“Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go!” That famous protest chant at Stanford University was the manifestation of, admittedly, a long deconstructive project aiming at eliminating the Western humanities from our civic and civilizational consciousness. “Old, dead, white, European males,” we were told then, as we are told now, must go. There’s no reason to study them, especially given their rank sexism, misogyny, and racism—so the argument goes. The humanities, the liberal arts, is a Western construction and uniquely so; therefore, the demise of Western civilization corresponds with the demise of the liberal arts as the pulsating heart that unites the disparate peoples that constitute Western civilization.
This is not an essay about Western civilization or what defines it. Instead, it is a defense of the Western humanities and why it still matters by going back to the people whom Bernard Knox provocatively called the endangered species known as “DWEM,” or Dead White European Males. More specifically it will go back to the most famous DWEM of all-time, Homer. In doing so, this essay will also confront the incredible statement of Susan Sontag that Western civilization, and by entailing relationship Western humanities, is the “cancer of human history.”
Homer may now be long dead, but he still sings to us and touches our hearts. It is peculiar that a man who lived around 700 years before the birth of Christ is still the most widely known and read author after St. Paul. Why is Homer such an eternal figure? Why do we still read Homer? Why should we continue to read Homer?
It is easy to say that the only reason why Homer is so well-known and read is because he was codified in the classical canon by those dead white European males. But so many others who were originally placed on that Renaissance list, men like Cicero, Plutarch, and Boethius, have now all but been forgotten apart from specialists and generalist antiquarians. When I was at Yale, entering the dorm room of one of my friends, Homer was visibly seen in his bookshelf. Cicero, Plutarch, and Boethius, by contrast, nowhere to be found. There must be an allure and luster that Homer has that most other writers do not.
The humanities are, fundamentally, about us. What makes us human? There seems to be a trinity that humanities students, scholars, and teachers can readily identify: rationality, language, love. We are the rational animal. We are the language animal. We are the erotic animal. I do not mean to depreciate the others by elevating one, but I must do so in addressing the eternality of Homer.
We live in a time when individual greatness is mocked and scorned. “You didn’t build that” has become a sort of consumeristic catchphrase used by people who deplore consumerism while having an iPhone in the back pocket of their designer jeans. The intent of the message, however, is clear. As such, Homer suffered from this collectivist and group identitarian craze; no individual can rise above the group unless it was through exploitation or oppression of others. Homer, certain people and their budding media allies inform us, could not have written the Iliad and the Odyssey. Rather, it was the product of an entire people; an entire group—again, no single individual can ever have such high genius to achieve greatness. One mustn’t certainly aspire to be the next Homer because there was no Homer as such. This assertion allows for endless rambling about the composition of the Iliad instead of wrestling with the text and the message itself. But that is precisely what the modern guardians, rather, executors, of the humanities want.
I find it curious that no one attributes the same idea to Hesiod, Aeschylus, or Sophocles. After all, the Greek poet-dramatists who produced far more material than Homer ever did should equally qualify to this criticism. Yet no one argues that the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, or Euripides are the product of an entire people over the course of many generations. Homer, more than any other figure from pre-Christian antiquity, is in the crosshairs of the philistines, iconoclasts, and nihilists. True, this anti-Homeric authorship issue is somewhat old—going as far back to Vico and Wolf in the eighteenth century. But it is now more prominent than ever due to self-evident ideological purposes. Indeed, it is rather courageous and ironically iconoclastic to assert the individuality and artistic creativity of Homer against those who see him as nothing more than a name attached to the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Why Homer gets the short stick is rather obvious. Homer is still the most famous and therefore needs to be knocked off his pedestal. One may have read a play or two of Aeschylus or Sophocles in high school, or perhaps in university, but the dramatists are shortchange compared to Homer. Homer towers over all the DWEMs of antiquity. It is also the case that Homer is the most moving of the Greek literati. This is not meant to expunge the genius of Aeschylus, Sophocles, or Euripides, the satirical and critical insights of Aristophanes, the moving and erotically laced poetry of Sappho, or the sublimity of Homer’s rival, Hesiod. This is simply to say that Homer still stands above them and still moves readers to tears nearly three millennia after his death.
It is undoubtedly true that the stories of the Iliad and Odyssey are rooted in oral culture. Moreover, the now lost epic Cypria implies a widespread familiarity with the Trojan War narrative and consciousness long after the supposed events transpired. Yet none of this entails the irrelevance of Homer or that Homer is just a name attributed to a collective process. Homer may have served as a sort of final redactor to the Trojan War story, even so what Homer provided is what he undeniably wanted us to remember from this long and living oral tradition spanning generations and linking the present with the past. As such, we need to take Homer seriously instead of dismissing him; we need to take what Homer gave us instead of speculating on what is missing or what was added. The few remaining fragments of the Cypria show, at the very least, that the Greek intelligentsia was familiar with the whole backstory of the Trojan War up to the enslavement of Lycaon. Furthermore, Hesiod’s Theogony ends with a few short reflections on Achilles, Odysseus, and Aeneas, indicating familiarity with the aftermath of the Trojan War to the eighth century poets as well.
Given this, it is curiously interesting that with all the heroism surrounding the Trojan War Homer’s epic only gives us the final days of the conflict. As such, the story that Homer wants us to remember isn’t what he left out but what we have from him. One might say that he took the backstory and aftermath for granted, but if the emergence of literature was to preserve oral tradition as it was fading from memory then Homer should have written down the backstory and aftermath; instead, he gives us a most moving poem concerned only with the final days of the war.
So why should we continue to read Homer? What does he have to say to us living today; us creatures with all the comforts of technology and wealth denied to Homer and his kinsmen?
The song of Homer still is so moving because Homer’s epic deals with the fundamental questions that we, as humans, still consider: what is our place in the cosmos and what will lead us to salvation?
To understand Homer we must begin with his rival, Hesiod. The story goes that the two poets were bitter rivals and that Hesiod won first place in a poetry contest against the blind poet of the two defining epics of Western literature. Hesiod’s surviving works, Theogony and Works and Days, are much easier reads than Homer’s two monumental epics. Perhaps the brevity of the works allows for people to give Hesiod sole credit but the breadth and scope of Homer’s work demand collective credit. (Even though other authors have individually produced monumental works as long or longer than Homer’s two masterpieces.)
There remains a longstanding dispute over whether Hesiod’s poems were written before Homer. In La Scienza Nuova, Giambattista Vico convincingly explained that the older tradition of poetry is that of sublime violence even if his reading of Homer is often wanting at best (Vico famously said that Homer was primitive and couldn’t possibly have written the Iliad and the Odyssey). Nevertheless, with this as our axiomatic foundation it is quite clear that Hesiod’s content is older than Homer’s irrespective of who penned their classics first. Anyone who has read Theogony knows that blood, lust, and violence run replete through its pages at a degree far greater than Homer and especially since Hesiod’s poem celebrates violence while Homer’s epic subtly rebukes it. Moreover, Hesiod’s poem is about the gods and Homer’s poem is about mortal men even if gods feature prominently in it.
The writings of Hesiod and Homer are cosmogonic poems. They are, therefore, works of poetic metaphysics. The Hesiodic cosmos is entirely about the gods. Human actors do not appear apart from the authorial voice asking the muses to sing praises to the violent gods of the cosmos who castrated their fathers and participated in patricidal usurpation to reign supreme over the stars. When the poem ends with the mentioning of Achilles, Odysseus, and Aeneas, it is just off hand; none of the human characters are actors and movers of the poem. The prime movers of Hesiod’s poem are the gods. And it is Zeus, in particular, who wins the adoration of Hesiod and the muses.
The Hesiodic cosmos is an erotic and violent, strife-filled, universe. Hesiod’s poem opens infamously with “Muses of Helicon, let us begin our song with them, who hold the great and holy mountain of Helicon, and around its violet-like spring and altar of exceedingly strong Kronos, dance on dainty feet, and who, after bathing their soft skin in the Permessos or the spring of the Horse or holy Olmeios on the peak of Helicon, form their dances, beautiful dances that arouse desire, and they move erotically.” The erotic overtures are evident enough, and the erotic overture also prefigures the violence to come.
There are two lines of gods in the Theogony. The first line of gods is pre-existent. The primordial deities are the first gods we are introduced to. Some are named and others not. The two most important are Gaia, Mother Earth, and Uranus, Father Sky. These gods, most importantly, are not the product of violence or sex though they do have sexual desires. The second line of gods, which includes the Titans and Olympians along with the other monsters of Greek mythological lore, is the product of violence and sex (and often violent sex since the two are intertwined together).
Hesiod details for us how Uranus came across the “wide bosom” of Gaia and their marital union stemmed from Uranus’ uncontrollable lust. Uranus preys upon Gaia and engages in predatory sex which injures the Mother Goddess and results in the birth of the Titans. Worried that his children will hate him and usurp his authoritarian power, Uranus seals up the Titans deep in Gaia’s fertile womb which causes her much pain. As the Titans grow and move about, Gaia’s tummy expands and causes her to moan and scream in pain.
The birth of reason in the Hesiodic cosmos is through hatred; reason is the product of resentment and the desire to harm. “Cunning Gaia,” we are told, fashions a sickle out of the materials of the earth and implores one of her children to attack Uranus and bring forth their liberation. Kronos is the only Titan willing to take up the challenge. Kronos seizes the sickle not out of love for Gaia but out of hatred for his father. He then ambushes the Sky Father god in an act of patricidal usurpation that gives birth to the rest of the world and the Olympian deities, “Great Uranus came, bringing the night, and spread out around Gaia, desiring philotês, and was extended. His son reached out from ambush with his left hand, and in his right he held the sickle, long and serrated and the genitals of his father he quickly reaped and threw them behind his back to be carried away. But they did not flee from his hand fruitlessly. As many drops of blood spurted forth, all of them Gaia received.”
The blood that “spurted forth” from Uranus’ castration, falling onto Gaia’s fertile body, give birth to the monsters and furies. More graphically, however, is how this act of sexual violence and patricidal usurpation birth the Olympians and sets the stage for the Titanomachy and the overthrow of the Titans by the Olympian deities. Hesiod writes in this most sublime moment of the poem, “As soon as Kronos lopped off the genitals with the sickle, they fell from the mainland into the much-surging sea, so that the sea carried them for a long time. Around them a white foam from the immortal skin began to arise. In it, a maiden was nurtured. First, she drew near holy Kythera, and from there she arrived at Kypros surrounded by water. From within, a majestic and beautiful goddess stepped, and all around grass grew beneath her slender feet. Aphrodite [foam-born goddess and fair-wreathed Kythereia] gods and men call her because she was nurtured in foam.” The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Those gods born of lust and violence have the spirit of lust and violence coursing through their veins.
Kronos is as equally vindictive as his father. Terrified by the prospects of losing his power, he eats his children to preserve his power. Just as Kronos, alone, rose to challenge his tyrannical father, so it is that Zeus is the only Olympian to rise and challenge his tyrannical father. Zeus rallies the Olympians and launches the great war of the gods. Thunder and lightning reign over the earth and the drums of war and violence sound forth to break trees, hills, and mountains, “The heavy pounding of their feet reached murky Tartaros, as did the shrill screams of the terrible pursuit and powerful missiles. Thus they hurled mournful darts at one another. The sound of both reached starry Uranus as they cried out. They clashed with a great war cry.” After defeating the Titans, Zeus then slays the ferocious serpentine monster, Typhoeus, to solidify his place as the supreme god of the pantheon.
Hesiod’s cosmos is one governed by strife. The agon is fundamental to the Hesiodic cosmos. There is, as the poem concludes, no hope in the Hesiodic cosmos of strife, violence, and war. The muses sing of the gods who are strong enough and willing enough to overthrow their parents and seize power for themselves. It is an unadulterated celebration of lust, sex, and war. The weaker gods who sat back, terrified of the prospects of engaging in bloodshed, are the gods whom the muses brush aside and forget.
Hesiod’s Theogony is ultimately a praise poem to Zeus, but it is also—to a lesser extent—a praise poem to Kronos, the other god who warred with his father and set in motion the movement to Zeus’ triumph over the cosmos. In Hesiod’s cosmos we see the triumph of hatred, resentment, and strife. Furthermore, the Theogony is a heroic poem. It sings of the heroic deeds of Zeus. But what are the heroic deeds of Zeus celebrated by the muses and the poet? The deeds worthy of praise, in the Theogony, are militant deeds of conquest and usurpation. Zeus, and Zeus alone in the end, is worthy of praise for his courage in rebelling and defeating his father and slaying the most vicious monster of Greek mythological lore. In slaying gods and beasts, Zeus sets the heroic archetype we’re familiar with in the rest of Greek mythology: the hero killing monsters and vindictive supernatural entities.
This bleak and conflictual worldview is not just contained in epic heroic poetry. The Histories of Herodotus begin with the agonistic portrait of the world reminiscent of Hesiod. Herodotus quickly discusses the Persian account of the abduction of Io to Egypt, the Greek abduction and rape of Europa, then the story of Paris’ abduction and rape of Helen which sparked the Trojan War. Throughout the Histories we witness with Herodotus cycles of violence leading to vengeance or retributive justice (tisis), egoistic power and pride (hybris), ending in destruction (nemesis). This cycle then renews itself individually and collectively over the course of the work. While Herodotus rationalizes the mythological stories wherein human actors, rather than capricious gods, are responsible for these crimes, Herodotus’ cosmos is still one of sublime violence just as much as Hesiod’s cosmos is. Befitting the rationalizing tendency of Herodotus and the later Greek philosophic and historical tradition, the answer to the problem of human violence is the honoring of the law. Homer, however, offers us something far greater, powerful, and moving than the historians and philosophers.
It is in this bleak cosmic reality that Homer enters the stage of world history. “Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles.” Homer’s opening line is blasphemous and revolutionary. Hesiod’s muses sing of the gods. Homer’s muses sing of a man. This opening marks the great turning in human consciousness, the great turning that begins the Western tradition of humanism and the desire to understand man in the midst of the vast, dark, and often violent, cosmos. The gods are present and capricious in Homer’s two epics, but the opening of the Iliad sets the tone that the grand song of Homer is dedicated to men rather than to gods.
The Homeric cosmos doesn’t dispense with the Hesiodic cosmos though it does subvert it. Rage, as the opening indicates, is very much part of the world. Strife governs the Homeric cosmos as much as it does the Hesiodic cosmos. The gods are as cruel and mischievous as they were in the Theogony. But Homer opens the cosmos to something new; something that has defined the human thirst for meaning ever since—redemption by love and the human agency to make it manifest.
The Iliad is not an epic of hyper masculinity and war as it can easily and superficially appear to be at first glance. Rather, it is a grand love poem of cosmic scope and proportions. For the Iliad is not merely a love story like a romance between two individuals but a love story that brings forth salvation in the cold and dark cosmos governed by lustful strife, war, and rape. The love story at the center of the Iliad isn’t about saving two individuals in the midst of a torrential maelstrom but a story about how love heals the very fabric and entirety of the cosmos. The epic, as we know, is the song of the metamorphosis of Achilles. But it is also the song of a growing consciousness in the cosmos moving away from the purely agonistic cosmos of the older cosmogonic tradition recounted by Hesiod. The metamorphosis and redemption of Achilles is not just about Achilles. The metamorphosis and redemption of Achilles is also about us.
All the characters of the Iliad find themselves in two competing galaxies that divide the cosmos. The first galaxy is one of strife. The men and women who occupy it, or formerly occupied it, exude the Hesiodic spirit of lust, violence, and strife. They are moved solely by the spirit of conflictual lust.
Diomedes, to my mind, is the quintessential “hero” who occupies this first galaxy. Diomedes is introduced as we would expect Achilles to have been introduced. The great Greek warrior is a madman who thrives in the chaos of struggle. As the war wages, itself the manifestation of the agon governing the cosmos, Diomedes kills men left and right and injures the gods when he spears Ares and slashes Aphrodite. As Diomedes slays countless Trojans, Homer brilliantly subverts the hypermasculinity of the Hesiodic fantasy of militant and masculine men.
The men that Diomedes kill are men with names, men with families, men with faces. Homer’s painstaking description of the death process is not a gory celebration of violence but a subtle subversion of the Hesiodic ideal. In naming the men who die and giving us their lineage, we are reminded that these men who have their entrails spilled out over the sands and beaches of Troy are sons, husbands, and fathers. Alongside the descriptions of death are human images of men reaching out to their beloved comrades in agony and brief backstories of their birth and childhood raised in serene green pastures by tender and loving parents.
We also see the rage-filled Diomedes in his pure form during the funeral games held for Patroclus. The funeral games held for Patroclus reveal Diomedes as the man who thrives in chaos, conflict, and strife. Apollo intervenes in the chariot race allowing Eumeleus to overtake the strife-filled killer. Diomedes begins to cry in rage. What should have been a moment of honor for a hero turns into a chaotic and strife-filled event with men and gods alike clawing at one another and conniving for top prizes. What should have been the grand moment of unity, love in honor of a fallen comrade, becomes a moment of division as Greeks quarrel with one another on the racetracks and hurl insults at each other. Eumeleus and his charioteers stumble and fall, cutting their flesh and causing blood to spill out on the sand. Diomedes eventually triumphs. Rage is what leads to victory for those sad and sorry souls trapped in the galaxy of strife.
Paris is the other notable character who occupies this galaxy of strife. Unlike Diomedes, who thrives on conflict, Paris thrives on lust (just another manifestation of strife, to be honest). He is even more primeval than Diomedes in this respect. Paris cannot control his urge to dominate a beautiful woman—the quintessential object of his fantasy and desire. The sight of Helen causes him to shirk his duties to family and fatherland during his duel with Menelaus. Whisked off by Aphrodite, the lustful shepherd prince of Troy has his eyes full of fear turn into a gaze of fantastical sexual desire when he sees Helen in front of him. He retires to his bedchamber to have sex with the very woman he abducted which sparked the most famous war in Western history. What we find in the character of Paris, just as we find in the character of Diomedes, is how civilization, duties and responsibilities, cannot exist in this first governing galaxy of the cosmos. Only strife and lust reign supreme.
The second galaxy is represented by civilization and the love that accompanies it. Homer undeniably has prejudicial favoritism for this dim star in the cosmos. Troy is the physical embodiment of the world of order, an order premised on love (specifically, devotedness). In contrast to the spirit of lust, violence, and strife, this second galaxy is governed by love, order, and devotion. The uncontrollable passions that spur the chaos of the Hesiodic cosmos are given an ordering that allows for the finer things in life to consummate and flourish.
Hector is the essential hero who occupies this second galaxy. Hector is introduced as a family man, a man of faith and fatherland. When Hector’s brother Helenus implores him to return to Troy, Helenus instructs him to give thanks to the gods upon his return and perform his public duties for the city and its citizens. Hector complies and when he enters the city of Troy his first words to the wives and guards are, “Pray to the gods.” Hector’s patriotic heart also “races to help [his] Trojans” throughout the poem. Hector is a man moved by devotion to the gods, his father, family, and fatherland. The Romans eventually invented a word that we are all familiar with to describe such devotion: pietas, piety.
The very name Hector, in Greek, also testifies to this ordered love that the Prince of Troy exudes. Hector means “one who holds, or to possess.” The name is not insignificant. Hector is portrayed as the conduit that holds the two worlds together. He takes his passion and orders them to the products of civilization: family, duty, and religion. Everything he does is out of love for his father, his family, his fatherland. He holds the realms of the divine and temporal together as much as he holds back the Greeks from conquering Troy.
The most touching moment of Hector’s life is recounted when he disrobes himself before his infant son, Astyanax. Standing on the walls of Troy, surrounded by strife, the impressive and hidden figure of Hector terrifies the young babe. Astyanax clings to his mother for comfort. Hector, however, provides a quasi-incarnational moment of revelatory face-to-face love. Seeing his son in distress and understanding that it is because he is donning his battle armor, the great prince takes off his armor to reveal his face and tender body and then cradles his son in his arms. The cries of Astyanax fade away as he falls asleep in the soft arms of his father who offers up a prayer to the gods for protection. This most moving scene of the great warrior-prince is subversive because Hector’s greatest moment is an act of love rather than an act of war. (Achilles will also follow this pattern.)
Other characters fall into these two galaxies but there are also individuals who oscillate between the two. Helen finds herself being pulled into the orbit of order and civilization but not without regret and consequences for her prior life in the cosmos governed by lust. Agamemnon and Menelaus also occupy the cosmos of strife. Achilles, that other raged-filled killer, starts off in the first galaxy but over the course of the song he comes to embrace the galaxy of ordered love. And this is what the poem is about: How love redeems and heals the world, brings forth our immortality, and allows human nature to flourish. Indeed, Homer goes as far as to suggest true virtue, true happiness, true peace, is found in acts of love…
Read the rest of the essay here: Reading Homer from Here to Eternity (1 June 2020)
*This essay was published by VoegelinView, where I now serve as an associate editor.