Dissemblance in Homer and Plato


CF's Composition Desk

To judge from literal, surface meaning in the Odyssey, it would seem that Homer depicts Odysseus’ son Telemachus as a naïve and guileless boy.    But under the surface meaning is a different set of facts at work.    Telemachus is not guileless.  

In his interview with Menelaus, that king offers Telemachus the gift of horses and a chariot.    Telemachus refuses these things, saying he can’t use them at home.     Supposedly the terrain is too rocky.

Either Menelaus understands the situation poorly, or, by seeming to misunderstand and make the wrong suggestion, he refuses Telemachus’s implied request.     He seems to know that Telemachus is not only on an information-gathering sojourn, he is seeking a method to rid his native Ithaca of his mother’s parasitic suitors.   Menelaus’s offered gift is of a war machine, that would transport soldiers into combat.    (That the Greeks evidently did not fight while aboard their chariots does not mean the chariots were not war machines.    Getting troops into battle is part of the battle.    Ask any schoolchild whether the school bus is part of the school, and he will say it is.)     But Menelaus probably does not really understand Telemachus’s problem.     Telemachus cannot use the chariot, because one chariot is not enough to defeat over a hundred suitors.      When Telemachus says his country has the terrain for goats only, he is saying there are not enough warriors in his domain to do the fighting that the chariot would seem to enable.    He is saying that the situation calls for other means than chariots, in other words, for means that will not show his hand.  

Telemachus has to choose the right method to defeat his mother’s suitors.    He knows enough to know that he cannot choose single combat.     By offering a chariot, Menelaus indicates that he will not offer an army.     By refusing the chariot, Telemachus is saying the chariot is not enough.    He needs an army of foot soldiers, who can negotiate Ithaca’s “rocky” terrain.    But it seems unlikely that Ithaca is so rocky that there really are no roads for a chariot to travel on, and there is a suggestion that one Ithacan may be taking a dozen horses onto the island.

In his dialogue entitled "Ion," Plato addresses the issue of how to go about leading warriors.    Socrates is astonished when the rhapsode, or epic singer, Ion, claims that his skill in performing for audiences has made him able to command armies.     Ion is a fool who boasts in such a way that as soon as he ever were to try to lead an army, he would be discovered before he could accomplish anything.    Telemachus is not that kind of fool.

In the Ion, Socrates tries to guide Ion into admitting that specialists can be relied on to know the facts of their respective fields.    Ion claims that to be a great rhapsode makes him a great general.    Socrates asks Ion whether he wants to be known as a dishonest artist who praises Homer, or a divine praiser of Homer.

What Socrates means is that if Ion chooses to be honest, he will be perceived as divine, and appearance will be well for him.    But if he chooses to be dishonest, he will make a better general.

Plato’s dialogue Ion is not about rhapsodes, or anything in the “content” of the text.     Its subject is unclear until the final line, which in fact has the character of a punchline.     It was probably for suggesting that divinity is not the best path, and that the gods were not all wise, that the historical Socrates was deemed a threat to the state religion and a corruptor of the young by the government of Athens, and ordered to leave the country or commit suicide.

Telemachus has chosen to avoid being perceived as a general who is rallying support for his cause.    What he really needs to know is whether Menelaus will support him with an army.    He gets his answer in the negative.     It is better for a non-supporter not to know everything you are up to, so Telemachus  sidesteps the insufficient help, and the entanglements it could cause.    In doing so he avoids a conflict he cannot win; by dissembling his generalship for the time being, he maintains his life and his mission.     There is some possibility that the next round of gifts Menelaus offers Telemachus may be a more “artful” type of war assistance, in the form of intelligencer’s artifacts.

The military situation is this: if Telemachus lets it be known that he is planning to fight the suitors, they will rally against him and kill him.    The suitors already know Telemachus is against them, and they suspect that his trip has the purpose of making political and military allies.    If he brings home the chariot, which is a war machine, they will know he is planning a fight, and will defeat him before he makes a move.   

Ion is a poor general, because he lets his candidacy for generalship be known.     Telemachus is a good general, because he does not.    

Through Socrates’s obviously sarcastic parting remark to Ion, Plato calls the rhapsode an honest and “divine” fool.   He would call Telemachus dishonest and “artful,” and praise him.

9/08; Updated 10/18/09