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The Truth about Lying

Tyrants prosper if we mistake their lies for truth. Modern digital technology can sometimes blur the line between fact and fiction (think “virtual reality” and “reality TV”), but politics requires us to preserve the distinction. Fiction is far older than yesterday’s tweets or Facebook posts. 3000 years ago, the ancient Greeks (on their way to devising democratic government, historiography, natural science, and one or two other cool things), began cultivating their ability to differentiate truth from lies. Long before Greeks of the 5th century BCE divided history from myth, Homer’s Odyssey (c. 750 BCE) taught them to separate truth from falsehood.

The Odyssey suggests that an admirable, desirable human life requires the ability to prioritize the real over the imaginary. Odysseus’ journey home after the Greeks’ conquest of Troy cannot begin until he chooses reality over fantasy. A gorgeous goddess offers him an eternal life of ease and pleasure (including great sex) on her beautiful island. And he turns her down. Would you? If he stays on the island, he’ll remain forever separated from the world of human beings. No one will know what’s happened to him. He’ll have no adventures or achievements.

Preferring the hardships and challenges of real life, Odysseus rejects the magical offer. He’d rather risk the arduous, maybe impossible, journey home to his family and community. Like Odysseus, we all must choose between inhabiting fantasies of supernatural perfection or concentrating on real-life struggles, opportunities, and relationships. If we choose fantasy over reality, we sacrifice everything desirable in human existence: family, friends, challenges, adventures, achievements, opportunities to learn from experience.

Once we embrace reality, we can learn from stories without being deceived or misled by them. Odysseus’ adventures teach us that endurance, determination, ingenuity, empirical deduction, and rational deliberation promote survival and success. But Odysseus is also a superb liar, and Homer invites us to match wits with him.

Homer’s narrator describes Odysseus’ choice to reject immortality but doesn’t vouch for the supernatural adventures narrated by Odysseus himself. Odysseus boasts that his endurance and ingenuity enable him to defeat magical and monstrous opponents. He describes refusing another offer of fairytale-type happiness in a strife-free land of ease. (Good sex implicitly on offer here, too.) Odysseus even manages a roundtrip visit to the Underworld to speak to the shades of the departed dead.

Or so he says. Do you believe him? In the middle of describing his trip to the Underworld, Odysseus gets interrupted. “You don’t seem like a liar to us,” the king of the people entertaining Odysseus insists. “We believe you. We don’t think you’re one of those people who tell made-up stories from which no one could learn anything.” The king’s interruption recalls us to our responsibility, as listeners, to distinguish fact from fiction. Lies teach nothing, the king suggests, but fiction can be instructive. Odysseus’ tales of his own adventures portray determination, ingenuity, and self-restraint as true survival skills.

While validating these crucial life skills, the Odyssey also exposes lying as essential to autocratic political authority. In Homer’s time, the concepts of equality and democracy did not yet exist, so the best option was a benevolent king such as Odysseus was before he left for Troy. Once he returns to the world of human beings, lies enable Odysseus to recover his political authority and restore order and harmony in his realm. Lacking a reliable police force or judicial system (also not yet even concepts), Odysseus has no option other than to deceive and then slaughter his enemies. His lies and violent revenge expose his enemies’ lack of self-restraint and their disastrous inability to draw logical deductions from empirical experience.

Odysseus deceives other characters within the narrative while developing the audience’s critical judgment. His talent for wordplay encapsulates this dual role. Odysseus tells the Cyclops that his name is Outis “No One.” This is a lie, but it’s also true, since his survival currently remains unknown to any human being. Because Greek requires me tis “not anyone” for ou tis “no one” in certain grammatical constructions, the Cyclops, blinded by Odysseus, inadvertently convinces the other Cyclopes that me tis “not anyone” is harming him. Consequently, they won’t come to his aid. But, as one word, Metis, meaning “cleverness,” “cunning,” or “craft,” also identifies Odysseus truly. He’s “No one,” and he embodies the craftiness required for survival. Later, his long years of wandering ended, Odysseus tests his own father by claiming that he’s from Alybas (or “Wanderville”—so it’s kind of true) and identifying himself as Eperitos, a fake name evoking a verb meaning “to make trial of,” “to test” but also “tried and tested,” and even “to be skilled in words,” all actually pretty good descriptions of Odysseus, in fact. Odysseus’ lies expose truth. The truth is that he’s a liar.

The Odyssey persistently reminds us that the distinction between “true” and “false” matters and that recognizing the distinction is our responsibility. Unlike many works of fiction, the Odyssey never lets us suspend disbelief. You can’t fully enjoy Star Wars or Harry Potter, if you insist on thinking, “Oh, that’s impossible. That could never happen.” To enjoy the Odyssey, however, we can’t stop trying to disentangle the real from the fake. We can’t enjoy the story if we accept as true everything we’re told. We’d miss not only the cleverness but the whole point.

By teaching us to draw logical deductions from empirical evidence, Odysseus fortifies us against the tyranny of those who would divorce truth from real, lived, perceptible experience. A pluralistic egalitarian community requires reality-based choices and moral judgments. Over time, the ancient Greeks’ interest in separating fact from fiction helped them reject tyranny and move toward broader forms of political participation, including direct democracy. Matching wits with Odysseus, we, too, can cultivate our critical reasoning skills.

Odysseus’ story reminds us that if we accept or reject others’ claims (or assert our own) without evidence or, worse, despite evidence, then we deprive ourselves of the capacity to learn from experience. We cripple our creative energies, and we forfeit the possibility of persuading others. Violence, intimidation, and perhaps bribery become our only tools for handling disagreements. We make ourselves easy prey for tyrants, since the willingness to divorce truth from verification tells them we’ll accept their pronouncements without question.

To reject tyranny, we must be able to recognize when we’re being lied to. The Odyssey suggests that the distinction between “true” and “false” isn’t merely a matter of opinion. Truth must be objectively verifiable. “False” and “fake” can’t simply mean, “I don’t like your claim” or “I believe otherwise.” Tyrants need us to accept false stories from which we can learn nothing except subservience. Tyrants need us to deny the reality of our own experience. Tyrants need us to accept, as George Orwell has it, their proclamation that “two and two are five.” Contact with Odysseus teaches us to respond, “Really? Prove it.”

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