We need models. We need teachers to show us how to live. And some of the best teachers are those which have never breathed, have never taken on flesh, have never had the urgency of a real death. Some of our best teachers are fictional characters. This is what Leland Ryken means when he says great literature “shows human experience instead of telling about it. It is incarnational. It enacts rather than states. Instead of giving us abstract propositions about virtue or vice, for example, literature presents stories of good or evil characters in action” (p.
In the world of classical education, we talk about “Great Books.” However, other than a handful of obvious works (those by Homer, Virgil, Dante, Shakespeare, and a few others in particular) there is much debate about which books should actually fall in the category of “Great Book”. Which raises the question: what does it mean for a book to be great - is it an actual measurable category of assessment? To find out, I asked a couple of people who have thoughts on the matter, ostensibly anyway. What’s their conclusion? Well, I’ll let you decide. Here is their conversation.
Seventy-five years ago, as the Nazis were methodically implementing their conquest of Europe, the French philosopher/mystic Simone Weil published a long essay titled “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force.” In her perceptive take on Homer’s poem, she describes force as “The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad....,” and defines it as “that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing.” (The Nazis brought this practice to a new level, and still stand as role models for
Since the semester started, my sons Alex and Andrew and I have been reading The Odyssey.
I wanted to write something profound about this study but it has turned out to be just Alex and Andrew and I reading The Odyssey.
In a lecture entitled “Faking It,” philosopher Roger Scruton exposes how “kitsch” has especially colonized the arts, religion, and academia in modern society. He applies the concept of Gresham’s Law to the life of the mind and to the soul.
The Iliad, Homer tells us, is about the rage of Achilles and the will of Zeus, and about how these two interact with each other. Quoting Lattimore:
Sing goddess the anger of Peleus son Achilleus
And its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
Hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished...
We moderns seem to question the identity of all the bards. Shakespeare. The scop of Beowulf. Or the skáld of the Eddic sagas. But the question of Homer’s identity seems to be a field of study all to itself. We shouldn’t be surprised to find academic journals entirely devoted to positing new theories of who Homer really was. It goes beyond mere psychological obsession or even historicism. The question of Homer has almost risen to the height of rhetorical exercise, a disputatio of sorts.
When book five begins we find ourselves in the same place where book one began: Olympus, where the gods are in session. And, as in book one, we listen as Athena pleads Odysseus' case. “Father Zeus . . . “ she says, “be one whose thought is schooled in justice.” And justice, she claims, demands that both Odysseus and Telemachus be free to return home.
When last we rode with “thoughtful” Telemachus, he and Peisistratos, Nestor's son, were on their way to the home of “glorious” Menelaus and Helen (she for whom his father was fighting when he went missing). As book four begins - and we come to the end of the portion of the Odyssey typically known as the Telemachy - Telemachus and Pesistratos are finally arrving at the King's palace. They are greeted with, of course, a grand feast.
With the help of Wes Callihan and his Epics series my sons, Alex and Andrew, and I are reading The Iliad this term. I have read The Iliad before, honest injun, but for most of my children I have just assigned it as reading during their year in King’s Meadow Antiquities. I thought I would enjoy reading The Iliad out loud with these, my last two boys, and learning along with them this year. I fully expect it to inform each of us in different ways.