14 Sept 2020
Ours has been described as “an age of anxiety” (first used just after WWII, I believe). Many feel it, many express it in various ways: A sense of upheaval, unsettling change, loss, unhappiness, anxiety, depression, despair, rage, forebodings of doom, “future shock,” and so on.
One finds similar states in the Hellenistic age in the west, c 300 BC to about 400 AD. Literature such as the “Book of Revelation” included with misgivings at the end of the New Testament is a classic text of emotional-spiritual mess, and yet also has tales of hope and fulfillment. In the middle ages, these overwhelming social anxieties settled down, but increased in about the 1400’s into the present. If one reads Luther, for example (1483-1546), one clearly sees the emotional-spiritual-intellectual upheaval of an age; one sees it in the Puritan revolution of the 1600’s, in the French Enlightenment thinkers and then the eruption of the French Revolution at the end of the 1700’s. We all know that our society is rife with anxious tensions, unhappiness, etc, affecting individuals and groups to varying degrees.
One thing that abides in my mind as I reflect on Homer (8th century BC): although there is violence and evils operate in his world (mainly unregulated human passions), the actors are generally more peaceful, settled, with feet on the ground. An exception is Akhilleus, filled with wrath—the issue that is central to the Iliad. He upsets the balance in the human condition—acts outside the bounds, as embodied most in his treatment of his opponent, Hektor. Odysseus, on the other hand, is not wrathful, restless, or irrational, but “resourceful,” clever, up to any challenge fate throws at him; he lives within the ordered boundaries. Homer’s world was orderly and settled, but not dead or static. Hence, I would say that reading Homer is like entering a realm of youthful spirit, buoyancy, modest hopes for better things to come—not fatalistic pessimism, nor naive utopian dreaming. The cosmos is stable, a friendly home—a good home to those who obey its laws and limits.
This is astounding to me: within about 250-300 years of Homer, the Greek-speaking world undergoes a major outbreak in the discovery of reason—first philosophy, then science (and the tragedians and historians). The human being is capable of using intellect and making sound choices, achieving much good; or having “twisted reasoning” (Cicero’s term) and making bad choices, and doing great harm to himself and others. Human being emerges as the locus of rational discourse, reason, good—not on Olympos, but within the human psyche. In reading Plato and Aristotle, one sees how much the human mind, governed by reason, is capable of achieving. It truly is an astounding development and a cultural high point in human history—to which we remain beneficiaries. Looking back, I see the potential as present in Homer and his world—perhaps especially in the importance of right action within the bounds set by the gods, or what we might call “nature” (Greek: physis). In reading the earliest recorded philosophers—such as Parmenides (born c 515 BC), one sees reason emerging from myth, story, and becoming a tool for discovering the nature of reality (Parmenides’ main discovery: being, Is!, the grounding insight of philosophy; he also discovered and named “nous,” intellect, as the divine power operative in human being to know what is).
Ah, the youthful, life-affirming, life-giving world of the ancient Greeks. Such a flourishing of what Hegel calls “Spirit” (Geist) in humankind—making possible what we call “history,” the realm of human being (Hegel, “the realm of the Geist’s unfolding”). Homer may be called a “mytho-poet,” but looking back from the philosophy that soon emerges among Greek speakers, I see the potential for such a magnificent life of the mind as philosophy and science essentially are. Homer embodies the fertile soil from which the plant of rational thought will grow; Homer’s world is rich with possibilities, as is youth; and some of these possibilities grow within several centuries of astounding breakthroughs.
If there is a practical lesson here, it would seem to be this: Avoid yielding to anxieties, fears, restless passions, and develop and maintain a youthful spirit, open to possibilities.
Just a few reflections as I keep reading Homer.
Click on the above Poetry and Tanka tabs to read a variety of styles of poetry.