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! Com­ments are turned off because of run­away spam, but you may write if you wish to dabeard­s­ley (at) ideo­graph­me­dia (dot) com.

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

New book!!  The Jour­ney Back to Where You Are: Homer’s Odyssey as Spir­i­tual Quest views this work an alle­gory for the soul’s quest for reuni­fi­ca­tion, a jour­ney back from the strife and divi­sion of the Tro­jan War to the love and unity of one’s “native land,” endur­ing tri­als and temp­ta­tions along the way.  This vol­ume con­tains the com­plete Samuel But­ler trans­la­tion, recently updated by the fac­ulty of the Cen­ter for Hel­lenic Stud­ies at Har­vard Uni­ver­sity, and used by per­mis­sion.  This is a ter­rific book which shows a steady ide­al­ism, and an invok­ing of Emer­son­ian per­sonal reuni­fi­ca­tion. Its lan­guage is a great strength; vig­or­ous, col­lo­quial, open, appeal­ing, un-condescending, unshrink­ing from what must be included. It is sub­stan­tial, engag­ing and impor­tant.  Robert D. Richard­son Jr., Ban­croft Prize-winning author of Emer­son: The Mind on Fire

The Ideal in the West (book)

The Ideal in the West

The essays on this blog have been col­lected into book form, avail­able through    David Beardsley’s The Ideal in the West is a brac­ing, chal­leng­ing, wholly acces­si­ble philo­soph­i­cal offer­ing by a man who is not a pre-certified aca­d­e­mic pro­fes­sional but a smart active indi­vid­ual engaged in think­ing his own way through the world. Not a mere thinker, Beard­s­ley is man think­ing; this is who Emer­son called for in “The Amer­i­can Scholar.” This is a deeply per­sonal and deeply excit­ing book.   

Robert D. Richard­son Jr., Ban­croft Prize win­ner and author of Emer­son: The Mind on Fire.

Nine essays related to the Ideal are now avail­able for free down­load. See the list of titles at the bot­tom of the right-hand column===>

They’ve also been col­lected into a book avail­able through

The Ideal of Beauty and Other EssaysThe Ideal of Beauty and Other Essays

Walt Whit­man thought that books dis­tilled from other books “would prob­a­bly pass away.” David Beard­s­ley, like Whit­man him­self, gives the reader of The Ideal of Beauty the real thing, his own per­sonal, felt, known, lived expe­ri­ences, per­cep­tions, and ideas. He makes the old Neo­pla­tonic tra­di­tion as bright and attrac­tive and rel­e­vant as today’s news­pa­per. Beard­s­ley burns with a great incan­des­cent philo­soph­i­cal blaze. It is all his own and it is con­ta­gious. It is a won­der­ful expe­ri­ence just to read it.         

Robert D. Richard­son Jr., Ban­croft Prize win­ner and author of Emer­son: The Mind on Fire.

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Video Project on Homer’s “Odyssey”

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


I’ve launched a project to do a series of video lec­tures that look at Homer’s Odyssey as an alle­gory for the spir­i­tual quest.  Con­tri­bu­tions and other expres­sions of sup­port are wel­come.  Here’s the link on Indiegogo.  And here’s a short trailer on youtube.  Take care.

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Warrior or Governor?


Fight­ing a war and gov­ern­ing a state require two dif­fer­ent skill sets.  Most peo­ple who had the oppor­tu­nity to do both real­ized that they were good at one and not the other, and chose to opt out of gov­ern­ing: Alexan­der the Great, Ghengis Khan, Napoleon.  There are cases of some who were good at both: Dwight Eisen­hower arguably, and some who were incom­pe­tent at both: George W. Bush definitely.

But of course we are talk­ing about Odysseus.  He was, by Homer’s account, an exem­plary sol­dier, but not in the mold of Achilles.  He saw the Tro­jan War as a job, a duty, and didn’t let his ego get caught up in it the way Achilles did.  He wasn’t look­ing for eter­nal fame and glory (kleos); he just wanted to get home to Ithaca and Pene­lope.  He wanted to gov­ern, to reunite his king­dom and his fam­ily.  He must have expe­ri­enced revul­sion beyond words when he learned about the pres­ence of the suit­ors who were prey­ing on his wife and his son and his king­dom.  Here was the “gen­tle father,” who was pow­er­less to bring peace and jus­tice back to his state.

His moti­va­tion was not hatred of the “enemy,” but love of his own peo­ple.  He resorted to the trick­ery of the Tro­jan Horse only when he saw that the brute force tac­tics of the other Greek lead­ers were going nowhere.  But by that point–10 years with­out a furlough–he him­self had turned into a mind­less killer, as seen by the gra­tu­itous attack on the Cicones as his first act after leav­ing Troy.  He had become imbued with the need to acquire, to win, to pre­vail, to defeat, destroy, anni­hi­late.  It is the trans­for­ma­tion he makes back to one who can gov­ern with love, who can unify rather than destroy, that makes up the Odyssey.

But of course we are not talk­ing about Odysseus.  We are talk­ing about our­selves.  Which are we: destroy­ers or gov­er­nors?  (I don’t say builders, because noth­ing is ever really built, just man­i­fested.)  We would never think of our­selves as destroy­ers, but how much of our con­scious­ness do we spend on try­ing to pre­vail, to assert our own egos?  Crit­i­ciz­ing, feel­ing supe­rior, feel­ing self-righteous.  As the car­toon says, “It is not enough for dogs to win; cats must also lose.”  Once we start on the path to “win­ning,” we end up want­ing to destroy some­one, if only in our own minds.  And regard­less of the com­pa­nies we run, the wealth we amass, the power we exer­cise, we are basi­cally pathetic crea­tures being pushed and pulled by the neg­a­tive feel­ings we hold (or that hold us) toward oth­ers.  When, like Odysseus, we learn to gov­ern our­selves this need to win dis­si­pates.  We expe­ri­ence the bliss of unity, and our only wish is that every­one else should expe­ri­ence it also.

When Odysseus meets Achilles in the under­world, Achilles is reduced to wish­ing he could slave for some ten­ant farmer on earth rather than be a king in Hades.  He has real­ized the price of his ego­tism and pride.  And he pro­vides a turn­ing point for Odysseus, who now fully real­izes that kleos is a dream.  What is needed is nos­tos, “the return from dark­ness and death to light and love.”  And despite the suf­fer­ing of that return to the Father­land, he does not waver until he again finds that light and love.  Then he real­izes that all along he has not been sep­a­rate, and it is the Father who has been governing.

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Fracking Homer


In Book 8 of Homer’s Odyssey, the hero Odysseus, on his way home from the Tro­jan War, has washed up on the shore of Scheria, a mag­i­cal island, home to a race of mariners whose self-guided ships sail “faster than thought.”  His hand­made raft has been destroyed by an angry Posei­don, god of the sea, and he has lost every­thing, is barely alive, mere flot­sam.  But he is res­cued by Nau­si­caa, the princess of the Scheri­ans, and taken to the royal palace where he is lav­ished with xenia, hos­pi­tal­ity wor­thy of a god, with­out even being asked who he was, as was the prac­tice.  This included a per­for­mance by the res­i­dent singer of tales, Demod­ocus, and included a descrip­tion of the Tro­jan horse, the inven­tion of “crafty” Odysseus him­self.  But rather than glory in his fame, kleos, Odysseus weeps “hot tears,” like those of the Tro­jan women whose hus­bands he has helped to kill, and who are them­selves about to be forced into slav­ery.  Alki­noos, king of the island, sees the tears and says to Odysseus: …tell me why you weep and grieve at heart When you hear the fate of the Greeks and the Tro­jans.  This was the gods’ doing.  They spun that fate so that in later time it would turn into song.  (8:624–26, Lom­bardo translation)

Admit­tedly Alki­noos is the king of a peo­ple blessed (for the time being) by the gods, but as world­views go, this one is not bad.  It would have us under­stand that the events in our lives are not ran­dom or point­less, but con­sti­tute the raw mate­r­ial of song–laments, dirges and screeds to be sure, but also paeans, odes and hymns.  The pur­pose of the poet is to use the tools of metaphor and alle­gory and myth to make sense of these events, even–perhaps especially–when they seem to have none.  Homer, who­ever he or she or they may have been, invented this entire poetic toolkit out of whole cloth, and cre­ated the musi­cal sound that still res­onates through the West­ern world and beyond.

The Odyssey, along with the Iliad, pre­ceded writ­ing and were both sung into being close to 3000 years ago, mak­ing them among the old­est liv­ing things on the planet.  Homer’s song of the tri­als and temp­ta­tions over­come by Odysseus on his nos­tos, or return home, has long been seen as an alle­gory for the return of a human being’s strife-filled and divided psy­che, or soul, back to love and unity, our “native land” or “Father­land,” patri­dos aies.  In the third cen­tury AD, the neo­pla­ton­ist Plot­i­nus wrote, The Father­land to us is There whence we have come, and There is The Father.  This is not a jour­ney for the feet;… 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.  (Ennead I:6:8, MacKenna translation)

But despite the recent appear­ance of a num­ber of fine trans­la­tions and pub­lic domain web­sites, Homer’s work seems to be los­ing its con­nec­tion with lit­er­ate adults, in the process los­ing its alle­gor­i­cal power.  When I give talks on the Odyssey and sur­vey my audi­ence (which does tend toward the senior cit­i­zens), the anec­do­tal evi­dence is the same: I read it a long time ago in high school or col­lege because I had to (which I must admit was my own expe­ri­ence).  I believe this is in part because its theme of the return home res­onates more as one gets older–with stu­dents just start­ing out, not so much.  In any case, its power to inspire and con­nect us to a larger view of human­ity is being lost; few feel with Keats when look­ing into Chapman’s trans­la­tion that “Then felt I like some watcher of the skies When a new planet swims into his ken….”

Part of this can be attrib­uted to our liv­ing in a fast-paced and super­fi­cial age, as well as a shrink­ing num­ber of stu­dents going into the clas­sics as a major.  But I think it is also because of its ongo­ing appro­pri­a­tion by acad­e­mia which sees it as a rich source for analy­sis.  The most recent evi­dence of this trend is the embrace of “dig­i­tal human­i­ties,” bring­ing the tools and tech­niques of com­puter sci­ence and “big data” to bear on Homer and other ancient works.  This is of course not a totally new devel­op­ment, and I will be the first to acknowl­edge a debt to some of the exist­ing web­sites such the Perseus Project at Tufts, and Harvard’s Cen­ter for Hel­lenic Stud­ies.  Their freely avail­able texts and search tools have aided my own research and no doubt greatly widened the audi­ence for these ancient works.  But the pres­ence of more pow­er­ful com­put­ing tech­niques brings with it the anal­ogy of “data min­ing;” see­ing these works as philo­log­i­cal or his­tor­i­cal or geo­graph­i­cal or anthro­po­log­i­cal data­bases ripe for being ana­lyzed into smaller and smaller bits, dig­ging into a deplet­ing resource for any remain­ing inert facts.  Frack­ing Homer, if you will.

The still-unanswered ques­tion is whether the micro­an­a­lyt­i­cal capa­bil­ity that allows mar­keters to define us more and more nar­rowly as vot­ers and con­sumers will bring us new insights into Homer.  It will no doubt result in a spate of addi­tional papers and aca­d­e­mic con­fer­ences.  But to state the obvi­ous: Siri notwith­stand­ing, com­put­ers are not humans.  They have no quest, no inner life, and in a sense they have only feet.  I believe their use car­ries the dan­ger of degrad­ing the Odyssey, espe­cially, fur­ther from its polestar sta­tus as a quest myth, a uni­ver­sal tale of courage and devo­tion that can still speak to us today, and turn­ing it into a series of self-referential tropes and poet­i­cal build­ing blocks.  The Odyssey is not about the Odyssey: it’s about the odyssey.  It’s about the jour­ney each of us must make from the frag­mented to the whole, or as Dou­glas Frame puts it, “from dark­ness and death to light and life.”  If we ana­lyze we do not syn­the­size, and we lose the alle­gor­i­cal guid­ance of the char­ac­ters: Achilles as the ego­is­tic hero whose uncon­trol­lable anger and wish for immor­tal­ity lead him to early death.  Pene­lope, the paragon of con­stancy, but also exem­plar of sci­en­tific skep­ti­cism, as she demands evi­dence that Odysseus is who he claims to be.  Her suit­ors, the social media dis­trac­tors of their day, as that part of the mind always try­ing to tempt us away from the con­stancy of our pur­pose.  And Odysseus him­self, con­quer­ing the lim­i­ta­tions imposed by his own ego in order to take respon­si­bil­ity for return­ing his king­dom to be a place “where peace and plenty reign.”

I have no illu­sions that this ana­lyt­i­cal trend will stop or even be slowed.  It has that aura of inevitabil­ity, and may even result in a new appre­ci­a­tion of Homer and other writ­ers.  But I would just hope that we can also retain the grand and time­less view; that we can let Homer’s muse sing to us through the accre­tions of the cen­turies, through the masses of new data, “and tell the tale once more in our time.”

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The Throwaway Comment


One of the marks of being in the pres­ence of genius is com­ing upon what looks to be a throw­away com­ment, but which car­ries a greater sig­nif­i­cance than I could come up with on my best day.  As Emer­son says, in an exam­ple, “Tal­ent may frolic and jug­gle; genius real­izes and adds.”  (The Poet)  Here­with a few more of my favorites:

The scholar always wants to know more than can be known.  –Werner Jaeger, Paideia

Tell us also why you are made unhappy on hear­ing about the return of the Argive Danaans from Troy. The gods arranged all this, and sent them their mis­for­tunes in order that future gen­er­a­tions might have some­thing to sing about.  –Homer, The Odyssey, Book 8 (But­ler)

The only sin is lim­i­ta­tion.  –Ralph Waldo Emer­son, Cir­cles

But, whether true or false, my opin­ion is that in the world of knowl­edge the idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the uni­ver­sal author of all things beau­ti­ful and right, par­ent of light and of the lord of light in this vis­i­ble world, and the imme­di­ate source of rea­son and truth in the intel­lec­tual…  –Plato, Repub­lic, Book 7 (Jowett)

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The Difference


It’s the dif­fer­ence between talk­ing and speak­ing, thoughts and ideas, hear­ing and listening.

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Spring and Light


Ah Spring!  Time to bring out the gar­den­ing tools, time to bring out the new wardrobe, time to bring out the house­clean­ing metaphors for get­ting our men­tal house in order.  Time to take a good look at all the “stuff” we’ve accu­mu­lated over the years and get rid of… well, just about all of it.

At this point you may well ask, “What does phi­los­o­phy have to do with get­ting rid of things?”  Most of us think of phi­los­o­phy as adding more “stuff;” more beliefs, more opin­ions, more argu­ments, more “isms.”  But if we remem­ber that phi­los­o­phy means “love of wis­dom,” not “love of knowl­edge,”  we can appre­ci­ate that it’s not about adding on.  In fact, many philoso­phers see it the other way around—we as humans are nat­u­rally wise, but we let it get cov­ered over with the “stuff” of every­day life.  We spend much of our time in an unreal world of remem­ber­ing the past and look­ing for­ward to, or fear­ing, the future.

Wis­dom is not that com­pli­cated, and doesn’t have to be learned.  We’ve all known peo­ple we think are wise, and they are not nec­es­sar­ily well-educated.  The traits we asso­ciate with wisdom—compassion, lis­ten­ing, empa­thy, humor—are things we can develop regard­less of school­ing.  And wis­dom is the best gift you can give to your­self, or to others.

But wis­dom oper­ates only in the present moment.  You can wish you had been wiser, or hope that you will be, but in fact the only time you can be wise is right now.  Our mate­r­ial at the School of Prac­ti­cal Phi­los­o­phy says, “The nature of wis­dom is that it acts like light.  It illu­mi­nates what is present.  It does not add vast new struc­tures of learn­ing or eru­di­tion, but rather works to remove some of these struc­tures.  Wis­dom is not just about the mind.  It is also a ques­tion of being: the state of one’s being.”

This anal­ogy of wis­dom to light is found over and over in the wis­dom lit­er­a­ture.  God said, “Let there be light.”  Socrates com­pared the light of the Ideal to the light of the sun.  Jesus said, “I am the light of the world.”  The Bha­gavad Gita says, “The Light of Lights He is, in the heart of the Dark shin­ing eter­nally.”  The Spring brings the return of the light, with its warmth and longer days, and it can also allow us to see the lay­ers of dust that have built up, in our houses and in ourselves.

It is our own inner light that we need to clean.  When we see peo­ple, even peo­ple we love, we often see our past idea of them, not who they really are right now.  We need to let go of our crit­i­cisms, our prej­u­dices, all the lim­i­ta­tions that keep us from respond­ing to the light in each of them.  We treat new sit­u­a­tions with past strate­gies, maybe approach­ing them with anx­i­ety or our own expec­ta­tions of how they’ll turn out.  But we can’t pre­dict the future; we can only look at our cur­rent sit­u­a­tions with full atten­tion and love.  We do what our inner wis­dom tells us to do as best we can, and then we let go.    We give full atten­tion and love to whatever—or whomever—comes next.  And on and on.  The peo­ple and the sit­u­a­tions will change; the light with which we see them stays the same.

When we let go of our self-imposed lim­i­ta­tions and let our light shine out, we will find that we live in no ordi­nary house.  As Ralph Waldo Emer­son says in The Over-Soul, “All goes to show that the soul in man is not an organ, but ani­mates and exer­cises all the organs; is not a func­tion, like the power of mem­ory, of cal­cu­la­tion, of com­par­i­son, but uses these as hands and feet; is not a fac­ulty, but a light; is not the intel­lect or the will, but the mas­ter of the intel­lect and the will; is the back­ground of our being, in which they lie, — an immen­sity not pos­sessed and that can­not be pos­sessed. From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things, and makes us aware that we are noth­ing, but the light is all. A man is the façade of a tem­ple wherein all wis­dom and all good abide.”

Happy Spring cleaning!

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The Way of the Odyssey


More evi­dence that the Odyssey is a spir­i­tual alle­gory comes from the fact that the main char­ac­ters can be seen as exem­plars of tra­di­tional spir­i­tual paths:

Odysseus: Way of Action (Karma yoga). Fre­quent epi­thets: wise, clever, city-sacker, devi­ous. He is sub­jected to a series of tri­als and temp­ta­tions and must rely on his wits to deter­mine the proper course of action, e.g. escape from the Cyclops. He must move from mul­ti­plic­ity to unity, remem­ber his nos­tos (return jour­ney), and save his psukhe (soul): Tell me, O Muse, of the man of many devices, who wan­dered full many ways after he had sacked the sacred citadel of Troy. Many were the men whose cities he saw and whose mind he learned, aye, and many the woes he suf­fered in his heart upon the sea, [5] seek­ing to win his own life (psukhe, soul) and the return (nos­tos) of his com­rades. Yet even so he saved not his com­rades, though he desired it sore, for through their own blind folly they perished—fools, who devoured the kine of Helios Hype­r­ion; but he took from them the day of their return­ing.” (1:1)

Pene­lope: Way of Devo­tion (Bhakti yoga). Fre­quent epi­thets: wise, cir­cum­spect, con­stant. Her task is to remain stead­fast in the pres­ence of the suit­ors who are devour­ing her sub­stance and tempt­ing her to believe Odysseus is not going to return. “Then she burst into tears, and spoke to the divine min­strel: “Phemius, many other things thou know­est to charm mor­tals, deeds of men and gods which min­strels make famous. Sing them one of these, as thou sittest here, [340] and let them drink their wine in silence. But cease from this woe­ful song which ever har­rows the heart in my breast, for upon me above all women has come a sor­row not to be for­got­ten. So dear a head do I ever remem­ber with long­ing, even my hus­band, whose fame is wide through Hel­las and mid-Argos.” (1:336)

Telemachus: Way of Knowl­edge (Jnana yoga). Fre­quent epi­thets: wise, god­like. His task is to gain evi­dence of his father’s exis­tence through inter­views with his com­pan­ions, Nestor and Agamem­non. He must over­come his doubt and uncer­tainty: “But now he has thus per­ished by an evil doom, nor for us is there any com­fort, no, not though any one of men upon the earth should say that he will come; gone is the day of his return­ing.” (1:166)

“Then wise Telemachus answered her (Athena): “There­fore of a truth, stranger, will I frankly tell thee all. [215] My mother says that I am his child; but I know not, for never yet did any man of him­self know his own parent­age.” (1:214)

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It seems as if every­one is artic­u­late when they speak from the heart.  It’s only when you’re being forced or insin­cere that you need writ­ing lessons. 

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Homer: Journalist or Poet?


I’ve had a cou­ple of encoun­ters in the last week with the “lit­er­al­ist” branch of Odyssey read­ers, includ­ing see­ing a $45 book (whose title I for­get) that pur­ports to be a proof of the journey’s itin­er­ary using mod­ern geo­log­i­cal meth­ods.  Whew!  The fact that there can be these divi­sions after all this time renews my respect for Homer. I also just lis­tened to the series of lec­tures by Eliz­a­beth Van­diver listed in the pre­vi­ous post, who has the view that there prob­a­bly is a ker­nel of his­tor­i­cal fact behind the Tro­jan War and Odysseus’s sub­se­quent return, but which was then exten­sively elab­o­rated upon by Homer, who­ever he or she was.

This makes sense to me also, but at the same time it doesn’t really mat­ter at all whether the “events” actu­ally hap­pened; what mat­ters is their time­less alle­gory of a shat­tered soul seek­ing reuni­fi­ca­tion.  I feel the same way about those who insist upon a his­tor­i­cal Jesus.  Whether or not there was a man/god of that name who lived 2000+ years ago should not blind us to the great spir­i­tual wis­dom con­tained in the New Tes­ta­ment and the alle­gory of the non-existence of death.  (For any­one inter­ested in a com­plete expo­si­tion of this view, I rec­om­mend The New Man, by Mau­rice Nicoll.  Out of print, and pos­si­bly hard to find, but worth the search.)

I’m sure this divide will con­tinue.  But as Emer­son says in The Tran­scen­den­tal­ist: “Every mate­ri­al­ist will be an ide­al­ist; but an ide­al­ist can never go back­ward to be a materialist.”

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Odyssey Resources

I’m cur­rently doing research on Homer’s Odyssey in prepa­ra­tion for doing another essay (see The Ideal of the Odyssey) and have come up with some online resources that might inter­est you as well.  Here they are:

There are of course numer­ous mod­ern translations–Lombardo, Fitzger­ald, Fagles, Lat­ti­more, Mitchell.  Also this free one online:

Homer, The Odyssey, trans. A. T. Mur­ray, 1919 free

Some online courses and other resources:

The Heroic and the Anti-Heroic in Clas­si­cal Greek Civ­i­liza­tion, taught by Gre­gory Nagy, Har­vard Uni­ver­sity, free

Greek and Roman Mythol­ogy, taught by Peter Struck, Uni­ver­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia, free

Intro­duc­tion to Ancient Greek His­tory, taught by Don­ald Kagan, Yale Uni­ver­sity, free

Odyssey of Homer, taught by Eliz­a­beth Van­diver, The Great Courses, $90-$200 (I found a copy at my local library.)

The West­ern Canon from Homer to Mil­ton, taught by William Flesch, Bran­deis Uni­ver­sity

Home­ric Resources, Uni­ver­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia

Who’s Who in the Odyssey

Harvard’s Cen­ter for Hel­lenic Stud­ies

Overview of Greek His­tory, by Thomas R. Mar­tin

Tour of Greek art at Met­ro­pol­i­tan Museum of Art

But­ler, Samuel.  The Authoress of the Odyssey

Ian Johnston’s Home­page, Van­cou­ver Island Uni­ver­sity

The Cen­tre for Odyssean Stud­ies (Greece)

Let me know if you have found others.


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What is


Objects are mat­ter with a bound­ary.  Thoughts are Con­scious­ness with a bound­ary.  Feel­ings are Love with a bound­ary.  The Ideal is all these with­out a bound­ary (apeiron).

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The Return of the Hero


The brave and wise man, who intends to over­come his foes, must first of all strive to sub­due the inter­nal ene­mies of his own heart and mind, and the mem­bers of his own body.  Yoga-Vasishtha, the Sixth Dis­course, trans. Hari Prasad Shastri

Fur­ther evi­dence, I think, that The Odyssey is a work of spir­i­tual alle­gory comes from the cir­cum­stance of Odysseus’ return to Ithaca.  He has been told by Teire­sias that upon his return “thou shalt find woes in thy house—proud men that devour thy liveli­hood, woo­ing thy god­like wife, and offer­ing woo­ers’ gifts.”  (11:116–118)  He is also told that he must take vengeance upon them.  So we might expect that, in true heroic style, he will put together an army, per­haps draw­ing on his com­rades now sit­ting com­fort­ably in their own palaces after their own nos­tos, and van­quish them.  But what hap­pens is quite different.

Even though he knows what he will find, his part­ing words on the island of Scheria imply that all will be well:

Lord Alci­nous, renowned above all men, pour liba­tions now, and send ye me on my way in peace; and your­selves too—Farewell! For now all that my heart desired has been brought to pass: a con­voy, and gifts of friend­ship. May the gods of heaven bless them to me, and on my return may I find in my home my peer­less wife with those I love unscathed; and may you again, remain­ing here, make glad your wed­ded wives and chil­dren; and may the gods grant you pros­per­ity of every sort, and may no evil come upon your peo­ple.”  (13:37–47)

When he does actu­ally land on Ithaca, he is asleep, the Scheri­ans have left, and he does not even know where he is.  He has to be reminded by Athena, and doesn’t even bring up the idea of return­ing as a con­quer­ing hero; instead he makes his way to the hut of Eumaeus, the pig-keeper, hav­ing been trans­formed by Athena into an old, wrin­kled beg­gar.  The true king is now depen­dent on the xenia of the low­est of his ser­vants.  It is in this form that he reunites with Telemachus, and it is with­out the usual trap­pings of king­ship that he must reclaim it.  He has been hum­bled, and even though he will visit vio­lence upon the “woo­ers,” it is with­out the hubris of The Iliad.

So inso­far as the suit­ors rep­re­sent out own fears and desires, prod­ucts of the egos­phere  that seek supremacy over our true Self, they too must die.

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Hierarchy v. Status


The ego’s ver­sion of hier­ar­chy is sta­tus or rank.  It is con­stantly reassess­ing itself on a scale of “bet­ter than/worse than.”  This man­i­fests in obvi­ous mea­sures such as money, power, looks, fame, etc., cul­mi­nat­ing in the atti­tude “Do you know who I am?” There are any num­ber of sub­tle and not-so-subtle ways we use to draw atten­tion to our­selves; even among “spir­i­tual” peo­ple there are lit­tle emblems of rank that assert their supe­rior holi­ness.  We are all at times like the Phar­isee*, thank­ful that we are not like these oth­ers.  But if we beat our breasts like the tax col­lec­tor, we are still judg­ing our­selves on a scale.  I can still want you to notice how hum­ble I am.

This judg­ing also works in more sub­tle and insid­i­ous ways; the inner sense of supe­ri­or­ity or infe­ri­or­ity that we all carry, and that oper­ates the lit­tle voice of crit­i­cism in our heads.  Some­one cuts in front us while dri­ving and we feel com­pelled to com­ment on their lack of dri­ving skill.  We notice a very attrac­tive per­son and our voice says we could never get to know them.  These things seem triv­ial, but they define the bor­ders of our world: better/worse, I am still other and alien­ated from you.  I do not know myself, and you, as the One.

*The Para­ble of the Phar­isee and the Tax Col­lec­tor  (Luke 18: 9–14)

To some who were con­fi­dent of their own right­eous­ness and looked down on every­one else, Jesus told this para­ble: “Two men went up to the tem­ple to pray, one a Phar­isee and the other a tax col­lec­tor. The Phar­isee stood by him­self and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evil­do­ers, adulterers—or even like this tax col­lec­tor. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

But the tax col­lec­tor stood at a dis­tance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home jus­ti­fied before God. For all those who exalt them­selves will be hum­bled, and those who hum­ble them­selves will be exalted.”

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The Ideal of Winter


In order to help us under­stand what he calls the Ideal or the Good, Plato uses sev­eral dif­fer­ent analo­gies in his book The Repub­lic. The one I’d like to dis­cuss here has come to be known as “The Divided Line,” and I’ll have to ask you to bear with me if it takes a while to get to the point. Plato describes a four-part hier­ar­chy of Real­ity, if you will, with things that are tran­si­tory and illu­sory at one end, and that which is per­ma­nent and true at the other. For exam­ple, reflec­tions and shad­ows are illu­sory in the sense that they are depen­dent on a phys­i­cal object to exist. We can see the sun reflected on the ocean, but if it goes behind a cloud the reflec­tion goes also.  Read more…

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The Ideal of Introspection

The Ideal of Introspection

Death said: ‘The Self-existent pierced the open­ings (of the senses) so that they turn for­ward: there­fore man looks for­ward, not back­ward into him­self. Some wise man, how­ever, with his eyes closed and wish­ing for immor­tal­ity, saw the Self behind.’  Katha Upan­ishad (II:1,1) , trans. Müller

Let man, then, learn the rev­e­la­tion of all nature and all thought to his heart; this, namely; that the High­est dwells with him; that the sources of nature are in his own mind, if the sen­ti­ment of duty is there. But if he would know what the great God speaketh, he must ‘go into his closet and shut the door,’ as Jesus said. God will not make him­self man­i­fest to cow­ards. He must greatly lis­ten to him­self, with­draw­ing him­self from all the accents of other men’s devo­tion.  The Over-Soul, Ralph Waldo Emerson

One theme that is com­mon to all works in the spir­i­tual tra­di­tion is the need for intro­spec­tion.  But “look­ing within” raises some imme­di­ate ques­tions:  Who is doing the look­ing?  What is it look­ing for, or at?  If look­ing for some­thing, how will it know it when it sees it?  These are some of the ques­tions I hope to con­sider in this essay.

Link to the essay.

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The Ideal of Hierarchy

The Ideal of Hierarchy

I will grant this is rather a clunky title, but it comes closer than the alter­na­tives– scale, con­tin­uüm, ascent, lad­der, gradation–to describ­ing what I wish to talk about.  As an orga­niz­ing sys­tem for human inter­ac­tions, the hier­ar­chy is ubiq­ui­tous through­out his­tory, in gov­ern­ments, the mil­i­tary, busi­nesses, insti­tu­tions of most every kind. As a struc­ture to carry out a par­tic­u­lar mis­sion, its suc­cess is evident–there are those who have the power and give the orders, and those who have less (or none) and carry them out.  Over time, though, they tend to col­lapse under their own weight.  This struc­ture also exists in philo­soph­i­cal schools as well as in our own belief sys­tems, and this is what I would like to con­cen­trate on.

Link to the essay.

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The Ideal of The Odyssey

   The Iliad and Odyssey of Homer con­tinue to be touch­stones of the West­ern canon, with new trans­la­tions appear­ing it seems every few years, and an ongo­ing cot­tage indus­try of crit­i­cism and inter­pre­ta­tions, to which of course this essay belongs.  That this is true should not be a sur­prise, given the remark­able nature of these works, which pro­vide the same kind of jolt as find­ing an M16 in a dig at Troy.  I don’t claim the qual­i­fi­ca­tions to step into this stream of aca­d­e­mic crit­i­cism, but I do humbly offer an inter­pre­ta­tion of sev­eral themes in the Odyssey seen through the over­all theme of self-remembering that has been used in other essays in this series.  I don’t claim that this was in fact Homer’s intent in “writ­ing” it, but there are I think too many con­gruities for it to be an accident.

Link to the essay.

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What you are.…

You are the lamb and you are the shepherd
You are the great and you are the small
You are the sought and you are the seeker
You are the One and you are the All.
You are the bridge and you are the river
You are the mother, you are the son
You are the rain­drop, you are the ocean
You are the All and you are the One.
dab 2002
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The Ideal of the Quest

 The Ideal of the Quest

The use of sto­ry­telling, par­tic­u­larly that of the quest myth, is one of the fun­da­men­tal human approaches to express­ing the inex­press­ible. I’ve addressed this pre­vi­ously on my blog, explor­ing the myth of The­seus and the Mino­taur, and the alle­gory of the Cave in Plato’s Repub­lic, but I wanted to take this oppor­tu­nity to exam­ine it in more detail, and also bring it out of the realm of the heroic to some­thing that can be applied to our every­day lives.

Link to the essay.

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The Ideal of Justice

The Ideal of Justice

The promi­nence of the sub­ject of jus­tice in the Ideal tra­di­tion, or at least up through Plato, is one that I think frankly baf­fles most peo­ple in mod­ern democ­ra­cies.  Well, of course, jus­tice is impor­tant, and we have a sys­tem for that.  When some­one is wronged or harmed, things need to be set right.  We even acknowl­edge our debt to the ancient Athe­ni­ans: equal jus­tice before the law, trial by jury, pre­pon­der­ance of evi­dence, pre­sump­tion of inno­cence.  And per­haps just because the Athe­ni­ans were so pas­sion­ate about imple­ment­ing jus­tice, and really so suc­cess­ful at it (with the glar­ing excep­tion of Socrates), it can be hard for us to under­stand why it still played such a big part in their think­ing and writ­ing.  It is, after all, the nom­i­nal sub­ject of Plato’s Repub­lic, which goes on about for 10 books.

Link to the essay.

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Hell and Heaven


Hell is all desire with no pos­si­bil­ity of ful­fill­ment; heaven is all ful­fill­ment with no pos­si­bil­ity of desire.

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The Ideal of Immortality

In an update of an arti­cle from The Onion, we can report that the world death rate is still hold­ing steady at 100%.  So you might want to read the following.….

Our birth is but a sleep and a for­get­ting;
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had else­where its set­ting
And cometh from afar;
Not in entire for­get­ful­ness,
And not in utter naked­ness,
But trail­ing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

From Ode on Inti­ma­tions of Immor­tal­ity from Rec­ol­lec­tions of Early Child­hood,      William Wordsworth

    That we as human beings are immor­tal souls is axiomatic to the phi­los­o­phy of the Ideal.  The Ideal is “infi­nite in all direc­tions,” includ­ing time, so immor­tal­ity is a given.  How­ever, we’ll take a look at a num­ber of the dif­fer­ent expres­sions given to this prin­ci­ple by some of our favorite Ide­al­ists through the ages.  (I’ve treated the sub­ject before in both the book and also my blog,  but I hope to expand on it here.)  As I expressed in the book, I believe this to be one of the most press­ing issues fac­ing us today, when med­i­cine can keep a heart­beat going almost indef­i­nitely, and it is not uncom­mon for hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars to be spent pro­long­ing life of the body for just a few days or weeks.  Not to men­tion the whole sad phe­nom­e­non of cryo­gen­ics and other sup­posed ways to achieve immor­tal­ity for the body.  We need to come to terms with the fact that bod­ies are tem­po­rary, and look at what hap­pens when they stop.

Link to the essay.


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The Ideal of School

Socrates:I sus­pect, as indeed you seem to think your­self, that you are in labor–great with some con­cep­tion.  Come then to me, who am a midwife’s son and myself a mid­wife, and do your best to answer the ques­tions which I will ask you.  Plato, Theatetus

In this episode, we’ll take a look at some of the philo­soph­i­cal move­ments that have bloomed over the cen­turies in the West­ern tra­di­tion, as well as some of the prac­tices they devel­oped to help stu­dents inter­nal­ize their teach­ings.  A point I’d like to make early and often is that the way phi­los­o­phy is stud­ied today is very dif­fer­ent from the way it was stud­ied in antiq­uity when many of these schools were founded.  They were not so much “schools of thought” as “schools of being,” where like-minded peo­ple would come together to share good com­pany and par­take in a largely oral tradition.

Link to the essay.

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The Ideal of Love

That Love is all there is,
Is all we know of Love;
It is enough, the freight should be
Pro­por­tioned to the groove.
–Emily Dick­in­son

The Ideal of Love is very closely tied to the Ideal of Beauty, as I explored in my book of the same name, and the quote from John Vyvyan in his Shake­speare and Pla­tonic Beauty with which I opened that book bears repeat­ing: Con­sid­ered philo­soph­i­cally, love and beauty were invented by Plato.

Link to full essay.

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The Ideal of Beauty

Among philo­soph­i­cal or spir­i­tual mas­ters, Plato is unique in mak­ing Beauty an inher­ent qual­ity of his Supreme Being, the Ideal. Indeed, he uses the terms almost inter­change­ably. Given the grim ori­gins of most systems–born from sor­row, suf­fer­ing and sin–it is not dif­fi­cult to see the endur­ing appeal of his teach­ing, espe­cially in other ages which were more pre­dis­posed than ours to the love of beauty.

Go to com­plete essay.

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