Homer’s Muse and Her Fake News

Dio Chrysostom, On Troy Not Being Captured §39

“When I first asked this Egyptian priest to explain this to me, he was at first unwilling to do so, saying that the Greeks are charlatans and, though they are the most uneducated people, think themselves endowed with the highest degree of learning. He added that there was no worse disease either for an individual or the multitude than when someone without education reckons themselves most exceedingly wise, for those people are entirely unable to be released from the shackles of their ignorance. He added, ‘And you are all in such a ridiculous state because of these things that you claim that another poet who believed Homer’s tale and wrote the same things about Helen (it was Stesichorus, I think) was blinded by her for his lies and only recovered his sight when he wrote a recantation. Yet, while saying such things, you nonetheless believe that Homer’s poetry is true, and claim that Stesichorus said in the palinode that Helen never sailed, and others say that Helen was brought here to Egypt after being abducted by Paris. Yet, while the matter remains thus in doubt and wrapped up in so much ignorance, they are nevertheless unable to suspect the deception.’

He argued that the reason for this credulity was the fact that the Greeks are pleasure-lovers. Whatever they hear with pleasure while someone is speaking, they reckon all those things as true, and they give the greatest latitude to the poets to lie about whatever they want, and say that it is their poetic license. All the same, they believe whatever the poets say and they even bring them up as authorities whenever a matter is in doubt. But among the Egyptians, no one is allowed to say anything in verse, and poetry is banned entirely, because they know that pleasure in poetry is a drug which lures one to listen. Just as those who are thirsty do not need to drink wine because a drink of water is enough, so too those who want to know the truth have no need of poetry, since it is enough to hear is presented in its simplest form. Poetry persuades us to listen to lies just as wine urges us on to drink too much.”

Lagrenée Helen Recognizing Telemachus
Jean-Jacques Lagrenée (1739–1821) Helen Recognising Telemachus, Son of Odysseus

δεομένου δέ μου διηγήσασθαι, τὸ μὲν πρῶτον οὐκ ἐβούλετο, λέγων ὅτι ἀλαζόνες εἰσὶν οἱ ῞Ελληνες καὶ ἀμαθέστατοι ὄντες πολυμαθεστάτους ἑαυτοὺς νομίζουσι· τούτου δὲ μηθὲν εἶναι νόσημα χαλεπώτερον μήτε ἑνὶ μήτε πολλοῖς ἢ ὅταν τις ἀμαθὴς ὢν σοφώτατον ἑαυτὸν νομίζῃ. τοὺς γὰρ τοιούτους τῶν ἀνθρώπων μηδέποτε δύνασθαι τῆς ἀγνοίας ἀπολυθῆναι. οὕτως δέ, ἔφη, γελοίως ἀπὸ τούτων διάκεισθε ὑμεῖς ὥστε ποιητὴν ἕτερον ῾Ομήρῳ πεισθέντα καὶ ταὐτὰ πάντα ποιήσαντα περὶ ῾Ελένης, Στησίχορον, ὡς οἶμαι, τυφλωθῆναί φατε ὑπὸ τῆς ῾Ελένης, ὡς ψευσάμενον, αὖθις δὲ ἀναβλέψαι τἀναντία ποιήσαντα. καὶ ταῦτα λέγοντες οὐδὲν ἧττον ἀληθῆ φασιν εἶναι τὴν ῾Ομήρου ποίησιν καὶ <ἀκούοντες> τὸν μὲν Στησίχορον ἐν τῇ ὕστερον ᾠδῇ λέγειν ὅτι τὸ παράπαν οὐδὲ πλεύσειεν ἡ ῾Ελένη οὐδαμόσε, ἄλλους δέ τινας ὡς ἁρπασθείη μὲν ῾Ελένη ὑπὸ τοῦ ᾿Αλεξάνδρου, δεῦρο δὲ παρ’ ἡμᾶς εἰς Αἴγυπτον ἀφίκοιτο καὶ τοῦ πράγματος οὕτως ἀμφισβητουμένου καὶ πολλὴν ἄγνοιαν ἔχοντος, οὐδὲ οὕτως ὑποπτεῦσαι δύνανται τὴν ἀπάτην. τούτου δὲ αἴτιον ἔφη εἶναι ὅτι φιλήκοοί εἰσιν οἱ ῞Ελληνες· ἃ δ’ ἂν ἀκούσωσιν ἡδέως τινὸς λέγοντος, ταῦτα καὶ ἀληθῆ νομίζουσι, καὶ τοῖς μὲν ποιηταῖς ἐπιτρέπουσιν ὅ,τι ἂν θέλωσι ψεύδεσθαι καί φασιν ἐξεῖναι αὐτοῖς, ὅμως δὲ πιστεύουσιν οἷς ἂν ἐκεῖνοι λέγωσι, καὶ μάρτυρας αὐτοὺς ἐπάγονται ἐνίοτε περὶ ὧν ἀμφισβητοῦσι· παρὰ δὲ Αἰγυπτίοις μὴ ἐξεῖναι μηδὲν ἐμμέτρως λέγεσθαι μηδὲ εἶναι ποίησιν τὸ παράπαν· ἐπίστασθαι γὰρ ὅτι φάρμακον τοῦτο ἡδονῆς ἐστι πρὸς τὴν ἀκοήν. ὥσπερ οὖν οἱ διψῶντες οὐδὲν δέονται οἴνου, ἀλλ’ ἀπόχρη αὐτοῖς ὕδατος πιεῖν, οὕτως οἱ τἀληθῆ εἰδέναι θέλοντες οὐδὲν δέονται μέτρων, ἀλλ’ ἐξαρκεῖ αὐτοῖς ἁπλῶς ἀκοῦσαι. ἡ δὲ ποίησις ἀναπείθει τὰ ψευδῆ ἀκούειν ὥσπερ <ὁ> οἶνος πίνειν μάτην.

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