And now a word from the Delphic Oracle

By Todd R. Nelson

It’s hard out there for an oracle, I’m tellin’ ya.

There used to be a line of people out the temple door waiting to get the lowdown: wisdom, truth, insights, even the football spreads, however ambiguously they might be stated. We oracles were the independent prosecutors and management gurus of legend and literature. Now, we seem to be going through a fallow patch. Seekers of the truth seem to be coming up with their own wisdom provenance and authority. Omaha, Delphi, Wharton, “Morning Joe,” “Fox and Friends”… wherever. Whatever!

Sure, we were awfully tough on the approach of the deceived and deceiving, heroes and penitents alike. If you sought the fount of knowledge with trepidation and humility, you were likely only to be thrown back upon your proud little self and instructed to surrender that last shred of hubris. Truth can be a bitch like that. Always has been. It’s not we oracles who have changed — it’s your expectations of us, and your definition of the role of “consultant.” And the #meonly movement. Oracles are not transactional.

You people are loath to consult us and then listen for an answer. You seem over being told what to do, or what’s right, or how you might be out of compliance with a higher law. I get it. It’s more comfortable to have it both ways. Until it isn’t. Then you flip. And then you feign desire for redemption. Hopes and prayers — safely after the fact. And, yes, the whole oracle thing can be so, like, messy. The ancient question persists: Where shall wisdom be found?

Cassandras make you think too hard. And you rarely get the answer you want or expect. We’re not in the mere affirmation business, you know. We don’t take instruction from this week’s dilemma. The solution comes from elsewhere. And you people have such a loose relationship with the desire to really know the truth.

You Americans have such an oblique view of us oracles. You prefer opinion, slick sound bites and a sort of folksy slant on things rather than a hard and fast truth and time-honored solemnity. Your own Mark Twain wrote one of my favorite examples: “You show me where a man gets his corn and I’ll tell you what his ’pinions are.” Sounds like a choice of news outlet, in contemporary parlance. “Fake news” or “truth isn’t truth!” How did you people even fall back into “the enemy of the people?” Never thought I’d see that come around again. “Alternative facts?” That’s a new one. But that dog won’t hunt. News has cycles; truth doesn’t.

That Twain fellow could also be scathing on cant and petty diction embedded in the language itself. Like this metaphor about word choice: “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. ’Tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” I do know a bit about lightning.

Maybe that’s why it’s hard to cozy up to us oracles. We do tend to be a bit prickly, inhabiting, as we do, that nether space between the realms of gods and men. I’ve done the market research. We’re not so tolerant of irony and banter. We cut right to “serious and terse!” Hard to yuck it up and have that second drink when you’ve been told that sobriety — fiscal, ethical, moral — must be maintained at all times for “the good of the order” — or is that now the “base”? The stakes are high when you inhabit a temple of absolutes, like truth, honesty, justice, the order of the cosmos … and work for a pittance. Or nothing. Not even a cryptic star on the wall for tributes or even epic fails! No medallions to display in the family room.

No gilded letters on the eponymous tower.

But life without a good, reliable oracle has gotta get old. Abstention isn’t an option. You need us! In my view, it’s all or nothing, reminding poor humans of the consequences for their lapses. Whether Greek or Roman, Democrat or Republican, blue or red, male or female, defense or prosecution, laying one’s case on the altar of judgment, asking for affirmation or acquittal, is a gesture of contrition — risking all for virtue’s sake. Get with the program. It’s not about, “My truth.” That’s just retail branding. I’m not responsible for outcomes, just helpful intel. Who suspended man’s search for meaning, anyway? Is entertainment the new meaning? Sad. This ain’t no Twitter feed. There’s the exit. Come back when you’re prepared for the opposite of what you want.

Still, the old standard could yet apply. It’s a good one. Battle, madness and scandal tested. “Know thyself.”

I would add, as T.S. Eliot wrote,

The only wisdom we can hope to acquire

Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.

Anybody? Anybody? Tough room here. Such a fine line between immunity and impunity.


Todd R. Nelson gets his corn in Penobscot.

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