Last year I read an interesting novel by Carlo Frabetti called Los jardines cifrados. I heard the following excerpt (which opens the book) read on the radio late one night,* and bought the book a few days later.
The book is not available in English. I have translated the excerpt from the Greek. I found it tonight as I was poking around in my computer, and decided to post it here. People often drop by here when they’re searching for something on Google (I’ve had many find me while searching for the Kemal lyrics). Perhaps someone will be running a search on Epimenides and end up here. The internet produces these sorts of ripples, where one thing leads to another in unexpected ways. Perhaps that person will become interested in Frabetti, and I won’t have to feel too bad about any possible copyright infringements.
They say that Gertrude Stein, on her deathbed, asked her companion, “What is the answer?”
And when she received no answer, she said, “In that case, what’s the question?”
She was not the first who asked this question. The Greeks, who wondered about everything, must have arrived at this meta-question, even if by various routes.
Epimenides the Cretan, the mythical poet of the sixth century BC, of whom it was said that he had once slept for fifty-seven years running (even if Plutarch claims that he was only fifty), is chiefly known for the paradox of the liar. Strangely enough, the phrase which is attributed to him (“All Cretans are liars”) – although it shouldn’t be confused with the perverted sense that a liar is someone who lies all the time – establishes an authentic paradox in itself: it will suffice to think that Epimenides is lying and there is some truthful Cretan, in which case it’s simply a false statement. The phrase constitutes a paradox only if it is assumed to be true, as Paul did in his Epistle to Titus: “One of themselves, even a prophet of their own, said The Cretians are always liars […] This witness is true.” If Epimenides’ phrase is true, then he is a liar, because at least one Cretan (Epimenides himself) is telling the truth.
In any case, the paradox of the liar, in its various versions (the simplest is the statement, “This statement is a lie”), tormented the Greeks and their descendents in the art of thought for centuries.
Chrysippes the Stoic, a student of Zeno, living in the third century BC, wrote six treatises about the paradox, none of which has survived, and Philetas of Kos, of whom it is said that he was so thin that he wore shoes of lead so that the wind would not carry him away, died prematurely, due to the unbearable anxiety which this paradox had caused him.
Epimenides himself must have been deeply bothered by the infinite regression (of which the paradox is both an emblem and the epitome), since it is said that he went on a long and dangerous journey to the East to meet with the Buddha, to ask him what the answer was. In the end (according to the legend) the poet philosopher found the philosopher poet, and it was as if someone had placed two mirrors in front of each other. “What is greatest question that can be asked, and what is the greatest answer that can be given?” Epimenides asked. And the Buddha answered: “The greatest question that can be asked is the one you have just asked me, and the greatest answer that can be given is the one I am giving you now.”
*Στην υπέροχη εκπομπή του Μενέλαου Καραμαγκιόλη Πού παει η μουσική όταν δε την ακούμε πια;