Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Reading Homer

Christopher B. Nelson, the president of St. John’s College, Annapolis, writes a lovely essay on Homer for The New Criterion. I should say that it is a re-print of his convocation address at St. John’s College. It is wonderful, read the whole thing. Just a taste: "Surely there is not a more powerful book anywhere than the Iliad with which to examine the virtues and vices, the beauty and terrible power for good or ill, of men with chests. So the Iliad, and, later, the Odyssey form a good beginning to philosophy; they ask you to confront powerful aspects of your nature on your first day at the college—aspects that often function independently of your rational capacity. You are asked to face the spirited element within you and to wonder whether it can or should be shaped and tempered by your reason."  

Discussions - 1 Comment

Great speech. I thought another passage was good: "...You are also asked to consider the power of community, the bonds of friendship, the call of duty toward one’s own people, all abandoned by Achilles very early in the poem. Achilles becomes both a lesser, meaner man and a distant, godlike emblem because of this." Trying not to look at this ahistorically, Homer’s poem can be seen as a poem about community and independence. Zeus is the Father of the gods, but he would not be a good man. It is that radical understanding of independence which makes the Iliad extraordinary in its political implications. The kings are both like and unlike the gods, for they rule as Father Zeus does, yet have regard to consequences, as the book shows early between Achilles and Agamemnon. The gods are men without consequences, thus Achilles comes nearest in his imitation of them after Patroclus dies and he takes no regard to consequences. But notice the dark side of the same problem.

Looking at it ahistorically, we can make a connection with Aristotle’s claim that whoever is outside the polis is a beast or a god. But he was probably writing in part in reference to Homer’s text.

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