October 17, 2016

Trump, Hesiod and the Truth

Trump, Hesiod and the Truth

One of the most discussed topics of late is the American Presidential Election. However, the majority of the press has not focussed on the policies of the two candidates, but rather everything else that the candidates have said. Indeed, Secretary Clinton has at times stated outright during the presidential debates that statements made by Mr Trump are simply untrue. Truth in politics is of course a tricky subject, especially when both major parties claim to be able to achieve the same result with opposing ideas. Secretary Clinton has found such political mileage in calling out Mr Trump on his supposed lies, that she is using her website to “fact-check” his statements during the debates.

But what has this got to do with Classical texts? Truth is a central theme within much world literature but it was of particular interest in the earliest Greek literature we have, especially Hesiod’s Theogony. The story of how the gods and goddesses were born and found their places in the world and spheres of influence is fundamentally political: amongst other things it is a narrative of succession, leadership, and governance. This narrative begins with the shepherd Hesiod being approached by the Muses, goddesses of the arts, while he tended his flocks on Mount Helicon. The Muses speak to Hesiod and say,

ποιμένες ἄγραυλοι, κάκ᾽ ἐλέγχεα, γαστέρες οἶον,
ἴδμεν ψεύδεα πολλὰ λέγειν ἐτύμοισιν ὁμοῖα,
ἴδμεν δ᾽, εὖτ᾽ ἐθέλωμεν, ἀληθέα γηρύσασθαι. (Hesiod, Theogony, 26-8)

Traditionally, this passage has been translated as follows:

Field-dwelling shepherds, ignoble disgraces, mere bellies: we know how to say many false things similar to genuine ones, but we know, when we wish, how to proclaim true things. (trans. Most, 2014)

However this does not do the Muses justice, for it simplifies their statement, making them sound like they are deceptive, dishonest goddesses. This translation is due to a lack of appreciation for the use of the word ὁμοῖος (translated as “similar to”) in the epic diction of Hesiod and Homer. This is a point first highlighted by Leclerc (1993: 212-6) and its results explored and expanded in an article by Heiden (2007). Heiden argues that the root hom- means “same” and the suffix –oios denotes “a certain quality or property”. Thus there is no sense of resemblance, but rather an equivalency in regard to a certain quality (2007: 155). The phrase ψεύδεαἐτύμοισιν ὁμοῖα means “lies which are of the same sort as truth”. This seemingly paradoxical statement may in fact pose great significance for Hesiod’s work, especially when seen within the context of a Muse Invocation scene. Minchin argues that Muse Invocations in Homer are meta-narrational devices that are used to temporarily postpone the narrative to make some explicit comment on the work as a whole (1995:28). Within the Theogony, the author uses the Muses’ self-imposition on the shepherd to kick off the narrative with a contextualisation of the following poem within a realm of paradoxical and ambivalent meanings that can exist simultaneously with one another (see the episode of Pandora, described as a kalon kakon, or “beautiful evil”, line 585).

Thus Hesiod the author wishes his audience to be aware of these issues, particularly surrounding Truth, which the Muses directly address in lines 27 and 28. One way in which we can make sense of this statement is to consider how lies are effective. Lies can become truth and reality, not just when they are believed to be true, but also when they have an effect on the listener, even when known to be false. A lie does not have to be believed for it to have an effect on the listener, much like in Odyssey, 19.203 when the disguised Odysseus lies to his wife about the demise of her husband (Heiden, 2007: 166): “and as she listened her tears flowed and her face melted” (trans. Murray, 2014). Furthermore, lies are effective as they can call upon truths, such as memories and experiences to give them power, as Odysseus calls upon his wife’s memories of him (Heiden, 2007: 168). Thus the power of a lie resides within the recipient of the lie. It is up to he or she who listens to lies to empower them with belief, unquestioning acceptance, or even an emotional response.

So we now return to politics: regardless of whether the statements made by Donald Trump are true or not, they are effective. They act like the Muses’ truth-equivalents which can be known to be untrue, yet still have real-world effects and act like truths by evoking emotional responses. Even if the voters do not necessarily believe some of the statements that he makes, they may be affected by them, they may evoke an emotional response and thus on some level are felt to be true. This means that lies are not only a powerful political tool, but also put more pressure on the electorate and their reactions to them. It is the People, the percipients of lies, who decide their effectiveness. Power to the People.


Primary sources:

Homer, Odyssey, trans. A.T.Murray (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 2014).

Hesiod, Theogony, trans. G.W. Most (Cambridge: Harvard University Press 2006).

Secondary sources:

Heiden, B. (2007) “The Muses Uncanny Lies: Hesiod, “Theogony” 27 and Its Translators” in American Journal of Philology, Vol. 128, No.2, pp.153-175.

Leclerc, M.-C.(1993) La Parole chez Hésiode (Paris: Les Belles Lettres).

Minchin, E. (1995) “The Poet Appeals to His Muse: Homeric Invocations in the Context of Epic Performance” in The Classical Journal, Vol.91, No.1, pp.25-33.

Nick Brown is a PhD candidate in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick. His research looks into the ways in which early Greek sculptures and their inscriptions interact with one another. In particular, he is investigating the significance of the body of the sculpture being the site of inscription. More broadly, his interests within Classics focus on the theme of art and text from Greek pottery to ekphrastic literature.

- 2 comments by 0 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Colin Gough

    Someone I am following on twitter featured your blog this morning but I am ashamed to say I cannot find it now so not sure who it was.

    I really enjoyed reading it and I have to say I have been thinking of it all day. I am a mature graduate (this year) in Classical Studies at the OU and am just embarking on an MA Classical Studies so am always on the lookout for technique, analysis, argument pattern, essay writing etc.. Although this is going to sound sycophantic I just wanted to say that I found the style and content beautiful. The structure of the argument, the use of references, the way it is written, the use of different disciplines – excellent.

    I am meant to read everything critically and will tomorrow but I fear I will just use it as an example of what I should aim for.

    Would you be happy for me to share it in out student forum?

    18 Oct 2016, 20:18

  2. Craig Jacobs

    While the premise of your is sound, I must note that your essay is horribly one-sided. Bear in mind, I am no fan (or even voter) for Trump, but if untrue statements are at issue, then there is plenty of fodder for discussion with his primary opponent, as well. Your blatant disregard for this fact lends an appearance of extreme bias to your essay, which self-defeats its purported rationale of understanding truth.

    29 Oct 2016, 12:23

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