Mind Games

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In an earlier post, I commented on my interest in disguise. I asked, at what point does a mask cease to function primarily as a way for me to hide my “true” identity from others, and begin to become my only identity?


Suppose that the “real” Jim smirks every time he hears the phrase “liberal arts,” curses trees as oversized weeds, rejoices every time he hears about another pollution problem in a lake or river, and swears that this is among his favorite poems:


Subway Haiku

An afternoon bite,

ham and turkey on wheat bread.

Here come the poopies.


How long would it take for the faux Jim of Traces, ostensible lover of all things literary, arboreal, riverine, pedagogical, and familial, to become the only Jim? For the fake to become the real?


Mind games, you say. Well, deal with it.


After all, my beloved Greeks just loved mind games. A guy named Epimenides, who lived in the sixth century, is supposed to have said, “Cretans are always liars.” Okay, fine, Epimenides, thanks for letting me know! But wait . . . Epimenides himself is a Cretan? So he’s lying about always being a liar. So maybe Cretans aren’t always liars? And if they don’t always lie, then maybe Epimenides is telling the truth. Which means they are always liars. Good gracious.


Epimenides is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, when it comes to Greeks who love to think about thinking about thinking. There’s also Heraclitus, called Heraclitus the Obscure even by other brainy Greeks. This is the guy who said you can’t step in the same river twice. Here are some of his zingers: “Mortals are immortals and immortals mortals, these living the death of those, those dead in the life of these.” Huh? What about this priceless bit of wisdom: “Wisdom is one thing. It is to know the thought by which all things are steered through all things.” Okay, so wisdom is to know the thought . . . Oh, I give up.


“Epistemology” is what you do when you’re trying to become knowledgeable about knowledge. No surprise, that’s based on Greek: episteme, “knowledge,” and logos, “word, reckoning, thought.” “Metaphysics”? Also Greek. And “paradox”? Yep, you guessed it.


Cue the Muses, courtesy a fellow named Hesiod, author of the Theogony, a genealogy of the gods. At the beginning of that poem, he claims that while shepherding on the slopes of their Mount Helicon, the Muses approached him and sang this:


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. (Glenn Most, tr.)


Let’s put aside the fact that this is really odd way to greet somebody. What the heck does it mean? Is Heraclitus available for a consultation? What makes this even more complicated is that the Greek words for “genuine” and for “true” are different. (That’s why my old college professor Glenn Most uses different words in his translation.) “Genuine” is etumoisin and “true” is alethea.


Louise Pratt, a classics professor at Emory, has thought about all this. She believes that etuma for the Greeks indicates truth in the sense of a correspondence between the speaker’s words and the reality he or she describes. It’s true in an objective sense, I guess. The word alethea, in contrast, has a subjective component. The speaker has fully in mind what really happened and wishes to speak it forth honestly and fully, without deception, truthfully.


Hmm, where does that get us? Nine radiant goddesses ambush a poor guy stumbling around Mt. Helicon, chasing sheep when he’d rather be composing poetry. They insult him and then tell him that they can do either of two things, depending on how they’re feeling at the moment: (1) they can say false things that sound like objectively true things or (2) they can say things that are true and which they mean to be taken as true.


I’m hopelessly confused (Pandora, I need you). The Muses say they know how to say non-genuine things that sound like genuine things: so, is that true, or is that statement itself not true . . . er, I mean not genuine? Can they “really” tell lies, or are they lying about that?


And why would they want to utter falsehoods? And does it matter if what they say is false, if something not true can so convincingly resemble the truth? (Maybe this is what Stephen Colbert means by “truthiness”?)


I feel as though I’ve had a visit from a trickster. Which is the point of this post: in what could be the oldest Greek literary work we have, at the very beginning of the poem, the reader encounters a fictional character (Hesiod) created by an actual author (also Hesiod), one or both of whom had a real or imagined encounter with Muses who are capable of telling him the truth, only he can never be sure whether it’s really true or merely genuine or only seemingly true.


Talk about mind games. My paltry ideas about disguise are child’s play in comparison.


Image courtesy blogger Disgruntled Radical

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