The Odyssey (an Oral Tradition) by Homer

The Odyssey

“Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.”

It is nearly 20 years after the Trojan War and Ithaka is still without its king, Odysseus.  Anarchy reigns, as numerous suitors vie for the hand of his wife, Penelope, while ravaging his household goods and disrespecting his memory, and his son, Telemachos, is helpless to prevent them.  Has our hero perished in his quest to reach his homeland, or is he still alive somewhere, struggling to reach home?

The Odyssey begins in media res, or in the middle, where Odysseus is near the end of his journey, becoming shipwrecked on the land of the Phaiakians. These people, who we learn are very close to the gods, give Odysseus an audience for the retelling of his story and the various adventures he has experienced, while attempting to return home from the battlegrounds of Troy.

From a violent assault on the land of the Cicones, to narrowly escaping a drugged existence in the land of the Lotus-Eaters, Odysseus endangers his men by deciding to stay in the land of the Cyclops in hopes of gaining host-gifts, and they must set to perilous flight.  Poseidon, angered at the maiming of his Cyclops son, Polyphemus, plots their suffering and Odysseus and his men must endure captivity by Circe, an island goddess; a trip to the land of the Dead; a narrow escape from the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis; and further imprisonment by the nymph, Calypso, lasting seven years, before he is released and lands on the island of the Phaiakians.  Yet, mainly because of the rage of Poseidon, but due also to Odysseus’ and his men’s misguided judgement, his whole crew is killed on the way home and he is left to continue the final part of his journey alone.

The Odyssey Homer

Fame and glory, or in Greek, kleos, are the most important values in this society. It appears that the suitors can disrespect and commandeer Odysseus’ household, only because there is no story attached to his fate.  If he had died fighting in Troy, and therefore receiving a generous helping of fame and glory, this inheritance would have passed down to Telemachus, which would have engendered a reverence and respect among the people. It might not have prevented a few of the more aggressive suitors attempting to utilize their power, but Telemachos certainly would have received more support and sympathy from other Ithakan families.   Gifts and spoils are another aspect of fame and glory.  The more one acquires, the more renown is added to their reputations.  This perhaps explains why Odysseus pours on the charm with the Phaiakians, who bestow on him more gifts than he could have won at Troy, then taxi him to Ithaka, unaware that they have angered Poseidon, who turns their ship to stone in the harbour on their journey back.

The guest-host relationship, or in Greek, xenia, is another aspect of Greek culture unfamiliar to modern readers.  If a guest visits your house, you are required by the tenets of hospitality to give him food and shelter.  These acts are even more important than discovering his name and peoples, as we often see this information offered after the initial formalities are served.  The concept of xenia is emphasized because one never knows if one is hosting a man or a god.  As a modern reader, it was amusing to see poor Telemachos attempt to extricate himself from Menelaos’ hospitality and avoid Nestor’s, in an effort to avoid wasting time in the search for his father.  I’m certain amusement wasn’t Homer’s intention but it wasn’t surprising as to the emphasis placed on this tradition.  Any deviation from this custom could result in dishonour and a possible feud with your potential host or guest.

The Odyssey Homer
1. Mt. Olympus   2. Troy   3. Kikonians   4. Lotus-Eaters   5. Cyclops
6. Aeolia’s Island   7. Laestrygonians   8. Circe’s Kingdom  9. Land of the Dead
10. Sirens   11. Scylla & Charybdis   12. Kalypso   13. Ithaka
source Nada’s ESL Island

Greek literature has been a surprising passion of mine.  From my first read of The Iliad, I was hooked and I often wonder why?  The heroes are chiefly concerned with fame, glory, reputation, pillaging and the spoils of war; the gods are jealous, capricious, vindictive and possess far too many human traits for comfort.  Yet I think what draws me to these characters is that they are so real …….. fallible, vulnerable, imperfect, yet they exhibit these deficiencies through an heroic, courageous and larger-than-life persona. They have their customs and traditions, institutions designed to help their society flourish, and which are important enough to sacrifice happiness, comfort and, at times, even their lives, to preserve.

The Odyssey Read Along Posts:  Book I & II / Book III & IV /  Book V & VI /  Book VII & VIII /  Book IX & X /  Book XI & XII / Book XIII & XIV /  Book XV & XVI /  Book XVII & XVIII /  Book XIX & XX /  Book XXI & XXII /  Book XXIII & XXIV

A note on translations:  if you plan to read only one translation of The Odyssey, I would highly recommend Richard Lattimore’s translation, as it is supposed to be closest to the original Greek, while also conveying well the substance of the story.  Fitzgerald is adequate but likes to embellish, and the Fagles translation …….. well, as one learned reviewer put it, “they are so colloquial, so far from Homeric that they feel more like modern adaptations than translations.”  I would have to agree.

For people who are interested in introducing their children to the tales of Homer, there are a number of excellent books for children which I will list here:

This book counts as Plethora of Books Classic Club Spin, so I finished her book and my spin book, as well.  I’m going to give myself a pat on the back and less guilt for not finishing my previous spin book (yet). 🙂

Translated by Richard Lattimore

 

Classics Club

 

Candide by Voltaire

“In the castle of Baron Thunder-ten-tronckh in Westphalia, there once lived a youth endowed by nature with the gentlest of characters.”

Published when Voltaire was 66 years old, Candide was expressly written to satirize the philosophy of Optimism.  This optimism was not simply the positive hope of better circumstances, but the belief that everything that happened was for the best, no matter if good or bad, happy or tragic.  This philosophy disgusted Voltaire because he felt that it left no facility for bettering oneself or one’s surroundings and that it supported fatalism and complacency.  The tragic earthquake in Lisbon in 1755 seemed to precipitated the writing of this novel, causing the author to question justice in such a calamity, and reflected in his poem, “Poem on the Disaster of Lisbon,” written weeks afterward.  Candide was further emphasis of Voltaire’s rejection of the attitude that life was the “best of all possible worlds” and that everything that happened in it was for the best.

Voltaire
detailed portrait by Maurice Quenton de la Tour
source Wikipedia

Voltaire was an established writer and thinker by the time he wrote Candide, yet a controversial figure who by many was both admired and hated.  He  was continuously clashing with the government and the church, suffering two periods of incarceration, and most of his adult life was spent exiled from Paris, the city of his birth.  Much of his works were published under a pseudonym to avoid prosecution.  During a stint in exile, he spent three years in Great Britain and, impressed with the freedoms of England, particularly that of speech, his stay intensified his desire for reforms in his home country.  In 1758 he settled in Ferney in eastern France, spending his time farming, writing and supporting local business.  Candide was written there, not long after his move.

Satire:  the use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues

Candide is a young man who has grown up living in a state of perfect happiness, guided by his tutor, Pangloss, who is entrenched in the doctrines of Leibnizian Optimism.  Leibnizian Optimism, a philosophy of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, believed that this world is the best of all possible worlds because it was created by an omniscient God who would not create flaws if a better world could have been created, therefore, whatever we experience in this world, be it good or bad, must work towards good.  When Candide is thrown out of his paradise, he travels the world, at times escaping persecution, and at others, searching for his love, Cunégonde, experiencing many horrific trials and suffering that challenge the philosophy entrenched by his tutor, causing him to question over and over, if this really is “the best of all possible worlds.”

I really whiffle-waffled over how I felt about this book.  On one hand, Voltaire can write a fast-moving, engaging tale.  His storyline was amusing and it did contain deeper themes that, if the reader had a strong attention span, challenged him to think about his view of the world, his place in society and his response to injustice.  Yet Voltaire’s method was rushed and honestly, just too absurd to ellict introspection for long.  Candide flew from one adventure to the other, characters threw philosophical comments around, but there was no time or room for philosophy itself.  Voltaire never took a thought or comment from a character into deeper conversation; he simply told the reader what the characters did or thought, but we weren’t privy to the conversation.  As a reader, you were often left swimming in a murky haze of Voltaire-imposed ignorance ……. Yet perhaps this was Voltaire’s intention.  Perhaps at the end of the book, as Candide states, “we must cultivate our garden,” Voltaire meant that we should all mind our own business, not examine things too closely, and just work with what is at hand.  Okay, but it is self-introspection that causes a human being to better himself, it is dialogue and discussion that can often help a society, as well as having the possibility to harm it.  People need to have hope, and to cultivate hope it often means having dreams that reach outside our immediate circle of life.  Within the light-hearted narrative that almost masked the tragedy, I felt a fatalism with which I could not accept or sympathize.

That said, these were only my impressions of a book that touches on topics of which I have a limited understanding.  To give an informed opinion on Voltaire’s stance, you would really need to have more than a cursory knowledge of Leibnizian Optimism, as well as having at least summary knowledge of his contemporaries, with a dollop of the study of the Enlightenment on top.  So I will count this as the beginning of my inquiry into the Enlightenment and Voltaire, and hope that my journey fairs better than the journey of Candide.  And until my next foray into Voltaire, I will be cultivating my garden.

Translated by Lowell Blair

Paradise Lost by John Milton


                                                                           “Of Man’s first disobedience and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
 Brought death into the world and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us and regain the blissful seat,
Sing, Heavenly Muse, that on the secret top
Of Oreb or of Sinai didst inspire
That shepherd who first taught the chosen seed
In the beginning how the heavens and earth
Rose out of Chaos; or, if Sion hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s brook that flowed
Fast by the Oracle of God, I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventurous song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above the Aonian mount, while it pursues
                                                                                Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.”

Samuel Johnson declared that Paradise Lost is “a poem …… which respect to design may claim the first place, and with respect to performance, the second, among the productions of the human mind …..”   It is a poem about the rebellion in Heaven and the ejection of the fallen Angels; it is about the Garden of Eden, the deception of the snake, and the fall of Man.  But it is much more than all these points, separately and as a whole. Just as Satan falls into the depths of the burning pit of Hell, Milton delves into the depths of the human Soul and conversely soars to the heights of the God of Heaven, weaving a tapestry of images and profundity that will leave the reader amazed and speechless.  Initially, the reader believes he is following Milton’s lead, not realizing until later that he is part of the tapestry itself and Milton’s words have become part of his soul.  

John Milton’s Cottage
courtesy of Old Skool Paul (sourced Flickr)
Creative Commons License

In this poem, Satan’s actions are especially shockingly compelling as we follow his fall from Heaven, his brash, swaggering leadership of the fallen angels, and then his quest to best God to get his spiteful, yet senseless, vengeance.  We think of Hell as a place, full of fire and brimstone, burning and torment, and while Milton gives Hell a location in this poem, it is much more than that.  Satan carries Hell inside him.  It torments him, not only with thoughts of rage and hate and revenge, but almost more effectively with thoughts of despair, regret and impossible hope.  Conflicting emotions scrape and tear at him incessantly.  For him, Hell is not external; it is an internal condition from which he cannot escape.

Milton’s superlative crafting of the character of Satan has led many people to believe he was perhaps too successful, making Satan the most exciting and heroic character of the poem.  William Blake stated that “the reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels and God, and at liberty when of Devils and Hell, is because he was a true poet, and of the devil’s party without knowing it”.  It is certainly true that Milton intimately understood “the devil’s party”.  Like us all, he experienced sin within himself and within others:  rage, treachery, deceit, the desire for power, etc.  And with his astonishing talent, he was able to craft a character that is perhaps the most Satan of all the Satans in the history of literature.  Milton’s Satan is capable of tricking not only Adam and Eve and angels, he is able to trick the reader of Paradise Lost as well, in such a subtle manner that certain readers admire his bravado, respect his machinations, and feel sorry for his plight.  While Milton’s brilliance in this area of the poem is breath-taking, it is also unsettling.  C.S. Lewis in his lectures on Paradise Lost, approaches this issue in a dexterous manner, saying that if the reader chooses to admire Satan, he must only realize what he is admiring:

“No one had in fact done anything to Satan; he was not hungry, nor over-tasked, nor removed from this place, nor shunned, nor hated —- he only thought himself impaired.  In the midst of a world of light and love, of song and feast and dance, he could find nothing to think of more interesting than his own prestige ….. 


……… Satan lies about every subject he mentions in Paradise Lost.  But I do not know whether we can distinguish his conscious lies from the blindness which he had almost willingly imposed on himself ……
 


…….  What we see in Satan is the horrible co-existence of a subtle and incessant intellectual activity with an incapacity to understand anything.  This doom he has brought upon himself; in order to avoid seeing one thing he has, almost voluntarily, incapacitated himself from seeing at all.  And thus, throughout the poem, all his torments come, in a sense, at this own bidding  …..
 


……. the design of ruining two creatures (Adam & Eve) who had never done him any harm, no longer in the serious hope of victory, but only to annoy the Enemy (God) whom he cannot directly attack ……
 


…….  From hero to general, from general to politician, from politician to secret service agent, and thence to a thing that peers in at bedroom or bathroom windows, and thence to a toad, and finally to a snake  ——-  such is the progress of Satan.  This progress, misunderstood, has given rise to the belief that Milton began by making Satan more glorious than he intended and then, too late, attempted to rectify the error.  But such an unerring picture of the ‘sense of injured merit’ in its actual operations upon character cannot have come about by blundering and accident.  We need not doubt that it was the poet’s intention to be fair to evil, to give it a run for its money —- to show it first at the height, with all its rants and melodrama and ‘Godlike imitated state’ about it, and then to trace what actually becomes of such self-intoxication when it encounters reality.”

Depiction of Satan
Gustave Doré (1866)
source Wikipedia

Yet in spite of the beautiful images painted amid the stark reality, Milton seems to rush the end of the poem, packing the whole Old Testament into the last two books and surprisingly uses a more direct narrative instead of showing the reader with his usual subtle yet beautiful verse.  Lewis remarks on the lack of genius in the last books in comparison to the earlier wonderful artistry of the poem:

“It (Paradise Lost) suffers from a grave structural flaw.  Milton, like Virgil, though telling a short story about the remote past, wishes our minds to be carried to the later results of that story.  But he does this less skillfully than Virgil.  Not content with following his master in the use of occasional prophecies, allusions, and reflections, he makes his two last books into a brief outline of sacred history from the Fall to the Last Day.  Such an untransmuted lump of futurity, coming in a position so momentous for the structural effect of the whole work, is inartistic.  And what makes it worse is that the actual writing in this passage is curiously bad.  There are fine moments, and a great recovery at the very end.  But again and again, as we read his account of Abraham or of the Exodus or of the Passion, we find ourselves saying, as Johnson said of the ballad, ‘the story cannot possibly be told in a manner that shall make less impression on the mind’.  ……….  If we stick to what we know we must be content to say that Milton’s talent temporarily failed him …….”

Yet even with its flaws, Paradise Lost is an epic that is at once majestic, beautiful, poignant, tragic and instructive.  It opens a window into the Biblical story of the fall, allowing the reader to live the experiences and emotions first-hand.  What a task Milton took on and how well he succeeded!  I predict this read be my favourite of the year.  My feeble summary only covers the surface of its significance; you will only have to read it yourself to discover its grandeur!

Further reading:
         A Preface to Paradise Lost – C.S. Lewis
         Charles Williams Selected Writings (contains an essay on Milton)
         

The Apology of Socrates by Plato

The time is 399 B.C. and Socrates has been charged with the corruption of youth and for believing in gods other than the gods of Athens.  His defence?  He was told by Chaerophon, a companion of his, that the gods at Delphi had declared that no one was wiser than Socrates, and Socrates, knowing that he was neither great nor wise, set out to find a wiser man than he.  But ….. surprise! …… with each man, or segment of society Socrates questioned, he discovered that, while most men had knowledge, they were lacking wisdom and, as of the date of the trial, it does not appear that he has found one wise man.

So what made these respectable men of Athens so enraged that they demanded Socrates’ death?  Perhaps the problem was that Socrates didn’t merely question men …… he grilled them, he roasted them, he flambéd them, he broiled them and he probably verbally flogged them, before going on his merry way.  Is it any wonder that a large segment of Greek society was out for his blood?  Yet Socrates was not ignorant of his unfortunate affect on people.  He was aware of the brooding animosity of the enemies he had left scattered in his wake, but he proclaimed that his duty to God, nay, his responsibility to God, was to answer the question that was set before him:  Is Socrates the wisest man?

“Strange, indeed, would be my conduct, O men of Athens, if I who, when I was ordered by the generals whom you chose to command me at Potidea and Amphipolis and Delium, remained where they placed me like any other man, facing death —- if, I say, now, when, as I conceive and imagine, God ordered me to fulfil the philosopher’s mission of searching into myself and other men, I were to desert my post through fear of death, or any other fear; that would indeed be strange, and I might justly be arraigned in court for denying the existence of the gods, if I disobeyed the oracle because I was afraid of death: then I should be fancying that I was wise when I was not wise.  For this fear of death is indeed the pretence of wisdom, and not real wisdom, being the appearance of knowing the unknown; since no one knows whether death, which they in their fear apprehend to be the greatest evil, may not be the greatest good.  Is there not here conceit of knowledge, which is a disgraceful sort of ignorance?”

And to the possibility of being freed on the condition that he agreed to no longer attempt to influence the people (or to tell the truth, as Socrates would term it), he responds:

” ……. if this was the condition on which you let me go, I should reply:  Men of Athens, I honour and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting anyone whom I meet after my manner, and convincing him, saying: O my friend, why do you who are a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens, care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all?  Are you not ashamed of this? …….”

As far as Socrates was concerned, he had a duty to God and to truth to fulfill his purpose and nothing was going to sway him from this quest.  His rhetoric is brilliant but he really makes no effort to placate his accusers.  Though his life is important, which is evidenced by his attempt to refute the charges, there is something he places in much higher esteem:  the truth and his obligation to it.

“….. I cannot hold my tongue, you will not believe that I am serious; and if I say again that the greatest good of man is daily to converse about virtue, and all that concerning which you hear me examining myself and others, and that the life which is unexamined is not worth living …..”  

The Death of Socrates
by Jacques-Louis David

Sadly, the verdict was death for Socrates, his final words a moving epitaph:

“The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways — I to die, and you to live.  Which is better, God only knows.”