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Odysseus of the Many Designs

The highest high point of classical education was its beginning. There never has been and never will be a poet as perfect as Homer. All of the Greeks acknowledged that he was their teacher. All of them walked down trails he blazed. Nobody compares but Moses and Christ.

There were other high points. Socrates and the philosophical defense of knowable truth, as expressed in Plato’s Gorgias, Meno, and Republic was an achievement unmatched in philosophical, and therefore cultural, history. Aristotle’s development of the “organon” or “tools of learning” and his total curriculum for a thinking person’s life are the mental spine of western development and of the sciences.

The work of the church fathers, exploring Greek philosophy to its limits and transcending them with and through Moses and Christ, using every available resource to “define” the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation of Christ, adapting the educational journey to its fulness in the one whom God the Father ordained to be the unifier of all in Christ, this is undoubtedly the supreme achievement of humanity and we all are blessed by passing near the streams that flow from their fountain.

But the high point of classical education is still Homer.

The Odyssey is a tapestry about tapestries of weavers and spinners. The muse weaves her design through Homer, who weaves his designs through Odysseus and Penelope, the former of whom weaves his designs through his own mind and on everything around him. Athene weaves her designs through Odysseus and maybe also through Homer. Penelope weaves and unravels her shroud. Everybody is weaving.

So I went and learned a little bit about weaving. I found that weaving involves three basic movements: shedding (lifting every other thread in order to create a separation through which the shuttle can fly), picking (passing the shuttle back and forth across the divided threads), and battening (tightening the tapestry to prevent it from falling apart or coming loose).

In the Odyssey, Homer is a weaver. He is constantly shedding things so that he can pick them. For example, at the beginning of the epic, Poseidon is separated from the other gods. He won’t rejoin them until the very end of Odysseus’ journey. In between the shedding and the battening, Homer weaves a stunning design through Poseidon’s absence.

Odyssey is also separated, perhaps obviously. He is on an island near the end of the world, and the whole story is about his shuttling home. At one point, he says to a young lady,

May the gods give you everything that your heart longs for;
May they grant you a husband and a house and sweet agreement
in all things, for nothing is better than this, more steadfast
than when two people, a man and his wife, keep a harmonious

When we remember that this is precisely what his heart longs for and what his hands are working for, he breaks our heart.

Very near the beginning Homer presents a third example of shedding, but this time it gives a hint of what might be coming. Kalypso, on whose island Odysseus is trapped, is described by Athene as “daughter of malignant Atlas, who has discovered all the depths of the sea, and himself sustains the towering columns which bracket earth and sky and hold them together.”

Earth and sky are separated by these columns, but these same columns also hold them together. Not a bad description of how weaving works!

The Odyssey is about wisdom. In almost every culture, or so it seems, weaving is the analogy for wisdom.

We might not need to go back to a world where weaving is done by hand, but we do need to think about the world as a tapestry. Otherwise we don’t know it for what it is.

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