Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

HOMER: The Odyssey (Books 21-24)

In 1963 a group called The Angels had a hit song called My Boyfriend’s Back. One of the stanzas goes like this:

My boyfriend's back and you're gonna be in trouble
(Hey-la-day-la my boyfriend's back)
When you see him comin' better cut out on the double
(Hey-la-day-la my boyfriend's back)
You been spreading lies that I was untrue
(Hey-la-day-la my boyfriend's back)
So look out now cause he's comin' after you

This could have been the theme song for The Odyssey and Penelope could have sung it. Beginning with Book XXI Odysseus does start comin’ after the suitors and it isn’t a pretty sight. He kills almost all of them and for good measure also executes a dozen of the serving-maids. Was this just a bloody rampage of revenge killings or was it justice?

The Odyssey is a great epic poem that stands at the prehistoric dawn of Western civilization. People in the Greek-speaking world were only half civilized at this stage of their development. War and violence was apparently just a routine part of life. That’s what makes this work so astonishing in many ways. It’s not just a long story; it’s a work of art. It’s not just about a guy coming back home from war to kill more men. He’s come back to restore order not only within his own household but he also brings a civil code of honor to the whole city-state. One of the earliest literary critics praises the way Homer shapes his material as a poet. Aristotle’s Poetics has a section that says: “A whole host of things happen to one man, some of which cannot be worked into a unity; and likewise one man does many things which cannot be reduced to a single action…Homer was quite clear on this point and whether by art or instinct he excels in every respect. In writing the Odyssey he did not include all the hero’s adventures; e.g. being wounded on Parnassus and pretending to be mad when called up for military service, neither of which incidents had any probable or necessary connection with the other. No, what Homer did in the Odyssey, as also in the Iliad, was to take an action with a unity such as we are describing. The fact is that, just as in the other imitative arts one imitation is invariably of a single thing, so in poetry the story, as an imitation of action, must represent one action, a complete whole…”

The Odyssey does indeed represent one action, a complete whole. Odysseus has come back home. The world is as it should be. But the poem does much more than that. It gives us an early lesson in the values that have driven Western civilization for 3,000 years: law and order is better than anarchy; there’s a certain sanctity in the private home and private property rights must be respected by all citizens; marriage is the primary building-block of the state and should be protected; religious rituals are important to the community and confirms the reality of a world beyond what we can see and touch; civility and manners are the glue that holds society together. Finally, it’s a tough neighborhood we live in; but it’s also a world where things can be put right – like the one described in this early Greek poem or in an American hit song written 3,000 years later.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

HOMER: The Odyssey (Books 17-20)

In Tolstoy’s great epic novel War and Peace the reader is shown a vast panorama of conflict covering both the battlefield and life back home. In Homer’s great epic poem The Odyssey the reader is shown a vast panorama of one soldier’s journey back home after a long war abroad. In many ways they’re telling the same story: war is hell; and not just on the battlefield. War disrupts everything and generally makes life unpleasant for everyone involved; and everyone eventually does get involved when war takes place on a national scale. War has the same effect on both Russians and on Greeks.

Of course there are differences too. One story is set in 19th century Russia and the other is set in ancient Greece. The personal violence in Russia tends to be somewhat more stylized if not more civilized than the ancient Greek version. For example, when there’s conflict between two Russian gentlemen there’s an established way to settle the matter: have a duel. Pierre challenges Dolokhov to a duel and miraculously Pierre comes out the winner. That can happen sometimes when pistols are the weapon of choice. In ancient Greece when there’s a conflict there’s also an established way to settle the matter: fight it out man-to-man. The beggar Irus foolishly challenges Odysseus to a fight: “Gird yourself then, that all these men may watch our fighting. Yet how could you defend yourself against a younger man?” Odysseus accepts the challenge and gives Irus a good drubbing. It’s not as civilized as the Russian method but it seems to work for the Greeks.

The question is: can there really be such a thing as “civilized violence”? Dolokhov is seriously wounded when he gets shot by Pierre; Irus gets his jaw broken in his fight with Odysseus. Both men get hurt. The backdrop in the Russian novel is the Napoleonic war. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers are killing one another – mostly with guns and cannons. The backdrop in the Greek poem is the Trojan War. Hundreds (if not thousands) of soldiers are killing one another – mostly with spears and swords. What’s the difference? There are lots of dead men in both cases. The result is the same whether you kill a man from far away using cannon shot or kill him up close using a sword.

The message is the same too: the world is a tough neighborhood to live in. We can try to gloss it over but violence is a fact of life that every society must learn to deal with in its own way. We’re not talking about abstract men killing and being killed. These are flesh and blood human beings. In Book XVII Homer gives a little glimpse into the humanity of Odysseus. The Greek hero has returned home incognito and is talking with his servant Eumaeus. Here’s the scene: “So they conversed together. But a dog lying near lifted his head and ears. Argos it was, the dog of hardy Odysseus, whom long ago he reared…now he lay neglected, his master gone away…Here lay the dog, this Argos, full of fleas. Yet even now, seeing Odysseus near, he wagged his tail and dropped both ears, but toward his master he had not strength to move. Odysseus turned aside and wiped away a tear, swiftly concealing from Eumaeus what he did…” Anyone who has ever owned a dog doesn’t need to be told the meaning of this little passage. Odysseus isn’t a god. He’s a homesick man who misses his home and his family. He also misses Argos. There are good guys and there are bad guys. Odysseus is obviously the good guy. The suitors let Argos get all full of fleas. Now Odysseus has come back home. It’s payback time.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Reading Schedule for 2009

Jan. 5 - The Iliad... Books 1-4
Jan. 12 - The Iliad... Books 5-8
Jan. 19 - No Meeting -
Jan. 26 - The Iliad... Books 9-12
Feb. 2 - The Iliad... Books 13-16
Feb. 9 - The Iliad... Books 17-20
Feb. 16 - No Meeting -
Feb. 23 - The Iliad... Books 21-24

March 2 - The Trojan Women
March 9 - Hippolytus

March 16 - Phaedre

March 23 - Beyond Good and Evil... On the Prejudices of Philosophers
March 30 - Beyond Good and Evil... The Free Spirit
April 6 - Beyond Good and Evil... What is Religious
April 13 - Beyond Good and Evil... On Epigrams and Interludes
April 20 - Beyond Good and Evil... Natural History of Morals
April 27 - Beyond Good and Evil... We Scholars
May 4 - Beyond Good and Evil... Our Virtues
May 11 - Beyond Good and Evil... Peoples and Countries
May 18 - Beyond Good and Evil... What is Noble
May 25 - No Meeting -
June 1 - From the Heights

June 8 - Lives... Caius Marius
June 15 - Lives... Sulla
June 22 - Lives... Pompey
June 29 - Lives... Caesar
July 6 - Lives... Cicero

July 13 - Julius Caesar
July 20 - Coriolanus
July 27 - The Taming of the Shrew

J.S. Mill
August 3 - The Subjection of Women... Parts 1-2
August 10 - The Subjection of Women... Parts 3-4

Henry Fielding
August 17 - Tom Jones... Books 1-2
August 24 - Tom Jones... Books 3-4
August 31 - Tom Jones... Books 5-6
Sept. 7 - No Meeting -
Sept. 14 - Tom Jones... Books 7-8
Sept. 21 - Tom Jones... Books 9-10
Sept. 28 - Tom Jones... Books 11-12
October 5 - Tom Jones... Books 13-14
October 12 - Tom Jones... Books 15-16
October 19 - Tom Jones... Books 17-18
October 26 - Tom Jones... Books 19-20
Nov. 2 - Tom Jones... Books 21-22
Nov. 9 - Tom Jones... Books 23-24

Nov. 16 - Origin of Inequality... Part 1
Nov. 23 - Origin of Inequality... Part 2
Nov. 30 - Social Contract... Book 1
Dec. 7 - Social Contract... Book 2
Dec. 14 - Social Contract... Book 3
Dec. 21 - Social Contract... Book 4

Dec. 28 - Dickens... A Christmas Carol

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

HOMER: The Odyssey (Books 13-16)

There’s an old saying: Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story. Odysseus might very well have been the guy who started it. Over and over again Odysseus is given a chance to tell who he is. Over and over again he instead invents a long story that has nothing to do with the real truth. They’re great stories. They’re just not true. So which do you want – a great story or the truth? Actually the real story of Odysseus is a great story in itself. Homer’s a great storyteller and can stack up a tale within a tale several times and still not lose the thread of the main story line. But what about telling the Truth? Is Homer not concerned about that? Homer’s a poet, not a philosopher. A good question we might ask is this: is Truth the same no matter whether you’re a poet or a philosopher or an ordinary guy? Is it the same for me as it is for you? This is a harder question to answer than you might think. Another deceptively simple question is: should people tell the truth? The deceptively simple answer is: that depends on the situation.

Jonathan Swift once wrote about Gulliver traveling to a magical land of talking horses. These horses are noble and much more rational than mere human beings. Ask them the same question: should people tell the truth? They would answer: why would you ever want to say that which “is not”? In other words, why in the world would anyone ever lie about something? They don’t even have a word for what we call “lying.” For these noble horses the purpose of language is to communicate that which is. Why anyone would ever want to intentionally confuse the situation is beyond them. That would defeat the whole purpose of having a language in the first place. Besides, there’s enough confusion in the world already. Words should be used to clarify things; not to muddy up the mind. These are noble creatures. They have lofty goals, practice kindness and courtesy to family and friends, and die as gently and graciously as they lived.

They’re noble creatures alright. But they’re not men. They live in a very different world than the world Odysseus lives in. In Odysseus’ world telling the whole truth might well get you killed. Stretching the truth might well save your life. The Greek gods themselves aren’t above bending the truth when it suits their purposes. The goddess Athena has this to say about Odysseus: “Prudent and wily must one be to overreach you in craft of any kind, even though it be a god who strives to match you. Bold, shift, and insatiate of wiles, will you not now within your land cease from the false misleading tales which from the bottom of your heart you love? But let us talk no longer thus, both being versed in wiles; for you are far the best of men in plots and tales, and I of all the gods am famed for craft and wiles.” If the gods themselves take pride in being “crafty” then what should we expect from mortal Greeks? Besides, Odysseus can also tell the truth when it serves his purposes. When he appears to his own son after being gone for twenty years Telemachus is startled at first: “Stranger, you seem a different person now and a while ago. Your clothes are different and your flesh is not the same. You surely are one of the gods who hold the open sky.” Odysseus responds: “I am no god. Why liken me to the immortals? I am your father (and) I will tell you the truth. The Phaeacians brought me here.” In the Greek world there’s a big difference between men and the gods. There’s an even bigger difference between men and talking horses. But that’s another story.

Monday, December 15, 2008

A Meditation on Survival in Homer's Odyssey

"What does not destroy me, makes me stronger."
--Friedrich Nietzsche

What is it exactly that the Odyssey is about? The short answer is that it concerns a man's quest to return to his home. But many other themes emerge along the way in this journey to Ithaca: there is, for example, the Greek idea of hospitality and how it is conveyed or not conveyed to strangers; the idea of fidelity, of whether or not Penelope will wait for her husband's return or succumb to the demands of the suitors who want her to choose another husband; the idea of vengeance, as related in the tales of Agamemnon and Odysseus and what transpires when they each return home; another idea in this epic is the notion of Gods and mortals and how their worlds intersect; the theme of self-discovery, as Telemachus moves from childhood to manhood; the theme of destiny and what part it plays in the lives of men; and, of course, the most prevalent idea of all, the theme of homelessness and what it means to be lost in the world and separated from one's family.

All of these themes appear in Homer and are worthy of exploration. But I'd like to comment on a different perspective that runs throughout this work, to explore what is required by man to survive in a hostile world. Here, I characterize the world as being hostile because that is precisely what human existence becomes when confronted with the power of an angry god. In the Odyssey, for example, Odysseus has managed to incur the wrath of Poseidon the "Earth Shaker," the hot tempered brother of Zeus. Those who have read the Iliad already know that gods and goddesses are easily irked by the affairs of men, and will strike out with deadly force if they are provoked or slighted by a meager sacrifice. For humans in the company of gods, the rule should always be to tread softly and hope for the best. Unfortunately for Odysseus, he angers Poseidon and because of this his life becomes a living hell, not only for him but for all the men under his command. This turns out to be especially unlucky because Poseidon is the god of the sea, and Odysseus must travel by ship in order to reach Ithaca.

The first question we might ask ourselves is whether or not Homer wants us to feel sorry for Odysseus. After all, he has already spent ten years fighting in Troy, then another nine years trying to return to Ithaca, with little or no prospects for success. When the Odyssey opens, he is living as a kind of fugitive "boy toy," a love slave to the goddess Calypso. , Taking advantage of Poseidon's absence from Olympus, Athena appeals to Zeus for permission to release Odysseus from Calypso's spell.

Here, we should note that sentimentality is almost completely absent from Homer. Pity is not an emotion that gets much mileage in classical Greek culture. In both the Iliad and the Odyssey, men either triumph or fail in their endeavors, but rarely spend time on wishful thinking or regret. Things happen in life, either from human corruption or divine fury, but whatever the cause, there is no room for second guessing. You live or die, and to worry about your fate ahead of time is rather pointless. About the only concession the ancient Greeks made to any forebodings of the future was through prophesy, in which one tries to ascertain, if at all possible, the will of Zeus, before deciding on a course of action. But if Zeus does not look upon your venture with favor, there isn't much you can do about it other than suffer the wrath of the almighty.

What does seem clear in Homer is that Greeks believed one's character reveals the man. In other words, when everything is against you, and your very survival is in doubt, how will you face the situation? With dignity and perseverance or weakness? In the Homeric age, of all the virtues that men admired, courage was the most revered. Yet, in the Odyssey what separates Odysseus from other men is not his courage, for many other Greek warriors were equally brave (Agamemnon, Menelaus, Ajax, Achilles, etc.) What Odysseus has that other men lack is intelligence, an ability to size up a situation and do whatever is required to succeed. With the possible exception of Nestor, no other Greek hero has this ability. Is it any coincidence that Athena (goddess of wisdom) takes such an active role in his struggle to return home?

We should ask how much of Odysseus's trouble is of his own making? The initial problem starts with the blinding of Polyphemus, who is a son to Poseidon. But was this a foolish act on the part of Odysseus or was it unavoidable? Recall that Odysseus and his men landed on the island in search of provisions. They needed food and water to continue their voyage to Ithaca. But even then Odysseus had premonitions of trouble:

"for in my bones I knew some towering brute
would be upon us soon—
all outward power, a wild man ignorant of civility."

His crew advise him to just steal the provisions they need while Polyphemus is out grazing the flocks. But this would violate the code of hospitality which all civilized Greeks lived by. Plus, there was perhaps just a bit of cowardice to sneaking around and stealing provisions when you should ask your host for them. Yet, when Polyphemus returns he quickly shows that he cares nothing for hospitality. He uses Odysseus' men as appetizers, smashing their skulls against the walls of his cave. The situation is dire and requires a desperate solution. Odysseus conceives of a trick to get himself and his men away. He uses the wine they brought to get Polyphemus drunk, then blinds the Cyclops after he passes out. In the morning, the men escape by clinging to the bellies of Polyphemus' sheep, after he moves the great stone blocking the entrance to the cave. At this point, everything might have turned out fine except that Odysseus' cannot restrain himself from boasting about how he outwitted Polyphemus:

"Cyclops, if ever mortal man inquire
how you were put to shame and blinded, tell him
Odysseus, raider of cities, took your eye:
Laertes' son, whose home's on Ithaca."

This rash boast identifies his tormenter to Polyphemus who loses no time in telling Poseidon who it was that mangled his eye. This turns out to be an unwise move by Odysseus. But, it seems unfair to blame everything that happens to Odysseus on this one bad decision. After all, Polyphemus had already killed and eaten several of Odysseus' men, with the intention of slaughtering the whole crew if they had not escaped. Yet, it must be conceded that all of the torments that lie in his future flow from this one lapse of judgment. Is this not a kind of brutal truth to human existence? That we are always at the mercy of powers beyond our control and that one small misstep could ruin us forever?

With Odysseus, the struggle to save his life (mere survival) runs counter to the more noble pursuit of kleos or everlasting glory. Time after time in Homer, we recognize that true Greek heroes like Ajax, Patroclus and Achilles choose glory over mere self preservation. Yet with Odysseus we find a man who uses every trick in the book to cheat death. He wants desperately to return home with honor but if he needs to he will not hesitate to lie and conceal his true thoughts. At one point, he even spins his web of deceit to Athena who laughs at his brazen dishonesty:

Whoever gets around you must be sharp
and guileful as a snake; even a god
might bow to you in ways of dissimulation.
You! You chameleon!
Bottomless bag of tricks! Here in your own country
would you not give your stratagems a rest
or stop spellbinding for an instant?

But that is who he is. Odysseus can never let down his guard for an instant. He looks for the best angle in every situation. Though Calypso offered him everlasting youth and pleasure, he chose freedom and a perilous voyage home. Whereas a man like Menelaus would simply fight his way past an adversary, Odysseus thinks his way around the obstacles in his path. Does that make him less noble or virtuous in our eyes? Probably, especially when compared to other Greeks of the heroic age. But it also makes Odysseus more human, someone a modern reader can more easily relate to. He can be vain and foolish at times, even afraid. But he is persistent in his quest. He might have stayed with Calypso, Circe or Nausicaa and enjoyed a very long, comfortable life. But his desire to return home would never leave him in peace.

This recurring theme of life versus kleos runs throughout the Odyssey, which sets it apart from the more heroic tales in the Iliad. When Odysseus travels to the underworld, he discovers that everlasting fame is not much consolation to those tormented spirits. Achilles, greatest of all heroes, next to Hercules, says:

Let me hear no smooth talk
of death from you, Odysseus, light of councils.
Better, I say, to break sod as a farm hand
for some poor country man, on iron rations,
than lord it over all the exhausted dead.

In other words, no amount of glory and fame is worth the everlasting solitude of death. Please observe, this is no whimpering cry by some forgotten man who achieved nothing in life, but Achilles himself, greatest of Achaean warriors. For Odysseus, the voyage to Hades leaves no doubt that life must be for the living, and the living have no place in the infernal regions of hell. Thus, one's desire for fame must always be weighed against the fragility of life and the pleasures of one's home and family. Yet, nothing is guaranteed. All human actions are mediated by the will of Zeus. No man can be called good or bad except in his suffering and his will to endure what the gods decree.

The recognition of this fact brings us back to the classical belief in destiny which says that man is fundamentally powerless to control his fate. In other words, that misfortune comes to us regardless of our good intentions. The Judeo-Christian spin on human misfortune is that God punishes evil, and we have only ourselves to blame for our suffering. Homer suggests that suffering is unavoidable in human life, and touches the good and noble as well as the guilty. Survival becomes a matter of luck and endurance, rather than blessedness. In one sense, the Odyssey is the ultimate testimonial to family values, the affection and loyalty we show to our wife or husband, children and friends, and a profound sense of attachment to our own place in the world. To me, the Odyssey says that man on his own initiative can accomplish nothing, and that if he is to get any place at all he must have divine assistance, for even then the way home will be long and difficult, filled with much pain and uncertainty. But that journey is one we all must take as members of this frail species, though at times we might be tempted to ask as Hamlet does while pondering his own will to survive:
O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on't! ah fie! 'tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

HOMER: The Odyssey (Books 9-12)

What kind of man is this stranger visiting the Phaeacians? He’s shown himself to be an outstanding athlete. He speaks well and is courteous to his hosts. The recitation of the poem about Troy brings tears to his eyes. This is obviously no ordinary man. In Book IX he finally reveals himself: “I am Odysseus, son of Laertes, who for all craft am noted among men, and my renown reaches to heaven.” He may well be noted among men and famous in heaven but is he a good man? You can almost hear Socrates asking – what do you mean by “a good man”? One answer may be that he was effective for his time. If achieving success in your own culture is your definition of a good man then Odysseus would be considered a good man. He was famous and eventually he got what he wanted – to get back home. What more can you ask from life? He’s certainly human. Here’s what he says he likes best: “For more complete delight I think there cannot be than when good cheer possesses a whole people, and feasting through the houses they listen to a bard, seated in proper order, while beside them stand the tables supplied with bread and meat, and dipping wine from out the mixer the pourer bears it round and fills the cups. That is a sight most pleasing…A sweeter spot than my own land I shall not see…Nothing more sweet than home and parents can there be…” But as soon as he lays out his idea of a good time he goes on to tell about the Ciconians: “There I destroyed the town and slew its men; but from the town we took the women and great stores of treasure.” Is this the same guy who is so devoted to his own home and his own parents? If Odysseus had made it to Phaeacia with the rest of his men would the Phaeacians have suffered the same fate as the Ciconians? We don’t know. Odysseus lost his men. Not a few of them; all of them.

Which leads to a second question: forget worrying about was he a good man – was he a good leader? Socrates would have the same question as before: what do you mean by “a good leader”? If defending those under your protection is the definition of a good leader then Odysseus failed miserably. What kind of leader loses EVERYBODY? Of course some readers might argue that it wasn’t Odysseus’ fault. Most of those guys brought destruction on themselves. And you can make the argument that Odysseus did his best to save them. In the Land of the Lotus-eaters, for example: “…the Lotus-eaters had no thought of harm against our men; indeed, they gave them lotus to taste; whosoever of them ate the lotus’ honeyed fruit wished to bring tidings back no more and never to leave the place, but with the Lotus-eaters there desired to stay, to feed on lotus and forget his going home. These men I brought back weeping to the ships by force…” Bad men can obviously be bad leaders and good men can probably be bad leaders too. But the really interesting question is whether a bad man can be a good leader.

In the Greek world after you died it didn’t seem to matter if you were good or bad. Everyone in The Odyssey ends up in the same place. It’s a strange sort of underworld quasi-life. The spirits are recognizable as individuals but they have no material existence. When Odysseus meets his mother he tries to hug her three different times. Each time his arms enveloped only emptiness. Achilles is so unhappy that he says: “Mock not at death glorious Odysseus. Better to be the hireling of a stranger and serve a man whose estate is small than ruler over all these dead and gone.” The “dead and gone” are just that. They no longer inhabit bodies so their spirits have become something like shadows with a shadowy existence. The only thing left behind is the memory of their former deeds of glory. It’s a dark, bleak vision of life and death.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

HOMER: The Odyssey (Books 5-8)

Odysseus was a wanderer. The Odyssey opens by explaining “Many cities did Odysseus visit, and many were the nations with whose manners and customs he was acquainted; moreover he suffered much by sea…” Saint Paul was a wanderer too. He also saw many nations and became acquainted with many manners and customs. The Acts of the Apostles tells what Paul found when he traveled to Greece: “Then Paul stood up at the Areopagus and said: "You Athenians, I see that in every respect you are very religious. For as I walked around looking carefully at your shrines, I even discovered an altar inscribed, 'To an Unknown God.' What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you.”

Are the Greeks “very religious” in every respect in The Odyssey? The gods, especially Athene and Poseidon, certainly play major roles in what happens to Odysseus. A comparison of Odysseus’ pagan worldview and Paul’s Christian worldview is instructive. There are divine messengers in both worlds: Hermes for the Greeks and the archangel Gabriel for the Christians. Odysseus is being detained by Calypso “the heavenly goddess.” When Hermes comes to tell her she must give up living with Odysseus she replies: “Hard are you gods and envious beyond all, to grudge the goddesses their meeting men in open wedlock, when one makes the man she loves her husband.” When Gabriel comes to inform Mary that she’s been chosen to bear a child (even though she’s a virgin) she’s astonished at first. But Mary’s response to the archangel Gabriel is: “Let it be done unto to me according to your word.” Calypso and Mary both yield to their respective heavenly messengers but one gives in grudgingly and the other does so willingly. In both the pagan Greek world and the early Christian world there’s a close connection between the human realm on earth and the divine sphere in heaven. There’s a fateful interplay between ordinary people here below and the gods and angels from above.

But there’s a big difference in the kind of divine creatures inhabiting the Greek and Christian worlds. Mary willingly accepts her mission from the archangel Gabriel because she trusts him. At one point in The Odyssey we find Odysseus in trouble and clinging to his raft for dear life when “…fair-ankled Ino, that goddess pale who formerly was mortal and of human speech, but now in the water’s depths shares the gods’ honors. She pitied Odysseus…” And the goddess Ino gives Odysseus this advice: “leave your raft for winds to carry, then strike out with your arms and seek a landing on the Phaeacian coast, where fate allows you safety.” In other words she counsels him to make a break for it. Odysseus thinks it over and says to himself: “I fear that here again an immortal plots me harm in bidding me leave my raft. I will not yet obey…” Because Odysseus thinks he has a better plan. On the other hand Mary didn’t say to herself “you know, I’m not too sure about this virgin-birth stuff. I think I’ve got a better idea.”

The difference between these two worldviews is not a small thing. When a heavenly creature appears to Mary and says “I am Gabriel, who stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news” she believes him. Odysseus trusts no one but himself, and with good reason. Poseidon is, in fact, out to get him. As Odysseus explains it to Queen Arete: “Hard it were, Queen, fully to tell my woes, because the gods of heaven have given me many…” Does help come from the gods or from ourselves? St. Paul says “faith is…the evidence of things not seen.” Odysseus asks: “What shall I do? What will become of me?”

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

HOMER: The Odyssey (Books 1-4)

“Speak to me, Muse, of the adventurous man who wandered long after he sacked the sacred citadel of Troy.” So begins the tale of Odysseus at the dawn of Western history. Odysseus did indeed have many adventures and wandered the seas for a long time before finally making his way back home. This is his story. It’s also the story of a world long since disappeared. But there are many themes in The Odyssey which echo even in modern times.

Here are a few of those themes:
Physical aggressiveness leads to war and Western civilization has a long history of aggressive behavior. Whether war is justified or not it still leads to conflict and tragedy. Odysseus and his family are proof of the personal hardships caused by war. Not only do the husbands and sons suffer but also the wives and mothers and children left back home.

Law and order are basic components of Western society. Some form of law and order must prevail in any culture but Western democracies are particularly vulnerable to breakdowns. When law and order break down then anarchy results. In this case suitors take over the estate of Odysseus and his son Telemachus and there’s no legal remedy.

The primacy of the family unit within the larger political structure. When Telemachus goes to find out about his father he finds the same sort of arrangement that he himself has at home: a husband, wife and children operating within the larger social structure of the state. These family units live in their own homes and host guests at their own expense.

The importance of private property rights. The Odyssey begins in Penelope’s home. The suitors aren’t invited guests. They’re more like thieves who won’t leave. This is an outrage to Telemachus and Nestor scolds the community for not driving these ill-mannered suitors from the private home of the Queen and Prince of Ithaca.

Religion is a social obligation as well as an individual duty. There are many public sacrifices as well as private prayers to the gods. Public religious ceremonies are a means of forging social cohesion amongst the citizens. They all partake in the same religious rites and those rites give everyone a feeling of belonging within the community.

We live in a universe where the gods take a personal interest in human affairs and even interact with humans. Sometimes the gods are helpful, sometimes they’re harmful. But the world of Odysseus is filled with spiritual creatures. The message here is that there’s more to the world than meets the eye. It’s an early blow against the materialist outlook that has gained such a strong foothold in the modern Western world.

The unequal distribution of wealth results in a skewed class system economically as well as politically. Only a few people have real power. This may not seem fair, just as it often doesn’t seem fair today. However, it’s a class system that seems to be somewhat fluid – the suitors all hope to move up the social and economic ladder by marrying Penelope. In many cultures all economic and political power is focused on one ruler. How fair is that?

These are only a few of the themes developed in the early pages of The Odyssey. It’s a real talent of Homer’s to pack such a big punch in such a small space. And he always speaks without any pretense. For example: “Few sons are like their fathers; most are worse, few better than their fathers.” Anyone can understand this. We may not always agree with him but Homer says what he has to say in plain words, almost blunt words. He does his part well. The rest is up to us.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

TOCQUEVILLE: Democracy in America (Volume 2 / Part 4)

By the end of this big long sprawling book the reader comes away with a pretty good grasp of some fundamentals: What are the strengths of democracy? What are its weaknesses? Answering those questions inevitably leads the serious reader to wonder: What does the future hold for American-style democracy?

What are the strengths of democracy? To start with, in American democracy the belief in equality is a core building block of society. It’s non-negotiable. Tocqueville believes that Americans would rather all be poor than for any citizen to feel inferior to any other citizen. Secondly, Americans take freedom of association for granted. These associations have coalesced around two major political parties. So every four years elections are held to choose which party will be in power. Many observers think these elections have turned nasty but Tocqueville points out that “Americans are accustomed to all kinds of elections. Experience has taught them what degree of turmoil is tolerable and where they should stop.” The 2000 presidential elections are a good example. There was a strong fight from both sides and strong bitterness but Americans knew where to draw the line and when to stop. A third strength for many Americans is its patriotism. Even Tocqueville noted that “They have for their homeland a feeling much the same as they have for their own families.” A fourth strength is that these values give Americans a great deal of energy that can be used to perform amazing feats of economic productivity. And last but not least is America’s strong belief in God and its firm anchor of religious faith. For many Americans religion and freedom are intertwined. Tocqueville said that from the very beginning “Puritanism was almost as much a political theory as a religious doctrine.” This was wise in Tocqueville’s view because “…in America religion leads to wisdom; the observance of divine laws guides man to freedom.” The strengths of democracy are many. What about its weaknesses?

What are democracy’s weaknesses? The weaknesses are almost a reverse image of its strengths. Equality can be a good thing but it can also be used as an excuse for either the majority or a minority group to get its own way. Freedom of association is a good thing but the overwhelming strength of two political parties means, in practical terms, that other voices don’t get heard. Patriotism can also be a good thing but there’s quite a bit of controversy right now about what patriotism means exactly. Both sides claim they only have the best interests of the country in mind. But their notions of what’s in the country’s best interests aren’t even close. How can a house divided continue to stand? American economic energy has begun to sputter lately. Some want to go green while others want to become more efficient. Even our religious outlook has started to splinter and crack.

So what does the future hold for American-style democracy? Tocqueville said that “The Englishman quietly enjoys the real or supposed advantages which, in his view, his country possesses…Foreigners’ criticisms do not affect him at all and their compliments hardly flatter him.” To some Americans this sounds great. To others it sounds arrogant and hateful. Should Americans be good Americans or be good world citizens? Good question. The success or failure of democracy depends on the ability of ordinary people to live together and get along with one another. Can Americans do it? We shall see.

TOCQUEVILLE: Democracy in America (Volume 2 / Part 3, 18-26)

Recent news reports about crashes in the financial markets have emphasized the importance of money in maintaining our traditional American way of life. People who never paid attention to financial markets before are tuning in to the complexities of adjustable mortgage rates and derivatives. What does it all mean? What are we going to do? One thing’s for certain to Tocqueville: “usually love of wealth lies at the heart of Americans’ actions.” We’re not going to want to give up our comforts, or even down-size our cars, unless we absolutely have to. Why should we? Tocqueville points out that “the love of money has never been stigmatized in America and, provided it does not exceed the limits set by public order, is held in high esteem. The American calls noble and praiseworthy that ambition which our medieval ancestors used to describe as slavish greed…” We don’t like to think of ourselves as greedy. Maybe some of the filthy rich are greedy and maybe they should be soaked by taxes. But most of us are just hard-working Americans trying to provide a few comforts for ourselves and our families.

What we really want are the advantages and rewards of free market capitalism but without the risks and dangers that come along with a competitive economy. It’s because we’ve gotten so used to comfort that we don’t really want to make any major changes in our way of life or in our political institutions. Tocqueville believes that “Violent political passions have but little hold over men who have devoted their entire lives to the pursuit of comfort…They like change, but fear revolutions.” Wrenching changes would destabilize the markets. A forcible overthrow of the government is unthinkable. That’s why Americans are one of the least revolutionary people in the world: “the majority of American citizens fail to see what they might gain from a revolution but are keenly aware…of what they might lose.” We might lose our homes, our jobs, our whole way of life. Better to keep what we have and be secure rather than risk everything and not be sure if we’ll have anything left at all. This attitude can be dangerous. Why? Tocqueville says “I can easily discern a political state which, when joined to a principle of equality, would create a society more stationary than we have ever known in the Western world.”

But if we’re comfortable in our own homes and are happy with our jobs and our families and our way of life then what’s wrong with being stationary? Why change? The reason why we have to change is because other nations don’t stay stationary. They’re changing all the time and some of them aren’t happy with what they have. And they’re not happy with what we have either. In fact, they’re just not happy period. And when whole nations get unhappy bad things happen. It’s not the happy nations we have to worry about. Tocqueville says that “When the principle of equality develops (all civilized countries)…equally dread war and long for peace…wars become less frequent….they all end up by regarding war as a disaster almost always as serious for the victor as for the vanquished…no single country could rest in peace while the others are so disturbed. Wars, therefore, become less frequent but spread over a larger area once they break out.” In the modern world it’s not the fat and happy nations that want to make war. It’s the lean and mean ones. The big question today is: can the fat and happy nations (who believe in democracy and equality) defend themselves against the lean and mean nations (who don’t)? We shall see.