Thursday, May 17, 2018

Homeric Hermeneutics

This post is not about Scotus.

One of the benefits of no longer being in institutional academia (condolences to my esteemed co-blogger) is that I can study whatever I want without regard to my curriculum vitae or departmental or disciplinary expectations. What I've been studying most lately is Greek. At long last I'm getting close to finishing my first complete read-through of both the Iliad and the Odyssey in Greek. This wonderful experience has confirmed my long-held sense that Homer is the king of all poets: as someone or other said, Homer is the proof that there is no progress in the arts. There may be a very few who could claim to be as great, but there are none greater, none more beautiful, none more insightful, none more intricate. As I reach the end I'm struck more and more by the realization that there is nothing more subtle and psychologically penetrating in all of literature than the final quarter of the Odyssey.

My most beloved writers from antiquity other than Homer, Plato and Vergil, were also surely antiquity's most careful readers of and thinkers about Homer; and he has helped me understand them better. Thanks to the Odyssey I think I've solved two of classical literature's greatest mysteries: the meaning of the end of Aeneid book VI, and the identity of the Athenian Stranger in Plato's Laws.


Penelope tells Odysseus in Od. 19.562-567: "For two are the gates of shadowy dreams, and one is fashioned of horns, the other of ivory. Those that pass through the gate of carved ivory deceive, bringing things unfulfilled; but those that come through the gate of polished horn bring true things to fulfillment, when anyone among mortals sees them." Now Penelope, not openly acknowledging that she recognizes her returned husband, is scheming with him in riddles so that the servants don't understand and betray him to the suitors. She's just described an invented allegorical "dream" in which Odysseus returns and kills the suitors, and she's just about to propose the trial of the bow. So this statement about the nature of dreams, coming between those two moments, is Penelope's way of telling Odysseus how to accomplish his task of winning back his household without getting himself and his family killed.

Ivory is the material of scabbards. Odysseus is given a sword with an ivory scabbard earlier in the poem, and such scabbards were known in the classical world. Horn, on the other hand, is the material of bows. Penelope is telling Odysseus that yes, he must kill the suitors, but not by passing through the gate of ivory, not by drawing the sword, because that way is false, it won't be successful. He must pass through the gate of horn, that is, win the trial of the bow, her own device for getting a weapon only he can use into the hands of Odysseus, when no one else is armed, a device she is about to explain. The false way, the gate of ivory, is the straightforward way of Achilles, the path of sheer immediate brute force; the true way, the gate of horn, is the polytropic, twisty, curved, clever, tricky way of Odysseus, the path of contest-winning (Odysseus won the contest for the arms of Achilles against Ajax, and wins his contests against the Phaeacians), biding one's time, and deception (he, of course, deceives practically everyone he meets in the poem at one point or another).

At the end of Aeneas' journey through the underworld Vergil says (Aeneid 6.893-896) "The gates of sleep are twins; one of which is said to be of horn, whereby an easy outlet is given to true shades (shadows, umbris); the other finished and gleaming with shining ivory, but [through it] the shades (spirits, Manes) send false things to heaven." Aeneas leaves Hades and goes back to the mortal world through the gate of ivory. Why?

The first half of the Aeneid is Odyssean: Aeneas wanders, is troubled by a vengeful god, tells his story, has a love affair with a beautiful woman who offers a tempting alternative to his destiny, and descends to the underworld where he sees the spirit of a deceased, beloved parent and is told about the future. The second half of the poem is Iliadic, or rather Achilleic: Aeneas battles over a woman and a truce-breaking and kills a lot of people. On the basic level, then, Aeneas' passing through the gate of ivory shows his transition from the Odyssean to the Achilleic stage: he ceases to wander over the ocean's curve, unsheathing his straight sword.

On a deeper level I think his taking the ivory gate indicates the fundamentally un-Odyssean character both of the man and the poem. "Arma virumque cano", Vergil begins, "arms and the man I sing", but though a story of arms reflects the Iliad and a story of a man and his wanderings suggests the Odyssey, Aeneas himself is nothing like Odysseus at all. Odysseus is a hated figure in the Aeneid and in the Roman worldview in general; dishonest, dishonorable, undignified and untrustworthy, quite the opposite of pius Aeneas, the archetypal Roman. His journey mirrors Odysseus' in only the most superficial way. Taking the ivory gate informs us that the way of Achilles, the way of the drawn sword, is compatible with the Roman character in a way that the way of Odysseus, the way of the bow and the lyre, is not.

But the Roman, Achilleic way is not the true way. We know this because Homer tells us so. In Hell Odysseus says to Achilles, how wonderful it must be to be the greatest and most honored of all the shades of Elysium! But Achilles replies that he would rather be the slave of the poorest farmer, alive, than king of all the dead. And yet in life Achilles could not abide the disrespect even of a king, while Odysseus stooped to being abused even by slaves in order to get his home and family back.

An easy outlet, Vergil says, is given to true shadows through the gate of horn, while the shades send false things to heaven through that of ivory. A shade, that of Anchises, sends Aeneas back to the living world through this gate; Aeneas is later deified as the founder of Rome; Aeneas is a false thing sent to heaven.

Pious Aeneas' un-Odyssean character is highlighted by his relationship to the goddesses. The three goddesses most important to the Matter of Troy are Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite, or to the Romans Pallas Minerva, Juno, and Venus. These were the goddesses involved in the Judgement of Paris, the cause of the Trojan War. Now it's a curious fact that even though the Odyssey is permeated by the interplay of the themes of love and the family - Odysseus has love affairs with two goddesses, the realm of Aphrodite, but is ultimately determined to get back to hearth and home, the realm of Hera - only Athena takes any interest in the matter. She has a prominent role, while Aphrodite and Hera never appear on the stage at all. Odysseus' story is dominated by the forces of Aphrodite and Hera, but his character is all identified with Athena. This is precisely reversed in the Aeneid: Athena has no part to play, and the two most prominent Olympian actors are Venus and Juno. Like Odysseus, in order to achieve his fate Aeneas must overcome Venus in the form of his love for Dido, and embrace Hera, in the form of Lavinia, the wife he marries to establish a home. But Odysseus' struggle to return to Penelope is what he wants, because he loves her more than than the goddesses Circe and Calypso or the mortal princess Nausicaa (their characters are more alike than any two others in all of Homer); while Aeneas marries Lavinia out of duty and cares nothing about her personally or erotically. But Aeneas is the son of Venus - embracing Hera out of piety is precisely rejecting his own nature, being false to himself. He doesn't seem to recognize this. It's not clear that he knows his own nature, whereas Odysseus does, thanks to Hermes' gift of the moly plant on Circe's island. And so while capitulating to Juno is the price of Juno relenting in her anger against the Trojans, it comes at the cost of the total assimilation of the Trojans into the Latin people, the disappearance without a trace of their language and culture. Trojans "founded" Rome but lost their nature. Aphrodite won the judgment of Paris but lost the war for posterity.

Pallas Athena plays no special role in the Aenead, but someone else named Pallas does, Aeneas' young ally. Pallas is killed by Turnus, and this is the reason Aenead kills Turnus at the shocking, abrupt, brutal conclusion of the poem: "'Pallas strikes you with this blow, Pallas sacrifices you and takes atonement from guilty blood!' Saying this, burning, he buried the iron in his chest. But from that one [Turnus] the limbs were loosed with cold, and his grudging life with a groan fled under the shadows." The echo of the name suggests that in the absence of the wisdom of Pallas (recall from book I of the Iliad and elsewhere that Athena is a special friend of Achilles as well as of Odysseus) Aeneas does not learn the lesson of Achilles, that of compassion for a defeated enemy, and so his poem ends not in melancholic sympathy and understanding, as the Iliad does, but in ugly horror. Aeneas sends Turnus to the shadows, the umbras, which escape easily through the gate of horn, but he himself is sent by the shadows, the manes of the dead, to embrace the lie that Rome's glory can be bought only with violence. But it is a lie: the glory of Rome bought by violence faded into the shadows. The eternal Roman empire was founded only on the reversal of Roma back into Amor, when Rome was planted with the seed of charity, its soil watered with the blood of the martyrs, and the State transformed into the Church.

This is why the medievals thought that Vergil was a magician and a prophet.


Who is the Athenian Stranger of Plato's Laws? The Laws is the only one of Plato's dialogues in which Socrates is not named as a participant. Aristotle says that the Stranger is Socrates even if not named. But Socrates famously never left the environs of Athens except to defend her in war. Cicero says that the Stranger is Plato himself. Leo Strauss suggests that the Laws is a kind of thought-experiment: in the Laws we see what might happen if after the Crito Socrates avoided execution after all, escaped anonymously to Crete, and there had this discussion. Who is right?

1. Throughout most of the second half of the Odyssey Odysseus pretends to be from Crete, either to be a Cretan or at least to have had adventures and come from there to Ithaca ferried by Cretans. In all his stories he mentions how he met Odysseus, knew Odysseus, has all the news about Odysseus and his imminent return. It's a lie, but it's a lie that mirrors the truth: he had adventures on islands, most recently Phaeacia, and was ferried to Ithaca by Phaeacians, and of course he knows all the news about himself. The stories he tells didn't happen, but they say something true, and the Cretan Stranger is himself Odysseus.

2. Plato's Critias tells the story of a war against Atlantis in which the Athenians won a spectacular victory, greater than the victories of the Persian Wars. It's a lie, but a lie that's a mirror-image of the truth: the Athenians did fight a war with a great island, a war greater than the Persian Wars (if Thucydides is to be believed), namely Sicily, but they suffered a terrible and ignominious defeat. The story of Atlantis in the Critias is too good to be true because it comes in the wake of the story of the Republic (whose sequel it is) about a city too good to be true, a city ruled by philosophers, while the bitter truth about Sicily reflects the truth about the real city of Athens.

3. There is one other important Stranger in Plato's dialogues, the Eleatic Stranger of the Sophist and the Statesman. In the Parmenides the original Eleatic philosopher discourses with the young Socrates, teaching him how to think about and overcome the flaws in the simplistic Socratic hypothesis of the independent Forms. At the end of Socrates' life there is a mirror image of this discussion. The Eleatic stranger is not the long-dead Parmenides, but he speaks like him, not to now-old Socrates, but to a mirrored pair of interlocutors, Thucydides who shares Socrates' looks, and another young man who shares his name. The Elder Socrates stands silently by while the Eleatic Stranger teaches the two young Socrateses to correct the inadequacies in both his ontological and his political speculations.

4. In the Laws an Athenian who could not be Socrates, but who thinks and talks like Socrates, comes to the island of Crete and talks with a Spartan and a Cretan politician about founding a city on philosophical principles, a city that would avoid the inadequacies of Socrates' unrealistic Republic. In real life Plato, an Athenian student of Socrates, went to the island of Sicily to persuade a tyrant to run a state on philosophical principles. In real life, the Athenian military expedition against Sicily was a disastrous failure; in real life, Plato's philosophical expedition to Sicily was a disastrous failure too. In the dialogues, Athens won a long-ago, never-never-land but spectacular victory against an ancient island empire; in the dialogues, the Athenian stranger, speaking with the representatives of the deepest Hellenic antiquity, the elderly heirs of the Homeric Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations, makes a spectacular philosophical and political conversion. Cicero is right: the Athenian Stranger is Plato.


cicero said...

Interesting that you see the Sicilian Expedition in Plato's Atlantis story. Among contemporary scholars, this is a minority opinion. Prevailing are analogies to the Persian Wars, and Atlantis as a mirrored Athens, so Athens fighting with itself. Let me point you to the book "Atlantis and Syracuse" by Gunnar Rudberg, 1917, translated 2012. With best regards Thorwald C. Franke

Anonymous said...

What are you doing instead of academia?

Michael Sullivan said...


I'm working in the Federal Government now.