Having watched a few episodes of the daily POTUS press briefing screechorama recently, I was reminded of a particular gem among the fables of Phaedrus.
The piece is called Simius Tyrannus, King Ape. Its text, somewhat unusually surviving in prose form, reads as follows:
“Vtilius homini nil est quam recte loqui.”–––– Phaedr. 4.13, transl. B. E. Perry
probanda cunctis est quidem sententia;
sed ad perniciem solet agi sinceritas,
<ubi veritate plus valet mendacium. >
Duo homines, unus fallax et alter verax, iter simul agebant. Et cum ambularent, venerunt in provinciam simiarum. Quos ut vidit una ex multitudine simiarum, ipse qui prior esse videbatur, iussit eos teneri, ut interrogaret quid de illo homines dicerent. Iussitque omnes sibi similes adstare ante se ordine longo, dextra laevaque, et sibi sedile parari; sicut viderat imperatorem aliquando, taliter sibi adstare fecit. Iubentur homines adduci in medio. Ait maior “Quis sum ego?” Fallax dixit “Tu es imperator.” Iterum interrogat: “Et isti quos vides ante me stare?” Respondit: “Hi sunt comites tui, primicerii, campidoctores, militares officii.” Et quia mendacio laudatus est cum turba sua, iubet illum munerari, et quia adulatus est, omnes illos fefellit. Verax autem apud se cogitabat: “Si iste mendax, qui omnia mentitur, sic accepit, ego, si verum dixero, magis munerabor.” Tunc ait maior simia “Dic et tu, quis sum ego, et hi quos ante me vides?” At ille, qui semper veritatem amabat et loqui consueverat, respondit “Tu es vere simia, et omnes hi similes tui simiae semper sunt.” Iubetur continuo lacerari dentibus et unguibus, eo quod verum dixisset.
Malis hominibus, qui fallaciam et malitiam amant, honestatem et veritatem lacerant.
“Nothing is more profitable to a man than to speak the truth.” This is a maxim that should, of course, be approved by everyone; but sincerity is usually brought to its own destruction in places where the current value of falsehood is greater than that of truth. Two men, one in the habit of practising deception, the other habitually truthful, were making a journey together. In the course of their travel they came into a territory ruled by apes. When one of the crowd of apes, he who seemed to be chief among them, caught sight of the travellers, he ordered them to be detained, that he might question them concerning what men were saying about himself. He gave orders that all his fellow apes should stand before him in a long line on the right and on the left, and that a throne should be placed for himself. As he had once seen the Emperor do, so likewise he caused his followers to stand before him. Orders were given that the men should be brought in. Said the chief of the apes: “Who am I?” The deceptive man answered: “You are the Emperor.” Again he inquired: “And what about these whom you see standing before me?” “These,” he replied, “are your high-ranking courtiers, chancellors, field marshals, military officials.” Because he and his crowd had been praised by this man’s lie, he ordered him to be given a reward; and the man, because he had flattered them all, likewise deceived them all. But the truthful man thought to himself: “If this deceiver, whose words are all lies, has received such a recompense, then I, if I tell the truth, shall receive an even greater one.” Then said the chief of the apes: “You, too, speak up; who am I, and who are these whom you see before me?” But the man who loved the truth and always spoke it, replied: “You are in fact an ape, and all these present who are like you are apes, and always will be.” Immediately orders were given for this man to be torn to pieces by teeth and claws, because he had told the truth.
This is a tale for wicked men who love deceit and malice, and who murder honesty and truth.
And, of course, as we are at this point essentially dealing with a cult that is led by a compulsive liar and narcissist, there is little point in reasoning: his cult following loves him for what would be a matter of blame and shame in anyone else.
But there may still be a point in thinking about the ways in which one may emerge from this crisis – a crisis that is going to haunt those who colluded in it for short term benefit.
And in that regard, Phaedrus’ fable, to my mind, has a few very interesting things to say.
My first observation is that our author does not challenge the rule (and its legitimacy) of the President of the United Simians: he is the simius tyrannus (which sounds more dubious to us than it sounded to Phaedrus’ Roman readers – tyrannus is just the Greek word for ‘king’). He is the prior, the maior, his ‘majesty’ is acknowledged, by the author who also defines what is the position of truth (verax) and what is falsehood and a lie (mendax).
So why is the mendax lying when he answers the monkey-in-charge?
The lie consists in not challenging the ape’s aping of a different society altogether: the simius is acting like an imperator, an emperor, a human emperor, whom he had witnessed sometime ago. It is an act, not a reality – and instead of challenging this absurdity, the mendax, the liar, plays along.
The verax, the truthful man, does not. And he gets shredded into pieces, even though – proud of his virtuous act – he expected an even greater recompense than his shameless travel companion.
And this brings me to a second observation. The fable opens with what the author introduces as a truism: everyone should agree, he says, that nothing is more useful than to speak truth. Except that truth will lead to death where mendacity prevails.
At first, or so it seems, Phaedrus does not offer a way out of this conundrum. What can one do under such circumstances. Is there a way out?
There may well be.
- Why travel with liars?
- Why visit the kingdom of the apes?
- Is it especially smart to assume that an ape who enjoys being flattered by blatant falsehoods will appreciate being told that it ain’t so?
The opening words of Phaedrus leave no doubt: being verax (rather than mendax) is good. And it should prevail. But for that to happen, one needs to understand the rules of the game.
Don’t engage with those whose entire rule relies on falsehoods in the hope that they will eventually acknowledge that, if you are just smart enough in going about this.
Don’t get involved in monkey business.
Choose the terrain in which it is safe to be verax.
A third observation. The opening line. Vtilius homini nil est quam recte loqui, ‘nothing is more profitable to a man than to speak the truth’. This is commonly understood to mean (and our author promotes this understanding at first) that to speak truth is the best. But the Latin is ambiguous. The literal, word-for-word translation into unidiomatic English would be: ‘more useful to a human nothing is than rightly to speak.’
The verax learnt the hard way that it would have been more useful to say nothing at all than to speak truth, ubi veritate plus valet mendacium, ‘in places where the current value of falsehood is greater than that of truth.’
A final observation. The ape does not start his ridiculous act until he is certain to have an audience. He thrives on it, and so do his followers.
No audience, no platfom, no jury – no simius tyrannus.