The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Educational Value of Great Books: Homer
by W. Osborne Brigstocke
To many it must seem passing strange that in the far bygone ages there should loom the mysterious figure of a genius, still styled by universal voice the King of Poets. That Homer should never have been dethroned by any subsequent lord of song seems contrary to theories of progress. If indeed the law of evolution may be applied to the higher faculties of man, how can we account for this unrivalled product of an age so far remote? We think nowadays that, although some great man of the heroic age is great in his way, his way is "not ours, nor meant for ours."
"And ours is greater, had we skill to know." [Browning]
And yet no one denies the assertion that Homer's poems rank higher than all others. To attempt to explain this may seem presumptuous, because everything connected with genius is difficult to account for. But perhaps in this case the reason is not so obscure. Certain it is that one of man's highest faculties is and always has been what is called the sense of poetry. The commonest object may be full of poetry to one who sees beneath the surface; how much more the sublimer aspects of creation, the beauties of color and sound, the charm of friendship, the communion of love on earth or prayer in heaven—all these and many others, how full of poetry even to a casual observer. It must, we think, be taken for granted that all this poetry is not a thing which has grown better or more intense; it must have existed in Adam's time even as in our own. (One is perhaps tempted to think that change, if any, may have been for the worse. But let us beware of such reflections. We must encourage that still small voice within us which assures us that there must be harmony and progress in spite of appearances.) If then there must have been in past times as in these a wealth of poetry in life, "past comprehension," it means that the first man had, so to speak, as much to sing as any bard that followed. The progress lies in the power of expression, for if we cannot assert that there must be many unknown Homers in the world, we can at least feel sure that there are many whose conceptions are sublime, but who have neither opportunity nor skill to sing. But still we are met with the same difficulty: if the power of giving expression to the thoughts, which are to a great or small extent present in most breasts, is the measure of progress, how comes it that no one has yet eclipsed the bard who sang so many centuries ago? But then, how is it that there are several great figures in the past with which no modern can presume to compare himself? The question is faulty. We cannot tell what present times can offer in comparison with past ages. Each glorious figure is the incarnation and summit of a branch of civilisation, and perhaps the names of Beethoven and Shakespeare are sufficient to prove that the spirit which inspired Homer still breathes through our souls—in a different way. So far as genius can be explained, it is to be looked on as the product of a multitude of concomitant forces; it appears only at certain epochs, just as the clouds, which are indeed most beautiful at all times, are transcendently so only at dawn and sunset. Those who wonder how it is that Homer is so supreme in the world of poetry must remember that the first step towards solving that mystery is to know and to appreciate his poems, to grasp as much as possible the almost miraculous conception of what is called the Olympian system, and to mark the beauty of the language which came to life in his works. To realise not only the grandeur of the books themselves, but also the part they played in the subsequent history of Greece, aye, of the world, is to feel vaguely how much we are benighted with regard to all that went to prepare the way for so gigantic a mind.
Here, if anywhere, we may complain of embarrass de richesses. How choose one of so many interesting topics? The Theogony with its conceptions of right and wrong, the great heroes, foremost among them Achilles and Ulysses, questions regarding the title "Lord of men," the contrast between Homer and Hesiod, the differences between the Iliads and the Odyssey, the Christian doctrines of which suggestions are found in Homer's poems, the language of Homer, more especially with reference to his metaphors and epithets, the historical and ethnographical value of the poems, the matchless eloquence of the debates and speeches—all these subjects furnish almost endless matter of absorbing interest.
But there is one other subject, perhaps as attractive as any of the foregoing. Gladstone has treated it; but could we do better than go over ground traversed by him? He writes: "The bond that held Greek society together in the Homeric times and that seemed the basis on which it was to be organised and developed was five-fold, and the strands of this well-knit rope are represented respectively by Greek words (signifying the following ideas):—
"(1.) The Deity, and the worship of immortal and unseen beings in all
its various forms.
"The one great creative and formative idea which runs through the whole of these is reverence, that powerful principle, the counter agent to all meanness and selfishness, which obliges a man to have regard to some law or standard above that of force and extrinsic to his own free will, his own passions, or his own propensities."
It is deeply interesting to trace the many phases of this sense of reverence. It is surprising how steeped in it are the Homeric poems—surprising because one is apt to think of the Homeric age as one in which brute force obtained to an overwhelming extent. In spite of the rough ways and crude customs which, as depicted in the Iliad, undoubtedly represent the manners of the Homeric age, there is an underlying power for good which is entirely due to reverence. This is more marked in the Odyssey and for obvious reasons. During warfare, during the struggles for life and victory, in the face of death and bereavement, man's passions are [word illegible] to break restraints—of which one of the most potent is the feeling of reverence. On the other hand the story of the Odyssey may be said to be entirely founded on this noble sentiment, and as one turns the pages phase after phase is depicted in admirable variety.
First and foremost comes the reverence for the gods and immortal beings. However foreign to our conception anthropomorphism may be, we cannot but be struck by the exquisite beauty of many of the Greek (i.e., Homeric) ideas. Heaven is represented as consisting of an assembly of gods, knit together as members of one family, as denizens of the immortal race of heaven, as persons bound by the laws of hospitality and by the bond of fellowship. Thus the Greek could emulate this fourfold perfection in his daily life. His aim might be what would now be termed realising on earth the kingdom of God. But beside this sublime family of Olympus, which was an idealised reflection (if not forecast) of Greek national and family life at its best, there was that voice of conscience so grandly personified in the Erinyes of Homer—very different from the Furies of a more degraded age. It is difficult to speak with moderation of this Olympian system; the more one broods on it, the more dazzled is he by the ideal perfection of all that lies beneath what seems to modern minds a somewhat grotesque exterior. How could a religion fail to be a powerful influence for good when no votaries could affirm—
. . . "Sure the gods their impious acts detest,
It is evident that the Olympian system had defects which subsequent ages enlarged to the detriment of the ideals, and that it gave the rein to much that Christianity condemns. But there is the practical demonstration of its vast influence: it was reverence for this great religion that made Greece the land of literature and art—made Greeks a nation capable of showing the world how divine a mortal race may be.
And if the reverence for heavenly powers is the first duty of a man, the second is a reverence for parents. As in the history of the Jews, so here we find that great truth once again: much (more than we realise) depends upon the family life. Home is, or should be, a foreshadowing of heaven. It is the nearest approach to perfect peace, perfect love and perfect light. And if there be no reverence at home, can there be reverence in the house of God? Piteous is the lot of the orphan; but how far more piteous is the child who leaves his place at home. Be the fault the child's, the sadder is his lot. Is there a place on earth where sorrow, trouble, shame, can be assuaged with tender sympathy, if not at home? Is the rough world wont to reverence the modesty of grief? Can the heart turn to a heavenly, unseen Father when the earthly father cannot understand? Sometimes it must. We hear so often of youth struggling single-handed in the world, like young birds fallen from the nest! They tread a dangerous path, dangerous not only to themselves, but also to those around them. They cannot be called valuable citizens; for like an army that has lost its base, they stake all on the issue of one fight: reverence is apt to be forgotten in the strife, whereas it flourishes when nurtured by the wisdom of mature years and by the sympathy of love. In the Odyssey, all the reverence seems to have some connection with that home in Ithaca. How intense is Ulysses' love for Ithaca the fair, that pleasant shore, than which none lovelier in his eyes. Throughout his wanderings his soul ever rested there, and often, as he sat longing for the home deep-imaged in his soul, the sun seemed slow to move and the hours to roll! How worthy of this love was Penelope, who yearned for him during twenty years; and the son so like his noble father! There can be no such reverence without nobleness. Man is not born to reverence the base: what is sublime can appeal even to the most callous. It is the purity, the freedom of willing obedience, the charm of a familiarity born of respect that make English homes proverbial in the world. Homes such as our best ones are school of reverence.
Closely connected with the reverence for parents and for home is the reverence for the stranger and the poor. Hospitality seems to be one of the principles inherent in the mind of man; it is a virtue closely kin to charity—the greatest Christian virtue. Hospitality was a duty to the Jew; to the Greek also. The origin of the sentiment seems to have been in both cases the same. A Hebrew would entertain a stranger because angels often came to earth disguised. In the same way the Greek would think—
"Ill fits the stranger and the poor to wound,
But the conception of reverence for the homeless or the poor was more noble than such a motive would imply. In Homer we find misery spoken of as sacred to the gods (Od. v. 572) and hospitality as a debt: "Oh! pity human woe! 'Tis what the happy to the unhappy owe!" (Od. vii. 198). It is considered a test of civilisation; in an unknown land Ulysses wonders whether it is peopled by—
. . . "A race unjust, of barbarous might,
A little later on in the same book we find a passage entirely inspired with reverence:—
"Low at thy knee thy succour we implore,
In this passage we find the mention of another kind of reverence: the reverence for what is human. It was, of course, a natural consequence of anthropomorphism; but from it sprang many noble sentiments, such as the reverence for old age, the reverence for the dead, and the reverence for the body. Age is called sacred (Od. xxiii. 26), and a touching incident illustrates the way in which Telemachus was brought up to reverence age. When he returned to Ithaca and found the beggar (his father disguised) sitting by Eumaeus—
"His seat Ulysses to the prince resigned.
How charming is the picture! What a world of emotions must have filled Ulysses' heart! And equal reverence was to be paid to any stranger. Laodamas, a king's best beloved son, rose and gave his seat beside the throne to the guest; and even the queen of heaven would rise to give her throne to a guest in the assembly of the gods.
Even in the height of fury Ulysses reverenced the corpses of the suitors. When Euryclea screamed for joy, he rebuked her, saying,—
"T' insult the dead is cruel and unjust,
This same feeling gave rise to all the elaborate ceremonies connected with burial and to the horror of leaving a body unburied. Elpenor in Hades entreated Ulysses to bury his body as soon as he returned to the upper world, and Antigone speaks of the duty of burying her brother as one of—
"The infallible, unwritten laws of Heaven,
Again; the spirit of reverence is evident in the dread of breaking an oath. It is worthy of notice, because perjury seems to be the only crime which is expressly mentioned as punishable in Hades; even the gods were subject to the consequences of perjury. In the Iliad it is the Trojans who break their word flippantly; to a Greek it was one of the worst forms of crime. We find the invocation, "Powers beneath, that all the perjuries of men chastise ev'n after death." And it is into the mouth of Achilles that Homer puts the powerful words—
"Who dares think one thing and another tell,
All this seems the more remarkable when the gods are found using deceit of every kind and Ulysses praised by the goddess for his lying. But the inconsistency is only apparent; the ideal existed plainly in the mind, but could take only a relative position in an anthropomorphical conception. To a Greek mind the idea of anything absolute seems to have been foreign. Just as unlimited power was an abomination to them, so did absolute perfection never occur to them; their most ideal creations were intensely human. It is characteristic that Homer's Jupiter was an exalted Agamemnon; the heavenly king was a glorified impersonation of the earthly king of kings. On the other hand, the Greeks were apt to worship superlative gifts, exceptional beauty of mind or body. In Achilles we have Homer's highest conception of man as the divinest creature of creation; in Ulysses, the more human aspect, less spiritual but more touching, less noble but with a mind as quick and powerful, less sensitive but nevertheless a true son, husband, father, ruler. Of Achilles, all we can say is that he was as divine as a man can be: Ulysses only wished to be remembered as the father of Telemachus.
Of the reverence for marriage little need be said; sufficient testimony to this is given by the siege of Troy itself and also by that mother of all noble wives, Penelope. Paris, the cause of all the dire trouble which came to the Greeks and Trojans, is spoken of in the Iliad in these words: "Accurs'd, made but in beauty's scorn! Imposter, woman's man! O heav'n, that thou hads't ne'er been born, or, being so manless, never liv'd to bear man's noblest state, the nuptial honour." And in the eyes of the Greeks, Paris was doubly to blame. He had not only outraged the laws of marriage, but also those of hospitality.
And lastly, without entering upon the fascinating question as to the origin of Christian ideas prevalent in Homer, it is interesting to turn once more to the beautiful lines which seem to have a special meaning in a land which owes so much of its greatness to the sentiment of reverence—reverence for king, for parents, home and country, respect for age, poverty and weakness, love of what is pure and beautiful, and above all that reverence for God which makes our service one of the sublimest that man has ever proffered to his Maker.
"Bear, with a soul resigned, the will of Jove;
W. Osborne Brigstocke
Proofread by Leslie Noelani Laurio, December 2008
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