Words of Wisdom: Rod Dreher on Reading The Odyssey for the First Time

Aug 27, 2013
Rod Dreher is a senior editor and blogger at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in St. Francisville, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written two books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming and Crunchy Cons.

1. So you've written recently on your blog about how, thanks to your son's classical education homeschool co-op, you've begun reading some of the Great Books you missed in your own schooling. What made you want to read them with your son? 

 
In the fall of 2012, Matthew joined a new classical Christian homeschooling program called Sequitur. It required him to have two mornings of classroom instruction twice a week. Because it's a homeschooling program, parents are expected to read along with their kids, and supplement the classroom instruction with home teaching. In our house, my wife Julie is the primary educator, but this was something I could do. The first year Matt's class readThe Odyssey. I started it with him out of a sense of duty. Never having read any of the classics, I figured it would be an eat-your-broccoli experience for me.
 
But I was hooked from the start when early on, the prophet Halitherses interprets a sign, warning the suitors that it means Zeus has judged them, and that Odysseus is coming back to settle his score with them. We, the readers, know this is true, but I found it fascinating how the suitors made fun of the old man, and refused to take him seriously. I thought about how often that happens in our own public life, how we tend only to believe what we want to believe. In my work as a journalist, I see this all the time, and have been guilty of this myself. And as a Christian, I thought about how God speaks to us, and how we know when He is trying to show us something, but we are too blind to see. All these thoughts went through my head doing the first of the assigned readings! Matthew and I talked about them, too; I found that the long drive to and from Baton Rouge, where his classes were, gave us lots of time to explore the ideas in the poem. It turned out that not only was The Odyssey an intellectual adventure for me -- for both of us, actually -- but it also gave my son and me an opportunity to grow closer. This fall, Matthew's class is reading The Iliad, and so am I.
 
2. What has surprised you most about these books? Has your experience with them been what you expected? 
 
Two things: how accessible they are to the modern reader, and how utterly relevant they are to the world we live in today. Again, I expected reading them to be a chore, but it's not like that at all! And not only is it pleasurable,The Odyssey and The Iliad give me so much insight into the problems and challenges we live with today. Matthew and I are only five books into The Iliad, but I have been knocked flat by Homer's insight into the the nature of war, and how we, in our fallen humanity, give ourselves over to such destruction. It has made me think about the Iraq War, in which my brother-in-law served, and how I let my own passion for 9/11 vengeance -- I was a New Yorker on that day, and stood on the Brooklyn Bridge and watched the south tower fall -- draw me into supporting what turns out to have been a foolish and incredibly destructive war. This morning, as I'm talking with you, the White House is considering entering the Syrian conflict. I'm reading expert commentary online, weighing the pros and cons of military action there, but I'm also thinking about Homer and his deep wisdom. I never imagined that the classics could have such intense relevance to my thinking and my work as a journalist. I never imagined that they would give me such insight into my world, and myself. 
 
Reading Homer has had another effect on me. I have recently started reading Dante's Divine Comedy on my own, not only for the pleasure of it, but in hopes that it will disclose the wisdom I need to help me think through some challenges I'm going through in the middle of my life (I'm 46). And sure enough, the profundity of Dante's moral and theological vision is dazzling me, and teaching me, and strengthening me through reflection and instruction.
 
3. In what ways do you think your life – your career as a journalist and writer in particular – would have been different had you read these books as a student? 
 
I would certainly have been less time-bound in my outlook on life. Today we tend to think that what we see is all there is. I mean, even if we know better, that's how most of us live. When I was a young man, I looked to the newspapers and magazines to know what was going on in my world, and how I should think about it. There is nothing wrong with this! In fact, I was better informed than most people my age. But there is a difference between knowledge and information, and I didn't know that back then. Had I encountered the classics as a student, I imagine that I would have grasped the relativism of our own worldview. I mean, I would have been a lot more questioning and skeptical of the worldview we receive from the supposedly wise men and women of our own time and place. We suffer from what I call chronological parochialism -- that is, the idea that we, being modern, know better than everybody who came before us. If the past is an undiscovered country, our modern prejudices tell us that we don't have anything to learn from the people who live there. But Homer knew the human heart better than most contemporaries, and Dante knew the human soul more penetratingly than many of us do. I'm not saying that the Greek epics, and the Divine Comedy are holy writ, but I am saying that if I had encountered them as a student, my perspective on the world and my place in it would likely have been deeper. Even now, as a middle-aged conservative Christian, I find that Dante's insights on the relationship between the will and the intellect with regard to our struggles against sin challenge my thinking in constructive ways. I think about all the self-help volumes clotting the shelves in bookstores, and I think, Lord have mercy, just read Dante! He's right!
 
4. In the face of the new Common Core initiatives many people are wondering whether it's really necessary for students to read so many stories, especially myths. What do you think, is it necessary? Or should we let them wait until they are adults and decide for themselves? 
 
No, you have to read them nowAgain, we're confronted with presentism -- the idea that we know better than those who came before us. There is a reason why Homer and Dante have survived for so long. They not only wrote beautifully, but they wrote with deep wisdom. Encountering the classics at my age, accompanying my son on his educational journey, has revealed to me the importance of imparting to young people the sense of historical and cultural perspective you can only get from the classics. If Homer could get so much right about human nature, and he lived so far from us culturally and historically, there must be many other poets and philosophers of our civilization who considered life, and who have something to tell us about how things really are. The classics are like messages in a bottle, tossed into the sea of time, washing ashore with maps to help us find our way out of the shipwreck of modernity. Would we let our children walk around lost on the beach, and not show them maps that could help them find their way home until they were adults? Again, the classics are not on the same level as Scripture, but because they are the best secular things that our civilization has thought and said, I think we should take them with similar seriousness. Would you consider it a responsible thing to do to let your kids wait until they were adults to introduce them to the Bible, and let them choose for themselves? That's how I've come to think of Homer, Dante, and the others.
 
5. How should students, in your opinion, be assessed on that reading? 
 
Honestly, I don't know. I am far removed from the methods of assessment. I can see from my interaction with my son that he understands Homer, and I trust his Sequitur instructor sees the same in their testing. How do you quantify this sort of thing, though? I don't know. What I hate, though, is this attitude we have today that knowledge can be measured by information a kid disgorges on a standardized test. This may well be the world that we live in, and we homeschooling parents may have to deal with these things. But I don't trust our educational experts to have the foggiest idea about what's important for students to know. They too suffer from the bias of presentism, but they often don't know it. 
 
6. What book is next? 
 
I'm thinking The Aeneid. I like this Virgil guy. If Dante loves and trusts him, that's enough for me.
David Kern

David Kern

David is director of our multimedia initiatives (podcast host, web-content manager, magazine editor, etc). He often writes about film, television, books, and other culture-related topics, and has been published by Christ and Pop Culture, Think Christian, Relevant, and elsewhere.  David and his wife, Bethany, have three young boys and they live in Concord, NC. 

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