Conversations with Students X: The Sacking of Troy and Beginning of an Odyssey

In transitioning from Homer’s Iliad, his story of war, high emotion, and the toll that such emotion takes on mortal lives, to the far-blown fame and person of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, we first took a moment to look at the summaries that still remain of “The Epic Cycle”, and then we moved forward through the first book of Homer’s Odyssey (Lattimore’s translation). Thus begins our second seminar series.

We discussed all that happened between the Iliad and Odyssey, with the sage help of Proclus who preserved summaries of the six lost epics of the Epic Cycle (found here or here) These lost epics: The Cypria by Stasinus of Cyprus (staged as immediately preceding Homer’s Iliad), The Aethiopis of Artinus of Miletus immediately afterward, The Little Iliad of Lesches of Mitylene, The Sacking of Troy also by Arctinus of Miletus, The Returns of Agias of Trozen, and eventually, after Homer’s OdysseyThe Telegony comprise the story called “The Epic Cycle”. Together they form the events which lead up to the Trojan War, the Trojan War, and the after-math of the war for the Achaians. Traditionally, they would have filled in many, many gaps left by the Iliad and Odyssey as a pair, but sadly, over time, and lack of reproduction, each of the other six epics was lost to time. This was not, however, the deepest tragedy, says Aristotle in his praise of Homer’s unity of plot and criticism of The Cypria and The Little Iliad in his Poetics (1459a-b)

“So in this respect, too, compared with all other poets Homer may seem, as we have already said, divinely inspired, in that even with the Trojan war, which has a beginning and an end, he did not endeavor to dramatize it as a whole, since it would have been either too long to be taken in all at once or, if he had moderated the length, he would have complicated it by the variety of incident. As it is, he takes one part of the story only and uses many incidents from other parts, such as the Catalogue of Ships and other incidents with which he diversifies his poetry. The others, on the contrary, all write about a single hero or about a single period or about a single action with a great many parts, the authors, [1459b] [1] for example, of the Cypria and the Little Iliad. The result is that out of an Iliad or an Odyssey only one tragedy can be made, or two at most, whereas several have been made out of the Cypria, and out of the Little Iliad more than eight, e.g. The Award of Arms, Philoctetes, Neoptolemus, Eurypylus, The Begging, The Laconian Women, The Sack of Troy, and Sailing of the Fleet, and Sinon, too, and The Trojan Women.”

For though we have lost the other six epics, apparently they were not of the same caliber as are the two epics we have remaining to us. So, confident that two masterpieces will do and summaries filling in our knowledge where it is lacking will suffice, let us move forward to consider the fates of several heroes we knew well during the interim between Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

The students were shocked by the men who died during and after the war, and some felt emotion even for the basest Achaians. Achilleus, Paris, both the Aiantes, Antilochos, Priam, Astyanax, Deiphobos (many Trojans during the sacking, of course), Phoinix, Thersites, and even Agamemnon, but the deaths which are most shocking are each of the Aiantes, Agamemnon, and some students even showed sadness for poor hunched-backed Thersites. So we know, Achilleus died either by the hand of Paris and Apollo or Apollo alone. Not a surprise to the students given the several prophecies of Achilleus’ death the Iliad. That Paris should get the winning shot was a true moment of humility for all students, though the fact that Apollo helped him along helped to alleviate the sort of “Evil David vs. Good Goliath” effect.

Aias the Greater’s death was more of a disappointment to the students. During the Iliad, he was a brave and supreme hero. He went on the Embassy to Achilleus, was clear in his purpose, and twice almost killed Hektor. He, unlike Achilleus, Menelaos, Eurypylos, Machaon, Agamemnon, and Odysseus, was one of the few major champions who remained uninjured throughout the fighting. He was glorious and bold, and the fact that through his pride and folly that he took his own life in suicide was a bitter disappointment to the students. Naturally, they learned that it was because according to his code, he was disgraced, and by his code he died: he lost the speech-contest to Odysseus for the “arms of Achilleus” and proceeded to attempt to kill Odysseus, Menelaos, and Agamemnon, but he was thwarted by Athene “mazing” his vision so that he only killed cattle. Feeling disgraced and abandoned by the gods, Aias felt that his final dignity would be to deny his former friends the glory of ending his life, and thus was the fate of Aias the Greater.*

Aias the Lesser met with considerably less pity. In an attempt at raping the cursed prophetess daughter of Kassandra in the temple of Athene, Lokrian Aias defamed and damaged an image of Athene therefore earning her ire for himself and the rest of the Achaians. The students did not care for how quickly Athene turned on the Achaians, but in matters of sacrifice and honor to the gods, the students have learned that the gods come first to the gods. Aias, then, when accosted by a great storm sent by Athene is nearly drowned with his ship and men, but after Poseidon saved him, Aias lost his mind, and recklessly declared his supremacy to the gods. Poseidon then used his trident to break the rock onto which Aias was clinging and send him to a watery doom. The students almost universally said, “that was so stupid.”

Agamemnon will later receive an article essentially all his own, but for now it is enough to mention that the students remembered his betraying of Klytaimnestra by deceiving her into sending Iphigeneia to be sacrificed at Aulis under the pretence of marriage to Achilleus. Many students said that this was justice, but further conversation will be reserved until later.

Moving from the time between and the many, many questions which we will return to (like do the students feel OK with the fact that Troy was taken by cunning, not strength), we then considered the importance and difference between the proems (first few lines) of each of the poems and how their themes, tones, and manners of presentation may be different.

Homer’s Iliad (1.1-1.7)

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.

Homer’s Odyssey (1.1-1.10)

Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven
far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.
Many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of,
many the pains he suffered in his spirit on the wide sea,
struggling for his own life and the homecoming of his companions.
Even so he could not save his companions, hard though
he strove to; they were destroyed by their own wild recklessness,
fools, who devoured the oxen of Helios, the Sun God,
and he took away the day of their homecoming. From some point
here, goddess, daughter of Zeus, speak, and begin our story.

We immediately notice some distinct differences between the two proems. The Iliad sings of the emotion of a semi-divine man and his feud with a “leader of men” and the many men on their side of battle who will die because of this. The Iliad is also sung (aeide). The Odyssey is the telling (ennepe) of the many struggles of a suffering man who fails to save his companions due to their own recklessness. The distinction between the Iliad being sung and the Odyssey told (though of course both would be sung in dactylic hexameter by rhapsodes) is one the students made a strong attempt at. Emotion, they say, is a higher theme, or at the least, song is more appropriate to conveying of emotion–it is more emotional the students say, and “gut-wrenching” does seem a word more aptly ascribed to painful dirges. (Viz. (or rather Aud.) Adele’s Hello).

Another important difference is that the focus of the book will shift from the interplay between the will of the gods and man to how man inevitably adds to his own suffering and destruction. In fact, this theme of wild “recklessness” (atasthalia) is repeated in the words of no smaller a figure than Zeus, king of the gods, not twenty lines later:

“Oh, for shame, how the mortals put the blame upon us gods, for they say evils come from us, but it is they, rather, who by their own recklessness (atasthalia) win sorrow beyond what is given…” (1.32-35)

So, though the students gave a detailed list of times when the gods seemed to add to the suffering of mortals, the most provocative of which is likely during Book III of the Iliad when Hera and Zeus agree to let Ilion be destroyed and Athene convinces Pandaros to break the truce between the Trojans and the Achaians, we will remain sensitive to the statement that mortals create their own suffering and that their own lack of resiliency, perseverance, discernment, or fidelity lead to their destruction during the Odyssey.

In conclusion, as an extra treat, I will include here major themes we will consider, and which will be present all through Homer’s Odyssey and our seminars on it:

(1) Father and son relationships and their complexity;

(2) Concealed (kalupto) or veiled truths and the art of misdirection;

(3) Perseverance and the “hero’s” journey;

(4) Homecoming (nostos) and what makes a home (so important);

(5) The Xenia or guest/host relationship and its importance;

(6) Detainment, both mental and physical, and its hateful nature.

And bonus number two is a list of Relevant Quotes to the first Seminar which may well earn their own post soon:

1.347-349 Telemachos blames Zeus for all mortals’ troubles.

“They [the suitors] all would find death was quick, and marriage a painful matter.” (1.266)

“You should not go on clinging to childhood. You are no longer an age to do that.” (1.296-297)

“The gods have not made yours a birth that will go nameless…” (1.222)

Nobody really knows his own father.” (my bold; 1.216)

“Your words to me are kind…what any father would say to his son.” (1.307-308)

“Do not detain me any longer, eager as I am for my journey.” (1.315)

“The daughter of Ikarios, circumspect Penelope, heard and heeded the magical song from her upper chamber, and descended the high staircase that was built in her palace, not all alone, since two handmaidens went to attend her. When she, shining among women, came near the suitors, she stood by the pillar that supported the roof with its joinery, holding her shining veil in front of her face, to shield it, and a devoted attendant was stationed on either side of her.” (1.328-335)

“But if she continues to torment the sons of the Achaians, since she is so dowered with the wisdom bestowed by Athene, to be expert in beautiful work, to have good character and cleverness, such as we are not told of, even of the ancient queens, the fair-tressed Achaian women of times before us, Tyro and Alkmene and Mykene, wearer of garlands; for none of these knew thoughts so wise as Penelope knew;” (2.115-122)

*Greater detail will be given to Telamonian Aias during our seminar on The Ajax of Sophocles.

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Conversations with Students VIII: Wrath, Tragedy, and Inhuman Cruelty

Well, the climax of Homer’s Iliad is finally reached in Books 21 and 22. We see Achilleus descend into burning fury, and become more and more an inhuman force of nature. We observe him also almost pay strongly for his delusions in both being chased by the wave of a powerful river, Xanthos/Skamandros, but also chasing down a god he thought was a man (Apollo). We see the famous theomachy or fight between the gods on Achaian and Trojan side, and even more famously we see the resolution of Hektor to stand and fight Achilleus, his moment of terror and flight, and then his deception and death–followed most famously by his being dragged behind Achilleus’ chariot in an act of unspeakable cruelty. All this was considered today during our eighth conversation with students.

During Book 21 we discover that Achilleus was once glad to catch men and ransom them into slavery (Lykaon, for example), but that now, especially in the cases of Polydoros, Lykaon, and Asteropaios (who gives his lineage in a way most similar to Glaukos from Book 6), Achilleus will spare no Trojan, especially those who are the sons of Priam. He says directly 21.99-113:

“Poor fool, no longer speak to me of ransom, nor argue it. In the time before Patroklos came to the day of his destiny then it was the way of my heart’s choice to be sparing of the Trojans, and many I took alive and disposed of them. Now there is not one who can escape death, if the gods send him against my hands in front of Ilion, not one of all the Trojans and beyond others the children of Priam. So, friend [philos], you die also. Why all this clamour about it? Patroklos is also dead, who was better by far than you are. Do you not see what a man I am, how huge, how splendid and born of a great father, and the mother who bore me immortal? Yet even I have also my death and my strong destiny, and there shall be a dawn or an afternoon or a noontime when some man in the fighting will take the life from me also either by spearcast or an arrow flown from the bowstring.”

Truly, the charge made of him by both Patroklos (16.33-35) and Aias (9.630-633) of him being pitiless has become true. He is changed even in character from the sort of youthful rage he endured earlier in the text to a being consumed and represented by fire (19.15-18; 19.375-380). He can do naught but consume, ravage, and destroy–whether it be the warrior’s ethical code, funerary rites of defeated heroes, or the lives of those who knees he unstrings, Achilleus loses more and more humanity as he gives in further and further to his desperate wrath, a passion beyond belief, unchecked by the mediocrity of average human abilities. He refuses food (19.200-214; 19.305-309), eschews kingly gifts (19.146-153), and in fact likens himself to Zeus (22.186-199) and to fate (21.99-103).

There are, however, reminders of Achilleus’ mortality: Athene must infuse him with nectar and ambrosia so that he does not weaken from hunger and thirst (19.349-356); Skamandros the river god almost drowns him before Hera sends Hephaistos to Achilleus’ rescue (21.240-380), and Apollo deceives him by taking the shape of Agenor and leading Achilleus from the Trojan wall during a crucial Trojan retreat (21.590-611). As inhuman as Achilleus becomes, his mortality and human limitations are constantly present, though subtly expressed. It is a unique situation that a man with such a divine pedigree (his mother is a Nereid (sea-nymph) and his paternal great-grandfather is Zeus), and he is nearly invulnerable, has sacked 23 cities, and causes such great fear in his opponents that his mere yell can cause enough disorientation and confusion for men (12) to die. And yet as he embraces his god-like gift for killing, so does he speed his exit from the world in completely giving himself over to his fate to die a young man, full of glory. The students rightly ask, though he becomes less and less human, does Achilleus become more divine? Largely, the answer was no–though he more and more reflects a force of nature, that force is naturalistic, without conscience, and animal-like, or fire-like, as one suggested.

Although the theomachy or battle of the gods occurs in Book 21, it interestingly enough did not catch the attention of the students. Certainly, they enjoyed Hephaistos lighting Xanthos, the river, on fire and steaming his liquid body. And no student was without a smirk in reading aloud of Athene striking Ares with a stone in laying him out over seven acres, followed immediately by her striking Aphrodite on the breast. They thought Apollo refusing to fight Poseidon was “lame”, though Apollo sounds so similar to Glaukos, a mortal, from Book 6 in likening mortals to leaves: “Shaker of the earth, you would have me be as one without prudence (saophrona) if I am to fight even you for the sake of insignificant mortals, who are as leaves are, and now flourish and grow warm with life, and feed on what the ground gives, but then again fade away and are dead. Therefore let us with all speed give up this quarrel and let the mortals fight their own battles.” (22.462-467) Though, it is worth noting that the theme again of the temporary nature of human life is referenced with disparity, and that such quotes are really mounting up. Book 15, too, Athene, reminds us of the mortal nature of man: “Therefore I ask of you to give up your anger for your son. By now some other, better of his strength and hands than your son was, has been killed, or will soon be killed; and it is a hard thing to rescue all the generation and seed of all mortals.” (15.138-141) And Hera to Zeus in Book 16.440-442: “Majesty, son of Kronos, what sort of thing have you spoken? Do you wish to bring back a man who is mortal, one long since doomed by his destiny, from ill-sounding death and release him?” The students are getting the point: all mortals, including them, must some day die, and they see Achilleus, consumed by rage and fiery emotion, hurtling helter-skelter towards his end, they have also seen him for the divided and pensive man his was in Book 9. Ultimately, the answer of how to live with the knowledge of death is not solved for the students by Achilleus, but the question, at least, is asked so that they know even the most divine of men was faced with the deepest existential question we know: “how should we then live?”

We then come to the stunning climax or anti-climax of the whole poem in Book 22: the death and desecration of Hektor. The moment is climactic in that all the story, at least since Book 16 (and really even the prophecy in Book 15.62-70), has been leading up to a battle between Hektor and Achilleus, never mind the fact that Aias has thoroughly thrashed Hektor twice already (7.244-276 ;14.409-420). The fight, too, is strange in that it is intricately set up. It is not, like the one on one combats between Paris and Menelaos or Hektor and Aias set up from the beginning, but rather comes about “naturally” but also with great interference from Athene. Hektor first chooses, finally, to stand and fight against Achilleus, but upon seeing Achilleus up close, he runs (22.131-167), and perhaps the most beautiful simile of the poem follows after several others: “As in a dream a man is not able to follow one who runs from him, nor can the runner escape, nor the other pursue him, so he could not run him down in his speed, nor the other get clear.” (22.199-201) This is hardly Hektor’s finest moment; nor is it highly courageous when Athene tricks him into standing alone against Achilleus by likening herself to Hektor’s brother Deiphobos, so that Hektor need not fear fighting Achilleus alone. Nor, yet, is it Hektor’s finest moment either when he tries to barter with Achilleus that whoever wins return the body of the fallen to his side (22.251-259). Hektor is no coward, but when Achilleus says “Hektor, argue me no agreements. I cannot forgive you. As there are no trustworthy oaths between men and lions, nor wolves and lambs…” (22.261-263) one sees just how terrifyingly predatory Achilleus has become. He is divine in his strength and pitiless in his aspect. Even the great Trojan hero, perhaps in a moment of sobriety, knowing there is no escape for him, finds himself, like a lamb, attempting to reason with what was once a man, but is now something vastly different.

The fight itself is short. Achilleus throws and misses with a spear-cast which Athene returns to him (22.275-278) (why she finds this necessary to do is beyond the students and me). And Hektor then strikes the shield of Achilleus, but like Aineias before him, the great shield Hephaistos wrought for Achilleus turns the spear away. Hektor then experiences his moment of ultimate doom in turning to Deiphobos for his spear just to realize that Deiphobos is not there and that he must have been tricked by a god. (22.293-305) He faces death admirably, at last: “But now my death is upon me. Let me at least not die without a struggle, inglorious, but do some big thing first, that men to come shall know of it.” (22. 303-305) Hektor, like Patroklos and Sarpedon dies honorably in the eyes of the students.

The students, then, are far less forgiving of Achilleus’ stringing “thongs of leather” through the heels of Hektor and dragging him through the dust behind his chariot in front of the city he loved and defended as his horrified people and family watch. There is some evidence that Hektor would have despoiled the body of Patroklos, however, and the students did notice that in Book 17.125-128: “But Hektor, when he had stripped from Patroklos the glorious armour, dragged at him, meaning to cut head from his shoulders with the sharp bronze, to haul off the body and give it to the dogs of Troy;” So, sagaciously, the students suggested that Achilleus had a similar intention to Hektor, but he simply had the means necessary to carry out his malicious wish. This certainly says something strong for the benefits of having normal human limitations. But a counter, if not a strong one, is that Achilleus almost certainly did not know the intent of Hektor to despoil Patroklos’ body, and even if Hektor did so, it would not be out of pure avarice and inhuman anger, but as a tactic motivated to attack the morale of the Achaians while rallying the battle spirit of the other Trojan men fighting for the protection of their home. So while the battle itself is somewhat anticlimactic (I do tell the students that the battle between Achilleus and Memnon, at least as told by Quintus of Smyrna in his Posthomerica, goes all day), it does bring Achilleus’ inhuman passion to the fore. He is unlimited by the wills and morals of other men, and ultimately, he uses this not to help others, but to tarnish his own image and the body of a beloved hero. In this moment, Achilleus becomes impossibly distant and unsympathetic to us. Perhaps in Book 24 he will find some redemption, in his own self-made underworld.

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)

What is the Value of a Question?

In a time when everybody seems to have an opinion on what education should be: (here; or here; or here), very simple and direct methods of “impacting” students’ minds can be lost in the fray. On this issue of subtleties being lost in favor of sweeping generalizations, legislative reform, and non-stop funding issues, we are beginning a brief series on small adjustments in a teacher’s classroom and personal philosophy which can effectively improve the education which a student receives. Today, we will focus on the art of asking the right questions.

What is a question? And more difficultly, what makes for a good question and how do better questions make for better educations? The first question is answered worst by the dictionary (dictionary.com). It suggests, firstly, that a question is an interrogative statement. Interrogative comes from the two Latin words inter (between) and rogo (I ask)–not much help there. Let us, therefore, be more philosophical in our definition: to ask a question is to seek information on a subject or event one is interested in. But why exactly is “asking a question” better for the instruction of a student than simply lecturing or directing a student’s acquisition of knowledge? The answer lies precisely in the last part of the definition–in the fact that the student is interested in what he or she asks after. Now, the skeptical teacher will say, “But this is all well and good, but I don’t have time to be answering questions all day–I have material to get through.” Abrupt and assuming tone aside, our teacher has missed a crucial aspect of teaching: one is there, in the classroom, precisely to answer questions all day, but perhaps even more importantly, a teacher is there to guide the students’ questions. What this means is that a teacher can “get through” his or her material while also increasing student engagement by facilitating and answering questions related to and on the material that he or she is teaching (covering).

So, what exactly makes a good question? A good question is, for one, on topic or related to a topic being lectured on or discussed, and more importantly, a good question can come from the teacher or the student. Second, a good question asks for deeper thinking about the issues at stake in a given situation or raises new and unexpected issues causing further critical inquiry (more questions). The third aspect of a good question is that it offers the opportunity, at least in a “humanities” class, for a personal connection to the text (material). For example, If a teacher is teaching about the death of Patroklos, from Book XVI of Homer’s Iliad, then the question might arise, “who was at fault for the death of Patroklos?”. Certainly, the person at fault for the death of Patroklos is not truly asked by the text–Achilleus just assumed Hektor was because Hektor dealt the killing blow to Patroklos in battle. The situation is deeper than this, however, and a good question gets at this.

For one, it was Nestor who first convinced Patroklos to wear the armor of Achilleus in Book XI, and Achilleus himself gave Patroklos the armor to wear rather than entering the battle himself. That said, Hektor was only Patroklos’ “third slayer” as Patroklos himself affirms, because in fact Euphorbos, a strong young Trojan, was the one first to hit Patroklos in the back with a spear, and Apollo then, covered in a mist, slapped Patroklos on the back: striking him dumb, breaking his chest-plate, and knocking his helmet off. So, without even considering any of the larger implications of the question, one might observe three characters, two mortal and one divine, implicated in the death–with Achilleus and Nestor both serving as somewhat more remote actors in the death. Each and every one of the preceding characters could make the claim that he were directly involved in the death, and in some way caused it: Achilleus shared his armor, and in this way shared his destiny. Nestor gave the idea to share Achilleus’ destiny in the first place to the impressionable young man, serving as something of a first cause. Hektor, Euphorbos, and Apollo rounded out the equation acting as efficient and material causes (or their spears) of the death of Patroklos.

Beyond the fact that asking after the “cause” of Patroklos’ death satisfies the three aspects of a “good question” above, there is one more aspect of a good question which the query above fulfills and which has not yet been mentioned: it is subversive. What exactly does it mean for a question to subvert? Let us again look to the Latin: sub means “under”, and verso means “to turn”, so “to turn under”, or by extension, “to overthrow”. What, exactly, is a subversive question then overthrowing? A subversive question overthrows not only initial and unconsidered opinions on a subject, but it itself invites alternative or unique interpretations of a situation which have not yet been interpreted or considered at all. The implication and weight of this statement is that a subversive question causes thought where thought has not yet been, and where thought otherwise never would have gone.

But why, then, does asking questions which provoke new thought lead to a better education? The fact is that subversive questions engage students on two important levels: (1) students are invited to share in thoughts and ideas which are not yet settled and formed into dead and inert knowledge. They then instead get to be part of the “knowledge creating” process, rather than the knowledge receiving process which most teachers are resigned to serving them. This not only prepares students for leadership; it prepares them for life.  This allows students to see how liquid knowledge truly is, and it is liberating and empowering for them to realize that knowledge does not simply come down from on high, but is rather subject to their own thinking as well. Students, therefore, learn that they have equal rights to all other people (other thinkers) in terms of using their minds. But does this, then, make democracy by nature subversive? Or does being subversive just make one therefore more fit for a democracy? One will simply have to keep asking questions and seeking their answers to find out.

The second way subversive questions engage students is: (2) they teach students that true knowledge does not come from blindly accepting what one is told, but by questioning what one hears and sees. This means that a student who simply accepts a fact as true has learned a fact, or an opinion on a fact. A student who questions this fact, however, and seeks after understanding gains something far more valuable from the experience. For in asking a question, one seeks depth of understanding–the cause of a thing, the inner workings, its constituent parts, its function–Such information about a situation, person, or concept, however, remains locked away from the minds of students until they ask a subversive question, until they learn to ask the most powerful question: “Why?” When a student learns this skill, and only when he or she learns this, does he or she really have the tool(s) necessary to seek understanding and deeper and true knowledge of whatever he or she seeks to learn. This, and not blind acceptance of what is said, is the foundation of a democratic, rich, and good education. Therefore, good questions are the foundations of good educations which are the foundations of democracy (or the good society).