How is Mythology Created?

“The hero is the one who, while still alive, knows and represents the claims of the superconsciousness which throughout creation is more or less unconscious. The adventure of the hero represents the moments in his life when he achieved illumination–the nuclear moment when, while still alive, he found and opened the road to the light beyond the dark walls of our living death.” (Joseph Campbell The Hero with a Thousand Faces P. 259)

Although Joseph Campbell is a bit impermissively cavalier with his assertion that a hero attains illumination, or divine insight into his own deeds, one might more frugally admit that it is the hero that lives out an illuminated moment in time where the unconscious will or spirit of a people is embodied through some great deed of his. The hero therefore lives out some greater purpose–without as Campbell suggests–necessarily understanding it, though he undoubtedly senses that he is living in and through some great moment.

For example, when Odysseus killed the suitors in Ithaka upon returning home, he did so with both the assistance and direction of Athene. Now, does this give Odysseus some greater insight into the way of things, or “illumination”? No, it simply shows that he is a “favorite” or “chosen” person of Athene–because of his endurance and desire “always to seek after his own advantage”, and his ability “always to keep his head” in any difficult situation. And though he does gain insight and recognition of the “way of the world”, it would be a stretch to suggest that his action enlightens him or illuminates him about the nature of the gods. Therefore, Odysseus, as a hero who performs a culture defining action, does so by his own will and due to his virtuous attributes and the love of a goddess, but not because he is illuminated as to the will of the gods. What makes him a hero is that he brings about the potential for illumination for others through his deeds, not personal illumination for himself.

As we wrote yesterday, it is not simply the hero, but also the artist, author, or thinker who could bring forth an epoch-defining piece of work called “mythology”. Campbell, again, overstates the position of the author in this case:

“But if we are to grasp the full value of the materials, we must note that myths are not exactly comparable to dream. Their figures originate from the same sources–the unconscious wells of fantasy–and their grammar is the same, but they are not the spontaneous products of sleep. On the contrary, their patterns are consciously controlled(my italics). And their understood function is to serve as a powerful picture language for the communication of traditional wisdom. The trance-susceptible shaman and the initiated antelope-priest are not unsophisticated in the world nor unskilled in the principles of communication by analogy.” (Ibid P. 256)

This is a tricky spot for Campbell, for he is asserting that though a myth comes from the depths of the creative unconscious that its expression is consciously chosen and asserted by a discerning and potentially “illuminated” shaman or thinker. Given that Campbell’s source for notions of mythology coming from the unconscious was Carl Jung, the psychologist, let us see whether their words and thoughts on the source of mythology agree.

“A psychological reading of the dominant archetypal images reveals a continuous series of psychological transformations, depicting the autonomous life of archetypes behind the scenes of consciousness. This hypothesis has been worked out to clarify and make comprehensible our religious history.” (C.G. Jung, The Symbolic Life CW 18 Par. 1686, P. 742)

Though there is agreement on the fact that mythology as “dominant archetypal images” can enact transformations of a psychological and therefore cultural sort, there is not consensus on whether the author has conscious control of these changes. In fact, what is controlled may be the exact manner, wording, or expression of the action or artistic-object, but the content of the story, piece of art, or action are created first in the unconscious, not in the conscious mind of the actor or author. In fact, against Campbell’s theory, the artist or actor is far more the vessel or tool of the unconscious myth than he or she is the interpreter or greatest understander of it at all. For further information on the relationship between the artist and his work, particularly a work of mythological and cultural importance, let us turn to the psychologist and polemicist Friedrich Nietzsche:

“In a case like Wagner’s, which is in many ways an embarrassing one, although the example is typical, my opinion is that it’s certainly best to separate an artist far enough from his work, so that one does not take him with the same seriousness as one does his work. In the final analysis, he is only the precondition of his work, its maternal womb, the soil, or in some cases, the dung and manure on which, out of which, it grows—and thus, in most cases, something that we must forget about, if we want to enjoy the work itself.” (Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals,  3rd essay, Ch. 4

As polemical as Nietzsche can be, his point about the relationship between the artist and his work is valid: the process of interpreting one’s art or action is a different one from producing it, precisely because living out or producing a great work of art, or action, does not necessitate understanding its cultural importance or significance. In fact, this would be tremendously difficult if not impossible while still living “in the moment” that such an event was created or occurred, without the context of the future to show its true place. This is what Nietzsche meant when he called the artist the “precondition”, “womb”, or “soil” of his work; that though the work is grown within and born from an artist or actor, it does not truly belong to him, nor was its form created by him, though he was the “soil” in which the product grew. For a preeminent description and further evidence of the existence of such a process, we must look to the first lines of Dante’s Inferno:

“In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost. Ah, how hard a thing it is to say that wood was, so savage and harsh and strong that the thought of it renews my fear! It is so bitter that death is little more so! But to treat of the good that I found there, I will tell of the other things I saw.” (Dante, Inferno Canto I 1-7, Durling tr.)

Observe the passive imagery, “I will tell of the other things I saw,” and especially the fact that the pilgrim does not insist that he created his image, but rather that he simply perceived it and is not recollecting it for us. Dante’s narrative continues in that vein.

“I cannot really say how I entered there, so full of sleep was I at the point when I abandoned the true way.” (Ibid lns 10-12)

Again, Dante insists on unconscious and passive imagery: “I cannot really say how I entered there.”; “so full of sleep was I at the point when I abandoned the true way.” This is not the language of a conscious and discerning person actively choosing at each moment how to construct this myth. No, though the language may be his own, the experience was autonomous, or self-creating within him, and he was but the steward or “soil” who recorded and conveyed it by the page. In fact, if one simply turns to Canto II of Dante’s Inferno, one sees him explicitly agree with this fact by crediting the muses, or the unconscious, for the story he is to tell: “O muses, O high wit, now help me; O memory that wrote down what I saw, here will your nobility appear.” (Ibid Canto II lns. 7-9). Not only does Dante credit the imaginative or creative unconscious with bringing him to the place in the road where the story begins, but he even credits the muses, or the unconscious, with helping him find expression of the tale. Though, of course, he is consciously linking himself to Virgil and his Aeneid, it is just as clear that the story, its words, and its impact expressed itself through Dante.

Before concluding, let us briefly return to Campbell, and see whether he maintains himself in error:

“The metaphors by which they live, and through which they operate, have been brooded upon, searched, and discussed for centuries–even milleniums; they have served whole societies, furthermore, as the mainstays of thought and life. The culture patterns have been shaped to them. The youth have been educated, and the aged rendered wise, through the study, experience, and understanding of their effective initiatory forms. For they actually touch and bring into play the vital energies of the psyche[my italics].” (Joseph Campbell The Hero with a Thousand Faces P. 256-257)

Campbell has hit upon the utter value and power of myth: that it brings forth and springs from the vital and latent energies of the human spirit–that in accessing, living, and bringing forth a myth–a human essentially lives out his and his times’ vocation, for the myth is not consciously created so much as it is vitally lived or received. In this, Campbell is an enormous help to understanding the power, meaning, and proper function of myth. It is in the quote which follows which he unconsciously attempts to lead us astray.

“Until the most recent decades, [myths] were the support of all human life and the inspiration of philosophy, poetry, and the arts. Where the inherited symbols have been touched by Lao-tse, Buddha, Zoroaster, Christ, or Mohammed–employed by a consummate master of the spirit as a vehicle of the profoundest moral and metaphysical instruction–obviously we are in the presence rather of immense consciousness than of darkness.” (Ibid. P. 257)

Campbell’s error, as stated above, lies not in his perception of the function of myth nor in his choice of the “masters” through which myth is received. It is, however, his understanding that the consciousness of the recipient “adds to” or creates the myth rather than the fact that it is the receptivity of the master, or the consciousness, which allows the myth to speak through him. Therefore, it is not at all the size of one’s consciousness which makes one capable of living out a myth, but one’s receptivity which allows one’s self to be expanded by the transformational aspects of myth. So when Campbell says the following, we will understand him to be speculating in the service, perhaps, of his own personal attempt at a theory about myth rather than correctly expounding the facts about the creation of myth, which is our goal:

“And so, to grasp the full value of the mythological figures that have come down to us, we must understand that they are not only symptoms of the unconscious (as indeed are all human thoughts and acts) but also controlled and intended statements of certain spiritual principles [my italics], which have remained as constant throughout the course of human history as the form and nervous structure of the human physique itself.” (Ibid. P. 257)

Now, although Campbell is correct that myths exhibit, form, and are the result of “certain spiritual principles” and that many of the values, teachings, and characteristics of myths are constant throughout space and time, it is simply impermissible for him to say that these values and myths are “controlled and intended” statements as if the authors of them tailored and created the myths to fit the world. Such a thought is just as inflated and misguided as assuming that an athlete has created his own physique; though the athlete may slightly augment and improve what nature has given to him for his sport, he may not substantially alter or create for himself a new physical body suitable to his own needs. Such is the case with the authors above as well. Though they might slightly tailor and trim the myths to suit their time, style, and ability, they do not create, but rather receive, the material which they have presented in their various living myths.

In conclusion, Campbell will help us to see, without error this time, the ultimate source and purpose of myths:

“Briefly formulated, the universal doctrine teaches that all the visible structures of the world–all things and beings–are the effects of a ubiquitous power (the unconscious(my addition and italics) out of which they rise, which supports and fills them during the period of their manifestation, and back into which they must ultimately dissolve.” (Ibid. P. 257)

The ultimate well-spring of myth is the creative unconscious, and from it every myth arises which invigorates, unites, and informs a people. Though the expression may differ in word, action, or consequence, the ultimate source of every myth is the same. And in finding or receiving the myth which unifies and gives meaning to a person or people today, one need only, as Dante has written, “come to one’s self in a dark wood.”

Is There an American Mythology?

This last weekend I had the pleasure of hearing an esteemed and wizened professor make the bold assertion that we in America live in a myth-less society today. What he meant was that unlike the Ancient Greeks with their mysteries and rich epic heritage, the Romans and their destiny of world-conquest, the Teutons and their war-loving gods, et alia…that we Westerners, and Americans, must settle for platitudinous and calcified forms of thoughts in the form of “-isms”, doctrinaire and schismatic systems of faith, and for lived-out and discarded notions like manifest destiny and the quickly dwindling American Dream. Several questions thus arise: (1) What is a living mythology? (2) Does America and the West have a living mythology? and (3) What is the process for developing or discerning a living mythology?

The esteemed professor first suggested an erroneous etymology for the study of economics which he correctly linked to the Greek term oikos but incorrectly defined as “rule of the home”. The term oikos means “home” or “household” in the Greek and nomos means “the rule of or law”–therefore oikos+nomos=”the rule of the home”. Etymology aside, his suggestion was that America has lost connection to its living spirit and instead that America is ruled by inert economic considerations–something like Oscar Wilde’s miser who “knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing”. If one needs evidence of just how concerned Americans are with “the American Dream” or “economic mobility” one need only access the great oracle, Google, and one can see for one’s self countless articles from countless sources on the issue. One also observes in the articles above that the consensus omnium is that these various myths and dreams have failed. Is this perhaps because true myths are always bound to fail? Let us consider what a “real” or “living” myth then is and how it differs from a false myth, doomed to fail.

Naturally, America and the West in general has access to the roots of its myths in many, many forms. One need only look to our broad collections of Homer, Hesiod, Statius, Nonnus, Virgil, Dante, Milton, Spencer, et alia to see that myths are very much still present in the literature and cultural dialog of our people. But what exactly is the difference between the myths which have informed and shaped our culture and a living myth which continues to define and give meaning to the lives of American people, especially if the economic myth is dead or dying? We turn first to the eminent psychologist and student of mythology, Carl Jung, and his massive tome The Symbolic Life for a brief exposition of what a “living myth” is: “A myth remains a myth even if certain people believe it to be the literal revelation of an eternal truth, but it becomes moribund if the living truth it contains ceases to be an object of belief. It is therefore necessary to renew its life from time to time through a new interpretation.” (C.G. Jung, The Symbolic Life CW 18 Par. 1665, P. 736). He again attempts a description of the “living myth” in his work Psychology and Religion in paragraph 451: “But whereas mythological figures appear as pale phantoms and relics of a long past life that has become strange to us, the religious statement represents an immediate “numinous” experience. It is a living mythologem.” (Carl Jung, Psychology and Religion CW 11 Par. 450, p. 300). Two immediate aspects of Jung’s descriptions jump out at us. In his first description of a living myth, he suggests that in order to “renew its life” it requires a new interpretation. And in his second description, he suggests that a living mythologem gives one a “numinous” experience, which means a spiritual, moving, or transformational experience. So, with these descriptions we will define a living myth as: “an expansive, motivating and transformational story which informs, guides, and provides meaning for the life of a person or people.”

With the definition above, the first thing which becomes immediately clear is that though America has access to many, many myths (viz above: Homer, Statius, Virgil, Dante, Milton), that few if any of them have an expansive impact on Americans, and in fact, many of the “old” myths are reserved for more of a scholastic readership, even though many are easily accessible to any person. The other more difficult aspect of the definition above, however, is that few if any of the stories throughout time might be considered “transformational” to a contemporary American audience. Though, for instance, the story of Odysseus might well establish a firm expectation in a reader that greatness and eternal glory requires endless strife and divine endurance, it is unclear that the story might affect the character, attitude, and spirit of the reader. And even if the Odyssey does impact a person in that way, does that make the Ancient Greek myth a living myth for Americans? We must return to Jung’s first description and its notion of a “new interpretation” to answer this question.

Clearly, it would be nationalistic and chauvinistic to assert that the living myth of a people would have to come from that people and not that people’s ancestors. However, not to observe national differences in character, temperament, and civilization between the archaic Greek nation-states and the contemporary America would seem criminally unobservant. So, is it then the case that these old stories, these myths–potentially inert for years–could be resurrected by a new interpretation of their content and the meaning of their content? In theory, yes, but the question quickly becomes: is a new interpretation of an older and less familiar myth the way to a new living myth or is the creation of a new myth, possibly informed by those of the past, an even stronger guarantee of new transformational American myth? Let us consider how this might work.

The first question that arises for how to “create a new living myth” is this: Will America’s myth be an artistic creation (movie, book, poem) or lived out in the life of some great man or woman? What this question is asking is whether America requires a written or oral myth, like Homer’s Odyssey, or more like the Life of Alexander, as reported by Plutarch, some great American must live and embody a myth, though it may not yet have solid or concrete form. As profound as this question is, the general difficulty of it exists in the same mode for either option: the myth must be indefinite and exist more as a potential story or path in the mind and soul of the person who is to write or live it out. What this means is that there will not be a clear line demarcating the path on which the author of the great work (opus) or action takes.

On either path, he or she will essentially be working in the dark. For though there are various luminous deeds, texts, and masterpieces scattered throughout history, the defining feature of each seems to be that there is something utterly unique and expressive mixed with the mundane aspects of the day. Or rather, there is the stamp of a particular and temporally bound culture mixed with some universal and eternal element. Such a notion is irreducible, and as such defies simple formulation. And even though that makes attainment of such a noble goal (the noblest goal?) so difficult that for most it would be impossible, it adds the highest possible value to the endeavor as well.

In conclusion, America seems to be dealing with a worn-out, tired, and unworthy mythology of an economic nature which it will soon cast aside. Because of this, there is no operating mythology governing and unifying its people, but like a phoenix, the opportunity now exists for a more honest, motivating, and expansive–a living–mythology to be born through a person or people through great and noble actions, if one will simply rise from the ashes and make one’s contribution to eternity.

Seminar on Aeschylus’ Agamemnon: Sexual Equality Earned through Blood

In seminar on Thursday, Aeschylus’ Agamemnon was the subject of a rich and vibrant discussion. In the article which follows, a potentially radical thesis on human nature, recognition, and Clytemnestra’s place in at all takes a new and unique form. Throughout the entirety of the play gender-stereotypes are suggested, considered, and upset.

The first major issue which we will focus on is the “masculine” nature of Clytemnestra, and the steps she took to take vengeance on Agamemnon. Three particular instances bring up Clytemnestra’s gender and how she upsets the general role: (1) her initial dialog with the chorus; (2) her argument with Agamemnon over the “painted fabric” above; (3) Aigisthos’ being called “womanly” and by proxy Clytemnestra manly by wielding the axe which called Agamemnon.

When Clytemnestra first tells the chorus that she knows that Agamemnon is coming home, the chorus is incredulous and intimates that Clytemnestra must in some way be out of her wits:

Chorus: Yet how can I be certain? Is there some evidence?

Clytemnestra: The is, there must be; unless a god has lied to me.

Chorus: Is it dream visions, easy to believe, you credit?

Clytemnestra: I accept nothing from a brain that is dull with sleep.

Chorus: The charm of some rumor, that made rich your hope?

Clytemnestra: Am I some young girl, that you find my thoughts so silly?

(Aeschylus Agamemnon 272-277, Lattimore tr.)

One immediately notices during this exchange that the chorus of Argive elders disbelieves that a woman would be capable of observing that which they have failed to. The elders–and this is to their queen–suggest first that Clytemnestra either heard what she did in a dream and then second, they have the gall to suggest that her feeble female mind must have been swayed by some rumor. Clytemnestra quickly disabuses them of these notions in the lines just after. After being belittled by the questions of the elders, she explains that “some god, Hephaistos” came to her in the form of signal beacons–present for all to see–and therefore dismisses the questions set against her capacity to perceive and to reason. This theme is recurrent and pervasive throughout the play: what is the nature and function of women and are they capable of the same thoughts, feelings, and actions as men? The opinion of the men in the play (the Chorus and Agamemnon in particular) seems to be that women are in some way sub-human as evidenced through their language and presuppositions. In the end, both pay for their ignorance of human nature, Agamemnon with his life, and the chorus through subjugation to a tyrant king. Let us see where Agamemnon shows his perception of both Clytemnestra and human nature

We must then focus a fair bit on Clytemnestra insisting that Agamemnon walk across the “painted fabric” (red carpet) in order to enter his home. We then discussed the debate the two had wherein Agamemnon suggests that he will be like a more feminine Asian lord, and then he suggested that this would be an honor only suitable for the gods–along the way suggesting that Clytemnestra is acting in a profoundly “unwomanly” way*. Two unique moments take form during this argument: (1) Clytemnestra essentially pushes Agamemnon into a feminine and passive role, and (2) Agamemnon recognizes Clytemnestra as acting in a “manly” or “mannish” manner. Their dialog truly is a spectacle to behold.

Clytemnestra: Yet tell me this one thing, and do not cross my will.

Agamemnon: My will is mine. I shall not make it soft for you.

Clytemnestra: It was in fear surely that you vowed this course to God.

Agamemnon: No man has spoken knowing better what he said.

Clytemnestra: If Priam had won as you have, what would he have done?

Agamemnon: I well believe he might have walked on tapestries.

Clytemnestra: He is not ashamed before the bitterness of men.

Agamemnon: The people murmur, and their voice is great in strength.

Clytemnestra: Yet he who goes unenvied shall not be admired.

Agamemnon: Surely this lust for conflict is not womanlike? (my italics)

Clytemnestra: Yet for the mighty even to give way is grace.

Agamemnon: Does such a victory as this mean so much to you?

Clytemnestra: Oh yield! The power is yours. Give way of your free will.

(Ibid 931-943)

What an incredible welcome home. Their first time seeing each other in ten years and a contest of wills commences in which Agamemnon is made to “freely” choose, like a woman* or an idolater, to walk across a stained red carpet. During this exchange, Clytemnestra effectively “acts the man” or takes on the masculine role of (1) arguing, (2) bending Agamemnon’s will, and (3) feminizing Agamemnon while also symbolically making him trail along a path of blood prepared by his actions before. In so reversing their roles, effectively bending Agamemnon to her will, and setting him up for her plot, Clytemnestra has already turned Agamemnon passive, receptive, and feminine in comparison to her “masculine” and gender re-defining actions.

We now turn to Aigisthos and the Chorus of men berating him for his “passive” or “feminine” role in the murder of Agamemnon:

Chorus: How shall you be lord of the men of Argos, you who planned the murder of this man, yet could not dare to act it out, and cut him down with your own hand?

Aigisthos: No, clearly the deception was the woman’s part (my italics), and I was suspect, that had hated him so long. Still with his money I shall endeavor to control the citizens. The mutinous man shall feel the yoke drag at his neck, no cornfed racing colt that runs free traced; but hunger, grim companion of the dark dungeon shall see him broken to the hand at last.

Chorus: But why, the then, you coward, could you have not slain the man yourself? Why must it be his wife who killed, to curse the country and the gods within the ground?

(Ibid 1633-1645)

Here we see the completion of the transformation of Clytemnestra from a “passively” feminine role to a completely active and masculine one. Not only has she planned the murder of Agamemnon, but she acts as the direct agent of his destruction as well. It is not so much Agamemnon’s death that the chorus finds so appalling as is the fact that a woman carried it out. They cannot believe that Aigisthos, who now claims to be king, would passively sit by and let Clytemnestra enact the revenge. One now sees that Clytemnestra made Agamemnon passive and receptive to her will and plot to kill him (literally), and she also made Aigisthos complicit but somewhat unnecessary to the plot as he did not plan nor kill Agamemnon himself. The chorus is the last group of men to be subjugated to her in their disbelief that a man, Aigisthos, would let her take the reins as she did, but now they, full of their incredulity, will be subjugated by Aigisthos and ruled by Clytemnestra, who separates the the chorus and Aigisthos in a final grand sweep–effectively asserting herself as queen-regent and a character far more dynamic than the naively emotional, passive, or submitting woman she is at first portrayed and treated as.

The next point considered in seminar was the poverty of living one’s life, or justifying one’s actions, by platitudes. For example, if one wished to live one’s life according to the maxim: “honor one’s family at all costs,” as noble and as good as the maxim in itself seems, it is not up to the task of life even in the play the Agamemnon. For example, Clytemnestra wishes to avenge the death of her daughter (honor one’s family), but she does so by killing her absentee husband (honor one’s family?). So, how exactly would this maxim help her make her choice, since on the one hand, she wishes to avenge a family member, her daughter, but the “murderer” of her daughter is her husband? How can she faithfully live out this maxim? She cannot. She will be betraying one of her family members in her mind regardless of her choice, so she must do some real thinking in order to determine what is right. Now, let us consider whether what Clytemnestra did was right or not.

The situation as perceived by Clytemnestra was this: her husband tricked her into sending her daughter to Aulis under the pretense of being married to Achilleus. Her husband, Agamemnon, then betrayed both Iphigeneia and Clytemnestra by sacrificing Iphigeneia to placate Artemis. Therefore, Clytemnestra, full of rage, took the lover Aigisthos during the ten years Agamemnon was gone and according to Aigisthos himself set the plan in motion to kill Agamemnon and killed (executed) him by her own hand. Simply looking at the situation from Clytemnestra’s perspective, her actions look as if they may be just. But let us add a more global perspective and see whether our perception remains the same.

Agamemnon had to sacrifice Iphigeneia in order to move forward with the assault on Troy. Though he himself may have been at fault for Artemis’ rage. So, Agamemon’s choice was essentially him taking fault, as a war-chief, for his own actions and doing what was necessary to keep the military force together and moving forward. This makes his choice almost heartlessly utilitarian except for the fact that it was Odysseus who convinced Agamemnon to make this choice. This shows that Agamemnon’s heart first ruled and only second his mind. There is, however, one further consideration, though. In choosing to keep the military force together, Agamemnon does implicitly choose to honor the relationship to his brother over the relationship to his daughter and by proxy his wife.

And Clytemnestra (with the help of the chorus) does not fail to notice the potential hypocrisy in the fact that Agamemnon sacrifices his blood daughter simply to save the non-blood wife of his brother (who happens to be the sister of Clytemnestra, Helen).* Perhaps simply Clytemnestra and Agamemnon are operating under differing theories of justice, or the point is far more subtle: Agamemnon, like all the men in the play, believes women’s lives to be of less account than the pride of men–and the war itself is about Menelaos and the pride of Achaian men–and both Helen and Iphigeneia are simply by-products of this fight between men. Clytemnestra here is then less the image of the spurned wife and rage-filled mother (subject to her emotions), and more an impersonal force of justice forcing the ancient consciousness to recognize the fullness and richness of women as humans completely partaking of human nature in both its passive and active elements.

*Agamemnon: “do not try in woman’s ways to make me delicate, nor, as if I were some Asiastic bow down to earth and with wide mouth cry out to me…” (Ibid 918-920)

**”But when necessity’s yoke was put upon him he changed, and from the heart the breath came bitter and sacrilegious, utterly infidel, to warp a will now to be stopped at nothing. The sickening in men’s minds, tough, reckless in fresh cruelty brings daring.  He endured then to sacrifice his daughter to stay the strength of the war waged for a woman, first offering for the ships’ sake.” (My italics; Ibid 218-226)

The Mythological Roots of Friendships between Men

Especially on historic days is it important to keep in mind that no tree is without its roots, no mountain without its base, and no building without its foundation. In a brief concession to the genius temporis, we will consider five mythological friendships, between men and men and gods, which cleared the way for the path America continues down today. And though this article will focus on the relationships between men and men and gods, its lessons could just as easily be generalized to relationships between other genders, regardless of their constituent parts. The point of this article, and friendship, has been said best by Aristotle:

“After what we have said, a discussion of friendship would naturally follow, since it is a virtue or implies virtue, and is besides most necessary with a view to living. For without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods; even rich men and those in possession of office and of dominating power are thought to need friends most of all; for what is the use of such prosperity without the opportunity of beneficence, which is exercised chiefly and in its most laudable form towards friends? Or how can prosperity be guarded and preserved without friends? The greater it is, the more exposed is it to risk. And in poverty and in other misfortunes men think friends are the only refuge. It helps the young, too, to keep from error; it aids older people by ministering to their needs and supplementing the activities that are failing from weakness; those in the prime of life it stimulates to noble actions-‘two going together’-for with friends men are more able both to think and to act. ” (Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics BK VIII 1155a 1-8)

We will begin the day’s article with the deep and close bond between Enkidu and Gilgamesh from Ancient Sumeria’s Epic of Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh was himself a man who was two-thirds divine and one-third human–so powerful and strong that he required no sleep at night and was granted the divine right of primae noctis. No natural man could tame the appetites of Gilgamesh–so the Sumerian gods (Aruru in particular) created him a “second self, a man who equals his strength and courage, a man who equals his stormy heart.” (Gilgamesh, Book/Plate I, P. 73, Mitchell tr.). Their relationship was like none before–two peerless and divine men–who learned the ways of the earth, men, and themselves through their relationship with each other.

Even their manner of becoming acquainted had a physical and almost animal basis: “…they grappled each other, limbs intertwined, each huge body straining to break free from the other’s embrace. Finally, Gilgamesh threw the wild man and with his right knee pinned him to the ground. His anger left him. He turned away. The contest was over…they embraced and kissed. They held hands like brothers. They walked side by side and became true friends.” Through fighting each other they came to know each other in a way only they two could know. For any wrestler or grappler, this is a truth well-known–only in physical combat, does one learn another and how he relates to him fully. The two men, as best-friends, would go on to kill Humbaba, a forest-giant, and the Bull of Heaven after Gilgamesh scorned the Love Goddess Ishtar. And only through Enkidu dying did Gilgamesh learn the limits of mortality and the destiny which all men, even semi-divine men, must face. Truly, their friendship was one that led to a deeper understanding of each other, themselves, and the human condition–which, as Aristotle suggests above, are a few of the major benefits of friendship.

The next major friendship hails from a closer mythological tradition–Archaic Greece, or smiling Hellas: the ultimate warrior Achilleus and his noble, and older friend, Patroklos. We find the fullest account of the two friends in Homer’ Iliad, where no force was strong enough to bend the “Hades-like” will of Achilleus except for love of his friend and companion, Patroklos. Though Aeschylus is his play Myrmidons has a cruder portrayal of the relationship between the two, one learns in Homer’s Iliad that the two grew up together. Achilleus was always the superior, and that upon the two leaving for Troy Patroklos’ father, Menoitios, advised him always to counsel Achilleus, his superior in strength and rank, and to temper his vicious emotions as only an older and more temperate friend could. Does not this relationship resonate with every reader?

During the Iliad, as Achilleus sat out sullen and grieving for his own lost honor, Patroklos implored him to return to battle–to help their friends. Finally, while crying, Patroklos demanded that he be allowed to wear the armor of Achilleus and go fight in Achilleus’ stead. Achilleus granted his wish, and Patroklos, man that he was, pushed the Trojans back from the ships to their walls and was only stopped by the hand of Apollo, the spear of Euphorbos, and the final and finishing blow of Hektor. Patroklos, though, left the earth with a death-speech as powerful, manly, and ominous as has ever been captured in words:

“Now is your time for big words, Hektor. Yours is the victory given by Kronos’ son, Zeus, and Apollo, who have subdued me easily, since they themselves stripped the arms from my shoulders. Even though twenty such as you had come in against me, they would all have been broken beneath my spear, and have perished. No, deadly destiny, with the son of Leto, has killed me, and of men it was Euphorbos; you are only my third slayer. And put away in your heart this other thing I tell you. You yourself are not one who shall live long, but now already death and powerful destiny are standing beside you, to go down under the hands of Aiakos’ great son, Achilleus.” (Homer’s Iliad Bk XVI 844-854)

To die in such a bold and manly way is the ideal of many men. And to have one’s death be the catalyst which brings the single greatest human killing-force to have ever existed back into the battle (Achilleus had sacked 23 cities previously) both gave great meaning to Patroklos’ death and brought Achilleus back, in a way, to his humanity. Only through being stricken in such a personal way, losing his closest companion, does Achilleus re-enter the war, kill Hektor, and live-out his destiny as strongest and most glorious fighter ever to have lived. Without Patroklos, the “noble actions” which one friend is spurred on to without the other might well have been replaced by an account of Achilleus’ sullen lyre-playing, or by no account at all.

Two other major accounts of the great love shared between a mortal and immortal man are those of Zeus and Ganymede, who was so comely that Zeus, risking the hatred of his wife, Hera, took Ganymede from his royal home in Troy up to Olympos to serve forever as his cup-bearer in the place of Hera’s daughter, Hebe, Youth. A second, even more archetypal story, is that of Hyacinth and Apollo, which has become essentially synonymous with, and is generally considered the first instance of male to male love.

Both Apollo and the West Wind, Zephyros, loved Hyacinth, but as things tend to go, Hyacinth chose Apollo, the great Olympian. So, in revenge, one day while Hyacinth and Apollo were throwing the discus together, Zephyros blew the discus Apollo threw back towards Hyacinth and took his sweet life. Thus, the hyacinth plant. Though the story seems more indicative of the pitfalls of relationships between gods and men–just as Ganymede’s illustrates the potential benefits, one wonders whether Hyacinth would not have happily given up the years of his life that he did for the brief days, months (years?) which he spent in the company of a god, his friend and love.*

Next there is the example of Roman amor pius between youthful Euryalus and the hunter Nisus, whose “minds and hearts were one,” says Virgil (Aeneid Bk IX 239-240, Mandelbaum tr.). These two men were both refugees from fallen Troy, and in the absence of ruling Aeneas, they, confident in the nobility of their pursuit and the strength of their arms, set out from the wall and fortified position of Latium into the night to kill Rutulians/Latins, their enemies.

The two men, along with several other Trojans, set out on a night-raid modeled after the one which Diomedes and Odysseus more successfully carried out in Book IX of Homer’s Iliad. But Euryalus, in his youthful folly, dawns the shining helmet of Messapus, which betrays him by “flashing back moonlight across the shades of gleaming night,” (Ibid Bk IX 496-497), and Volcens, captain of the enemy Rutulians, captures “thrashing but hopeless” Euryalus.

Nisus, in horror, discovers that his closest companion is gone and from the shadows loosens arrows which fell Tagus and Sulmo. Volcens, enraged, exclaims the following ultimatum to the darkness: “yet until we find him, you shall pay…the penalties of both with your warm blood.” (Ibid Bk IX 563-564), and at this Volcens stabs Euryalus dead as Nisus watches and cries out. In response, stricken and single-minded, Nisus rushes from the shadows and through the crowd of Rutulians “seeking only Volcens, only Volcens can be the man he wants. The enemy crowd him; on every side, their ranks would drive him back, but Nisus presses on unchecked, whirling his lightning sword until he plunged it full into the Latin’s howling mouth, and, dying, took away his foeman’s life. Then, pierced, he cast himself upon his lifeless friend; there, at last, he found his rest in death.” (Ibid IX 582-590) Out of love for his noble and slain friend, Nisus gave up his own life to avenge him. Regardless of one’s particular views on justice, one cannot help but admit that tragic and beautiful sentiment of Nisus. Perhaps a certain justice requires listening to one’s heart in the moment rather than accepting a more stoic and considered self restraint?

To give one’s life in response to the death and in the service of a friend seems at least noble-minded and itself a rather heroic way to die, and it is in the deaths and lives of the men above that one sees justification, explanation, and the foundations of the friendships and relationships one sees today: “together, those in the prime of life [friendship] stimulates to noble actions,” and I will add to a pursuit of the good and a recognition of the beautiful. Such sentiments appear to be the foundations of the relationships above, and in so being, these relationships appear to partake of the good.

*One may find the Ganymede and Hyacinth stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses Bk X here in full.

On Evil: The House of Atreus

Yesterday, we considered the relationship between education and evil and how and why education might appropriately approach the subject. But, as Socrates might so aptly remind Meno, it seems that we do not even know what evil is. So, the purpose of the article today will be to examine several examples of times when an evil action might be said to have occurred. And through examining situations in which evil events have happened, perhaps we will reach a more generalizable or universal account of what evil is.

The first example we will consider is that of a father sacrificing his daughter for military glory (yes, before even Stannis did it). Such an act, devoid of context, seems blatantly evil. Let us, however, examine exactly why it is that Agamemnon sacrificed his young daughter to the goddess Artemis and see whether context tempers our judgment. As the story goes, Agamemnon was hunting with his men as they camped at Aulis before setting sail for Troy. During this hunt, Agamemnon either claimed to have hunting abilities beyond those of Artemis, or he killed a sacred stag of hers. In any case, she was angry, and he was at fault. Artemis, therefore, turned the winds of the sea against the troops and marooned them on Aulis. The prophet Calchas prophesied that Artemis would only be satisfied by the blood of one of Agamemnon’s daughters. Under the pretense of being wed to Achilleus, Iphigeneia was brought to Aulis just to discover to her horror that she was actually to be sacrificed. Supposedly she was gagged and pled with her eyes until the axe met her throat.

Now, let us consider the situation in its broader context: Agamemnon was field-marshal and commander of 1000 ships set for Troy. Had he not sacrificed his daughter, which he at first did not wish to do, his men would have been stranded on Aulis by the winds of Artemis. So, which is more important: honoring the dignity and valor of the assembled men and bringing justice to the nation of Troy who abducted Helen, queen of Sparta? Or the life of Agamemnon’s young and unwed daughter? To add to this, was Artemis’ request in the first place a bloodthirsty and evil demand of a thoughtless word of Agamemnon? And thirdly, was Agamemnon’s tricking his daughter into coming to Aulis in the first place (under the pretense of marrying Achilleus) evil itself? We will move forward with examples before pausing for further reflection.

After Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter, Klytaimestra never saw her husband in the same way again. Betrayed and hurt, she became prey for the enemies of Agamemnon and their plots while Agamemnon was away at Troy for ten years. Aigisthos, the cousin of Agamemnon who had murdered his father, Atreus, found his way to the court of Klytaimestra and became her lover. During this time–seven years–he effectively ruled Argos and convinced Klytaimestra that it would be just for her to execute Agamemnon upon his return from Troy. When Agamemnon returned, she and Aigisthos murdered Agamemnon in cold blood (and his new concubine Kassandra). Put blandly, and how Agamemnon presents it in Book XI of Homer’s Odyssey (lines 409-428),* Agamemnon was murdered by his faithless wife who served the interest of herself and her new lover by killing him.

Is the situation quite so simple, though? In sacrificing Iphigeneia, did not Agamemnon earn the wrath of the furies (by spilling the blood of a family member)? And since he did not confer with his wife, was she completely and outrageously in the wrong for killing Agamemnon? Was her reason for killing him justice for her daughter, or was it due to new love for Aigisthos, the hated rival of Agamemnon? Was her crime senseless, and must a crime be senseless to be evil? Let us continue forward with this question in mind.

Continuing down the branches of Agamemnon’s family, let us consider his son, Orestes. As we are told in Sophocles’ Electra and Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, Orestes was given over to Strophius and his son Pylades to raise (though in the one play by Klytaimestra (Agamemnon) and the other by Electra (Electra)). After coming of age, Orestes felt a duty to avenge his father’s death, so he ventured to Mykenai and with the help of Pylades and Electra he slew both Aigisthos and his mother Klytaimestra.

Now, this situation is even more complex; for on the one hand might see it this way: Orestes justly avenged the murderers of his father, the rightful king of Argos/Mykenai. On the other, however, he is an upstart refugee who has killed not only the king of Mykenai himself, but also his mother, in cold blood. Even if one concedes that Aigisthos “had it coming” and that Klytaimestra herself warranted punishment, was it right for Orestes to kill her himself? Did his duty to his father outweigh his duty to his mother? These examples all seem complex, and in their complexity there seems to be some justification for each of the characters. And due to this very presence of reason, validly judged by sound minds, though the crimes above all seem “bad”, they do not seem evil. Is it thus the case, then, that an action which admits of a reasonable or just reason cannot by definition be evil? Let us now consider an act which may shed a new light on our perception of evil.

The final example we will consider is at the very highest branches of the House of Atreus, Tantalos and his son Pelops, perhaps a prima facie example of that which we call evil. Tantalos, already being in trouble on the mortal plane, was given refuge on Olympos by Zeus. But Tantalos, having the nature that he did, was not satisfied simply to enjoy the camaraderie with the gods. No, he decided that we wanted to test their omniscience, and the way he thought to do this: make a stew with parts from his disembodied son. How utterly wretched. This brings us to our closest expression of evil and what differentiates it from something “bad” or “wrong”. There seems to be something ineffable and inexplicable in true evil. As if the process of thought which led up to it included a creative leap that a healthy or sound mind might not make. So much does this appear to be so that upon looking at the reasoning of an “evil thought”, shock rather than recognition fills the observer as he gazes with horror at the chimerical result of such abominable thinking. Let us consider this further.

If we are to label Tantalos’ actions evil and not simply unjust, cruel, bad, illegal, and mean, there must be something ineffable in what he did, or so “wretched” and “wrong” that what he has done does not admit of being spoken of–because its very mention might upset or bring about the wrath of the gods. This is an artful way of expressing that there is something beyond rational in an evil action–super or sub-rational. Certainly what Tantalos did in Antiquity was punished by the gods: his own father, Zeus, banished him to Tartaros, the deepest pit of Hades, where he would forever be submerged in water he could not drink and just below a tree of fruits from which he could not eat (Homer’s Odyssey Bk XI 581-585). But one must ask one’s self, was Tantalos’ killing and feeding of his own son to the gods to test their omniscience absolutely unthinkable? If yes, then one has there one’s definition of evil and a prima facie evidence of evil stripped right out from Greek mythology.

The nature of evil having been determined, we will move forward and consider further aspects of it in the article which is to follow.

*This is also the topic of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon.

Evil and and the Problem of Education I

The problem of evil has roots stretching back over two millenia. Here we will consider the issue of how to prepare the youth for both their lives in general and the problem of evil when they inevitably encounter it. Whether one considers evil a privatio boni as Augustine did, or one thinks man is by nature evil, or even if one sees evil in the smallest of everyday things, evil is a subject which invariably comes up in one’s life and therefore must be considered if one plans to educate the youth justly.

We begin the the end of Plato’s Republic.

“But we have not yet brought forward the heaviest count in our accusation–the power which poetry has of harming even the good (and there are very few who are not harmed), is surely an awful thing.

Yes, certainly, if the effect is what you say.

Hear and judge: The best of us, as I conceive, when we listen to a passage of Homer, or one of the tragedians, in which he represents some pitiful hero who is drawling out his sorrows in a long oration, or weeping, and smiting his breast–the best of us, you know, delight in giving way to sympathy, and are in raptures at the excellence of the poet who stirs our feelings most…”(Plato’s Republic Bk X 605c-d)

Plato, through the mouth of Socrates, here indicts poetry for the fact that a student who is exposed to an event, emotion, or circumstance which “stirs [his] feelings” may not be emotionally equipped to handle it. The claim is that one will empathize or sympathize with the suffering of a hero, or perhaps even a villain, and that in sympathizing or feeling the emotion of such a character, one’s natural reason will be overcome, and one’s emotional part of the soul will overrule the rational part ( See Plato’s tripartite theory of the soul here.).

It is unclear, at first, just precisely what the trouble is with exposing the youth to poetry and the arts, at least given Plato’s trepidation above. Yes, clearly, they will perceive events which are at the first unsavory, vexing, and generally causative of strong emotion. But is not the point of a youth watching or reading Oedipus Tyrannus to see the consequences of one’s actions, overbearing pride and its price, and the after-effects (generally negative) of strong emotions? Do not presentations of the faults and decisions of others better equip the young for their own lives–and the decisions they will have to make, under duress and otherwise?

Plato’s point thus seems a bit too dramatic at first, but as he continues, one sees what he is really driving at.

“If you consider, I said, that when in misfortune we feel a natural hunger and desire to relieve our sorrow by weeping and lamentation, and that this feeling which is kept under control in our own calamities is satisfied and delighted by the poets;-the better nature in each of us, not having been sufficiently trained by reason or habit, allows the sympathetic element to break loose because the sorrow is another’s; and the spectator fancies that there can be no disgrace to himself in praising and pitying any one who comes telling him what a good man he is, and making a fuss about his troubles; he thinks that the pleasure is a gain, and why should he be supercilious and lose this and the poem too?Few persons ever reflect, as I should imagine, that from the evil of other men something of evil is communicated to themselves. And so the feeling of sorrow which has gathered strength at the sight of the misfortunes of others is with difficulty repressed in our own…”(Ibid 606b)

What an enigmatic paragraph Plato has spun for us above. He suggests that the evil endured and done by characters in plays or poems, not-to-mention in real life, has an effect on those who witness or receive such evil. Let that really sink in for a moment, because it is a radical claim. Plato is therefore suggesting that if one perceives evil at all that one has therefore received evil into one’s being. This must be considered to some extent, because if evil may be received simply by being witnessed, then it would seem that Plato would be correct by suggesting the children and students should not be exposed to evil in books, poems, and plays. There is a part of the quote, above, which appears to be something of a linchpin and may help us better interpret Plato’s claim: “the better nature in each of us, not having been sufficiently trained by reason or habit, allows the sympathetic element to break loose because the sorrow is another’s.” What exactly does this caveat add to the situation?

In the quote above, Plato is not suggesting that if one is exposed to evil that one will by necessity become evil. He is saying that if one’s “better nature” “[has not been] sufficiently trained by reason or habit” that one will allow evil into one’s self and possibly be corrupted by it. What exactly does this mean? This means that one’s character must have been trained to pursue virtue and excellence and that one’s mind must be trained in the use and habit of reasoning before being exposed to evil according to Plato. In so being disposed towards excellence and excellent acts (and habits), and by having the discernment necessary to recognize the difference between good and evil, one will therefore be conferred not an evil, but a good from the perception of evil in a medium. But when is a student truly ready to confront this task, and who has the Rhadamanthian judgment necessary to make such a decision? Let us observe Plato’s solution before deciding.

“Therefore, Glaucon, I said, whenever you meet with any of the eulogists of Homer declaring that he has been the educator of Hellas, and that he is profitable for education and for the ordering of human things, and that you should take him up again and again and get to know him and regulate your whole life according to him, we may love and honour those who say these things –they are excellent people, as far as their lights extend; and we are ready to acknowledge that Homer is the greatest of poets and first of tragedy writers; but we must remain firm in our conviction that hymns to the gods and praises of famous men are the only poetry which ought to be admitted into our State. For if you go beyond this and allow the honeyed muse to enter, either in epic or lyric verse, not law and the reason of mankind, which by common consent have ever been deemed best, but pleasure, andd pain will be the rulers in our State.” (Ibid 606e-607a)

When I present the quote above to freshmen students, their eyes almost roll out of their heads. They exclaim, “Mr. Schmid, that is SO stupid,” and then they continue on to list the number of virtues present in Homer’s work: perseverance, practical-cunning, marital fidelity (in Penelope’s case), and endurance. That actually happens. They make fun of Elpenor (who fell off Circe’s roof drunk), despise traitors like Dolon and Melanthios, and frequently they even perceive Achilleus as something of a “cry-baby”. The students themselves are insulted by the notion that they might not be able to recognize the difference between bad and good–noble, and ignoble. Clearly, they, like Meno, struggle with the finer aspects of the definition–but few do not in my experience of asking–but the students raise a salient point: if they do not encounter evil sooner or later in their education, would they not at some point still encounter it in their lives?

This point weighs heavy. For during the course of the life of a student, regardless of the fact that today there are far worse portrayals of evil than Homer and Sophocles, a student will by necessity encounter vice, evil, and wrongness regardless of his or her ability to define these words and their accompanying feelings. The difference, however, between encountering evil alone in the world or through some other media, is that in a classroom there is an older, usually wiser, guide present to instruct and guide the young through such situations with the help of literature. And this guided experience offers some serious value before students encounter situations less fictional and moderated in their lives.

The perception of evil through some medium, Homer’s Odyssey, for example, may leave some residuum in the mind and being of a student, true. But in the great calculus of weighing potential good vs. potential bad, and this question is far more practical than it is theoretical, one must ask one’s self: would one prefer a student prepared for evil, having engaged with it in thought, or would one prefer to hope, especially in this world, that a student will never encounter evil? If one does hold this hope, when is it exactly that a student’s intellect and character will have been formed enough to confront the temptations of seductive and nefarious evil? This is a decision all parents and teachers must make.

Perhaps the decision will be easier if we let Heraclitus, a Pre-Socratic philosopher, have the last word on the value of an education including a poet who illustrates good alongside evil, or life, as we call it:

“From the very earliest infancy young children are nursed in their learning by Homer, and swaddled in his verses we water our souls with them as though they were nourishing milk. He stands beside each of us as we start out and gradually grow into men, he blossoms as we do, and until old age we never grow tired of him, for as soon as we set him aside we thirst for him again; it may be said that the same limit is set to both Homer and life.” (Heraclitus, Homeric Problems 1.5-7)

Are We Romans Yet?

“I live in Sicily as a foreigner, but I love this country More than any other. This is my home now, My true dwelling place.” –Ovid, Metamorphoses Bk V 572-557 (Lombardo tr.)*

Consider the diverse peoples who came together to form and defend Troy: Lykians, Aethiopians, Amazonians, et alia. At one time, and for one lucid moment, these people were united in a just and singular goal: defend home. Then imagine them scattered to the wind in the wake of their defeat. Many of the surivors–those not enslaved–followed Aeneas, forever stopping and starting in cities that would never be called home. Later, after his own women burned many of his ships, King Acestes of Sicily would take the less warlike and honor-driven people in, and for many, their journey ended there: et in Sicanis ego.

But the journey was not over for Aeneas; ever did the signs point to Latinum and War;  war, with a seven year long journey sandwiched between it and the Ten year long Trojan War before it. Twenty years of suffering–When ever do we find home? When ever do we, like Aeneas’ followers, become Romans? Is home our birthright, or do we, like poor Helenus and Andromache risk falling for pale illusion? Or like poor Polydorus and Palinurus, do we simply lack the fate or strength to make it home? Is home, perhaps, a little more difficult to attain than one might at first suspect?

When we came together; some from undergraduate colleges in the Southwest, others from the Northeast, others from being cooks in the south, and others from the deep colds of the Midwest, we were disparate and many. At St. John’s we became one. We were Johnnies, or put more correctly, we were GI’s. We were friends united in learning and transforming our natures and lives, substantially. But St. John’s is no end point, no telos. One must be-at-work-while-staying-at-self-and-then-go. The gates of ivory close; the cave must be returned to; the heights of the Empyrean precede the inevitable return to the mundane; Jacob’s or Plato’s ladder must be scaled down. One leaves through the gate of horn. We then multiply and become plentiful. But though we came as disparate people, did we leave as one people? Are we not now all Romans now, though once we were fallen Trojans of Phrygian, Thracian, Amazonian, or Near-Eastern stock? No, obviously not. A fallen Trojan does not a Roman make. Journeys, sufferings, losses, and war await one. St. John’s is a beautiful beginning, but a beginning all the same.

St. John’s offers a taste of home, but a taste, like the Lotus Eaters would attest, that one never can go without drinking from again. Just as Alcibiades was overcome by his desire to see within Socrates, to see his inner light, the light beyond the shadows of the cave—those inner depths sometimes called pristine heights, so must one afflicted by the gadfly which flits about plains less noble than Elyisum, restlessly, strive for Hyperborea beyond the clouds, or Rome beyond the Aegean sea. A distant point, hare-like in its elusiveness, the distance to which is only ever halved; Sicily may have to do. My lips are cracked, my breath dry. The air without is dry and arid. Where is home? The answer is so cruelly simple. Home must be built, not found. Such homes as exist ready made for others are denied you now, Brother Aaron.

I say this not to discourage, but like Teiresias in Homer’s underworld, or Anchises in Vergil’s, to counsel. To return home, or where once was home, like Agamemnon, expecting all as it was, is to invite severe misfortune. All is not as it seems, though once that was all one’s eyes could darkly see. One must now, with scales fallen out from eyes, mist parted, see that which is, and actually bring about what once could safely exist in hope alone.

My evenings at St. John’s involved pleasant conversation, thoughtful debate, and were often followed by giving Dionysos his due after Apollinian days. The Even-star fell on my days where happiness was equal during morning hours to those hours covered by Selene’s cool light. My nights now are largely solitary, and though my knowledge and wisdom daily increase, so does my loneliness and estrangement from those around me. I continue my work in isolation; I grow strong, my life’s work is happening, and yet I long for my former Troy, the company of my dear Creusa. My work continues. I strive onward hoping for Athene’s counsel; avoiding Poseidon’s wrath.

I miss my home. I know it does not exist; it must be founded at yet unknown costs. And yet still do I linger on un-spun thoughts, restless sentences dripping from worn-through keys. A barista, rude in tone, low in thoughts, calls me back to the mundane. Doesn’t she know from what heights she drags me down from? My fall is Luciferian. Pandemonium will not do. Only Rome. Such grasping hands belong not alone to baristas: the ignoble belly. I hold a lowly steward’s grip on Agamemnon’s weathered staff—molding youth, expressing knowledge, transmitting culture. All are excaliburs of thought. What gives me happiness and long-lingering hope causes pain all the same. I have never been without this feeling. Is this what the Pious son of Venus and swift-footed Peleion felt with goddess mothers? Such simple and short-enduring pride, exaggerated with filial love when they were present, followed by such keen pain at their eternal and inevitable passing by?

To reach a crescendo, Ovid’s Tristia comes to mind:

“When the saddest image of that night recurs which was for me the final moment in the city, when I recall the night in which I left behind so much dear to me, a tear now also glides from my eyes. Now the day was nearly at hand in which Caesar had ordered me to depart from the bounds of farthest Ausonia.”

But this is no elegy; it is the beginning of an epic. Suffering and nostalgia for what is lost is not this life’s major theme. Suffering is but hand-maiden, constant companion to something greater.

All this goes to show the layers with which life and fate conspire to confound and confront one. I am, perhaps arguably, a success in terms of the thinking of St. John’s, though I once declared its program a failure (in terms of finding one opportunities to share one’s acquired wisdom for a wage). Two years after graduating I am responsible for developing four years of Great Books course-work in a Charter school system—truly avant garde–not having accepted what was already laid down. Many of my fellows chose Carthage or Buthrotum, burning their ships, but I, possibly with the love of some Venus or Minerva, sailed on, ever in search of Lavinia, which I must build.

This is the life I wish to live. This is the life the moirai set out for me. And yet, like Aeneas, I was not warned by Helenus nor Celaeno of the sorrows I would face. Perhaps, though, I was? A life of meaning is not at all times happy. I feel the nagging sorrow, the tristia, and loneliness of those who travel West, those who approach the great Ocean’s border, and I am as of yet still unsure how to fill this void. I long for meaningful company and conversation, and I require more and more the farther I progress. I know these are the long days of struggle on the sea, but clarity can be difficult as the Dog-Star rises on the horizon, or the Sun sets in Capricorn, causing fear to all sailors braving the wine-dark sea.

*Written for all those who once knew home at St. John’s or some other brief Eden and are now on their nostos, wherever that may be.

Dead or Dying: Are the Great Books still Relevant as a Medium?

The unfortunate answer to this question appears to be yes, but not for cynical reasons. If one is considering the general medium of the Great Books a hardback or paperback book filled with words, then yes, the medium is certainly dated, and not necessarily because “people” are losing their imaginations and intellects. In the following essay, we will consider the artistic and intellectual options one has besides books now, and whether in this age of digital supremacy, the simplicity of a book, and its abstract expressions, still have a place in our education and entertainment.

We begin with the example of the graphic art medium, comics: one now has the opportunity not only to include a specific image with the text, and to order those images in sequence with the artist’s intent, but the artist may also offer the focal points of each image to more clearly direct the thought of his reader/viewer. What this gives up in descriptive depth from reading pages on end, is covered by the fact that the reader gets “the summary” or the definite perspective of the writer and artist. This is another unique aspect of the comic: one has at least two minds representing the world one encounters–the illustrator and the writer–two imaginations blended as one, and there are some very innovative uses of this technique now being experimented with. But that said, is there not a closing off of perspectives in being shown one perspective and his or her desire to show his or her respective at all?

Let us examine the question like this: if a comic-book artist is capable of presenting a situation with full imaginative detail, does not the comic book artist close off the creative process of a reader to “add” his own take to the situation? Beyond this, is not part of the purpose of reading a work testing and expanding one’s imagination not only by envisioning what a writer intends, but also in adding or subtracting in accordance with one’s own personal predilection? Perhaps that is just an error of the reader and the comic-book artist corrects the imaginative attempts of the reader.

Let us now imagine a situation, then, for a moment, and how a comic book might represent it as opposed to a book. The situation is that a mother has just discovered that her child who has been very sick has died. In the graphic novel, perhaps an entire page is dedicated to the look on her face, and panel by panel, it zooms in, effectively showing the stunned since of loss, but more, of the emptiness and shock the mother feels–precisely because the news has hit her so hard that she is incapable of even feeling. Now compare what you imagined to an image of a sorrowful or shocked mother–perhaps this one. Was not your imagination just as vivid? Let us move on from such macabre examples.

It is also argued, particularly the example above, that use of “graphic arts” is more long-standing and has “deeper roots” than use of pure-written language. And though this argument makes a claim to more “natural” language, by its own reasoning, it also suggests that “graphic arts” are more primitive and less sophisticated than purely written arts. All that said, this is not an argument against hybrid-forms, nor against graphic arts as expressive, imaginative, and extraordinary media. The point is that graphic arts can adequately express thoughts and feelings, but that they are not capable of completely supplanting the purpose and value of less visually stimulating texts. Also, if one accepts the maxim “the visual provides expression where words fail” from the dissertation comic above, one may be tempted to ask whether that is the fault of the words or the writer using them.

The next style of new-age reading is from a book, or more commonly, some text (like a website or blog) with some alteration made to the performance of reading it. Either, one is electronically reading from a website with different colors, perhaps music playing, static images following one’s cursor, as well as images wedged between pictures–possibly even videos. Imagine this. There are pictures alongside, in-between, and continuing the narrative of the writing structure there. There are ads, links, and “calls to action” set to bright colors and warm-images. Breathe. One receives from such sites or blogs, again, a very strong view of the perspective of the author of the blog/site, though the intention of the site itself can sometimes be difficult to decipher. One perceives not only the author/artist’s capacity for writing, but his or her creative flair for design and pedagogy as well.

The difficulty one runs into is that instead of focusing on depth of thought, one might devote more time to one’s presentation and the audio-visual sensibilities of one’s audience. For example, though editing writing is difficult enough, imagine that the artist-writer hybrid now too must match the colors of his or her fonts with his or her backgrounds, flow of his or her images, and the linking of his or her videos. This is not to suggest that time or effort are the only factors limiting these media, so much as that they are complicated and that with images, videos, and colors added, it is very much possible that a strong presentation will supplant a strong argument instead. Though, of course, this need not be the case.

The third style, which is largely being supplanted by the second style, is the cinema method, but by this I do not mean full-length feature films (though, they are included), but rather I mean all matter of video-files, on youtube, facebook, and vine as well. What these methods allow for is instant communication via transmission of a life-like visage of yourself or something else, and in so providing this, they provide ease of access in an unprecedented fashion. One not only receives the direct thinking and expressions of the person one observes, one sees so much more about the author: his looks, his mannerisms, how he engages with the camera or another person. One gets a far more complete perception of the artist or thinker himself, and generally, such a vivid and exciting medium is capable of conveying a large amount of data and dialog within a rather focuses and short period of time. Does this, however, convey his or her thought more effectively, or does it simply give one more ancillary material on which to chew? It is true, that like with the comic-book, one (imagine a late-night host) may use graphics, sub-titles, and other large and colorful effects to express one’s meaning in front of the camera. But the question remains firm: do more images, sounds, and content detract from the thought while adding to the thematic value of the medium? The answer remains uncertain.

Although the book as a medium has a stalwart (and practical) place in a Great Books education or any education at large, it is still unclear whether more artistically expressive media like videos and image-filled sites are better media per se or simply offer more possible methods of expressing one’s self. If one thinks that “more is better” in terms of choices for presenting one’s self, the choice is clear, and the book is dead as a medium. But if one thinks deeper, and one considers that words composed of letters and ordered in brief semiotic units exist as abstract representations of images, thoughts, and feelings, and that one reading (especially verse) must translate, and make meaning, from these odd and unnatural representations, is this difficult and somewhat artificial process more or less likely to warrant and produce the best abstract and rational thinking than an image based method of communication?

Why Good Writers Go Bad: A Cry in the Dark

Trying to get attention as a writer is kind of miserable. It is thankless and often reader-less work. And in honor of the trouble writers go through everywhere, today we present to you the piece, “Why Good Writers Go Bad”.

As a writer, one fears not being accepted or being ridiculed by one’s writing. This, at it turns out, is a somewhat juvenile fear for a writer to have–why is this one might ask? Because little does one realize that apathy towards one is far, far more common.  And rather than fearing, over time, that people will dislike one for his or her writing, the young writer becomes less and less certain of his or her voice and its connection to one’s time.

One is constantly beset by worries: is one’s thinking disjointed and erratic? Or are one’s thoughts simply beyond one’s pen’s ability to grasp? Or does one simply think and write on topics of exceeding irrelevance? Questions which might show insecurity of a private person, become necessities for a writer. If he speaks a language that only he knows, how will he reach people? How will he make the impact he first set out to make? As a first measure of a writer’s ability, it is the comments of one’s readers, and their reactions to one’s work which give a writer insight into himself. A writer craves people to read, criticize, and comment on his work–it is his life-blood, because it shows that he is “getting through” his medium to the eyes, ears, and hearts of readers–even when they disagree. Their viewing and commenting is what makes the endless staring at the ceiling and waiting for inspiration–or the proper turn of a word–worth it.

That said, sometimes a young writer cannot take the loneliness, and he turns to the dark-side of writing–pandering to the mass and using devilish tricks to deceive the unwary viewer into clicking on his work. Whether this viewer be procrastinating student, savvy cubicle worker, or just bored writer, the titles, images, and content of such pieces are made for him.

Such diversionary and “click-baiting” tactics include:

1) Lists

2) NEW Recap of Show You Currently Watch

3) Scantily Clad Women (sometimes as a front for more serious issues)

4) Polemical or Outrageous Claims 

5) New Takes which are expressive of MAJOR emotion on trending topics.

6) Cat Videos

Writing on these gets a writer ATTENTION which ultimately gives a writer a sense of value–for the more people that a writer reaches, the more impact he or she has as a writer. As a writer, one is often tempted to devolve to these manners of tricks. After pouring one’s time, energy, emotion, SOUL into a piece, one publishes it and sits back. Perhaps one uses the restroom or makes a quick snack in the interim. But what was a soul-achingly personal and active practice becomes a jarringly passive battle of one’s own self-loathing vs. one’s better sense. One sits and refreshes the “statistics” over and over and over and over. Will anyone ever read this? Have you ever written a particularly meaningful Facebook post and taken gratification when one, two, or three likes appear? Imagine having done just that but multiply it by a thousand. The time between affirmations, or even just views, is endless.

So, one should not exactly look down on those writers who choose the popular path. It is the dark-side, provocative, and at least slightly more thrilling and glamorous in that people will actually read one–well, or click on your article, but there is also likely a certain emptiness to such writer’s feelings. Why? The point of having people read and like one’s writing is that they acknowledge that they see, feel, and think in a similar way to how one does. When one removes the “you” element from one’s writing, then one’s writing is flat, lifeless, and could just as well belong to anyone else. Think of any BuzzFeed article that you have ever seen. Anyone could write it. Is that not precisely its appeal? It is the Nietzschean abyss which stares right back into your soul.

The point of this essay is not to moralize. The author himself is guilty of falling for what is appropriately called “click-bait” frequently. Such information at one’s finger tips is absolutely intoxicating. The point, though, is to share a feeling, like all good writing does–to bridge a gap between people and to connect to others–one’s audience here in particular. Just keep in mind, when you do observe a scantily clad woman as the picture to an article which has nothing to do with the picture–know that that is calculated–frequently by a publisher, editor, or sometimes by a self-hating writer who wants something from you–not your connection, just your click.

There is a such a tremendous gap which separates each person from another person; we are not so nearly connected as we think that we are. As animals, perhaps, but as individual souls, no. One sees this as a writer–one feels this. The amount of effort a writer puts into his or her work, wishing to connect with another soul, is unimaginable. Recall your own efforts in school or university. Was not sitting down to write the most achingly painful experience you endured:
Does this sentence look right? How do I use a semi-colon? Is this how you use this word? It might make you feel squeamish just thinking about it. That is precisely the connection that a writer is looking for in his audience, and that is precisely what vapid and abysmal writing and fodder for googly eyes neglects. Even if you continue “to take the bait”, do so discerningly and with the knowledge that there are those who have truly sweated for what they have written–those who have attempted to connect through their art and media, and that they actually want you, as a person, to connect to their art, thoughts, feelings, and souls, not just as a “click”.

*Here at “The History of Western Thought” modern culture is just as fair-game as ancient culture, and the bridge between the two worlds–which is truly one world unus mundus–is the point of the whole endeavor. Rather than indulging in the seeming emptiness of clicks for the sake of advertising for the sake of selling for the sake of produce dividends, net profits, and gross margins (which are all very, very important), the point here is not to be above those considerations so much as to co-exist with them, but also to see them within their proper place and to value them correctly.The piece above is part of our new “Our Modern Culture” segment with a more personal feel. Keep “clicking”.

The Monstrous and the Divine in the Homeric World

If ever there were a world meant to make one feel small it would be Homer’s.  As one reads through the lines of his Iliad and Odyssey, time and time again one observes that which could never be observed: semi-divine heroes and absolute monarchs; creatures of unstoppable might or gargantuan size, and gods on high, beyond all things mortal, except for, of course, the affairs of man. The question thus arises, what might one learn from such untouchable and unbelievable characters, creatures, and gods? What could one learn from say Achilleus and Agamemnon, the Cyclopes and the Sirens, and Zeus and his distinguished family? Let us find out.

One meets Achilleus and Agamemnon in the first seven lines of Homer’s Iliad:

“Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
since that time when first there stood in division of conflict
Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus.” (Iliad Bk I 1-7, Lattimore tr.)

The rest of the story, though featuring gods, machinations, and bouts with and decisions about iron-clad fate, is essentially an off-shooting from these first lines. All that happens during the course of the Iliad stems from the strife between Agamemnon and Achilleus. Achilleus, the semi-divine and near invincible son of Thetis, the Nereid, conqueror of twenty-three cities, and Agamemnon, lord of Mycenae and Argos, leader of 100 ships, and the field marshal of the 1000 ships of the Achaian fleet. These men are giants in the truest sense of the word. However, they are both profoundly human in that they are childish and emotionally weak–and that their emotions lead them both to smallness and perdition from mightiness and grandeur.

Agamemnon, by dishonoring Achilleus in the first book (by taking his concubine, Briseis), loses his greatest warrior–the only warrior keeping Hektor of Troy from routing the Achaians, burning their fleet, and sending Agamemnon’s name into posterity as the king who lost the biggest war in history–Ignominy for the price of one girl.* Achilleus, on the other hand, knows that he has two destinies and that one includes his sky-borne fame:

“For my mother Thetis the goddess of the silver feet tells me
I carry two sorts of destiny toward the day of my death.  Either,
if I stay here and fight beside the city of the Trojans,
my return home is gone, but my glory shall be everlasting;
but if I return home to the beloved land of my fathers,
the excellence of my glory is gone, but there will be a long life
left for me, and my end in death will not come to me quickly.” (Iliad Bk IX 405-416, Lattimore tr.)

And though Achilleus valued glory above all else in the time before the Iliad, the disrespect Agamemnon paid him has made him question the whole heroic code of conduct–so much so that he dared to speak: “Fate is the same for the man who holds back, the same if he fights hard. We are all held in a single honor, the brave with the weaklings.” (Iliad Bk IX 318-320, Lattimore tr.) Achilleus, though he may be making a cogent point, has become surly and self-absorbed. He now matches the covetousness of Agamemnon with his own rage and his own self-interested pursuit of whichever destiny suits him best.

Both Agamemnon and Achilleus are beyond human in their gifts and abilities, and yet both are so small and so utterly human in that they are controlled and harnessed by their emotions, rather than vice versa. Perhaps divine gifts are not always quite so divine as they seem, especially when one considers Achilleus and Agamemnon in light of Nestor and Odysseus, who, though wise and cunning, respectively, held nowhere near as much physical or political power. Both men, though, make it home alive and well, and both are still lauded to this day.

The monstrous then rears its ugly head in Homer’s Odyssey. Though the Iliad featured many semi-divine warriors (Sarpedon, Achilleus, Memnon (technically after), Tlepolemos, Aeneas, etc…) it is Homer’s Odyssey which showcases monsters as invincible and irresistible as forces of nature. On the one hand, there is the Lotus Flower of the Lotus Eaters, which causes all men who consume it to forget themselves and their homecoming, and then there is the sweet and all-knowing song of the Sirens which all men succumb to if they hear it. One sees also giant and uncivilized murderers like Polyphemos, the Cyclops and Antiphates and his Laistrygones, who happen to kill 10/11 of Odysseus’ men. There are then also more selective or limited monsters–still as irresistibly powerful: Circe with her “malignant drugs” which cause Odysseus’ men to turn to swine (only Hermes’ advice to eat the divine plant “Moly” saves Odysseus from this fate), or Skylla and her killing with her six vicious heads, and Charybdis who swallows the salt-sea and all that travels across her whirlpool’s edge.

Truly, what lessons could be learned from the Lotus Eaters and Sirens? Is it that certain forces, precisely because of their pleasant nature, will always be beyond human will and control? Or perhaps, when encountering the Cyclopes and Laistrygones, what the price of false expectations and assumptions is? Or is it that no amount of human physical strength will win out in certain situations? Again with Skylla and Charybdis, does one learn that in life there will be times when one is faced by decisions where pain and suffering will be the result of either path, and one must choose the lesser of two significant evils? And then Circe, and the power some divinity, or some pursuit may have to turn men into baser animals, pigs. These monsters exist within Homer’s Odyssey not as simple and imaginative fanfare, but as illustrations of situations, events, and conditions that are at once beyond human control, and universally and commonly present in the life of any man or woman.

Having seen magnificent men and monstrous creatures, let us now consider the gods. As early as the end of Book I of Homer’s Iliad one has the opportunity to see the consort and relationships between the gods and the necessity for peace between them. After Achilleus begs his mother, Thetis, to have Zeus honor him because the Achaians, and specifically Agamemnon, have dishonored him, Thetis flies to Zeus in heaven to request that he give honor to her poor son, Achilleus.Though Zeus is loath to go against the will of his wife Hera (Hera, Poseidon, and Athene are all staunch supporters of the Achaians), Thetis reminds him of the time that she freed him from the clutches of the same three gods/goddesses and restored him to power. Zeus then nods his head, and immediately after Thetis flies off, Hera starts berating him, in all too familiar way, for consorting with Thetis and no doubt hurting her plans to destroy Troy. Zeus replies to her with a show of force that would become common throughout the Iliad:

“Dear lady, I never escape you, you are always full of suspicion.
Yet thus you can accomplish nothing surely, but be more
distant from my heart than ever, and it will be the worse for you.
If what you say is true, then that is the way I wish it.
But go then, sit down in silence, and do as I tell you,
for fear all the gods, as many as are on Olympos, can do nothing
if I come close and lay my unconquerable hands upon you.” (Iliad Bk 561-567, Lattimore tr.)

Hephaistos, son of Hera, and by some accounts Zeus as well, steps between the two, reminding them that gods ought not to quarrel on the behalf of mortals and that there will be no pleasure in feasting because “vile things will be uppermost”. Hephaistos then reminds Hera of the power of Zeus and how he once threw Hephaistos off of Olympos–who had stepped between Zeus and Hera–so that he fell from the sky for an entire day until plummeted to the earth of the island of Lemnos (an image repeated by Lucifer in Book I of Milton’s Paradise Lost). (One can read the whole exchange here.)

Although the basic foundation of morality and politics does appear to be the absolute power of Zeus, if one looks closely, that looks more like  starting point for the interactions of the gods than it does an ending point. For one, Zeus goes against the will of his wife in order to honor a debt he has to Thetis. Is honoring a debt something that an all-powerful and tyrannical ruler is required to do by law? Certainly no law above him could bring this about; it is his own code applied to himself–and it takes the form of honoring a debt, or a favor done for him, above honoring the will of his own wife. This is a very interesting insight into the ways of politics as exemplified by the gods. For if he is all powerful, why does Zeus feel the need to act politically at all? And if an all-powerful god acts politically, honoring debts, listening to reason, and refusing at all times to assert his power, is one to understand that a human, far less powerful, ought to do the same? Does one imagine that haughty Agamemnon would honor a debt that would cause him any discomfort at all? Was not the entire ordeal between him and Achilleus brought about precisely because he would not be without “every honor” a leader deserves?

Secondly, what is Hephaistos’ role on Olympos here? He already knows that he is risking severe physical punishment (he either limps because he was thrown by Zeus off Olympos or because he was born deformed, depending on account) by standing between Zeus and Hera, but it is telling that he plays the role of peacemaker. He reminds Hera of the power of Zeus so that Zeus need not express his power himself. Again this is a lesson both Achilleus and Agamemnon could learn from. Agamemnon expresses his power by taking the concubine of Achilleus. And Achilleus nearly expressed his power by reaching to pull his sword and kill Agamemnon until Athene pulls his hair to stop him from acting rashly (Bk I 197-200). Nestor steps between the two men and he calms their emotions for a moment, but where Hephaistos brings the gods to peace, Nestor only prevents further immediate physical and disastrous conflict. The damage to the relationship between Achilleus and Agamemnon, though, is done. It seems that as human as the gods can be, in terms of having emotions and acting violently, that at least in the first book of Homer’s Iliad they are capable of a peace or political order that the men below are not.

*One is almost tempted to observe the subtle and pervading presence of women’s power in the Homer, but that is the subject of another essay soon to come