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Ages Born of Wonder

Art begins with receptivity: the artist has faith in a gift and its giver. It ends with an offering.

The world is an altar on which the Divine enters flesh. Adam is a priest. The new Adam is a recapitulation and restoration of the priesthood.

All of us are artists, gifted to receive, perceive, apprehend, name, imitate, and offer.

“Why was Homer so wise?” somebody asked me the other day. I took the question to mean, “What was it about him that made him able to become wise?”

The Odyssey gives us clues. Here are two of my favorite:

The soul of Agamemnon, son of Atreus, answered him:
‘O fortunate son of Laertes, Odysseus of many devices,
surely you won yourself a wife endowed with great virtue.
How good was proved the heart that is in blameless Penelope,
Ikarios’ daughter, and how well she remembered Odysseus,
her wedded husband. Thereby the fame of her virtue shall never
die away, but the immortals will make for the people
of earth a thing of grace in the song for prudent Penelope.

Multiple titles offer themselves from this passage (Odyssey XXIV, 191-198), including, “The Fame of her Virtue,” “A Thing of Grace,” and “The Song for Prudent Penelope.”

I hold to the belief that the Odyssey is that song. It sings to us of the her virtue, making it famous. It is a thing of grace, fitting to the wonder of this woman.

So that’s one of my favorites. Here’s another… There was

a great fire blazing on the hearth, and the smell of cedar
split in billets, and sweetwood burning, spread all over
the island. [Kalypso] was singing inside the cave with a sweet voice
as she went up and down the loom and wove with a golden shuttle.
There was a grove of growth around the cavern, flourishing,
alder was there, and the black poplar, and fragrant cypress,
and there were birds with spreading wings who made their nests in it,
little owls, and hawks, and birds of the sea with long beaks
who are like ravens, but all their work is on the sea water;
and right about the hollow cavern extended a flourishing
growth of vine that ripened with grape clusters. Next to it
there were four fountains, and each of them ran shining water,
each next to each, but turned to run in sundry directions;
and round about there were meadows growing softly with parsley
and violets, and even a god who came into that place
would have admired what he saw, the heart delighted within him.

There the courier Argeiphontes [Hermes] stood and admired it.
But after he had admired all in his heart, he went in…”

The Odyssey is a book of admirations, songs woven together into a tapestry of celebrations. How people cut their meat and mix their wine, make their offerings and say their prayers, build a raft and sit in their black-prowed ships, play games, weave, dance, mourn, plan, talk – to Homer it is all a potential source of wonder and joy.

Homer has a gift for admiration. That is why he became the teacher of the Greeks.

You can see the fruit of that admiration in Jacques Barzun’s defense of a liberal education:

Properly taught, and learned—acquired—a liberal education awakens and keeps alive the imagination. By the imagination, I don’t mean fanciful things, but I mean the capacity to see beyond the end of your nose and beyond the object in front you. That is to see its implications, its origins, its potential, its danger, its charm. All the things that enable one to navigate in this difficult and complex world with a modicum of wisdom, with calm, not be alarmed with every little thing that happens and with resources that in moments of stress, and after retirement, in illness, and loneliness keep one’s soul and body alive.

In Barzun’s wise summary of the fruit of a liberal education, I see Odysseus – especially in the last sentence. This is a description of the man Homer wanted to present through his songs.

But, as St. Augustine pointed out, “Only the lover sings.” And love begins in admiration. I would argue that even God’s love for fallen mankind is begins in admiration. He never stops admiring His Image, even when it is broken. That is why He sent His Beloved Son to restore it.

Perhaps we need to sing more. Or perhaps we need to put more of the right forms of admiration in our songs.

Now consider one more thing, which I hope to develop later. Homer gives us two songs: one about Achilles and his love for justice, the other about Odysseus and his love for wisdom. The Greeks, reading Homer, tried to reconcile the two. The tension was so generative it gave birth to Hellenic and the Hellenistic and then western civilization.

All born of admiration, which is in fact a Latin word that means to wonder.

I, therefore, devote this post to the memory of a man worthy of great admiration, the late Jacques Barzun, who died this week at the admirable age of 104. HT to Kim Jahn and Robert Woods.

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