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The Noble Lie in Terence’s Hecyra

Alexander Karsten

At the conclusion of Terence’s Hecyra, the marriage of Pamphilus and Philumena survives when Philumena’s mother Myrrhina and Pamphilus’s former girlfriend Bacchis agree never to disclose the distressing origin of the couple’s child, who was begotten by rape before the marriage was arranged.

Some scholars have argued that this agreement to hide the truth means that the new family is built on a “shaky foundation” (e.g., Penwill, 147), but I argue that this agreement is an example of the noble lie—a lie told for the benefit of the lied-to as well as the benefit of society as a whole. Examples of this political precept are found in the western philosophical tradition from Plato to Nietzsche, with important instances in Strauss and Machiavelli. There are two major strains of the noble lie. First, there is the lie to maintain order in the face of a truth that would create chaos, three examples of which are found in the movie The Dark Knight (as pointed out by Žižek, 13). Second, there is the lie that is necessary at the very founding of society, which Strauss argues for in his The City and The Man. I argue that this arrangement can be categorized as an act of tact, which Slavoj Žižek defines as, “the polite ritual of pretended ignorance” (Žižek, 16).

I agree with many readers that Pamphilus is unpleasant and morally reprehensible (see e.g., Smith, James, Penwill); my focus in this paper is not on how he benefits from the women’s arrangement, but why the women make that arrangement. The women are “the chief actors” of the play (Norwood, 91), and they act in ways that are normally reserved for those that hold power in society. I do not argue that the women actually hold the power in the society of the play, but I do argue that these two concepts—the noble lie and tact—yield important insights into the decision-making process that went into the women’s actions. Slater argues, “the restoration of order is not real” (Slater, 260), but I point to the fact that some political philosophers believe that society cannot be built and order cannot be restored without a lie.

Why would the women choose to hide the truth? Why do they want to restore an order that is so detrimental to their own interests? The thoroughly patriarchal world of the play (see Slater, 1988) places extreme limitations on the women’s decision-making process, but male authority and dignity are not the women’s only consideration. Instead, they create this fiction because it is the only way that Philumena’s young family can survive, and it is the only way to preserve her reputation.

I argue that the true tragedy is not the suppression of the truth (cf. Penwill, 147), but rather the rape itself, the fact that Philumena’s best option seems to be to marry her rapist (James 1998), and that Philumena never has any say in the matter. Smith’s idea that, “[t]he telos of Terentian comedy, following its Greek model, is marriage, which in some cases reconciles personal, private happiness with the needs of the state” (Smith, 31) holds true, even though the play does not end in marriage: the women sacrifice their personal happiness for the supposed needs of the family. By comparing the actions of Myrrhina and Bacchis in Hecyra to the noble lie and tact, I uncover the stranglehold of patriarchy on the society of the play. More importantly, I expose the women’s ability to work within that system.

Session/Panel Title

The Next Generation: Papers by Undergraduate Classics Students

Session/Paper Number

18.3

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