07 July 2017

The Greeks have a word
for it (10): philosophy

Standing on the corner of Socrates Street in Koutouloufari (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

I sometimes want to write comedy scripts in which Greek mothers shout at their children, admonishing them in ways that create humorous paradoxes because of a child’s name.

‘You are just being so silly, Plato.’

‘Don’t drink that Socrates.’

‘Don’t. Touch. That. Midas.’

‘Stop giving me that bull, Minos.’

‘You’ll get lost if you wander away like that again, Ariadne.’

‘Keep your shoes on Achilles, you don’t want to do more damage to your feet.’

‘Please comb your hair before you go to school, Medusa.’

‘You’ve got to learn to stand up like a man, Pericles.’

‘Don’t stay out late Apollo. It’s Saturday evening, and you have to get up early on Sunday morning.’

Although I have yet to meet a boy called Midas or a girl called Medusa, classical names remain popular throughout Greece, and the names of philosophers, including Aristotle, Plato and Socrates are still given to boys and are seen as street names in every Greek town and village.

The very word philosophy comes from the Greek φιλοσοφία (philosophía), meaning the ‘love of wisdom.’ The term was probably coined by Pythagoras (ca 570–495 BC), who was born on the island of Samos.

Epimenides gives his name to a street in Iraklion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

As I was making my way back to the bus station in Iraklion this week, I was reminded of one of Crete’s own philosophers. Epimenidou Street takes its name from Epimenides (Ἐπιμενίδης) of Knossos, a semi-mythical philosopher and poet said to have lived in the seventh or sixth century BC. It is said that while Epimenides was tending his father’s sheep, he fell asleep for 57 years in a cave in Crete that was sacred to Zeus. When he awoke after 57 years, Epimenides is said to have found he was endowed the gift of prophecy.

Aristotle and Plutarch say Epimenides purified Athens after the pollution brought by the Alcmaeonidae, a powerful noble family who negotiated an alliance with the Persians during the Persian Wars. Pericles and Alcibiades also belonged to the Alcmaeonidae, and during the Peloponnesian War the Spartans referred to the family’s curse in an attempt to discredit Pericles.

It is said that the expertise Epimenides showed in sacrifices and the reform of funeral practices were of great help to Solon in reforming the Athenian state. But the only reward he would accept was a branch of the sacred olive, and the promise of perpetual friendship between Athens and Knossos. He is also said to have prophesied at Sparta on military matters.

He died in Crete at an advanced age, and legends say he lived until he was almost 300 years old. But another legend says he was captured in a war between the Spartans and Knossos, and that he was put to death by his captors for refusing to prophesy favourably for them.

Several prose and poetic works have been attributed to Epimenides. But all of his works are now lost, and we only know of them through quotations by other authors. In a fragment of one of his poems, citied in the Hymn to Zeus of Callimachus, Minos of Knossos addresses Zeus:

Τύμβον ἐτεκτήναντο σέθεν, κύδιστε μέγιστε,
Κρῆτες, ἀεὶ ψευδεῖς, κακὰ θηρία, γαστέρες ἀργαί.
Ἀλλὰ σὺ γ᾽ οὐ θνῇσκεις, ἕστηκας γὰρ ζοὸς αίεί,
Ἐν γὰρ σοὶ ζῶμεν καὶ κινύμεθ᾽ ἠδὲ καὶ ἐσμέν.

They fashioned a tomb for you, holy and high one,
Cretans, always liars, evil beasts, idle bellies.
But you are not dead: you live and abide forever,
For in you we live and move and have our being.

Epimenides is also remembered today because he is quoted twice in the New Testament.

While speaking to a group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers in front of the Areopagus in Athens (see Acts 17: 22-34), the Apostle Paul, in verse 28, quotes from Epimenides’ Cretica: ‘For “In him we live and move and have our being”.’

In this address in Athens, Saint Paul is citing the fourth line in the Hymn to Zeus of Callimachus, with its reference to one of ‘your own poets’ (Acts 17: 28). Saint Paul goes on to quote from Aratus’ Phaenomena: ‘For we too are his offspring’ (see verse 28).

When Saint Paul spoke to Saint Titus concerning his mission in Crete, he committed a logical fallacy by quoting Epimenides: ‘It was one of them, their very own prophet, who said, “Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons.” That testimony is true’ (Titus 1: 12-13a).

The ‘lie’ of the Cretans is that Zeus was mortal, for Epimenides believed that Zeus is dead. The logical inconsistency of a Cretan asserting all Cretans are always liars may not have occurred to Epimenides, nor to Callimachus, who both used the phrase to emphasise their point, without irony.

However, Saint Paul must have thought long about the idea of a dead god and the dead god’s tomb as he sought to preach the Resurrection in Crete.

Epimenides also gives his name to a street in Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Epimenides is first identified as the ‘prophet’ in Titus 1: 12 by Clement of Alexandria (Stromata 1, 14). Clement mentions that ‘some say’ Epimenides should be counted among the seven wisest philosophers. But he does not indicate that the concept of logical paradox is an issue.

Saint John Chrysostom (Homily 3 on Titus) gives an alternative fragment:

For even a tomb, King, of you
They made, who never died, but ever shall be.

However, it is not clear when Epimenides became associated with the Epimenides paradox, a variation of the liar paradox. Saint Augustine restates the liar paradox in Against the Academicians (III.13.29), but does so without mentioning Epimenides.

In the Middle Ages, many forms of the liar paradox were studied under the heading of insolubilia, but they were not associated with Epimenides.

Paradoxically, I have to say I have found most if not all Cretans to be truthful and honest.

Many years ago, back in the 1980s, as I entrusted someone on the beach in Rethymnon with my wallet and valuables as I went for a swim, I was advised that it was tourists and foreigners I needed to be wary of.

Socrates gives his name to a side street in Koutouloufari (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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