojans, but I was leading different companions.
I struck him with a bronze-pointed spear as he returned
From the field, after I set an ambush near the road with a companion.
Dark night covered the sky and no human beings
Took note of us, I got away with depriving him of life.
But after I killed him with the sharp bronze,
I went to a ship of the haughty Phoenicians
And I begged them and gave them heart-melting payment.”

“πυνθανόμην ᾿Ιθάκης γε καὶ ἐν Κρήτῃ εὐρείῃ,
τηλοῦ ὑπὲρ πόντου· νῦν δ’ εἰλήλουθα καὶ αὐτὸς
χρήμασι σὺν τοίσδεσσι· λιπὼν δ’ ἔτι παισὶ τοσαῦτα
φεύγω, ἐπεὶ φίλον υἷα κατέκτανον ᾿Ιδομενῆος,
᾿Ορσίλοχον πόδας ὠκύν, ὃς ἐν Κρήτῃ εὐρείῃ
ἀνέρας ἀλφηστὰς νίκα ταχέεσσι πόδεσσιν,
οὕνεκά με στερέσαι τῆς ληΐδος ἤθελε πάσης
Τρωϊάδος, τῆς εἵνεκ’ ἐγὼ πάθον ἄλγεα θυμῷ,
ἀνδρῶν τε πτολέμους ἀλεγεινά τε κύματα πείρων,
οὕνεκ’ ἄρ’ οὐχ ᾧ πατρὶ χαριζόμενος θεράπευον
δήμῳ ἔνι Τρώων, ἀλλ’ ἄλλων ἦρχον ἑταίρων.
τὸν μὲν ἐγὼ κατιόντα βάλον χαλκήρεϊ δουρὶ
ἀγρόθεν, ἐγγὺς ὁδοῖο λοχησάμενος σὺν ἑταίρῳ·
νὺξ δὲ μάλα δνοφερὴ κάτεχ’ οὐρανόν, οὐδέ τις ἥμεας
ἀνθρώπων ἐνόησε, λάθον δέ ἑ θυμὸν ἀπούρας.
αὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ δὴ τόν γε κατέκτανον ὀξέϊ χαλκῷ,
αὐτίκ’ ἐγὼν ἐπὶ νῆα κιὼν Φοίνικας ἀγαυοὺς
ἐλλισάμην καί σφιν μενοεικέα ληΐδα δῶκα·

This is the first ‘lie’ Odysseus tells upon his arrival on Ithaca. He does not know that he is speaking to Athena and a scholiast explains his choices as if he were speaking to a suitor or one who would inform them.

Scholia V ad. Od. 13.267

“He explains that he killed Idomeneus’ son so that the suitors will accept him as an enemy of dear Odysseus. He says that he has sons in Crete because he will have someone who will avenge him. He says that the death of Orsilochus was for booty, because he is showing that he would not yield to this guy bloodlessly. He says that he trusted Phoenicians so that he may not do him wrong, once he has reckoned that they are the most greedy for profit and they spared him.”

τὸν μὲν ἐγὼ κατιόντα] σκήπτεται τὸν ᾿Ιδομενέως υἱὸν ἀνῃρηκέναι, ἵνα αὐτὸν πρόσωνται οἱ μνηστῆρες ὡς ἐχθρὸν τοῦ ᾿Οδυσσέως φίλου. ἑαυτῷ δὲ ἐν Κρήτῃ υἱούς φησιν εἶναι, ὅτι τοὺς τιμωρήσοντας ἕξει. καὶ τὸν ᾿Ορσιλόχου δὲ θάνατον λέγει διὰ τὴν λείαν, δεικνὺς ὅτι οὐδὲ ἐκείνῳ παραχωρήσει ἀναιμωτί. Φοίνιξι δὲ πιστεῦσαι λέγει, ἵνα μὴ ἀδικήσῃ, λογισάμενος ὅτι οἱ φιλοκερδέσταται αὐτοῦ ἐφείσαντο.
V.

In studying memory systems, Martin Conway suggests that there are two forces in human memory: correspondence, which is about equivalence between details of ‘reality’ (or experience) and details of a story and coherence, which means that details make sense together in a narrative. When it comes to the way these systems operate in the human mind, not only does he argue that the memory systems have different neuro-anatomy, but he suggests that the episodic memory system (which prizes correspondence) developed earlier and is more basic to day-to-day survival than the autobiographical memory system which focuses more on coherence and is essential for the development of a goal or ‘identity’ driven self. The two systems are not exclusive—autobiographical memory selects from episodic memory in the creation of a coherent self.

Perhaps rather than considering these moments from the Theogony and the Odysseyas reflections of a tension between “fact and fiction”, we might find the relationship of correspondence and coherence more illuminating. Just as the Theogonic narrative selects from the range of mythical episodes to create a coherent narrative that is goal-driven, so too does Odysseus select and reintegrate details throughout books 13–19 in order to reintegrate into his community and complete a narrative of vengeance.

Image result for Ancient Greek Memory

Some things to read

Martin A. Conway. “Memory and the Self,” Journal of Memory and Language 53 (2005) 594-628.

Charles Fernyhough. Pieces of Light: How the New Science of Memory Illuminates the Stories We Tell About Our Past. London: Profile, 2012.

David C. Rubin. “The Basic-systems Model of Episodic Memory,” Perspectives on Psychological Science 1 (2006) 277-311.

Edmund Wilson. “On Free Will and How the Brain is Like a Colony of Ants.” Harper’sSeptember 2014, 49-52.

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