As you perhaps know we are currently at the beautiful Chetola Resort in Blowing Rock, NC for the CiRCE Summer Institute, this year a conversation about Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey. Mr. Jonathan Councell, our friend from Veritas Classical School in Asheville, NC volunteered to journal his experience here at the retreat. The following thoughts came from his day 3 experience.
The prevalence of substance abuse, paradisiacal sounding names for roads and communities, tribal migrations, westward expansions, and more are all symptoms of a deep yearning in the human soul. Call it paradise, rest, sabbath, peace, shalom, utopia, financial independence, the fountain of youth, or nirvana. Call it whatever you wish, there exists in us an unmistakable desire for something more than survival in the human soul, a sense of a deep scission in the world, the society, and the self that needs to be healed.
Yet novels like The Scarlet Letter, The Awakening, and A Brave New World all point to the great irony that wherever we try to finally “arrive” at a place of rest, the world and all its trials are still with us. There is no final resting place and the cycle of violence and greed will persist. In a post-modern world where we have seen the effects of Nihilistic power philosophies like that of the Third Reich, we distrust any utopian hope for the future based on the heroic endeavors of mankind. In the light of a global groundswell in idealistic thinking (i.e the Arab Spring, Occupy Wallstreet, 99%, etc.) mankind again runs the risk of believing himself immune to the frailties of human nature.
Nowhere has the logos of a fallen mankind been so mythically incarnated than in Homer’s The Odyssey which argues that we must turn to the past in order to understand our present. The Odyssey mythically shines light on the perennial human desire for its return, centered in a crisis of violence and struggle that, though necessary, renders its participants incapable of finding again the world they left. Thus to return home, we must, according to Homer, embark on a journey of learning and suffering, strive for a homecoming for others as well as ourselves, and find again the eternal forms that can regenerate the here and now in terms of institutional, religious, and personal order.
Both Odysseus and Telemachus are victims of the scission caused by the Trojan war; the necessary evils of war and violence cannot be brought back to the home and state. Fathers and Kings were taken from their communities and disorder and anarchy reigned in their stead. Even the gods, who had themselves participated in much of this struggle, now desired to bring harmony back to earth. The agent of this restoration is Athene, Goddess of Wisdom, who sends both Odysseus and Telemachus on journeys full of many “cities…minds…and pains”.
These are not journeys of whim. Wisdom guides them.
The twenty year old Telemachus must leave Ithaka (present disorder), pass through Pylos (past religious order), and stay a time at Sparta (recently restored civic order). Not only does he gain knowledge, but he also acquires reputation and manhood. Odysseus, meanwhile, must experience twelve trials, the loss of his men, and twenty years of separation from his home before he can return wise, wealthy, and a force of order for the gods on earth.
(Note: Both of these journeys speak to the fact that the purpose of education is the preparation of the individual for citizenship; in other words, as an agent of wisdom in bringing the order of the heavens to earth – Paidiea.)
This leads to the second aspect of Homer’s solution to the scission in human life: that the purpose of education–the reason for this journey–must be to find home, not just for the individual, but for others; any other journey of knowledge and suffering will be in vain.
Our present culture is not ignorant to the “journey.” It is a common motif in the literature of our age. It is common for individuals to head out in the pattern of Eat, Pray, Love, to “find themselves.” It is even common for communities to try to find a collective identity through struggle, journey, and suffering. However, at the core of these collective enterprises is the ego. Always the ego is king.
While the individual hero is of critical importance to Homer’s epic, his journey is an individual’s journey for the sake of others, justice, and the order of the cosmos. It is a journey that provides an ethic of virtue capable of harmonizng the individual’s rights with the needs of the community. This must be, essentially, not a journey of personal identity, but of collective restoration.
Lastly, a true “return” can only be accomplished by a discovery, recognition, and application of the universal forms that transcend the local and the relative, serving as windows into the eternal, and therefore finally freeing us from the cyclical patterns of man’s darker egotistic tendencies. Odysseus had to pass into the Underworld, just as Telemachus came face to face with an Olympus-like Sparta that had gone through a restoration and now mimicked the heavens. Both were able to see what should be, not just what is.
This mythic journey, apart from the chaos and mutability of the world, is necessary to restore both the individual and the community. The strength of any historic country or empire can be correlated with that people’s desire to express a Universal truth or pattern within their civic institutions. The decline of most great powers is in some departure from principle in favor of personal acquisitiveness, political expediency, or deconstructive pluralism, all of which find their origin in the inordinate elevation of the ego over virtue. The struggles, trials, and battles of Odysseus teach that the education of the individual must be to go back into the community to help it conform to the forms laid out by the gods, the cosmos, and the natural world. The true leader of a free people then will not simply be the representative of collective desire, but instead will be the bringer and guider of his people into the universal forms that they–being educated–affirm and follow.
The desire for freedom for its own sake has led to a global deconstruction of all boundaries, taboos, and limitations on the rights of individuals. In the absence of such “limitations” the suffering of the world is not decreasing, but instead is increasing. The anguish and ignorance of the masses continues to increase, as access to information without understanding increases. Feelings of disconnection and isolation increase as populations become more and more crowded in urban and virtual spaces. Personal quality of life and individual rights are being championed without a care for global resources, economic realities, or spiritual truths. And scientific advancements without ethics threaten to subordinate humanity the more humanity seems to provide control over nature.
All of this was foreseen by the careful observation of Homer. Odysseus’s odyssey is the journey of each individual. We understand the desire for rest, retirement, and paradise because we all remember Eden. And although we cannot simply return to what was, we can lead a civic, religious, and personal restoration of order that will last beyond the time of this earth. All of this because the education of the wise man is not expressive of an ego but instead is an ego that conforms itself to the Universal.
May every lover of freedom and mankind strive to find the forms that limit us to those things that truly “make for peace.”