Giving Homer a Second Chance

At some point in your high school or college days we may have shared a common experience.  Some teacher decided it was time to plunge into those vast wordy epics of Homer; The Iliad and The Odyssey.  Chances are you didn’t thank them for it at the time.  Aside from school days very few of us ever go back to explore those epics except maybe the painfully inaccurate film “Troy” (yeah I know it was fun to watch Orlando Bloom get smacked around but the movie was still all wrong).  Of course these epic poems were originally recited and listened to in conjunction with wine drinking; not read as an assignment.  They were a kind of ritual theatre where long familiar stories were recounted.  In doing so, there was a cultural understanding of the good, the bad and the ugly that was affirmed and offered as ideal and inspiration.

Fair enough but that still doesn’t mean many people will read them for fun today.  They won’t find anything relevant for their own lives in the archaic principles of chariot jockeys.  Will they?

Homer did not survive the centuries simply to torment students.  The epics are woven into the basic fabric of our cultural consciousness and they continue to challenge us and guide beliefs about ourselves even when we do not realize the source.  They have shaped history in the West.  Alexander the Great got himself badly wounded in Persia trying to emulate Achilles on the battlefield.  The Romans so badly wanted a link to the tradition that they decided their ancient forbear was Aeneas, a survivor of the sack of Troy.  Medieval knights, never the most literate bunch, at least learned the Iliad as part of their education.  Renaissance poets reused the names of Greek heroes.  Warships and sports teams were named after them.  A condom was named for the Trojans, presumably invoking strength and prowess.  It wasn’t very reverent perhaps but at least it shows that the cultural memory remains.

If there is any doubt that the virtues and vices of the Iliad are still part of our psychology we have only to look at the work of writers like Dr. Jonathan Shay.  His comparison of Achilles and Odysseus to the difficult experiences of modern soldiers shows the Homeric world is not as far away as we might choose to think.

That is why it is unfortunate when we dismiss the Homeric epics as fossilized remains fit only for core English Lit requirements and recycling into sanitized Hollywood pap.  We cannot move on to more “sophisticated” systems of philosophy until we recognize and reconcile ourselves to our primal origins.  We can try of course.  People have wanted to put the Homeric hero into the proverbial dustbin as far back as ancient Greece itself.  Plato decried the Iliad as unfit reading, teaching men to be ruled by ungoverned passions and appetites.  Then again, Plato brought us the original ivory tower in the form of his Academy.  He also catered largely to the sons of the privileged elite of Athens.  So, we may want to take such dismissal from whence it comes.  Anybody who really thought society should be governed by leisured intellectuals should be looked at with as much suspicion as a militarist.

Simply, you cannot pretend you have risen above that bloody charioteer in your psyche until you can grapple with both his virtues and vices.  Snubbing the men of bronze when planning your next dinner party will not suffice.  They have a way of kicking in the door to your thoughts and impulses at the most inconvenient times.  Within the Homeric epics lies a proto-ethics that still must be recognized as valid even if politically incorrect.  We may build upon it and make choices in different directions but the proto-ethics remains our foundation and it is inherently good.  Arete, fueled by courage, fortitude, intelligence and judgment, is a good goal.  A life lived for that alone, tempered by the sense of honor and fairness demanded of the Achaeans and Trojans, would not be totally misspent.  We have all seen far worse.

Of course this still doesn’t make reading the epics less dry.  My solution?  Books on CD.  Having them recited to you is almost like the original experience of the ancient Greeks.  Just add wine.

6 Responses to “Giving Homer a Second Chance”

  1. As I was reading the 1st paragraph, I pondered the books on cd issue. Any specific recommendations?

  2. Nice post –

  3. Good points, although I can’t say I ever found Homer ‘dry’….

    • When I was a kid in high school I actually enjoyed reading Odyssey but the Iliad had a ritualized repetition of duels and sacrifices and such that started to wear thin. Years later the Iliad became a lot more interesting to me because of what it told me about that early martial culture.

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