“The rational part of the soul, which is established in the head, [Plato] made the charioteer of the whole, when he says this (Tim. 90a2-5):
Concerning the most lordly part of our soul, we should concern of its form like this: God has granted to each of us that very spirit which we say lives among us at the highest part of our body, to raise us from the earth closer to our relative, heaven, since we are not an earth-bound growth but a heavenly creature.
Plato sprinkles these things into his own dialogues from the Homeric epics as if drawing from a spring.”
“First, anthypallage, as when Homer has “the two rocks, one reaches to the broad sky”. This is far more impressive than if the typical genitive had been used and he had said, two of the rocks, one reaches the broad sky. It is customarily said like that. But everything customary is trivial, and for this reason brings no amazement.
Conider, in turn, Nireus, who is minor himself and whose affairs are minor since he has three ships and a small number of people. The poet makes him great and his group lareger using the double and combined figures of anaphora and asyndeton. He says “Nireus led three ships / Nirieus the son of Aglaiê, Nireus, who was the prettiest man. The anaphora—repetition of the same word, here Nireus—and the asyndeton makes the matter described seem larger, even though it is only two or three ships.”
The lines in the Iliad are slightly different (2.671–675)
“Then Nireus came from Symê with three beautiful ships,
Nireus the son of Aglaiê and lord Kharops,
Nireus, the most beautiful man who came to Troy
Of all the Danaans after the blameless son of Peleus.
But he was weak and a meager army followed him.”
“From there for nine days I was carried by ruinous winds
over the fish-bearing sea. On the tenth we came to the land
of the Lotus-Eaters where they eat the florid food.
There we disembarked to the shore and we drew water;
soon my companions made dinner around the swift ships.
But after we had shared the food and drink
I sent out companions to go and discover
whatever men there were who ate the fruit of the earth.
I chose two men and sent a herald as a third.
They went and met the Lotus-eating men.
The Lotus-Eaters didn’t bring any harm to my companions,
but they gave them their lotus to share.
Whoever ate the honey-sweet fruit of the lotus
no longer wished to report back or return home,
but just longed to stay there among the Lotus-eating men
to wait and pluck the lotus, forgetting his homecoming.”
The scholia present reactions to this passage that are not altogether alien from some arguments in the debate about drug enforcement and addiction.
One scholiast quotes Heraclitus the Paradoxographer with approval, noting that this scene is about how the wise man can resist pleasure.
Schol. T ad. Od. 9 89
“From Herakleitos. If someone wishes to examine Odysseus’ wanderings precisely, he will find an allegorical tale. For he has set up Odysseus as something of a vehicle of every kind of virtue through which he has philosophized. And then he resists the vices that corrupt human life: the land of the Lotus-eaters represents pleasure, a land of foreign corruption which Odysseus masterfully passes by, and then he settles the wild heart of each man with either chastisement or persuasion.”
Another commentator actually speaks of the Lotus-eaters as just men. This author implies that Odysseus’ men choose to take the drugs. Therefore, the blame is on them.
Schol. Q ad Od. 9.92
“Because they are righteous men, the [Lotus-eaters] do not restrain anyone by force, but by persuasion. For in the word “they were devising” it is clear that the ruin which attends these men does not happen without their consent. For, because the Lotus-eaters are righteous men, they were detaining no one by force but they were bewitching them with words alone.”
And another comment explains that the men who partake of the lotus don’t actually forget their homecoming, but they merely stop worrying about it. Because, you know, it is their fault.
Schol. HQ ad Od. 9.97
“They forgot their homecoming” This follows from their nature, as it happens with the irrational animals, that the Lotus brings them forgetfulness and because of pleasure they spurn their homecoming. The sentiment is similar to the Iliad’s “they forgot their rushing valor”—they did not really forget it, but they stopped fostering it.”
In these three cases, drug addiction is treated as an individual responsibility and not as either a biological challenge [e.g. addiction as a disease] or a social problem [an act of oblivion in a society with no collective meaning or sense of belonging].
“So they were saying these kinds of things to one another. And a dog who was lying there raised his head and ears. It was Argos, enduring Odysseus’ dog the man himself Had raised but never used before he went to sacred Ilion. In earlier years young men used to lead him to hunt Wild goats and hares and deer. But now he was lying there, put aside in his master’s absence on a pile of manure heaped up from mules and oxen right in front of the door waiting for the slaves to take it away to fertilize Odysseus’ great dominion. There Argos the dog was lying full of ticks and fleas”
I have always had mixed feelings about this very famous passage from the Odyssey. I side in part with Plutarch who notes that Odysseus seems to shed more tears (one) for his dog than he does his wife. And I also bristle at how much empathy people seem to be able to generate for the aged hunting dog when they can muster so little for the mutilated Melanthios or the hanged enslaved women at the epic’s end.
If I have to be honest with myself, this scene does not inspire contempt in me as much as a deep sorrow. We talk much of Argos’ loyalty, but his loyalty is a mere prop to aggrandize Odysseus and increase the value of his return home. I care far less about Odysseus’ tear than I do about the neglect: Argos, abandoned by Penelope, Telemachus, and Laertes. Argos, infested with fleas and sleeping on a mound of shit.
My wife wants us to get a puppy and name him Zeus. The second half of that sentence is calculating because she knows that I would enjoy nothing more than training a dog to follow commands in ancient Greek and shouting the vocative O Zeu in city parks. She also made this argument after watching me play with her sister’s dog, Apollo: down on the floor wrestling with an energetic English cream retriever of over 70 pounds, she said I looked happy.
I have been saying no to pets for a decade. After our daughter and son were born our first cat together, Chineh had to be put to sleep. She had been on hormone supplements for a year and was suffering from congestive heart failure three weeks after our son was born. I took her to the vet knowing it would be the last time and did not know that the Dr. would ask me to stay and hold her while he administered the drugs. I told myself that would be the last time. And I had to say that, because it was not the first by far.
Anyone who follows the twitter feed for this account knows that my promise went unfulfilled. Last year, we capitulated and got a cat from a shelter. He’s a polydactyl tuxedo cat named Mowgli. He might be the sweetest cat I have ever known. But he was so sweet that he ruined our family. There was just not enough cat to go around.
One day, I came home from some summer meetings at work and the family was huddled around a computer. The three of them (with Mowgli in hand at 10 weeks) had been watching cat videos all day. My wife informed me that we had to drive to Maine. My first thought was that someone had died (I grew up in Maine). When I asked what was wrong, she told me, “Oh, nothing, we have to go put a deposit on a cat and choose which one we want.”
I do not talk a lot about my wife in essays because she is not a social media person and values her privacy. But anyone who knows her also knows her powers. We were in a car and looking at Maine Coon Cat kittens within three hours. Three weeks later, we returned.
Again, anyone who follows this account on twitter knows Hermes, his attempts to escape our home, his eye infections, and his surgery. (Oh, the cat birthday parties too.) What people do not know is that when I can’t sleep at night and lay on the couch wondering what the fuck is happening to the world, Hermes comes over and starts grooming me. He licks my hair from root to end and then, if I do not start petting him, he bonks me in the cheek with his massive hairy paw.
If we get a dog, it’s Hermes’ fault. He’s, well, unleashed something that’s hard to explain.
Homer, Od. 17.301-305
“Then, indeed, [Argos] noticed that Odysseus was near And he wagged his tail and relaxed both ears, But he wasn’t able to go any closer to his master then. Odysseus saw him to the side and wiped away a tear, Keeping it secret from Eumaios….”
When I talk about the Odyssey’s crucial recognition scenes, I always forget about this one. Odysseus needs his scar to be known to Eurykleia; he needs the story of the bed to finally prove himself to Penelope; and he has to tell the story of generations of trees to calm his father’s suspicions. Argos seems to need no sign, he just knows (ὡς ἐνόησεν). All that worry about some other Odysseus coming home dissipates with a wag of the tail.
I came from one of those families that always had a dog. I do not think it was possible for my parents to conceive of a family that did not have a dog. Before I was born, that had an Irish Setter named Duchess and a St. Bernard named Sam who used to follow the kids to the school bus and ride around town to the school (it was the 1970s, the world was different). When I was born, in a rare show of unity, my grandmothers made them give Sam away because they thought he was too dangerous. I used to see him at my godfather’s farm, tied up on a heavy chain, laying a distance from the house, flies swirling around him.
One of the things that is hard for me to explain to my spouse and impossible for me to talk about to my kids is that my life with pets is not a source of happy memories. My earliest memories of Duchess are of fear. And not fear of her, but fear for her. My parents, unlike Odysseus it seems, never trained their dogs well. Duchess used to run away and return after some time. It was such a regular occurrence that once my grandfather showed up in a pickup with someone else’s Irish Setter because he thought she was ours.
Duchess used to have accidents in the house because she was never walked and she was poorly trained. Every time, my father would scream, swear (“duchess, you fucking stupid bitch” is probably the earliest profanity I ever heard), and often hit or kicked her. More than once, he opened the door to the basement and threw her down the stairs. These are some of my earliest memories of my father and they do not add up to the man my wife met nearly 20 years later. And my siblings never saw him that way either.
When Duchess was a decade old, she gave birth to a single puppy. I must have been too young for kindergarten at the time, but I remember the utter confusion this inspired in our household but I do not quite remember my parents’ response. I was enchanted with this little squealing thing, this new life in our home. I named him Mud.
Three days later, I found Mud stiff and dead in the basement. My parents tried to explain to me that Duchess was too old to take care of a puppy and that Mud wasn’t meant to be born to begin with. We buried him in our back yard not too far off from where we grew squash and green beans.
We moved a few years later. Duchess was alive when we were getting ready to sell our home. Then, she was not when we moved. I have no memory of what happened to her. My father died almost ten years ago and I never asked him about it.
Homer, Od. 17.305-310
“…then Odysseus asked him ‘Eumaios, it is a great wonder that this dog lies in the manure. His form is beautiful and I do not know clearly Whether his speed was equal to his looks, Or he was like those table dogs of certain men, Those ones their masters raise for appearances.”
When Odysseus is asking about Argos, he wants to know if he grew up to be the dog he trained him to be. Odysseus applies an epic physiognomy here he also assumes for people: beauty should translate into good deeds; beauty without action makes you a useless suitor (or Phaeacian prince). But Odysseus also taps into an ancient distinction between working animals and, well, ‘pets’. Do we keep animals close to us just for show?
Hermes is a “show” cat, for sure. He’s handsome, it’s true. Part of the reason I am so undone by Hermes is that he’s not like other cats I have been around. Where other cats are skittish, he is still. Where Mowgli and other cats I have had have rushed to the sound of cat food being opened, Hermes takes his time, eats a little and then walks away. He watches me do everything. My wife says I anthropomorphize his actual limited intelligence as contemplative. But who knows the thoughts of a quiet cat?
I did not grow up with cats. The first cat we ever had was an accident. We moved to 3 or 4 acres on the age of a large re-forested area in southern Maine (some of the land had been farmland in the late 19th century; some of it had been logged before the second World War; much had been burned in a famous fire mid-century). We had no neighbors by sight and few within a quarter mile.
One day, a small white and brown kitten was sitting, meowing at our door. Honest to goodness, I don’t know if there is anything cuter in the universe than a kitten. My mother was allergic to cats and forbade us to bring it in the house, but my sister and I took out a saucer of milk for the kitten creatively named, “Kitty”. When we returned from school, she was still there. At great urging from three children, my mother got some cat food and we fed her more.
The next day? Kitty was still there. We fed her and played with her outside, losing time the way only kids and new pets can. When we returned from school, she was still there. Later, after dinner, I went out to check on her and she was running strangely in the driveway. I caught her, and something was coming out of her rear end: a lot of something, most of her intestines. I called to my dad, who had recently returned home, and he looked at me, at the kitten and went inside.
He came out with a loaded .22, took the kitten, and walked into the woods. I have no idea how far he walked but there’s no way I wouldn’t have heard the report of the gun firing. I didn’t realize until later than Kitty had probably been hit by a car. It took me years to really think about which car that most likely was.
Homer, Od. 17.311-317
“Eumaios, my swineherd, you answered: “Yes, this is the dog of a man who died far away. If he were the way he was in looks and speed When Odysseus left him to go to Troy, You’d soon observe his great speed and valor. Nothing ever escaped him in the deep forest When he pursued. And he was clever at tracking too.
Argos has heroic qualities, even specifically Iliadic ones. Speed and valor (ταχυτῆτα καὶ ἀλκήν)? You have an Achillean dog there, sir. But he’s also smart, like Odysseus: he is preeminent at tracking (ἴχνεσι γὰρ περιῄδη) and nothing ever escaped him in the deep darks of the wood. I don’t know if this is some foreshadowing of the murder of the suitors, but if a student claimed it on a paper, I’d give it a nice big check.
I stayed home the next day from school and generally made enough of a nuisance of myself that we got a kitten I named Nina the next week. Nina was the first pet who was almost solely mine. (My sister got a cat the next year named Jackie, mainly to taunt my father whose nickname was Jack.) I tried to establish the rule that she could not go outside, and this held for a while. When she was a month home, I was dropped off by a family friend early from school at the end of our dirt road. I came home to someone breaking into our home and stealing my father’s firearms.
The man in our driveway told me my mother was inside (which I knew to be a lie) and I silently stood at the end of the driveway. I probably scared the thief more than anything, and I certainly never felt myself in danger. He got in his car and drove off. I ran inside, through the door that had been kicked in, and called 911. The dispatcher was, in retrospect understandably, quite concerned about my safety. But I told her I had to put the phone down to find my cat. She was outside and in danger.
(I found her. She was fine, that day.)
My attachment to cats at that moment was linked to our trouble with dogs. After we moved, we had a new home so of course we needed a new dog. We picked up a shepherd-retriever mix from a shelter and named her Alfie after the ever present television Alien. Alfie was pure joy for three kids living on the edge of a forest with no friends around. My strongest memory of the time is just running around that house chased by that adorable puppy.
Puppies grow up to be dogs and when they are not fixed and are let to wander around outside, they get pregnant. Alfie gave birth to a litter of puppies a year later. Neither of my parents talked about her being pregnant and when she started giving birth to puppies, I was the only one down in the basement with her. She had six puppies. Over the next few months, we found homes for four of them.
No one who hasn’t spent time with a half dozen puppies understands how exhilarating and exhausting they are. We named each puppy and trounced around in the Maine snow with them until each one left. The two who remained, stayed for good. And it did not go well with Alfie. My parents built a pen outside and a large shed and the dogs were kept there, rain, snow or otherwise. They got loose once, attacked a neighbor’s dog, and nearly ripped his leg off. Alfie kept trying to run away from her puppies.
One day, I tried to corral the three dogs in the basement. Alfie would not go down the stairs with her offspring. She turned on me and attacked, leaving a four-inch gash in my leg. I don’t think I was mad at that dog for even a second because I never thought she was mad at me. My parents called the game warden. They told us Alfie was getting a “new home”. At age 11, I knew this was not how these stories ended.
I have no memory of what happened to the other two dogs. I do know they were still around two years later when a friend from junior high came to visit. Upon seeing the dogs, chained to trees a 100 feet from the house, dirty and ragged, he asked me how we could treat animals that way. I don’t know if I answered.
Homer, Od. 17.318-323
“But now he is overcome by evil and his master has died Far away in another land. These shameless women don’t care for him. The Enslaved women, whenever their rulers are gone, Aren’t willing to do the right thing any longer. Wide-browed Zeus strips a person of half their worth Whenever slavery’s day overcomes them.”
Argos serves here, I think, to represent some of the general entropy of the household in Odysseus’ action and as part of a process of vilifying the enslaved women before their deaths. I don’t understand why Eumaios says nothing of the rest of the family. (I mean, Telemachus parades around the island with two dogs.) Perhaps his place as the “good slave” makes it impossible for him to criticize family-Odysseus. But I’ve always thought a pet, because it depends on us, is a family’s shared responsibility.
I don’t usually get to the part of my story where Alfie is put to sleep. And I don’t know if I ever mention her puppies because even though I was not yet a teenager, I feel guilt for their lives and their ends. It is harder to tell the whole story because it is long and it seems embellished. And that’s before the next part.
Our second cat Nina eventually got to go outside. We lived on a large lot and we spent all our time outside in the summers. My mother was a school teacher and now I understand that she was suffering from depression and other issues. At the time, what I knew was that in summers, she slept a lot and spent the rest of the time in her bedroom, with the only air conditioner on, and the door closed. My siblings and I did what kids did then in the summer: we watched TV, we wandered in the woods, and we tried not to bring ticks in the house.
Nina turned out to be pregnant at the beginning of one summer vacation. I don’t know if my parents ever took her to a vet and we had gotten her from someone in the southern part of our town. She gave birth to seven kittens and they were just the cutest things I had ever seen.
The problem was that that summer saw the worst plague of fleas in decades. Our cats brought them home and the infestation was so bad when you stepped on the carpet, you could see dozens of fleas jump up and start to crawl up your leg. A day or two after they were born, the kittens were covered. I would pick one up and they would drip off them like water. And Nina stopped feeding them.
I told my mother. I told my father. Eventually, they called the vet and let me speak to them. I was told to use a comb and rubbing alcohol to try to get the fleas off the kittens. I did this with each one. Multiple times. The fleas came back. Then Nina stopped caring for the litter. One by one, the kittens stopped moving.
I don’t know what was going on between my parents. My father was gone for long days and overnight trips; my mother was distant as always. Neither of them came done to the basement to see the kittens. And I didn’t even think of asking how I would know if they were really dead. Even when I was burying them in our yard, I kept thinking I could hear them meow. We never discussed it.
We had the house fumigated, but the fleas came back. And you know what else? Nina came back, pregnant at the end of the summer. This is the part of the story I shake my head at even now. She gave birth again in a house covered in fleas. The kittens each died again one by one even after I combed them clean and tried to feed them with a washcloth dipped in milk. No one called the veterinarian the second time. Neither of my parents ever talked to me about that summer. That was three decades ago. I still feel nauseous when I think about it.
Homer, Od. 17.324-328
“So he spoke and went inside the inhabited home.
He went straight among the arrogant suitors in the hall.
But then the fate of dark death overtook Argos
Right after he saw Odysseus in his twentieth year.”
Does Argos count as blessed in Solon’s words because he had a happy moment before he died? Does that one moment of relief at his master’s return make up for two decades of neglect? Will Odysseus go and get a puppy after the epic’s end?
There was another cat named Skye who lost an eye in a fight with a raccoon and like my sister’s cat Jackie just ended up wandering away one day as cats on the edge of a forest sometime do. Now I know that the cats probably fell prey to some predator or disease. But then, well, pets just kind of disappeared.
Once the last two of Alfie’s offspring were gone—wherever they went—my parents wanted another dog. This time, they went to a breeder with the plans of doing things right. We got a male chocolate lab and for reasons that are too convoluted to explain but include community theater, he was named Tevye.
We must have gotten Tevye in late spring or early summer, because by the fall he was a good-sized dog, but not yet full grown. My parents tried to keep this dog inside, closer to us, but they never put in the work to train him not to go to the bathroom in the house. He would go sometimes, my dad would explode and open the door and kick him outside. This went on until Tevye mostly whined at the door until someone let him out.
While we lived on a dirt road on one side of our property, the other side was bounded by a state road that ran north-south. There wasn’t a lot of traffic on the road and at night you could hear a car coming from a mile away. Our mailbox was a good walk from the front door to this main road. Tevye would go down there and look over the stone wall. My father would scream if he got too close.
One day, we were outside repairing the stone wall because some car had skidded off the road. As my father and I levered stones back into position, Tevye jumped over the wall and neared the road. My father started screaming and went after the dog, but I stepped in front of him and just said “no.” I pushed him back. I was in eighth grade and I was nearly the height I am now and the same weight. It was the only time in my life that I thought he would hit me and I wanted him too. But he didn’t.
On Thanksgiving, we were racing around the house trying to get everyone ready to go to my grandmother’s when there was a knock on the door. We rarely received door knocks, rarely enough in fact that my father was as likely to answer the door with a gun as he was to answer at all (he was deaf). At the door were two young men. They asked if we had a brown dog and said that one had jumped in front of their car.
They did not have a dog with them. My mother started screaming at them. My younger brother and sister started crying. I don’t know where my father went. But I was silent. I didn’t see any sense of losing it when we knew nothing. The world has more than one brown dog.
The walk from our home to the place where the dog was on the side of the road is three to five minutes, depending on your speed. Tevye was there, definitely dead, near the stone wall we had repaired. I had never handled a corpse that large before. My father hand grown up hunting, but when he took me out to learn to shoot at age six, I had no interest in the firearm or what you might do with it. Tevye was almost 50 pounds of deadweight and carrying him over that wall to a stand of pine trees felt like a lifetime.
No one else had exited the house yet. I walked the same distance back to the garage and got a shovel and then back to the stand of pine trees near the road. I started to dig near a large stone and had a large enough hole dug by the time my father came out to see what I was doing that there was no work left to be done. When I think of this now, I tremble, still confused: it was at least 20 minutes from when I left the house and started digging the hole before either of my parents came to see if their dog was really dead.
I finished the job alone. I went to three funerals that year and one of them was a cousin who died at age 16 in a car accident. I remember that fourth funeral the most, standing alone over Tevye’s shallow grave.
In similar tone to Odysseus’ dismissal of “table dogs”, Greek and Latin words for “pets” tend to emphasize their status as a luxury or adornment. In a fragment, Euripides calls a dog a “decoration [agalma] of Hekate” (Ἑκάτης ἄγαλμα φωσφόρου κύων ἔσῃ, fr. 968). Catullus’ Lesbia has a delicia; Martial’s Stella has a delicium (Ep. 1.7; cf. Seneca Apocolyntosis 13, subalbam canem in deliciis habere adsueverat). Exotic pets are signs of decadence: Theophrastus sees an obsequious person as likely to have a pet monkey (Characters 5); Plutarch records that comic poets slandered Perikles’ friend for his pet birds (Perikles 13.14). Diogenes Laertius tells of Heraclides and his pet snake (5.6, 89-90 These animals are different from foodstock and working animals: Alciphron calls his mistress’ Maltese puppy a “delight” (ἄθυρμα, Letters of Farmers 3.22) an here, as in Lucian (Assembly of the Gods, 5) and elsewhere the pet dog gets a diminutive: κυνίδιον.
In ancient literature, we see animals functioning as reflections for human characters. When Achilles’ horse Xanthus talks to him in the Iliad, he has the same color hair as his master and speaks to give a very Achillean message: you’re going to die. Alexander is paired in legend with Bucephalus, a horse who could be tamed only by the man who tamed the world. And Odysseus comes home to a loyal dog he forgot when he went to war. Bucephalus exists in narrative only to confirm Alexander’s greatness. Xanthus would speak for no other hero. Epic Argos exists only to increase Odysseus’ sense of loss and meaning.
My family got a Newfoundland puppy after Tevye’s death. I kept a cautious distance from that dog and was off to college by the time she was four years old. I never had a conversation with my father about dogs and their deaths. I know he grew up with hunting dogs and my mother grew up with barn cats and farm animals and that both of them saw animals come and go in a way I never would. When my father died, he left behind a golden retriever and a wish that any donations in his name be made to the ASPCA. I bit my tongue at the irony.
When I turned 21 my future wife got me a kitten for my birthday. In truth, I think she really wanted a pet because she had never had one, but she also said that the way I talked about animals made her want to get one. I couldn’t tell her why getting a kitten caused me so much pain because I did not want to detract at all from the joy she experienced at getting one.
Chineh—which was a bastardized version of Tamil for “small”—was a feral cat who hated everyone except for my wife and me. When we went to the shelter, she put her paw outside the cage at us and meowed and it was over. My roommates and parents called her a devil cat. When I was in graduate school, my apartment burned out in an electric fire and somehow she survived. We put several thousand dollars on a credit card and spent a month cupping her rib cages to get her to cough up the smoke. I don’t know if that caused her health problems later, but it may have.
Chineh was 11 when our daughter was born. She was already having serious hormonal problems and was already less friendly than before. But I swear she changed around the baby. As our daughter grew and started to move, she would follow the cat around, pulling her tail, abusing her at every chance. And Chineh, who had scratched and bitten dozens of people before never hurt her at all.
When I left the clinic where Chineh was put to sleep, I gave them two different cat carriers and other accessories (they specialized in cats). They were hesitant because they thought I might get another cat someday. I told them I wouldn’t.
And here we are, a decade later, with two cats and hundreds of pictures on twitter to prove that I am, as my wife declares, obsessed with Hermes. Yes, he follows me to get a treat near dawn every morning. Yes, I brush him every night so his long hair won’t get matted. During the day, though, we stick to our own business.
I didn’t want to get more pets because I didn’t want to fail them. I resisted getting them because I don’t want to feel the grief of loss again. I didn’t want to get pets because I don’t want to see the pain in my children’s eyes when they die. But, as my wife says, that’s really no way to live at all.
I am going to resist getting a puppy named Zeus. Right now, my argument is that it will upset Hermes, because I can’t get these old stories out fast enough to make sense.
“At that time, poets spent their time among kings, and even earlier Anacreon found himself at the court of Polycrates of Samos, and both Aeschylus and Simonides went to Syracuse to visit Hiero. Philoxenus spent time with Dionysius, who was later tyrant in Sicily, while both Antagoras of Rhodes and Aratus of Soli kept company with Antigonus when he ruled the Macedonians. Either Hesiod and Homer happened not to chance upon any kings, or they willingly despised them; Hesiod would have done so from his innate rusticity and aversion to traveling, while Homer spent a lot of time abroad and set the aid accruing to him from the wealth of the powerful at less than the good opinion from the people, since we find even among Homer that Demodocus spent time in the court of Alcinous, and Agamemnon left behind a poet with his wife. There is a grave not far from the gates, on which there is a depiction of a soldier standing next to a horse: I don’t know who it is, but Praxiteles carved both the horse and the soldier.”
“When Antagoras the poet had a performance at Thebes and obtained no honor, he said “Thebans, Odysseus screwed up when he covered his companions’ ears as he was sailing by the Sirens. It would have been right for him to hire you as sailors.”
“When Antagoras the Rhodian epic poet was reading his composition the Thebais in Thebes and no one was applauding him, he took the book and said, “You are rightly called Boiotians, for you all have cows’ ears!”
“Our fated nature is identified by Empedocles as the force behind this remaking, “wrapping [us] in a tunic of strange flesh” and transferring souls to a new place. Homer has called this circular revolution and the return of rebirth by the name Kirke, a child of Helios, the one who unites every destruction with birth and destruction again, binding it endlessly.
The Island Aiaia is that place which revives the person who dies, a place where the souls first step when they are wandering and feel like strangers to themselves as they mourn and cannot figure out which direction is west nor where the “sun which brings life to people over the land / descends again into the earth.”
These souls long for their habits of pleasure and their life in the flesh and the way they lived with their flesh and they fall again into that mixture where birth swirls together and truly stirs into one the immortal and moral, the material of thought and experience, elements of heaven and earth. The souls are enchanted but also weakened by the pleasures that pull them to birth again. At that time, souls require a great amount of good luck and much wisdom to find some way to resist and depart from their worst characters and become bound to their most base parts or passions and take up a terrible and beastly life.”
“[in this case] the soul and the body would experience things together, but they would not have the same reactions as one another. But, now, it is entirely clear that one follows another. This is especially obvious from the following. For madness seems to be a matter of the mind; doctors, however, respond to it by cleansing the body with medicines and also by telling them to pursue certain habits in life which may relieve the mind of madness.
So, the form of the body is relieved by treatments to the body at the very same time that the soul is freed from madness. Since they are both relieved together, it is clear that their reactions are in synchrony. It is also clear from this that the forms special to the body are similar to the capabilities of the mind, with the result that all similarities in living things are clear signs of some kind of sameness.”
Why read Homer if the world is coming to an end? Why teach Homer if the Homeric epics have been instrumentalized as part of colonialism and white supremacy? These are not idle questions. They are the questions that need to be answered if the discipline of Classics to continue in any form at all.
I expressed some of these views early on and was, again rightly, criticized for inserting such navel gazing was taking space away from BIPOC classicists. In the meantime, I have been thinking and working at my own institution (virtually) with Homer always somewhere near. There will never be a time when my voice, embodied as it is in the privilege and experience I bring with me, does not drown out others. I feel a responsibility to think about this and use the space I have to advocate for the change I can. As a Homerist, even if I am not one of great renown, I think it is my duty to think and write critically about my field and to help make space for others.
Why read Homer? I think I made clear some feelings about why reading Homer badly is counterproductive. This may be a surprise, but I do think there is a good reason to read Homer. First, let us get through the reasons people typical give I find disagreeable. I have listed them in my opinion of silliest to most serious. Let me be clear: I think that there is some truth and utility to each of these, but there are challenges too.
Entertainment: The epics are good stories! This argument is related in part to the aesthetics of literature (although the pleasure of a good yarn is different from the aesthetics I talk about below). Sure, the epics can be riveting, but there are parts that even seasoned readers can find challenging: for example Iliad 13-15, Odyssey 2-4 and 12-16. I suspect that many people who make this argument have not had the challenge of leading students through a whole epic from beginning to end. I also think that many people who make this argument may have not read the epics in their entirety. (P.S. it is perfectly ok to read excerpts).
Homer is historical: I just can’t get on this train. The Homeric epics are no more historical than Arthurian legend. They can give us ideas about the values of the historical peoples who formed their audiences, but even this is not simple: which version of Homer and which audiences at which time radically challenge anything we can say. My favorite formulation about what Homer is vis a vis history belongs to Hans Van Wees who calls the Iliad a “fantasy of the past” (Status Warriors, 1992). Anyone reading this who believes there was an actual Trojan War in some way corresponding to the events of our Iliad will be sorely disappointed by my stance.
As far as I can see it, from Heinrich Schliemann’s excavations to more recent excitement about Hittite names, the importance placed on historical correspondence is almost entirely due to the interest and enthusiasm of the interpreter who desires to make a positivistic identification between some mythical past and material remains. This is not to say that the Homeric epics can’t be useful in talking about the past, but that they have been used almost exclusively to see Ancient Greece in a particular way and have been an obstacle for this reason. Trevor Bryce’s work (e.g. “The Trojan War: Is There Truth behind the Legend? “Near Eastern Archaeology 2002, 65: 182-195) has marshaled a lot of the evidence, concluding in part that even if there is some historical ‘truth’, the creative work of the poems far exceeds and surpasses it (and Bryce is one who relies on the idea of a genius poet). Anyone familiar with the fine work of H. L. Lorimer a half century earlier would reach a similar, even bleaker confusion (Homer and the Monuments, 1950).
“I am not contending for the morality of Homer; on the contrary, I think it a book of false glory, tending to inspire immoral and mischievous notions of honor” Thomas Paine
“It was most excellently set down that a student’s reading should begin with Homer and Vergil, even though one needs a firmer judgment for understanding the virtues of those poets, for there will be time to develop it, since they will not be read just once” Quintilian
Noble Values: Read Homer for the heroes? They are a bunch of amoral shitbags. Perhaps we can learn by reading Homer that oftentimes the people in positions of power are there because they are in it for themselves and they don’t care if all of their people perish. Read the epics: Agamemnon, Achilles, Hektor, Paris, Odysseus all make choices that increase the death toll of their people without increasing their chance of success. One of the real strengths of epic is what I will call below its indeterminacy. The problem with texts of indeterminant meaning is that audiences will disambiguate complexity and choose to take away simply recognizable or facile lessons.
In one of our most famous early responses to myth and Homeric poetry, Plato has his Socrates banish tales of civil strife, children punishing parents, and gods warring with one another. Such tales, Socrates continues, “should not be allowed into the state, even if they were composed with secret meeting or without secret meaning. For a young person is incapable of judging what is allegorical meaning and what is not, but whatever opinions they take up during their young are hard to rinse off and tend to become unchangeable (ὅσας Ὅμηρος πεποίηκεν οὐ παραδεκτέον εἰς τὴν πόλιν, οὔτ’ ἐν ὑπονοίαις πεποιημένας οὔτε ἄνευ ὑπονοιῶν. Ὁ γὰρ νέος οὐχ οἷός τε κρίνειν ὅτι τε ὑπόνοια καὶ ὃ μή, ἀλλ’ ἃ ἂν τηλικοῦτος ὢν λάβῃ ἐν ταῖς δόξαις δυσέκνιπτά τε καὶ ἀμετάστατα φιλεῖ γίγνεσθαι, Republic 378d-e).
Any sense of this passage must take the purpose of the Republic into consideration: Socrates apostrophizes Homer and asks, “What city was governed better thanks to you?” (λέγε ἡμῖν τίς τῶν πόλεων διὰ σὲ βέλτιον ᾤκησεν, 599e). For the Republic’s Socrates, Homer cannot provide instruction for governing a city any more than he can instill proper morals and opinions in individuals. But this is because, according to Plato, people don’t understand Homeric hyponoia, literally something like “sub-meaning, under-meaning, secret meaning”, translated cleverly in the most recent Loeb edition as simply “deeper meaning” (replacing the older allegorical).
Even today, we often find people claiming that reading the epic can give readers good values. Homer can teach you to be loyal, manly, brave, etc.! The problem with literary exemplification like this is that good examples come with counter-examples and it is often hard to tell the difference. Further, any praising of Homeric epics for positive values needs to acknowledge that they are filled with horror and danger too from Agamemnon’s greed to Odysseus’ murderous vengeance. (In addition, this does not even include the deep structural problems of gender and class.) This is at best a naïve approach to literature: most readers project values onto a text and select what they want to see (or what they avidly don’t want to see). As with most of these points, this argument suffers from a limited sense of what ‘reading’ is and how it works.
i would say homer doesn't "teach" noble values, but instead illustrates moral ruin
The noble values also work the other way. Many have been justifiably moved by Simone Weil’s The Iliad, or The Poem of Force, written in Nazi-occupied France. She reads the poem with “force” as the “true subject” and moves that the Iliad may be a “historical document” illustrating “force….at the very center of human history, the Iliad is the purest and the loveliest of mirrors.” Perhaps, intentionally or not, Weil channels Aristotle’s attribution in the Rhetoric that “Alcidamas called the Odyssey a fine mirror for human life”. I do not disagree with Weil about Homer—indeed; this influential essay has done more to show Homer’s depth than much of Homeric scholarship. Nevertheless, I do think that Weil’s context and experience trained her gaze in a particular way. See this passage from the end of the essay:
While I almost giddily agree with Weil’s sentiment on Vergil, I think her take on the Odyssey is less generous and shaped by her identity and the moment of writing. How much sense can an epic of return, survival, and renewed life make when German tanks are rolling down your city’s streets? In a way, Weil’s comments on the Iliad as a mirror for human life also reflect how interpretation works. The way we read a work is a reflection of who we are and what we bring to it.
In the smartest thing in all the Star Wars movies (ok, maybe the only smart thing), the Empire Strikes Backbrings us a Luke Skywalker in training, lured into a cave on Dagobah where Yoda tells him the tree is “strong with the dark side of the Force. A servant of evil it is. Into it you must go”. To Luke’s question, “what’s in there”, the Jedi Master responds, “Only what you take with you.” The subsequent scene has Luke taking his light saber in with him and facing an ersatz Darth Vader who turns out to be….himself.
The Homeric poems are powerful shapers of perception, but in the end, they contain so much that we come away from them with very different notions of the poem. The Iliad is about force, but it is also about scarcity, anger, desire, love, loyalty and how people value one another. Moreover, it is a prolonged contemplation on when we choose to use force as opposed to when we have to. To pull one melody out of a multi-day symphony is to block out the majority of the composition as mere sound. We each hear our own Iliad and even these changes over time.
“You want a horse race? There is a fine one in Homer. Go get your book and read through it. You hear them talking about dancing pantomimes? Forget them! The children dance in a more manly way among the Phaiakians. You have there the citharist Phemios and the singer Demodokos. There are plants in Homer which are more delightful to hear of than to see.” Julian
Now, as someone thoroughly drawn to Epicurus, I cannot say that aesthetics and pleasure are not important, but that that they are symptomatic of both effective works and those that appeal to our weaknesses. There is a circuitous and replicative process in the aesthetic process that enforces traditional normative ideals and dis-incentivizes meaningful change. Therefore, when people say they love the beauty of Homer, I worry that they are selecting and privileging parts of Homer that have been culturally marked as attractive and have shaped their expectations for literature.
“Our poets steal from Homer; he spews, saith Aelian, they lick it up,” Robert Burton
Canon: Advocates often imagine that the strongest argument for Homer is that Homer was influential in the “Western Canon” and that you need to be familiar with Homer to appreciate and understand everything that came after. I think that this argument sounds nice, but it overstates the existence of the “Western Canon” (which is relatively recent), ignores the motivations for enforcing it, and radically misunderstands the impact of Homeric epic in the development of European literatures. If one is studying the history of ideas (especially the history of the idea of literature and canons) this “argument” is a good question as a starting point (I.e., how influential was Homer actually on European literatures?) but it is deeply insufficient for building a curriculum.
It is not that Homer was not and has not been important, but that the idea of Homer was far more influential than the epics in their entirety. For most of the history of the reception of the epics, they were read in summary or in part. For most of the history of education in the west, they would be mined for rhetorical excerpts. I think that relatively few readers in the ancient world had access to full texts and that when people talk about Homer in the ancient world we are really mostly talking about the sum total influence of Trojan War narratives and Greek myth on the development of culture and literature. In this category, a myth handbook like that of Apollodorus or Hyginus or the epics of Ovid and Vergil have been much more directly influential on later authors and tradition. The fact is, outside of the Byzantine Empire, Homer was not read that much in Northern and Western Europe prior to German Philhellenism, a period in which Northern philologists did everything they could to try to discredit, ignore, and de-center continuity and authority in Greek culture.
And the true bards have been noted for their firm and cheerful temper. Homer lies in sunshine; Chaucer is glad and erect; and Saadi says, ‘It was rumored abroad that I was penitent; but what had I to do with repentance?’ Ralph Waldo Emerson
Universalism: I will not easily dismiss the assertion that the Homeric epics reflect and advance essential ‘truths’ or visions about what it means to be human. I do have structural and intellectual quibbles with this approach, however. First, I wonder about the universal humanistic appeal of a text that denies full humanity to a majority of the human race (all those who are not aristocratic men). This leads into my deeper concern, namely that appeals to universalism can appeal easily to observer effects and selection bias. Whose view of humanity is assumed universal in this approach? Who counts as human in the world projected and received?
Further, I think that universalism assumes a unitary or singular point of view. If this argument is that the Homeric texts are polyvalent and reflect the pluralism of human experience in a multicultural and changing environment, then I can agree. Nevertheless, I think that this is not what people mean. Instead, universalism is too often a series of general bromides ignoring detail and saying more about the interests and assumptions of the interpreter than anything about the text.
“What is lacking in Homer, that we should not consider him to be the wisest man in every kind of wisdom? Some people claim that his poetry is a complete education for life, equally divided between times of war and peace.” Leonardo Bruni
Homer is unique and different! This assertion introduces some inextricable problems about defining difference. In some forms, I find this argument somewhat convincing but probably not in the same way that many others do. I think that the polyvocal, oral-derived, multilocal background of the Homeric epics renders their tone, perspective, language, and impact both quantitatively and qualitatively different from anything I have ever read. The problem with this approach is that it tends to be teleological: ‘Homer’ is positioned as a unitary and foundational genius whose DNA has spread majestically throughout the artwork of later generations.
The difference between what we actually have in the Homeric epics and what we find in later generations can help us unlearn what we think we know about literary traditions. This argument makes me nervous in general because it runs the risk of merely repeating the damaging “Greek Miracle” nonsense. But it is also an argumentum ex silentio. I don’t know that other works we lost were any less unique and different.
I think we are also conditioned by the tradition and our received aesthetics to see unique difference here only and not to look for it or see it in traditional poetry elsewhere, the epics of India, the philosophy and poetry of China and oral traditions in the Middle East and Africa. Instead, what I want to emphasize is that the Homeric epics developed through and because of the Rationalizing Revolution and contributed to it in turn. I will return to this more below, but my point is that history and cultural context were formative in the epics’ development. And, in turn, they contributed to a shifting in the cultures that hosted them.
While I don’t agree with all he says about Homer, Adam Nicolson puts it well when he summarized Homer as “Multiple in origins, multiple in manner and multiple in meaning, Homer in this light both knows the deep past and moves beyond it (2014, Why Homer Matters).
“With the single exception of Homer, there is no eminent writer, not even Sir Walter Scott, whom I can despise so entirely as I despise Shakespeare when I measure my mind against his.” George Bernard Shaw
Why read Homer? 1: Homer is Multivocal and Multicultural
The biggest problem with what most people say about Homer is that it is based on a ‘modern’ view of Homer that projects upon the past post-Christian and post-Renaissance notions of authorship, genius, and identity on a past tradition. This is probably not the best place and time to talk about what Homer is, but it is worth a few sentences to say what Homer isn’t.
The poems we have, moreover, reached the shapes we have during a period when the people who told their stories were engaged with the local pluri-vocality of their own amalgam culture and the multicultural influence of the migratory and trade routes of the eastern Mediterranean. The ritual, religious, linguistic, narrative, and artistic traditions of Archaic Greece were indisputably influence by Ancient Africa (including but not exclusively Egypt) and the Ancient Near East. They were also likely influenced by innumerable lost stories and languages of cultures from around the Mediterranean who stories have been lost to time.
In addition, the epics came much closer to the form we have them during the period we call the ‘Rationalizing Revolution’ which was defined by philosophers/scientists coming from the Greek states of Asia Minor and moving west under political pressure (Persian expansion?). It was no accident that these thinkers hailed for so long as originating geniuses came out of cosmopolitan, multicultural cities: where do we think they got their ideas from?
We too often treat Homer as being suddenly ex novo and sui generis. Instead, the Homeric epics we have come at the end of a long process of differentiation and integration. They are unique insofar as they were uniquely successful in surviving the past. Accepting them as standard is falling into the trap epic sets for us: part of epic style is to assume its own supremacy and superiority. We know from mythography, that Homeric detail is often out there on its own and in service of its own ends. (Elton Barker and I talk a lot about this and how to interpret Homer in our recent Homer’s Thebes.)
“If the works of Homer are, to letters and to human learning, what the early books of Scripture are to the entire Bible and to the spiritual life of man; if in them lie the beginnings of the intellectual life of the world, then we must still recollect that that life, to be rightly understood, should be studied in its beginnings. There we may see in simple forms what afterwards grew complex, and in clear light what afterwards became obscure; and there we obtain starting-points, from which to measure progress and decay along all the lines upon which our nature moves.” William Gladstone
Why Read Homer 2: Transformation
There’s a lot more to say and there’s not a Homerist alive who won’t take issue with the way I have framed some of this. The real reason I think people should read Homer is that the process of doing so—especially with other people—is transformative. How and why this transformation happens is a little involved, so I am about to get really annoying. But, to put it simply, Homeric epic refuses to give its audiences simple answers and forces us to think deeply, if we do it right.
Again, to Nicolson: he concludes that Homer matters…”because Homer…understands what mortals do not….That is his value a reservoir of understanding beyond the grief and turbulence of a universe in which there is no final authority” (2014, 244). I think that this is partly right, that the epics hold out the Siren call of knowledge, but that there is something much more important here. Homer offers up a mirror to life for us to inspect but it is a fragmented funhouse mirror in a nightmare.
We get partial pieces of information about greatness and loss about nobility and ugliness and are repeatedly told nothing about which paths we should choose. Again, Nicolson is right that Homer “provides no answers” but his closing recourse to poetic rhetorical questions misses the opportunity to articulate the significance both of why Homer provides no answers and of how the origins of Homeric poetry make it necessary for the poems to be this way. The Homeric epics are dialogic and aporetic and in these functions they teach us not what to do but how to think about what we do as communities.
Before I talk about the poems as dialogues and proto-philosophical experiences leading to states of aporia, let me just return to their origins for a moment. I think that the sophisticated, even therapeutic nature, of the poems is likely a historical accident of the demands of the performance context rather than some testament to the genius of the poems. In this, I do not deny the impression of genius or the magnitude of these epics’ monumental impact over time, but rather that their character was a product of environment rather than intention (an argument for a different space, I believe).
Homeric poetry is what others have already called dialogic, as Anna Bonifazi describes dialogism, following Mikhail Bakhtin’s analysis, is when texts show a “a multiplicity and stratification of voices” or, to use Bakhtin’s words, a “plurality of consciousnesses” (Bakhtin 1984:81). Homeric poetry, as Egbert Bakker has described it is intensely dialogic because of its development over time in multiple contexts and for multiple audiences over time (2006b). In addition, some of my favorite modern scholars who write on Homer like John Peradotto (who also calls it heteroglossia, 1990, 53-58) foreground the multiplicity of meanings that emerge from dialogism. This is part of what makes Homeric poetry feels different: it channels untold numbers of voices for an equally unknown number of ears.
Such characteristics make it necessary that Homeric poetry will show empathy and understanding to multiple perspectives while refusing to take sides or give clear answers. Earlier literary theorists like William Empson struggled to describe the power of ambiguity or what someone else might call indeterminacy as the most potent of poetic forces. Whereas modern theorists debate the source of indeterminacy in reception or creation (i.e. is it authorially intended or created in reader response), Homeric indeterminacy is part of the poetic tradition from the level of utterance all the way through structure.
Now, I just mixed and rendered equivalent three terms that many literary theorists would prefer to keep separate: dialogism, the quality of multivocality in a text; ambiguity, when a text can have multiple meanings at once; and indeterminacy, when multiplicity of meaning cannot be disambiguated even to certain options. Rather than seeing these descriptions as overlapping, I think they help to identify different ways in which the multiplicity of Homeric meaning can translate into polysemy, multiple meanings at different times and for different audiences. As with the example of Simone Weil above, we bring our own experiences and eras to bear on the epics; but we as interpreters can also change while reading, because of reading, or over time when we return to a poem with new life experience.
In addition, the multi-vocal nature of the epics helps us to understand that despite their structural misogyny, classism, and latent justification for slavery, they still offer moments of deep empathy and understanding for those out of power: Andromache’s speeches about her son; similes about men struggling over scarce land; the almost lost image of the mill-working enslaved woman, desperate and exhausted. Eumaios is apostrophized by the narrator to a similar effect—just as the Homeric epics stand apart from most other war narratives in expecting their audiences to see the shared humanity of the Trojans, so too are they deeply sensitive to different positions in life.
The danger of this is its very intoxication, however. Andromache’s lamentations distract from the silence of all the other Trojan women; Eumaios’ valorization obscures his suffering and total surrender of agency; and the mill-woman’s prayer recenters Odysseus’ vengeance and leaves us wondering if despite all her trials, she still might be one of the women brutally hanged after cleaning up their dead lovers’ corpses.
But the different types of polysemy I mention above also help to produce what I think is one of the most important functions of Homeric poetry, the creation of aporia. Most people who know what aporia is will associate it with the early Platonic dialogues. Aporia—literally, “pathlessness”—is that state reached after the end of a dialogue like the Lysis when Socrates announces that despite their philosophical turnings they still do not know what friendship is. Such a moment emphasizes process over product and directs the audience to go back to the beginning and think the whole thing through again.
Homeric epic, like Platonic dialogue, invites its audiences to follow the folly and success of its characters and then to retrace them, to come to a deeper understanding of the conditions that put them in the position to fail. For Platonic dialogue, Laura Candiotto (2015) has argued that the state of aporia itself is transformative, that it forces us to “imagine an otherness” (242) but that this process requires shared or collective emotional and intellectual work. The shared work of interpreting epic with its characters is a kind of extended mind over time. When we read them and discuss them with others, we engage in the transformative process of creating community around the interrogation of the self.
Now, I would be so bold as to say that this last step is possible with many different kinds of art and narrative traditions—the importance of community and group minds in interpretation and the creation of meaning is almost always underappreciated, especially in an aesthetic paradigm that privileges the author as a divine creator and prizes some interpreters as having exclusive access to that providential mind. What makes Homer different from reading Game of Thrones together or spending semesters contemplating Marcel Proust’s associative sense of smell is the depth of interpretive traditions to add to the complexity of the community of meaning and the nature of epic poetry itself. Homeric ambiguity, interdeterminacy, and dialogism provide a capaciousness of time rare in any art form and the essential, irrefutable absence of the author provides the opportunity to think and rethink without that devils’ trap of authorial intention.
The act of judgment is central to epic poetry from lexical through thematic levels. Homeric poetry provides many clues that it privileges the act of interpretation over all else. In addition to the stories, omens, and similes left unexplained throughout both epics, the Iliad presents a fascinating study on the surface of Achilles’ shield:
Homer Il. 18.496-508
“The people where gathered, crowded, in the assembly where a conflict (neîkos)
had arisen: two men were striving over the penalty for
a man who had been killed; the first one was promising to give everything
as he was testifying to the people; but the other was refusing to take anything;
and both men longed for a judge to make a decision.
The people, partisans on either side, applauded.
Then the heralds brought the host together; the elders
sat on smooth stones in a sacred circle
as they held in their hands the scepters of clear-voiced heralds;
each one was leaping to his feet and they pronounced judgments in turn.
In the middle there were two talents of gold to give
to whoever among them uttered the straightest judgment.”
Here, we find two parties arguing over an act of interpretation. The reward set out for either side does not go to the combatants but to the interpreters themselves: there is a prize dedicated to whoever can present the most just judgment for the aggrieved parties. The frozen moment of the shield, however, can no more resolve what the best judgement is any more than the poem can decisively tell us to prefer Agamemnon over Achilles in book 1 or whether the suitors’ families were ultimately better off in not trying to kill Odysseus in the final book of his epic. (And there are historical parallels from the Ancient Greek world for privileging judges and interpretation from West Lokris and Chios). The shield anticipates a world of conflict and judgment where people use their intelligence and their shared community to navigate their challenges through interpretation and deliberation.
Why Read Homer 3: Allegory
If I dismissed traditions of reading Homer earlier, I did so because the way we read Homer in schools—for facts of the story, for models to apply to later texts, for pleasure—is a recent departure from ancient traditions that beyond the moralizing of Plato saw in the Homeric epics opportunities for enlightenment. And, again, I apologize for the likely alienating tour through some theoretical terms and bibliographies above, but my journey to these conclusions has come from despising Homer in high school to dedicating now half of my life to figure out why I respond so deeply to Homer in Greek.
As Robert Lamberton argues in his 1986 Homer the Theologian complexity and opacity of meaning were assumed by ancient audiences and critics. Before Plato took on Homer by taking him out of the Republic, Pythagoreans saw allegory for the body and soul in the Iliad and Odyssey and contributed to interpretive traditions that extended well into the Christian era.
Our literalist and formalist approaches hail back to the scholarly pursuits of Alexandrians (and Hellenistic philologists) who worked in establish authoritative texts. Their insistence on establishing authority stood opposed by the later “Porphyry’s assertion of the existence of numerous valid possibilities in the interpretation of a single text ”…which was by no means evidence of a lack of clearly defined principles of interpretation, but rather a logical consequence of Neoplatonic psychology and epistemology” (Lamberton 1986, 127).
Ancient interpreters who pursued this could be quite adventurous as when Porphyry—as recorded by Stobaeus (i. 44. 60)—explains that the events of book 10 centering around Kirkê are really a coded message about reincarnation and the way the soul’s rebirth in corporeal form is dictated by its relationship to its desires—its ability to balance the rational (to logistikon), the emotional (thumoeides) and physical (or appetitive) desires (epithumêtikon). In this reading, these parts (ta merê) of the soul may be governed—or at least ameliorated—by education and philosophy. For Heraclitus the allegorist, Odysseus’ entire journey was an allegory for our navigation through virtue and vice, a metaphor the Neoplatonist Proclus echoes. The Homeric scholia are filled with records of allegorical meanings and an ancient tradition makes even Paris’ between Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite an allegory about human lack of self-control (Lamberton 1986, 2; Iamblichus, Life of Pythagoras 42).
My point in going through this even in brief is that there are ancient traditions of Homeric interpretation which find deep, ethical, psychological, and even mystical meaning in the texts. Classical studies of recent centuries has tended back to what Seneca the Younger calls “that sickness of the Greeks” (Graecorum iste morbus, Brevitate Vitae 13) to focus on pedantic detail over and above a greater search for meaning, seeking in desperation for “Homer’s homeland” (Moral Epistle 88), striving not to “nourish our soul but to sharpen our wit” (ad praeceptores suos non animum excolendi, sed ingenium, EM. 108). Even Cicero asks “what impact does this ‘grave’ and ‘acute’ stuff have on the pursuit of the highest good?” (ed, quaeso, quid ex ista acuta et gravi refertur ad τέλος? Ep. To Atticus 12.6)
It is fine to read Homer in translation, in summary, or in excerpt. It is fine to read Homer out of curiosity about peoples in the past, to understand the history of our ideas about literature, to think about claims of universal humanism or that literature can give us values and ennoble us. Whatever brings you to Homer, the reason I think you should read the Iliad or the Odyssey is to be transformed by powerful narratives that seek to make you try to understand more of the universe inside and through yourself. I dare say you may not even require teachers to do this, but it does help to have friends to read with you.
Homer tells precisely of not merely the neighboring lands and Greece itself—as Eratosthenes has claimed—but many other places farther afield too and he tells his myths better than those who followed him. For he does not offer every tale for wonder only, but also to contribute to knowledge—especially in the wanderings of Odysseus—he allegorizes, provides warnings, and delights [his audiences]. This is something [Eratosthenes] is really wrong about when he asserts that the poet and his interpreters are fools. This is a subject worth speaking on to a much greater extent.”
The first point is that it is not only poets who used myths, but cities and lawmakers did too for the sake of their usefulness, once they noted the native disposition of the story-oriented animal. For Humans love to learn; loving stories is a prelude to this. This is why children start by listening and making a common ground in stories.
The reason for this is that story/myth is a novel-kind-of-thought [to them] which helps them thing not about what they already know but about different kinds of things too. To children we are obliged to hold out such enticements, in order that in riper years, when the mind is powerful, and no longer needs such stimulants, it may be prepared to enter on the study of actual realities.
There is sweetness in novelty and what someone does not already know, This is the very thing that also creates a love-of-learning. Whenever something amazing and ominous is present, it nurtures pleasure, which is a magic charm for learning. In the early years it is necessary to use these types of attractions, but when age increases toward the study of things as they really are, then the understanding has advanced and no longer requires flatteries.”
Jerome Bruner, Actual Minds, Possible Worlds. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986.
123: “The most general implication is that a culture is constantly in process of being recreated as it is interpreted and renegotiated by its members. In this view, a culture is as much a forum for negotiating meaning and for explicating action as it is a set of rules or specifications for action. Indeed, every culture maintains specialized institutions or occasions for intensifying this “forum-like” feature. Storytelling, theater, science, even jurisprudence are all techniques for intensifying this function—ways of exploring possible worlds out of the context of immediate need. Education is (or should be) one of the principal forums for performing this function—though it is often timid in doing so. It is the forum aspect of a culture that gives its participants a role in constantly making and remaking the culture…”
Bern Le Hunte and Jan A. Golembiewski. “Stories Have the Power to Save Us: A Neurological Framework for the Imperative to Tell Stories.” Arts and Social Sciences Journal 5.2 (2014) 73-76.
73: “The claim that stories have the power to save us is audacious, yet it is one that can be validated by neuroscience. This article demonstrates that the brain is hard-wired to process stories in a most fundamental way, indicating the evolutionary priority that storytelling has had in human development, and the importance it has in forging a future humanity.”
Edward O. Wilson. “On Free Will and How the Brain is Like a Colony of Ants.” Harper’s September 2014, 49-52.
51: “The final reason for optimism is the human necessity for confabulation, which offers more evidence of a material basis to consciousness. Our minds consist of storytelling.”
Jonathan Gottschall. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Boston: Mariner Books, 2012.
58: “The psychologist and novelist Keith Oakley calls stories the flight simulators of human social life.”
Mark Turner. The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language. Oxford: 1996.
4-5: “narrative imagining—story—is the fundamental instrument of thought. Rational capacities depend upon it. It is our chief means of looking into the future, of predicting, of planning, and of explaining. It is a literary capacity indispensable to human cognition generally. This is the first way in which the mind is essentially literary.”
“It is therefore appropriate that Homer’s message is the life of heroes and Plato’s dialogues are the loves of young men. Everything in Homer overflows with noble virtue; Odysseus is prudent; Ajax is brave; Penelope is chaste; Nestor is just in all things; and Telemachus is reverent towards his father while Achilles is most loyal in his friendships. What of these things remain in Plato, the philosopher? Unless we were to claim that there was some useful honor in the sacred chirpings of his ‘ideas’, mocked even by his student Aristotle! For this reason, I imagine he suffered worthy punishment for his words about Homer, that man “who has an unhindered tongue, the most shameful sickness” [Eur. Or. 10] just like Tantalos or Kapaneus, who suffered endless misfortunes because of their grievous tongue.
Plato often wore himself out going to the doors of tyrants and he submitted a free body to a slave’s fortune, even being sold. No one is ignorant about Pollis the Spartan* or how Plato was saved by a Libyan’s deed when his price had been set at twenty minae, cheap for a slave. These events were the punishment he owed for his slandering of Homer and for his ungoverned and unguarded tongue. Even though I could say more still against Plato, I’ll let it be because I respect the name of Socratic wisdom.”
*Dionysius the Tyrant of Syracuse gave Plato to Pollis as a slave