I know you shouldn’t laugh at your own jokes, but this – my first ever Philosophy Essay, submitted on 27th April, 1999 – still cracks me up. The assignment was to respond to The Lier’s Paradox by arguing for one of four possibilities (it’s true, it’s false, it’s neither true nor false, it’s both true and false)
To The Editor
With regard to the headline of your recent article (The Problem of the Lying Cretan) I wish to make it clear to your readers that I take great exception to the assertion that the esteemed actor Epimenides (of Crete) is a liar.
When he made the statement “I am (now) lying” Epimenides was not lying. He was expressing himself with poetic licence. This rhetorical device has been used since the days of Aeschylus to great effect in poetry and drama. Epimenides, comsummate artist as he is, instinctively incorporates it into his improvisation.
According to your literal interpretation, when Epimenides said “I am (now) lying” he was stating a fact, and a fact is by definition true, in which case he was lying. By this reasoning it is also possible to say that if he was telling the truth, then the statement was false, that is, it could not have been a fact.
If Epimenides spoke the truth, and was lying as you say, then his statement must be both true AND false. However, it is impossible to speak truthfully and tell a lie at the same time (a lie being an intentionally false statement and the opposite to telling the truth). Therefore, his statement could not be both true and false.
This being the case, the statement must be neither true nor false. But this is equally impossible for the same reason, that one cannot lie and speak truthfully at the same time. So if Epimenides was stating a fact, we are left with the ridiculous paradox that his statement was both true and false, or neither true nor false.
When Shakespeare’s Hamlet utters the words “I am dead, Horatio” (Hamlet, Act V sc ii), he is not actually dead. If he were he would be unable to speak at all. Yet he is speaking sincerely, without intent to deceive. It would appear that the statement: “I am dead, Horatio” is not literally true, it is not a ‘fact’, but when spoken truthfully in the circumstances of his status and condition, states a higher Truth – the Truth, in fact, that his aspirations, intentions, and princely potential are finished, along with his life. The words epitomise the desolation of the moment at the climax of the play. As the distinguished Scots theatre director Tom Fleming stated with reference to a similar line in Macbeth (Boy: “He has killed me, Mother”, Act IV Sc ii), it is not a lie. It is poetic licence.
Of course, Hamlet is a fictitious character, played by an actor who has not be poisoned and stabbed. A fictitious character cannot be really dead, since he was never really alive. The actor who portrays him is pretending, creating an illusion of a character who never existed anyway. Therefore when he makes the statement, “I am dead, Horatio” it is not, in truth, a matter of fact.
Yet if Hamlet’s words could not, given the same or similar circumstances, be spoken by any one of us, then Shakespeare has failed as a dramatist. Had he failed we would not still be watching productionas of his plays, especially Hamlet. He succeeds because his characters do speak for us, expressing our deepest desires and sorrows, only with greater effect. Shakeaspeare’s skill lies in the way he uses langfuage, and one of the devices he uses is poetic licence – the freedom allowed to writers in regard to grammatical construction, and to the use of facts, “especially for effect” (Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary, 3rd ed.  p. 1035).
When Epimenides said “I am (now) lying”, like Hamlet he was referring to a greater truth than the literal meaning of the words. He was engaged in the telling of a tall tale which grew taller by the minute, until he reached the point where his remark “I am (now) lying” was the epitome of exaggeration. Just as Hamlet’s use of the present tense (I am) heightens our awareness of the wasteful tragedy of his death, so Epimenides’s “I am” heightens our awareness of the gargantuan nature of his fabrications, and of our complicity in them. Hamlet’s “dead” overwhelms us with the inevitability of loss. Epimenides’ “lying” generates universes of make-believe. “I am dead” in Hamlet’s mouth makes us aware of our own mortality in a moment of catharsis. “I am lying” slipping from Epimenides’ tongue awakens us to the vitality of our own imagination and playfulness.
Thus Epimenides was not lying. He was speaking truthfully, through the device of poetic licence, expressing in the fewest possible words not so much a simple daxt as the great truth of humanity’s endless capacity for invention.
Apallina of Athens
This was the tutor’s response:
“Excellent work, Flloyd. An immensely entertaining (and highly original) essay, that incorporates argument alive precision and clarity within its imaginative format. Well done!”