Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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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.


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