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He is close to you

August 3, 2015

In a previous post about equivocation, I mentioned in passing, regarding St. Athanasius’s famous equivocation “Yes, he is close to you” (said on Athanasius’s orders, by a friend, in response to the soldiers of Julian the Apostate who were trying to capture him), that it

contains no riddle as far as I can tell.

I retract this claim. The riddle of Athanasius’s statement is simple. It misleads only because the soldiers operate under a false premise: a reasonable person will lie to save the life of a friend.

If this premise is granted, then the soldiers can interpret what they hear in one of two ways. Either the speaker is a friend of Athanasius, and so is lying, and what he says will be of no use; or he’s no friend of Athanasius, and so is trying to be helpful, and has given as much information as possible. Only if they admit the falsity of their premise can they see that the response might be both true, and spoken by a friend of Athanasius, in which case Athanasius might be hidden on the ship, not further down the Nile.

To see through this riddle, they would have to admit that one could value the truth over the life of one’s friend. Such an admission would be the first step on the path to realizing that one should so value the truth. This path would end with overturning the entire enterprise of Julian’s persecution, which took for granted that truth was subordinate to political expediency.

Athanasius’s response contains, in addition to a riddle, an additional ironic meaning: Athanasius is close to you; he is your neighbor; you have a duty to love him. This appeal to conscience would not need to have been intended by the speaker in order for the soldiers to hear it, and if they did hear it, they need not hear it as coming from their interlocutor. Unlike the riddle, the irony of “He is close to you” reverberates independently of the conversational context. But the speaker still has some control over it; he can choose his words such that they will, as if by happenstance, call other words to mind.

As it happened, the soldiers heard neither the equivocation or the allusion. They went on their way down the river, where they thought the saint had gone.

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