The Ideal in the West

 

This is the site of the podcast and transcripts for The Ideal in the West. The aim of this project is to bring to people all over the world an appreciation not only of the philosophical tradition of the Ideal, but also the realization that it is not an abstract theory–it is the underlying Reality and the source of all love, beauty and beneficence. This will be an intellectual adventure and a spiritual travelogue–no prior experience required!

For books related to the Ideal, click here.

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Greek “Emotions”

 

There is a great exhibition of art at the Onassis Foundation in New York, which I highly recommend.  Here is the link to it, and here is the link to my review of it for the Kosmos Society website.  Enjoy!

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Athena and “Creative Mercy”

 

Athena, goddess of Wisdom, serves in both the Odyssey and in the Oresteia to bring

Athena Varvakeion, Roman copy of a statue of Athena by Phidias, 3d century AD, National Archeological Museum, Athens

Athena Varvakeion, Roman copy of a statue of Athena by Phidias, 3d century AD, National Archeological Museum, Athens

“creative mercy”¹ to situations that otherwise would perpetuate blood feuds.  Vendettas–“an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”– are the normal condition of being in the world, of being in duality and opposition, and can be stopped only by forgiveness.  This is hundreds of years before Christ, and in both stories it is Athena’s final form.  She leaves behind the goddess of war, and becomes the goddess of wisdom, of forgiveness.

Read more.

 

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Criticism vs. Discrimination

 

Both words are derived from the Greek krisis ‘decision,’ from krinein ‘decide.’  Events or circumstances are coming to a head, which implies a choice, having options.

Criticism is a choice between good and bad, ranking or rating.  Criticism of anything, especially oneself, is usually a sign of ego.  Judging by some self-developed or -adopted standard of right/wrong, beauty/ugliness.  It is a way of assessing one’s own status in relation to the thing judged: better/worse, superior/inferior.  Caring about these things is the domain of the ego.

Discrimination, however, as with Odysseus, is usually a sign of choosing the best option for achieving the Self.  It is a move away from fragmented ego toward unity.  When faced with taking this or that action, choosing the one that will lead toward the fatherland of Ithaka.  It is letting go of the limited and moving toward the Infinite.

Of course this implies acknowledging that there is a fatherland, and having the desire to reach it.  Most of us are so often under the spell of the suitors (of Circe or Kalypso), that this option doesn’t enter our thinking.  We need a Tiresias to give us “a clear sign.”

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The “Agon” Spectrum

 

The word agon (ἀγών) in Greek means “gathering, assembly, coming together.”  The question of “coming together for what purpose?” is not inherent–it could be for cooperating on new laws, as indicated by its variation agora, combating each other in war, as in the Iliad, or in guest-host hospitality as in the Odyssey.  But there seems to be a default in coming together for mutually beneficial ends; we need to add a prefix in order to get “antagonist,” and a suffix to get “agony.”   There is also a connection to the athletic games that the Greeks loved so much, an agon as “struggle.”

What I will propose is a continuum of agon, based on the “Love to Strife” spectrum of Empedocles, from full cooperation and egolessness to bitter rancor and the desire for revenge.  It should be no secret which I think is best, and by articulating it, I hope perhaps to make it easier for people to move in the direction of the Good.

Let’s look at the extremes, or at least insofar as I am able to see them, not having experienced either completely.  We’ll start with the strife end.

In this state, the ego–“the sphincter on the soul”–is obviously dominant.  Ironically, the things and events of the world are taken most seriously, and the “Strifer,” let’s call him, is pulled back and forth by these events and how he/she feels about them.  If things are going his/her way then all is well; of course this is not the case most of the time and so there is usually great conflict.  This state requires the presence of at least one “out group,” usually more, who are keeping the Strifer from happiness, from having things go his way.  The exemplar of this state is The Iliad, “the poem of Force,” as Simone Weil¹ has called it, where humans are turned into things, and things are turned into corpses.  We could also call it the “Iron Age.”  Its characteristics are falsehood, egocentrism, conflict, desire to win (and for others to lose), tribalism, the short term, anger, and limitation.

At the other end we have the Lovers, where the ego is absent and individuals (including one’s own self) are seen as incarnations of the Divine.  The Lover sees past the surface of people and events, and keeps them in the perspective of timelessness: people are suffering bits of the One and events–“good” or “bad”–are there to remind us of who we truly are.  Its text is The Odyssey, which follows the nostos, or journey home, of a fragmented soul from the conflict of the Trojan War back to his reintegration with his “Fatherland.”  It is the journey as I have quoted Douglas Frame elsewhere, “from darkness and death back to light and life.”  Its characteristics are Truth, egolessness, cooperation, universality, eternity and bliss.

There are of course an infinite number of stages between these two, and most of us seem to occupy the big central hump of the bell-shaped curve.  Even those who think of themselves as liberal and accepting could be hard-pressed to maintain a loving attitude when faced with an unexpected political defeat, say.  And that is the purpose of such events–to shake us out of our complacency and realize that we are not the center of events, that perhaps the world really is a play after all.  As Alkinous says to Odysseus in Song viii, “The gods arranged all this, and they wove the fate of doom for mortals, so that future generations might have something to sing about.”

What we normally think of as a blissful state can easily be derailed.  The challenge is to see it as a gift.  Emerson says, “People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them.” (Circles)

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Simone Weil and Homer

 

You might be interested in an essay I wrote about Weil’s The Iliad, or the Poem of Force.
Here’s a link to her whole essay if you haven’t read it, which I’d recommend of course. A shoutout to Bob Richardson for turning me onto it in the first place.

 

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Emerson’s Legacy

 

A version of a talk I gave recently at the School of Practical Philosophy in New York on the influence Emerson had on three people in the next generation.  Read more.

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How Are You Feeling?

 

How to know whether a particular choice or opinion is correct–that is, in keeping with the Ideal?  I have for some time recommended to people that they develop a sense of observing the feeling that accompanies it.  If the perception is of fear or anger or superiority, chances are the choice or mental content is also flawed.  If the feeling is of love and unity, chances are the statements are “true.”  This was reinforced for me today in a

Dying To Be Me, by Anita Moorjani

passage from the book Dying to Be Me by Anita Moorjani, in which she describes a near-death-experience in vivid detail, but goes on to discuss the implications of what she experienced for those of us still on earth.  She says on p 147:

I have discovered that to determine whether my actions stem from “doing” or “being,” I only need to look at the emotion behind my everyday decisions.  Is it fear, or is it passion?  If everything I do each day is driven by passion and a zest for living, then I’m “being,” but if my actions are a result of fear, then I’m in “doing” mode.

This kind of practice is one of the most basic we have to fulfill Socrates’s Ideal of self-examination.  If we wish to be happy, why do we allow so much unhappiness to dominate our lives?  We should be able to recognize the “ego-feelings” from a mile away and transform them before they reach us.  We all know what fear feels like, and to allow it into our lives is a tacit acknowledgement that we are limited, finite beings.  But if like Anita Moorjani, we realize that we are always “at One with the Universal,” we will know that there can be no death, and we will lose the wish to harm anyone–including ourselves.

Take something seemingly innocuous like gossiping, or speaking negatively about people not in our presence.  We should all know by now, in these days of hacked emails, that you should never write something about anyone that you don’t want to see on the front page of the NY Times.  (Of course we do it anyway.)  But a deeper issue is what it does to our own soul to write or speak that way.  It reinforces an identity of duplicity, of being two-faced, that limits us and will probably catch up to us eventually.  But even if not, consider the cost of allowing into our mind one of these “haughty suitors.”  We allow them to consume our substance–our consciousness, to reinforce our ideas of separateness, to invite in all their friends.  Before we know it, they have taken over the place.  So learn to see these suitors for what they are when they show up at the door, and keep it closed.  Odysseus will return.

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The Hierarchy of Law

 

I’ve written before on the existence of hierarchies, but here I would like to take it a step further.  Much is made of the “differing beliefs” of religious systems, but at their core all religions affirm a belief in the brotherhood of all people under the fatherhood of the One (okay, God).  (Read more.)

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Homeric Hymn (7) to Dionysus

 

A meditation on some similarities between this poem and the Homeric Odyssey.  Read the page here.

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We Are Not Amused

 

This saying, attributed to Queen Victoria, is perhaps more meaningful than we know.  Although dictionaries dispute it, it seems one could see an etymology for amuse that means a=”not” + muse=”muse.”  “Without a muse.”  This is what happens when we are just in a state of superficial entertainment, seeing only the surface of things.  When we are “not without a muse,” we are more connected to source of things, to our own creative power and that of the One.

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Judgment of Paris/Garden of Eden

 

I’ve written before on the myth of “The Judgment of Paris.”  Here is the main quote:

Briefly it is this: a wedding celebration for Peleus and Thetis is attended by all the gods and Very Important Mortals except one–Eris, the goddess of discord and strife, who as a guest tended to be as we would say today, a bummer.  So true to character, she takes her revenge by tossing into the proceedings an apple on which is inscribed kallistēi, meaning “for the most beautiful.”  So true to their character, this sets up a competition among three of the goddesses in attendance: Hera, wife of Zeus; Athena, patron goddess of Athens; and Aphrodite herself.  Zeus is asked to judge, but, being wise, recuses himself in favor of the mortal Paris, who, not being so wise, chooses Aphrodite who has implied to him as a reward she will give him the most beautiful mortal woman–Helen, wife of the Spartan king Menelaus.  So we see where this is going–Paris abducts her to Troy and precipitates the events recounted in Homer’s Iliad.  Seen metaphorically, it is this theft of beauty that is in a sense the “original sin” of man, and which plunges him into prolonged discord and war.  Somewhere Eris is cackling.

Now some of the “original sin” parallels with this myth and that of the Garden of Eden are pretty evident.  We start off with a scene of unity and happiness, but a being embodying Strife (Eris/Satan) comes along with an apple (from the Garden of the Hesperides in the Greek myth) and plunges the race into misery.  (The question of who created this Strife Being and why is one that doesn’t seem to get asked.)  But the temptation in Genesis is fairly obvious–eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil–that is, duality.  The choice presented to Paris is rather more subtle, I think and bears some looking into.

There are several partial versions of this myth, and one has that Paris’s mother Hecuba, wife of Priam, king of Troy, had a prophetic dream tying him to the destruction of Troy while pregnant, and he was taken to be exposed, a common way of getting rid of unwanted children back then.  He survived though by being nursed by a bear, raised as a shepherd, and later, after defeating his brothers at boxing, was welcomed, or at least allowed, back into the family.  Big mistake.

Fast forward to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, a mortal man and a goddess, representing a unity between the human and the divine.  Again, quickly, the snubbed goddess Eris tosses in an apple inscribed καλλίστῃ (kallistéi–for the fairest, dative case, so you know my study of Greek is doing some good), which sets off a competition among three goddesses.  (Still the females who cause the conflict, I might point out, but one that gave many artists over the years a good reason to paint the female nude.)

Michele Rocca, The Judgment of Paris, 1710-20

Michele Rocca, The Judgment of Paris, 1710-20

Anyway, Paris has to judge which is fairest among Hera, wife of Zeus, king of the gods; Athena, goddess of war and wisdom, and Aphrodite, goddess of beauty, love, and, well, sex.  Basically, he is presented with three choices:

  1. From Hera–unlimited power and glory (kleos), which as the wife of Zeus is no doubt hers to confer.  Some sources say she offered him the kingship of Europe and Asia.
  2. From Athena–skill in war and great wisdom.  An odd combination, I know, but the Greeks were known for that.  Anyway, think wisdom.
  3. From Aphrodite–well, beauty, love and sex, in the person of Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, but the current wife of King Menelaus of Sparta.

So it’s worth asking: which would you choose?  Each has its divine aspect: power, wisdom, beauty.  But also each has its appeal to ego, to the ownership of the forgoing: glory, war, sex.  Could you distinguish between them, or wish to?  Well, I might point out (to myself as well) that we are in fact faced with this choice, this discrimination (krinein), at each moment of the day.  Let’s take this out of the realm of the mythological/theoretical: it’s about human choice.  Do I choose toward the divine or the personal?  For us or for me?  For the Good or the pleasureable?

We are each of us on a hero’s quest.  We are each of us an Odysseus trying to make our way home to the constant lighthouse of our Penelope and the Fatherland.  What do we do when we have to choose between giving up to the dark forces of the Cyclops or escaping to carry on?  What do we do when we are tempted by the pleasures of Circe or Calypso?  What do we do when we have to choose between Skylla and Charybdis?  Let us be able to remember these words of Plotinus:

“Let us flee then to the beloved Fatherland”: this is the soundest counsel. But what is this flight? How are we to gain the open sea? For Odysseus is surely a parable to us when he commands the flight from the sorceries of Circe or Calypso- not content to linger for all the pleasure offered to his eyes and all the delight of sense filling his days.
The Fatherland to us is There whence we have come, and There is The Father.
What then is our course, what the manner of our flight? This is not a journey for the feet; the feet bring us only from land to land; nor need you think of coach or ship to carry you away; all this order of things you must set aside and refuse to see: you must close the eyes and call instead upon another vision which is to be waked within you, a vision, the birth-right of all, which few turn to use.

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Denton J. Snider

 

I am pretty safe in assuming that this name is not familiar to you, although it should be.

Denton J. Snider (1841-1925)

Denton J. Snider (1841-1925)

For me, it’s one of the great things about the internet that old books and authors can be given new life, and that’s what happened with Snider (1841-1925).  Apparently pretty well-known in his day, he had fallen into obscurity, but recently turned up on my Kindle as the author of a number of books on the Homeric epics, Shakespeare–even Emerson.  Sounds like my kind of guy.  Although I must say that as of this moment I’ve read only his Commentary on the Odyssey and that long stretches of it did make my eyes glaze over.  However, I think he does have a good sense of it as an allegory, and in fact has interpreted the passage in which Menelaus describes to Telemachus his encounter with Eidothea (Image Goddess) and Proteus (Before God) while in Egypt in a way that had not occurred to me.  Here is an excerpt:

The etymology of the names of these two deities indicates their meaning and relation. The grand dualism of the world is clearly suggested: Appearance and Substance, the Transitory and the Eternal, that which seems and that which is. Menelaus had gone astray, he had neglected the Gods, he had followed Appearance, Delusion, Negation; the result could only be death. But even Appearance points to something beyond itself, something true and eternal. So Eidothea suggests Proteus, who is her parent; that is, she is the manifestation of his being. She is the many, he is the one underneath and in the many; she is change, he is the permanent in all change. He may well be designated as her father, whose transformations she knows and declares. These transformations are called his tricks or stratagems, the shapes he puts on in the world of Appearance; they are indeed Eidothea herself along with her voice telling what is higher than herself.

When this one first principle is clearly revealed, then all is revealed; the future becomes transparent, and the distant becomes near. But you must hold fast to the one true Proteus; he will turn to fire–hold fast; he will become running water–hold fast; he will change to tree, beast, reptile–hold fast. Then he will show himself in his right shape, and will speak the fact. Hold fast; the One is under all, and is a God, who will lift the veil of Space and Time from the visage of Truth. But unquestionably the man in his desperate struggle must never forget the injunction. Hold fast to old Proteus.

In other words, don’t let appearances deceive you–hold onto what doesn’t change and you will find the truth.

 

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Suitors of the Mind

 

The word “suitor” today has a very archaic aura to it, rather like the “gentleman caller” of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie (1945), old-fashioned even then.  It recalls a time of ritualized dating behaviors when young ladies received young gentlemen who came to press their suits (no doubt in pressed suits) with hopes that they would receive the lady’s hand in marriage.  The entire process would be overseen by the young lady’s parents who spent their time sizing up the young man’s prospects and intentions.  As a way of choosing a spouse, this ritual has fallen by the wayside, and it makes it rather hard to relate to the “suitors” or “wooers” who are pursuing Penelope’s hand in marriage.  But if we look at the allegorical function of suitors, their function becomes clearer.

Penelope and the Suitors, John William Waterhouse, 1912.

Penelope and the Suitors, John William Waterhouse, 1912.

In line 106 of the Odyssey we meet the suitors for the first time.  The word Homer uses for them is μνηστῆρας, mnesteras, which has a secondary connotation in the Middle Liddell dictionary of calling to mind, mindful of, derived from the root *mne.  This is of course the same root found in mnemonic (an aid to memory) or anamnesis (Plato’s term for “not not remembering”).  So they can be seen allegorically as thoughts, as “mind-stuff” and as I’ve written before as “that raucous internal monologue that provides a running commentary to our lives–making judgments, feeling superior, feeling inferior, criticizing, gossiping, nursing grudges, becoming angry and jealous, always looking for an advantage.” This would be forgivable frat boy kind of behavior except that, as Telemachus states, “they with feasting consume my substance: ere long they will bring me, too, to ruin.”  (Od. 1:251)  So these thoughts are not benign, as they would have us believe, but eat away at our substance, our consciousness, and keep us from realizing who we really are.

When we first meet Telemachus in line 112, he is “sitting among them,” while trying to imagine his father coming home and reclaiming his kingdom.  I know the feeling.

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Apocalypso

 

In one of the CHS discussions on the Odyssey, Gregory Nagy makes an interesting point about the name Calypso (or Καλυψώ), about 40 minutes in.  We moderns tend to associate the word with Caribbean music (“Harry Belafonte with his shirt open to the navel.”) and/or the ship used by Jacques Cousteau for his research on the oceans, or John Denver’s song about it–happy, life-affirming stuff.  And pretty much all the art that’s been produced

Hendrick van Balen, "Odysseus as a Guest of the Nymph Calypso"

Hendrick van Balen, “Odysseus as a Guest of the Nymph Calypso”

on the subject depicts Calypso’s island of Ogygia as an erotic wonderland.  What’s not to like?

Well, as Nagy goes on to say, and I’m paraphrasing here, if you sleep with goddesses you may wake up dead.  The root “Cal” (Καλ) is related to the English “Hell,” and the whole name basically means “hidden” or “concealed,”  and has to do with deprivation.(Apocalypse, its opposite, means “revelation.”)  He draws a parallel with Calypso and the River Styx in Hades.

While all the other heroes from Troy have achieved their nostos (some with better results than others), “Odysseus alone, filled with longing for his return and for his wife, did the queenly nymph Calypso, that bright goddess, keep back in her hollow caves, yearning that he should be her husband.”  (Odyssey, 1:13-16)  Just as Penelope is dealing with the raft of suitors wanting to marry her, Odysseus has his own suitor in Calypso, who in a way is devouring his substance.  So this is a long stretch of time when Odysseus has a memory of Ithaka and his fatherland, but not the knowledge needed to get there.  To me this represents one of the plateaus we can achieve on the spiritual quest, what Brian Hines calls “Lake Partway,” where we may think we’re doing pretty well, where we can really feel superior to others who are content not even to try.  But it is only a plateau, not the peak, and to reach that we have to give up everything we think we know about ourselves and be prepared to get washed up like flotsam on some other unknown shore.

 

 

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Odysseus v. Agamemnon

 

Woodcut_illustration_of_Clytemnestra_and_Aegisthus_murdering_Agamemnon_and_their_subsequent_deaths_at_the_hand_of_Orestes_-_Penn_Provenance_Project

Woodcut illustration of the murder of Agamemnon and the revenge of Orestes. From Wikimedia Commons.

One of the undercurrents or subthemes of The Odyssey is the story of the return of Agamemnon from Troy and his (spoiler alert!) subsequent murder by his wife Clytemnestra, urged on by her lover Aegisthus, who happens to be Agamemnon’s cousin.  (And you thought your family had problems.)  The whole sad tale is of course documented in the Oreseteia trilogy by Aeschylus, which tells this tale as well as the subsequent revenge of Agamemnon’s son Orestes, after whom the trilogy is named.  Despite all the illicit sex and murder, it is actually a plea for a judicial system based on evidence and not on blind revenge.

It serves as a counterpoint to the story of Odysseus’s own nostos (return home) and the parallels and contrasts are instructive.  Unlike Penelope, Clytemnestra has not been faithful during Agamemnon’s absence and in fact has conspired to overthrow him upon his return.  Aegisthus, who is analogous to the suitors, actually is successful in seducing Clytemnestra and overthrowing the rightful king.   And Agamemnon, unlike Odysseus, returns home quickly, ego and military power in place, also with some booty from Troy: a new mistress, Cassandra.  Orestes, corresponding to Telemachus, is then put in the impossible position of avenging his father but at the same time perpetuating the cycle of violence.  So the whole situation shows what happens when the ego is allowed to be put in charge.¹

I think a parallel can also be made with the Analogy of the Cave in Book 7 of Plato’s Republic.  He describes what happens if a prisoner is introduced too quickly to the Reality behind his limited seeing rather than being habituated gradually.  As with Odysseus, time is needed to let go of the illusions about ourselves that we carry around, to prepare our eyes “to look upon the sun itself and see its true nature, not by reflections in water or phantasms of it in an alien setting, but in and by itself in its own place.”  (Republic: 7.516b)  So we need to learn patience, knowing that there is only one One, which is always there, and is the inevitable destination of our return.

 

¹The same forces are at work but to a lesser extent in The Odyssey.  The suitors, or limiting ideas, are killed by Odysseus and their “families” threaten revenge.  But in this case Athena steps in early (she does in the Oresteia also but not until more blood is shed) and brings peace, allowing the reunification to take place.

 

 

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More on “The Odyssey”

 

In the last post I listed the sources I’m using to help with my idiosyncratic translation of The Odyssey, and there’s another tool that is proving to be quite useful.  The Center for Hellenic Studies at Harvard, in the very capable hands of Claudia Filos, is producing a series of discussions among members of its faculty–specifically Gregory Nagy, Leonard Muellner, and Douglas Frame–who read through ten or twenty lines and then discuss them.  Sounds kinda boring, and they start out giving the impression that they were dragged into this project kicking and screaming, but once they get going and start riffing off each other they bring out some very interesting stuff.

One idea that emerges is “the grammar of poetry and the poetry of grammar.”  This is something that would be much more apparent in a live performance of The Odyssey, which is not likely to happen for you or me.  But it has to do with the way the language is used to reinforce not only the points about the plot, but also the metaphors and allegorical aspects.  I’ll be summarizing some of the main points of these videos in future posts, but if you have time I’d suggest you go to original videos.  Here’s a link to the first one on the CHS Youtube channel, and the others should be listed nearby.  Enjoy!

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Learn the language!

 

A couple of posts ago I mentioned that I was trying to learn Homeric Greek so I could read the Odyssey.  The course I was taking with the nice folks at the Center for Hellenic Studies was great, but was more focused on Attic Greek and was going to cover a lot that, frankly, would not be that useful.  So I decided to “go commando,” if you will, and dive right into translating it for myself.  And only myself, since the world does not need another Odyssey.  I’m actually rather embarrassed by how easy it is: I’m going to the Perseus site at Tufts University, selecting the Odyssey in Greek, and then clicking on each word, which opens a Greek study tool giving the definition.  One still has to figure out parts of speech and declensions and all that, but it saves a great deal of time.

And already I’m starting to see other resonances that are supportive of my view that it is a manual for becoming whole again, that it deals with universal human issues and not just one guy’s trip back home.  Take the first word: ἄνδρα (you can click it yourself and go to the word study tool).  It of course means “man,” as a class of being between animals and gods, and it is usually translated with an article, such as “the man” or “that man.”  One of the differences between Attic and Epic Greek is that the epics are not so big on articles, so they’re often added in translation, but it seems to me that by keeping it as plain old “man,” that it remains more universal–it can be about all mankind and not just Odysseus.  Homer is talking to and about us all as we too struggle to get back to our “native land.”

Also the themes of unity and multiplicity come through clearly, if you are inclined to look for them.  In the first few lines there are several references to πολλὰ which means “many,” and to the idea of going off course, astray.  Odysseus and the Greeks have “destroyed the sacred citadel of Troy”–that is, they

Destroying "the Sacred Citadel of Troy." Anton Mozart, 1573-1625.

Destroying “the Sacred Citadel of Troy.” Anton Mozart, 1573-1625.

have “missed the mark,” committed sacrilege and are therefore destined to wander until they have overcome the “ego” and returned to unity again.

This is not punishment in the standard religious sense of a jealous God taking it out on those who dare break his laws.  It’s just the way things are: karma, justice, balance, cleaning the slate, however you want to characterize it.  If in our arrogance we cut ourselves off from the source of our consciousness and bliss (as do the suitors, whom we will get to) we can’t expect to feel its unity.

No doubt there will be more that is revealed as I continue to study.  Feel free to join in.

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Iliad v. Odyssey

 

I forget now where I first heard this pointed out, but in keeping with the warlike theme of the Iliad the gatherings in it are almost all about war and planning destruction of the enemy–even if the enemy is another Greek.  All the councils have to with war or adjudicating grievances.  It’s conflict and rage all the way down.  The one glaring exception is the heartbreaking scene with Hector, his wife Andromache (ironically “man of battle”) and their son, a domestic scene of people caught up in a conflict they don’t

800px-Odysseus_Circe_Met_41.83

Odysseus encounters Circe. Krater from the Metropolitan Museum, New York.

understand and don’t really support, but which duty compels them to fulfill.

 

The Odyssey on the other hand, even though it has its share of conflict and bloodshed, has much more to do with social gatherings, feasts, and xenia–even when it turns out badly.  The Odyssey is more about teaching us how to be human, to be welcoming, and ultimately how to be more than human; how to be divine, our true Self.

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It’s All Greek to Me

 

Some time ago I made a resolution to read the Odyssey in Homeric Greek.  The few glimpses I’d had through translations of the levels of meaning, the resonances of the language that just don’t translate made me want to hear what else was there that I was missing.  Psyche–life and soul, for example, and the allegorical nature of so many other elements.

So I bought a DVD course and I’m taking lessons with some very patient people by way of the Center for Hellenic Studies at Harvard, and am gradually starting to get the hang of it, I think.  It is so foreign and yet so familiar.  It is leaving the safety of good old English with its word order and simple constructions and going into a strange world of declensions and genders and aorist tenses.  And yet I’m starting to understand that it is just that complexity that allows for the levels of meaning, the built-in allegories that are missing from so much English poetry–not to mention prose.  It is like stepping into another kind of consciousness; one where connections between things was more evident and unified, where Forms and the Good don’t seem like alien concepts.

So I’m going to hang in there, and I’ll give updates as appropriate.  Wish me luck.

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The Journey Back to Where You’ve Been (sic)

 

The Journey Back to Where You Are: Homer's Odyssey as Spiritual Quest

The Journey Back to Where You Are: Homer’s Odyssey as Spiritual Quest

The title of my book on the Odyssey really encapsulates the dilemma in describing a spiritual journey.  The word “journey” implies a movement from point A to point B, which as humans we tend to take literally.  But as we’ve seen, the nostos, the homecoming of Odysseus, is not about travel, but about remembering what he is.  In a very real way, Odysseus is never not the king of Ithaka, whether he is acting as captain of a sailing fleet or captive to goddesses or as a storyteller or wizened stranger in his own home.  Although at times he comes close, he never really abandons that identity because he can’t; it’s what he is.  But for most of the poem he is removed from his ability to exercise that identity, and only by letting go of all the limiting identities does he recover his ability to do that.  The movement from place to place–the journey–doesn’t really matter.  What matters is his own unburdening; the shedding of temporal roles that associate him with strife, with multiplicity, with forgetfulness.

This is of course also our own situation.  Our true identity is that of the Ideal, but we have forgotten it, or taken on a character in the world-play.  The “journey” is in continuing to play the character well, as does Odysseus, while letting go of our attachment to it until we no longer need the ability to discriminate, because like him everywhere we look we see the One.

 

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Delightful

 

It occurred to me to write, “My work is to delight the Ideal.”  But then I thought about the word “delight,” which would seem to mean “to darken,” to de-light.  But it does not, especially one would hope when it comes to the Ideal.  And so: My work is to delight the Ideal.

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Twice Born Again

 

Given that this is Holy Week in the Christian tradition, it seemed like an appropriate time to look at some of the other instances of the idea of re-birth, of being born again.  It is of course almost a cliché in Christianity, but it appears in other traditions also.  The common theme is that the twice-born is given special knowledge which brings about his rebirth, his  new life.

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The Republic of You

 

In episodes 4, 5, and 6, we have already looked at the key arguments that Plato proposes in The Republic to show the special nature of the Ideal, insofar as it can be shown.  As he argues, knowledge of the Ideal is the unique realm of the philosopher, and “Since the philosophers are those who are capable of apprehending that which is eternal and unchanging….” (6.484b), they are the logical candidates to be the rulers of society.  He goes on then at some length to describe the nature of this society, which he calls “aristocracy,” or government by the best. (And this was before Downton Abbey!)  But later he admits that “since for everything that has come into being destruction is appointed, not even such a fabric as this will abide for all time, but it shall surely be dissolved…” (8.546a) and goes on to describe four imperfect societies, and the types of individuals that make them up.

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Circum-scribes

 

One of the emerging themes–perhaps the emerging theme–from the presidential campaign is who will be circumscribing whom; that is, how great will be the limitations placed on whoever loses.  One side is very clear about wanting to restrict the movements of certain ethnic groups and religions, while the other wants to restrict the profit-making abilities of the rich.

800px-Odysseus_Circe_Met_41.83

Odysseus encounters Circe. Greek Krater, Metropolitan Museum, New York.

But of course the most insidious circumscribing is that which we do to ourselves.  To circumscribe really means to “encircle with words,” to draw a perimeter with a series of adjectives that keep us perpetuating a limited identity.  Rather like Circe “encircled” Odysseus and his crew, treating them well, but still defining who they were:

‘Odysseus, noble son of Laertes, tell your men to leave off crying; I know how much you have all of you suffered at sea, and how ill you have fared among cruel savages on the mainland, but that is over now, so stay here, and eat and drink till you are once more as strong and hearty as you were when you left Ithaca; for at present you are weakened both in body and mind; you keep all the time thinking of the hardships you have suffered during your travels, so that you have no more cheerfulness left in you.’  (Od. 10:456-466)

Until finally at the insistence of his crew, he begs to leave her island (but has to go to the Underworld–out of the frying pan into the fire….).

And too often we also let others define us, circumscribe us, and we internalize those definitions.  Even the flattering ones are limitations compared to our real identity as the Good, the Boundless.  We can’t think past them.  We choose a limited identity rather than identity with the Unlimited.

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If life gives you lemons….

 

I’ve always been a little annoyed by this expression: “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”  Anyone who’s ever made lemonade knows you need at least an equal amount of sugar.  But then I realized that while you may be being given lemons, you are sugar.  That is one way of looking at the Ideal, which is your own self.  So you have an unlimited amount.

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