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Obvious Does Not Mean Basic

This afternoon, I will be participating in a Podcast on Hamlet in which I hope to invite people to read Shakespeare’s play and to look for what is obvious. Meanwhile, I’m reading the Iliad for the Apprenticeship and have been thinking quite a bit about how to read and to teach it.

My teaching mantra for the year is “Obvious is not basic.” Adults want abstract ideas and we want to get back to basics, both of which are hard. Some students want them too, but their ability to reach the abstract or the basic is qualified by their maturity as well as their experience of the text or field of study.

In fact, that is true of us as adults too. If I read something for the first time, I am not going to understand it deeply. There is nothing I can do to change that.

Life is like that too. When I meet a person for the first time (and a person is far more rich and varied than a book), all I will get of that person is a superficial encounter. It takes time and frequent conversations to develop a relationship.

So I’ve been asking myself, “Given that, how can I teach Homer (or any great book) emphasizing the obvious and not getting lost on the basics?”

What’s the difference? you might ask.

From the inside of the learning experience, having come to see the thing to be learned, it can seem counter-intuitive, so you might want to think about something you don’t know very well, like a foreign language or an unfamiliar science or a historic epic.

Take history, for example: there are obvious things about history, like that people did amazing things at various times and in interesting places. Also, in a sweeping sense, there are changes in history which can be caricatured into periods like the Roman Empire, the Middle Ages, etc.

Now, no self-respecting historian would try to defend the actual existence of a “middle age” without so many nuances and qualifications that he would get lost in them.

But if you are teaching history to a child and you don’t give him these epics, he won’t know where to put things.

A timeline is an obvious outline of history, but it doesn’t take you to the basics of history at all.

The basics of history are deep and maybe inaccessible. They are variable. Only an expert can speak with authority about them. So the expert tends to scoff at the obvious, caricatured elements of history. He forgets that when he was a child those caricatures made history accessible to him.

What are the basic elements of history? I’m no expert, so I can’t speak with authority, but here’s a suggestion or two. A person who knows the basics of history would be able to describe in detail:

  • how power is transferred from person to person or group to group in various circumstances
  • the “dynamics of history” (Christopher Dawson’s term): i.e. the causes of change in human society
  • the forces that lead to or undercut human well-being/flourishing in various contexts

That would be valuable information and it would be hard-won. I’d love to hear from such a wise man, though I’m not sure how much of it could be written.

What about the Iliad, then? What is obvious, as opposed to basic?

Here are some suggestions:

  • Achilles is mad
  • A lot of people get killed
  • The gods get involved
  • There are 24 books
  • The Iliad is complex and sometimes hard to follow

Here are some basic things (as basic as I can apprehend at my level of understanding and experience)

  • Books 1 and 8, 2 and 7, and 3 and 6 echo each other, while 4 and 5 are framed to go together. (Bruce Heiden: Homer’s Cosmic Fabrication)
  • The whole Trojan war is seen in light of Achilles’ anger, even though he is not a primary or principle character in the war (Lattimore goes into this in his introduction)
  • Homer teaches his reader how to think by narrating dilemmas for actors and exploring ways to create options through analogical activities (see Heiden, Eva Brann, and others for input to this idea). This is why Homer’s books are so endlessly practical – far more than a book on, for example, business management.
  • Homer loves craftsmanship and uses various motifs to draw our attention to it, such as weaving (Athene’s craft) and making weapons (Hephaestos’s craft, among other things).
  • He uses craftsmanship to explore wisdom, an activity which Plato then imitates in many of his dialogues: that is one reason, among many, many reasons, why Homer is the teacher of the Greeks and also of us.

Perhaps you can see that those basic realities are much harder to come by than the obvious stuff. They could be told to a student in his first read, but unless they are being used as reading tools (and the first might work for that), they won’t be comprehensible and therefore they won’t be very interesting.

What will be interesting is what you as a teacher can do with them. For example, you could ask your students to compare the events of book 1 with book 8, 2 with 7, and 3 with 6 (I would only recommend doing that once as it would take a while, and I would only do it with skilled readers).

Or, since the whole pattern of Iliad and Odyssey is for actors to encounter dilemmas and think about them, you could do the rather obvious thing and ask: What should X do? Some examples:

  • What should Agammenon do with Chryses’ request for to ransom his daughter?
  • What should Achilles do in response to Agamemnon’s actions?
  • Should Paris challenge Menelaus to a duel?
  • Should the Achaian’s go home?
  • Should Zeus give Troy to Hera?
  • Should Diomedes have attacked Aphrodite and Ares
  • Should Hektor withdraw to the rampart?

And so on. Each book tends to turn around an issue that a hero or god has to decide. Therefore, like every other story ever written only moreso, asking these questions will both take you into the heart of the text and make it more interesting to the student, who will only care about the more basic/advanced questions when he’s been engaged at the superficial level.

Textbooks have a tendency to focus on the basics since there isn’t any need to draw students attention to the obvious. Except that there is. Kids spend so much time being told what to think by text books that they have lost the ability to note the obvious.

What to do? Find ways to get them to notice the obvious. Here are some approaches:

  • Ask them surface questions, like: where does it happen, who is there, and what do they do?
  • Should he/she have done it? or What should he/she do?
  • Compare characters, actions, and settings with each other (but be careful, because this will lead them to notice deeper things, and you have to be careful not to do that)
  • Once they are warmed up, you could possibly just ask: tell me some obvious things about this story, but that is so vague that it won’t work for inexperienced readers.

What I’m getting at is that readers need to be trained to note the obvious, not to go for the deep basic stuff. That follows the obvious.

Here’s Thomas Aquinas describing this in strict logical language, but with a clarity that is quite admirable if you know what his words mean (and it’s worth the effort to learn them):

“the human intellect does not acquire perfect knowledge by the first act of apprehension; but it first apprehends something about its object, such as its quiddity, and this is its first and proper object; and then it understands the properties, accidents, and the various relations of the essence. Thus it necessarily compares one thing with another by composition or division; and from one composition and division it proceeds to another, which is the process of reasoning.”

First, you just see something undefined and vague about what you are looking at. These are obvious things, or you wouldn’t notice them first.

Its “quiddity” is the “what it is” of the thing. You might look at a cat and notice that it is a cat, without noticing anything else about it. Or you might notice a black object without noticing anything else. That isn’t its quiddity; it is a property. But you won’t always notice the quiddity, sometimes you will notice “something [else] about its object.”

With the Iliad, you might notice that it is an epic, but since it is so vast you are more likely to notice a property or two, such as characters and actions. Make sense?

Then, by comparing, you come to understand its properties (i.e. characteristics), accidents (things that are true of it but don’t need to be, like redness in a ball), and so on.

With the Iliad, you might start to notice the different types of characters or settings or actions; you might notice motifs and patterns. You’ll do that, not by a quick glance, but by making comparisons of the things that were obvious.

When you make those comparisons and note those features, you put things together and take them apart. That’s what the mind does and it enjoys doing it. It’s what we are referring to when we talk about reasoning or thinking.

With the Iliad, again, you might put books together into patterns (like I did above, following Heiden) or characters in relations, or actions into a plot.

You can also take things apart. You could separate books for discrete study, do a character analysis, explore a motif on its own (such as craftsmanship, flowers, flying animals, etc.).

Then, having isolated a piece for dissection/analysis, you have to put it back in its relations.

Now you are thinking deeply, but note that you are the one doing it, and there is nothing mysterious about how you are doing it.

Thinking deeply and reading a deep book about Homer are two very, very different things. You should put off the latter as long as you possibly can. Instead, look for what Eva Brann calls “clues to delight in reading the Odyssey and the Iliad.”

Because there is too much delight mingled with the wisdom in Homer to exhaust in a decade of lifetimes.

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