June 21st 2011
The Iliad and the Odyssey: Why Homer?
The heart of a classical education is the cumulative study of Latin and the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome. In the Western tradition, education has always been synonymous with classical education. It began with the Greeks and Romans, was preserved and expanded by Christians during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and continued unabated until well into the twentieth century. Why study the Greeks and Romans? They are all dead, their civilization is dead and gone, they were pagans, and they weren't even Christians. What do they have to say to us? Just as Latin is not dead, it is also true that Greece and Rome are not dead. They are immortal in their architecture, art, law, government, languages, mythology, literature, and philosophy. The cultures of Greece and Rome live around and through us every day. People who study Latin soon see that Latin is everywhere and that they have been speaking and reading Latin all of their lives. Likewise, people who study Greece and Rome soon see that those cultures are everywhere, and they have been living as Greeks and Romans all of their lives. The story of Greek and Roman literature begins with the story of Troy. Students should read the Iliad and the Odyssey as a part of their curriculum. At first, the warrior culture of these early Greeks seems very alien. They were not sensitive and sentimental like us. They were not politically correct at all. Achilles was certainly not a nice Christian gentleman like The Pope. We don't know many real facts about the Trojan War, and all those silly gods fighting and taking sides. Why don't we read something useful, like a book on the Civil War? But the Iliad, I discovered, is a book about the Civil War. It is a book about all wars, about the people and characters that you find in every war: the wise, the foolish, the clever, the noble, the base, the ambitious, the women, the old, and the young. It is about their pettiness, their heroism, their adventures, their sacrifices, and their sufferings. The Iliad is mostly about people, not war, and it gives us unforgettable and universal character types. There is no passage in all of literature more moving than when Priam comes to beg for the body of Hector and kisses the bloody hands of Achilles, who has slaughtered so many of his sons. The two enemies, one old and one young, sit down and weep together over what they both have lost. Hector is the real hero of the Iliad, and he dies at the hands of Achilles, who desecrates his body and drags it around the walls of Troy, Venus then restores his body to perfection before it is returned to Priam. And the Iliad ends, “Thus was the funeral of Hector, tamer of horses." The Iliad is a strange poem when you think about it. It is not at all what we expect from a story about a great war hero. Hector, in fact, is just the opposite of the John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, make-my-day kind of hero that we so admire. I'm sure the Greeks were just like us and would have much preferred a poem that showed that they were number one, that they were right, and deserved to win over the effeminate Trojans. But that is not what Homer gave them—or us. Hector, in some sense, prefigures Christ, for he was not at all the Greek ideal of a hero, godlike in beauty and strength. Rather, he was a hero that was defiled and humiliated. The Iliad and Odyssey are the beginnings of Western literature. The story of that war and its aftermath continues in the Aeneid. Written by the great Roman poet Virgil, and modeled on the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Aeneid tells the story of Aeneas, who was destined to escape from the burning city of Troy and found a new city, Rome. And the destiny of Rome, Virgil tells us, was to civilize and rule the world. Rome brought an unprecedented two hundred years of peace and prosperity to the ancient world, preparing the way for the coming of Christ and the spread of the...