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Unvarnished Truth

       The expression "unvarnished truth" appeared in a recent column by one of the gazillion commentators on the Internet and it caused me  to wonder where it came from.  Who coined the phrase? Emerson? Ruskin? Shelley?  I looked it up. 

        The credit goes to Euripides, the Greek tragic dramatist who lived from 485 to 405 B.C.   Reference to truth being plain and unvarnished appears in his 411 B.C. play The Phoenissae."

"Men set most store by wealth, and of all things in the wide world it hath the greatest power. 

"Plain and unvarnished are the words of truth."

         He was aptly expressing the unvarnished truth when he observed that wealth has great power.  It did then and does now, except it was measured differently more than 2,400 years ago.  Today we count paper promises as actual wealth and list countless IOUs as part of our net wealth.  They hadn't stumbled into that neat trick in Euripides's day.   Actual wealth and anticipated wealth were two different things.  

          Euripides may have been the first writer to condemn slavery.  He also appears to have been the first to use the expression "the facts speak for themselves."  And, being a keen observer of humanity in action, he explained the financial division of society. 

"There are three classes of citizens.  The first are the rich, who are indolent yet always crave more.  The second are the poor, who have nothing, hate the rich, and are easily led by demagogues.  Between the two extremes lie those who make the state secure and uphold the laws."    (420 B.C.)

          So!  Nothing much has changed in more than 20 centuries!   The poor still envy and hate the rich.  The rich are still not satisfied and want to be richer.  And the good old middle-class is still going broke trying to keep everything in balance by placating the poor and enriching the well-to-do.  No wonder the middle-class is beginning to wince, muttering about the absurdity of the cost of medical care and the rising cost of groceries.  

           The Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 B.C.) lived later than Euripides, and also wrote some pretty good one-liners, including "The greatest fruit of self-sufficiency is freedom," and "Poverty - when measured by the natural purpose of life, is great wealth, but unlimited wealth is great poverty."  He also philosophized on death, saying it was nothing much to worry about.  "That which is the most awful of evils, death, is nothing to us since when we exist there is no death, and when there is death we do not exist."   

           In a letter to Mr. William Short in 1819 Thomas Jefferson admitted to being an Epicurean because the doctrines set down by Epicurus appealed to his sense of reason. 

            While we were rummaging in the E's among the Greek philosophers we noticed a good line from Epictetus, 50-120 A.D.  "Only the educated are free."  Although a Greek Stoic he lived in Rome and had plenty of social illustrations to draw upon.  By "being educated" Epictetus did not mean that a person had to endure seventeen or eighteen years or more in a state training institution.  That idea didn't take hold until the 20th century, and - alas - it isn't working very well. 

            Exploring the commentaries of the ancient philosophers, playwrights, and commentators isn't a popular pursuit,  but those old boys had a pretty good handle on how society ought to work and which behaviors led to the most satisfaction and happiness.  We might save ourselves a lot of grief if we paid attention to them.  

            And that's the unvarnished truth!   

Jan. 21, 2007