Thinking Out Loud about The Odyssey, Part 1

The Odyssey, Books I-VII

The Odyssey has a different focus than The Iliad. It centers more on the home and a longing to reach home. It also has an emphasis on journeys—usually difficult journeys that result in great loss for the one traveling: loss of things, of comrades, of years. Related to this idea of home and loved ones is the idea of strangers and hospitality. Several strangers appear in familiar gatherings, and people are always curious to find out who the strangers are—in other words, to make them friends. For example, Athena (disguised as a man) is the first stranger to come on the scene at Ithaca in Book I, and Telemachus is anxious to hear the whole story about this “man,” who Telemachus suspects is his father’s friend. Once Telemachus sets out to find information about his father’s fate, he, too, becomes the stranger that Nestor, Menelaus, and Helen want to know. In Books VI-VIII, Odysseus becomes the mysterious stranger. Why this emphasis on strangers? At times, being hospitable to a stranger is said to be a mark of good breeding (192), but at others, strangers have caused havoc in the home, as was the case with the man who killed Agamemnon. Furthermore, it is said the gods are no strangers to each other (155).

In terms of god-likeness, The Odyssey seems to be very similar to The Iliad. As Odysseus tells in Book VII, the gods give some gifts to some men—and these gifts make them god-like, but they do not give a man all the gifts (197). It seems, though, that all kings have some sort of physical connection to deities—as king Alcinous, for example, tells of his lineage (181)—which might explain their majesty, or strength, or wisdom. A special emphasis in The Odyssey seems to be that the sons resemble their fathers, and if the father is majestic or godlike, the son will bear at least some of these traits. This is said of Telemachus (128-129, 143), as well as of Nestor’s son (131). Athena also continually works to present Odysseus as a god, and others mistake him for one (186).

Another emphasis in The Odyssey is that placed on goddesses and the likeness of women to goddesses. Nausicaa is likened to—almost confused with—Artemis (173). Odysseus prizes Penelope over a goddess (158-159). Helen’s status elevates Menelaus to acquiring immortality because he is the son-in-law of Zeus. The goddess Athena is the most prominent character among the gods, changing from one form to another to intervene on behalf of Odysseus.

All of these things are told in a song (“Sing, Muse”) and have bards as a important feature of the story. The songs usually cause people to weep constantly as they remember dead loved ones. What is the function of the weeping and the songs? How does it work in a comedy? Could it point out that success does not take place without a cost?

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Burke on the Revolutionaries & Imagination

Burke’s description of the destruction of civilizing manners by the revolutionaries:

All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the superadded ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of the moral imagination, which the heart owns, and the understanding ratifies, as necessary to cover the defects of our naked shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.

On this scheme of things, a king is but a man; a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal; and an animal not of the highest order. All homage paid to the sex in general as such, and without distinct views, is to be regarded as romance and folly…On the scheme of this barbarous philosophy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings, and which is as void of solid wisdom, as it is destitute of all taste and elegance, laws are to be supported only by their own terrors, and by the concern which every individual may find in them from his own private speculations, or can spare to them from his own private interests. In the groves of their academy, at the end of every vista, you see nothing but the gallows…

Nothing is more certain, than that our manners, our civilization, and all the good things which are connected with manners, and with civilization, have, in this European world of ours, depended for ages upon two principles; I mean the spirit of a gentleman, and the spirit of religion. (qtd. in Redeeming the Time, 70-71)

Thinking Out Loud about The Iliad, Part 6

The Iliad ends with the hero’s impending death, but that never takes place. In fact, no other hero arises—though Homer easily could have talked more about Paris and emphasized his killing Achilles—and Achilles’ death seems to be the end. Achilles’ death has a finality about it, but he is not converted into a deity or worshipped after he dies. The account of the death of Sarpedon is parallel in several ways to the death of Hector (Zeus debating to thwart their fates to rescue them, his love for them, Athena/Hera’s words to Zeus, etc.). Sarpedon, however, seems to have had the burial near that of a deity, while Hector does not (his body is desecrated instead).

The Iliad, as stated before, is about competition and strife and how destructive those are. Times such as the funeral games and the description of Achilles’ shield reflect peaceful and civilized times, times in community and of peaceful resolution when disputes arise. For example, the funeral games bring competition, but the disagreements that arise from it are settled in a gentlemanly fashion.

The gods seem to be able to do something about fate: they are not hopelessly bound to it, particularly because they don’t know the specifics of fate. This comes across with Zeus’ words about intervening on Hector’s behalf. Apparently, Zeus could have helped Hector, but because of some greater decree or plan, he chose not to do it. The same is the case with the other gods.

In Book XVII, when Hector puts on Achilles’ armor, Zeus talks of the prince’s death, saying that even though Hector would die soon, Zeus would now give him glory for a brief time (449). Then Ares “comes into Hector” and strengthens him for the battle. It seems that in the context of battle, at least, humans participate in the divine precisely when they are the strongest and seek glory for themselves. Courage and strength and fighting ability make them godlike. In fact, the more strong and frenzied Achilles becomes, the more godlike he seems to become, and the more destructive, as well. The scene of Achilles battling the river shows the greatness of the gods, and yet how they still have to submit to fate. Here the river is not personified. The river is actually a god, so some magic or mysterious thing is evident in this section. Fate and the Furies are pre-Olympian gods, and though the Olympian gods rule at the time of The Iliad, the pre-Olympian gods still are around and still have power (491).

Homer uses the vocatives of the narrator (towards Patroclus and Menelaus) at times of intense emotion. Other poetic devices of feeling include the narrator recalling an earlier time—such as when Achilles remembers a former time with Patroclus while Patroclus is dead—or by presenting someone who does not know of the death of a loved one (Helen looking for her brothers, Achilles in the camp waiting for Patroclus, and Andromache preparing a bath for Hector).

Weil on the State of Christian Tradition

Simone Weil (Reflections on Quantum Theory):

It is as thought we had returned to the age of Protagoras and the Sophists, the age when the art of persuasion—whose modern equivalent is advertising slogans, publicity, propaganda meetings, the press, the cinema, and radio—took the place of thought and controlled the fate of cities and accomplished coups d’etat. So the ninth book of Plato’s Republic reads like a description of contemporary events. Only today, it is not the fate of Greece but of the entire world that is at stake. And we have no Socrates or Plato or Eudoxus, nor Phythagorean tradition, and no teaching of the Mysteries. We have the Christian tradition, but it can do nothing for us unless it comes alive in us again.–Redeeming the Time, 59

Thinking Out Loud about The Iliad, Part 5

The Iliad, Books XVII-XXIV

As happened before the death of Sarpedon, Zeus again debates whether to let Hector die or to save him and defy fate. Instead of Hera protesting against Zeus for thinking about this, Book XXII has Athena mouthing the same statements the goddess queen protested. In reply to Athena, Zeus tells her that nothing he had just said was meant in earnest (547). What does this mean? Is it merely that Zeus cannot control fate, and therefore, though he desires to save Hector, in fact, he cannot? Zeus adds that he means Athena “all the good will in the world.” Does that mean, then, that he does not mean Hector’s good will? Whose good is Zeus pursuing?

This section deals heavily with the notion of human responsibility vs. external forces, like intervention of the gods and fate. Agamemnon reiterates in Book XIX that the gods blinded him and that he is not to blame for making Achilles angry (491, 493). Artemis, in Book XXI blames Hera for the entire war (536), and yet all the gods are expectant to see whether the Achaeans will win prematurely, against fate. In other words, even the gods don’t seem to know definitely what or when someone’s fate will be fulfilled (537). This lack of knowledge, both in humans and in gods, spurs people on to have courage. Since they don’t know whether fate or the gods will be on their side and cause them to win, they are encouraged to aim for something that may even be too hard for them. For example, both Agenor and Hector dare to go against Achilles at different times because they know that the gods give the victory and hope that the gods will help them win over mighty Achilles (538, 545). Had Hector definitely known that he did not have a chance against Achilles, he would not have had the courage to go up against his enemy.

The Iliad certainly seems to emphasize friendships and family relations. Fathers are revered, and soldiers are often described as sons of a particular person. Even Priam uses Achilles’ remembrance of his father to soften Achilles to give up Hector’s body. An interesting account in Book XX is Aeneas’ relating of his lineage as he is fighting with Achilles (510-511). It seems like an odd intervention in the middle of the battle, but this appears to be the closest hint at the subject of the Aeneid. The account of the forging on Achilles’ shield in Book XVIII also seems somewhat superfluous, though poetic. What is its function?

Finally, the book concludes with the burial of Hector. Indeed, the ending is tragic, and the last person to bemoan Hector’s death is Helen, the one for which the battle rages. Though Achilles’ death is imminent, nothing is mentioned of Paris: Paris does not seem to be a hero. Despite rage and killing, Hector and Achilles are presented as pious men who revered the gods, and therefore, seem to be the models in these areas. Both are also spoken of as full of beauty (553, 609) and godlike.

A Man of Imagination

In youth [Russell Kirk] had thought now and again of becoming a soldier, a professor, a lawyer—or better, a judge. Yet without quite intending it, he became a man of letters. Having drawn the sword of imagination, he ventured, in the words of Pico della Mirandola, to “join battle as to the sound of a trumpet of war,” assailing the vegetative and sensual errors of his time.

In the heat of combat, he learned how to love what ought to be loved and how to hate what ought to be hated. Buffeted in the Battle of the Books, he bore on his shield the device of the Permanent Things. As Flannery O’Connor would come to write of his literary crusade, “Old Russell lays about him.” There was no discharge in that Fifty Years’ War, so hard fought. Possibly his adventures and misadventures, like those of the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance, may be found amusing. Yet unlike Don Quixote de la Mancha, Kirk generally kept a cheerful countenance, to the vexation of certain reviewers of his books. (The Sword of Imagination, 2)

Thinking Out Loud about The Iliad, Part 4

The will of Zeus is unknowable until he reveals it. In Book XV he declares—apparently for the first time—that Patroclus will die (and it seems to be the first time that the death of Sarpedon is mentioned). The narrator, however, has already foreshadowed this tragedy when Achilles asked Patroclus to go to the warfront (“this was the beginning of his doom” or similar wording). We are unable to ascertain the overarching purpose of Zeus in history, perhaps because Homer only gives us part of the whole story of the gods. We know that in The Iliad the overarching purpose of the story is to give glory to Achilles, though it is difficult to understand why, since Zeus loves Troy.

The Iliad seems to attempt a theodicy, reconciling the reader to the gods. It seems to be an explanation of why evil and strife exist in the world. The world of the gods mirrors the world of men with its strife and struggles, and humans get caught in the battle between the gods. In the end, even the gods can’t override fate, not even Zeus. Had Homer provided an easy explanation to strife and problems in the world, the Greek reader might have dismissed the work as incompatible with reality.

Surely, Zeus seems to be the supreme ruler because he has greater strength than Hades and Poseidon, but he also must be greater in other senses (i.e., it cannot be only sheer strength that gives him the right to rule). The problem that Plato had with Homer’s view of the gods was that the gods did not correlate with the good. Furthermore, Plato believed that the gods as presented in Homer’s works corrupted the youth because they did not present good models for them to follow: if all the youth strived to be like the gods, this would hurt Plato’s ideal republic. Even so, Homer does present characters in The Iliad that are somehow attempting to be like the gods. Of course, this does not mean that they wanted to be like the gods in every way, but just that tried to attain some divine excellence.

Glaucon and Sarpedon state that since life is short, they should make the most of it and die with glory. Achilles seems to have a nihilistic view, stating that since everyone dies—regardless of whether he fought bravely—then it is better to avoid dying. Although Achilles seems to have this view, he does not act upon this belief. Apparently, his mother told him that he had two fates (whether this is true, we don’t know, but if it is, he is the only one who has two fates ascribed to him): one is to remain, fight, and die early with glory; the other is to return home and live a long and quiet life with no glory. From the beginning of the book, Achilles toys with the idea of going home, but in every speech he pushes back the voyage home to a later date. By the time of the death of Patroclus, Achilles has no choice but to stay and fight. When Patroclus dies, the reader cannot help but tip his sentiments towards Achilles. The reader easily feels with Achilles his devastation because the reader has also become attached to the dead man. But in the latter third of the story, Achilles again loses that privileged position with the reader because of the warrior’s uncontrolled, frenzied thirst for revenge and destruction. The Iliad’s main theme concerns anger and its destructiveness, as is seen in the opening word “mene,” and in the closing scene, showing the result of anger and strife.

When Agamemnon overstepped his boundary in insisting on his own glory, he states that he did this by “divine madness” (ate) and recognized it (Book IX). He admitted his error and tried to make amends. Achilles should have also recognized this “divine madness” in his own life, but because he kept insisting upon his right and his own glory, he destroyed himself and his people. Achilles never admits his wrongdoing like Agamemnon does.

Incidentally, The Iliad is full of gory descriptions of the battle. These are not meant to fill a lust for violence like modern movies do. Rather, they are meant to show the reality of the battle, but they are humanized in several ways. First, no soldier dies without at least being named, and many with a brief or long description of their lives. Bodies belong to families or friends who weep for them. Second, most of the similes (those of flowers or animals) appear in the battle scenes to soften the blow of the deaths, to give relief to the reader.

Thinking Out Loud about The Iliad, Part 3

The Iliad, Books 9-16

Zeus’ will seems unfathomable. Why does he cause so much trouble raising up Hector, granting victory to the Trojans, killing Patroclus, and then shifting the glory to the Acheans? Why does Zeus need to kill his own son, Sarpedon? It seems that the gods are just as baffled about Zeus’s will as men are. They do not seem to understand it, and they are constantly balking against it (Book XV). It seems, however, that it is precisely their attempts to subvert Zeus’s will that actually accomplishes it, much like Oedipus Rex’s efforts to avoid his fate led him to fulfill it.

Up to Book XV, one character toward which the reader is most sympathetic is Nestor. In Book XVI, Patroclus appears as a character that the reader comes to love as well as Nestor. In fact, up to this point in the story, it seems that the narrator has never addressed the characters directly, but he does this with Patroclus. This preferential treatment sets the character off as special, and the reader who until now has admired Hector and sided with the Trojans, may now easily turn his sympathies over to the Achaeans because of the death of Patroclus. That Apollo and Zeus strip Patroclus of his armor—leaving him vulnerable to Euphorbus and to Hector—also causes the reader to shift his sympathy towards Patroclus, the greathearted. It seems as though the story leads the reader to accept the will of Zeus, whereas in the beginning, the reader may have balked at it, just as the gods do.

Fate seems to be over everyone, including the gods. Achilles is said to have “two fates,” (265 [410]) but what does that mean? Book XVI refers to the “will of fate” (435 [707]), does this imply that fate is personal or is this just a personification? Some places refer to fate as a goddess, so perhaps it’s a personification here.

Concerning deity and what makes gods different from men, what makes Zeus as great as he is? He tells Poseidon in Book XV that he is greater and that he is the firstborn, too. Was he born greater than Poseidon? Was it acquired (i.e., did he become strong by some means)? If Poseidon and Hades are equals of Zeus, why don’t they rule (393-94)? Is it right for Zeus to be arrogant, as Poseidon declaims Zeus is (393) or is it his right because he is greater? Moreover, does Zeus act for his own interest or is he acting on the interest of men? Whose greater good is in view when it comes to Zeus’s will? Is there a greater good in view or does Zeus decree things based on capriciousness?

Two curiosity questions that I have left are the following: Who are “the gods beneath the ground that circle Cronus” (395)? And what does it mean that “the Furies always stand by the older brothers” (394)?