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Truth and justice are strong themes in Homer's The Odyssey, especially when Odysseus returns home from a twenty-year long absence after fighting in the Trojan War.
The quote provided is part of a longer statement that is paradoxical—that is, a truth that at first seems impossible and untrue.
The man who deceives shows more justice than he who does not; and the man who is deceived has more wisdom than he who is not.
In trying to make sense of this quotation, note that deceit means to lie or keep the truth from someone. But how can a liar show more justice than one who does not lie? And how has the man who has been deceived wiser than a man who has not been lied to? The answer, it might appear, rests with knowledge. One who lies often has to have enough wisdom to understand the nature of the information he chooses not to share, as well as comprehension with regard to the ramifications of what he lies about. The deceitful man (or woman), if he hopes to be successful, must anticipate the repercussions of the lie in order to avoid disaster. If one acknowledges a person's wisdom, one cannot logically say that the liar has no grasp of justice. One can also not infer that the liar cannot dispense justice without knowledge of it. Without a deeper context, this definition may well be suitable. On the other hand, if we look to the actual context of the quotation, which refers to theater (or, in this case, the telling of an epic tale), one comes away with a slightly different perspective.
The author, Gorgias, was a "Sicilian theorist and teacher of rhetoric…" One is not able to know with certainty if an interpretation of his statement is any more than speculative. However, one scholar, Oliver Taplin (author of Greek Tragedy in Action) makes an attempt:
The tragedian who succeeds in enthralling his audience does more justice by the effect this has on his audience than the playwright who fails to captivate them: likewise the member of the audience who succumbs to the spell of the play will through that experience be a better, wiser man than the member who resists and remains unmoved.
Taplin goes on to note that "deceive" is the most important word here (meaning to trick or beguile), however he takes it one step further. He refers to a play on words Gorgias may well have concentrated upon where "deceive" means to "take in." With this understanding, a writer takes in the members of the audience in order to make sure they are invested in the story and the character(s) so he can share his truth with them. And so the audience comes to identify with a character or an event. In this case, it is Odysseus—a man who has sacrificed much for a cause, is punished by the gods, seems to lose all, and miraculously returns home to find that his wife and home are besieged by suitors vying for Penelope's hand and all that her husband owned (a man they believe is dead). As Gorgias would expect, justice is not far behind.
Taplin also puts forth that Gorgias believed "that deceit should be the means of justice and wisdom." Enthralling the audience is the most important thing:
There comes over the audience…a fearful horror and tearful pity and doleful yearning. By means of the discourse their spirit feels a personal emotion on account of the good and bad fortune of others.
How then is the audience taken in? Like a modern-day blockbuster adventure film, this story has...
...pathos, sexuality, violence; a strong, resourceful hero with a firm purpose braving many dangers and hardships to accomplish it; a romantic account of exploits in strange places...
Through all of this, the audience is carried along until the fate of the hero is all-important to its members.
In terms of deceit and justice, when the reader looks at the story of Odysseus literally, it can be said that the hero enters his home in a disguise in order to deceive not only the suitors, but also his wife. As any soldier worth his salt, Odysseus wants to know the kind of adversaries he will have to face. However, he also wants to know if his wife is still devoted to him.
In Book XVIII, deceit and justice are seen when Odysseus disguises himself as a beggar. Irus, an "incorrigible glutton and drunkard," begins to argue with Odysseus about sharing the charity that has been extended to him. Irus threatens Odysseus and the two men agree to fight. The suitors egg them on and promise the winner food and a place inside Odysseus' house (though it is not their place to offer this). Odysseus, to further ally the suitors' suspicions, pretends that he is old and feeble. He admits he will probably lose, but he begs the suitors not to come to Irus' aid so the other man wins instead. The suitors (not an honorable bunch) agree, and Telemachus (Odysseus' son) promises his protection as the host. Odysseus decides not to kill Irus, but hurts him badly enough that he cannot walk. Irus receives justice through Odysseus' deceit.
In Book XXII, Odysseus decides it is time to clear the house of the suitors; they know he can fight, but believe he is nothing more than a beggar and do not anticipate that he is a threat. Odysseus has elicited the help of his son and two still-faithful servants. Again, he is deceitful in keeping his identity a secret. (Had he not done so, the reader can be certain that the suitors—men without honor—would certainly have tried to kill Odysseus to keep him from reclaiming that which was his.) When he wins the contest Penelope had put to the suitors, Odysseus takes his bow, throws off his disguise and begins to kill the suitors, claiming justice against those who have broken the laws of hospitality and poorly used Penelope and Odysseus' household—a sin within society at that time, greater than almost any other.
Deceit is a central theme to the story: Odysseus' ability to be "of many twists," able to be "creative, imaginative—deceitful"—is not something Homer presents in a negative way. It is this hero's gift that allows him to survive throughout his long years away from home, from tricking Polyphemus (the Cyclops) to the suitors.
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