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.

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License

Posted in History, Philosophy, Spirituality | Comments Off on The Ideal in the West

The Death

 

Floor Decoration from the Church St. Paul de Vence, Provence

Floor Decoration from the Church St. Paul de Vence, Provence

Recently I read a book called The Hero’s Journey, a collection of talks, writings, interviews etc. by Joseph Campbell over the course of his long and productive life.  It follows his outline of the steps the hero must go through to “follow his bliss,” about which I’ll have more to say later, but one thing that jumped out at me early on was this phrase that Campbell used for the last step:  The Death.  Somehow it just makes the subject less, well, subjective than thinking about it as just Death.  It becomes another step in the journey, not one to be feared.  In fact, if you have done the other steps, including a ritual death, you become a “twice-born,” and know that you cannot truly die.

This may be a depressing thought to those who think that there is no afterlife; that we just lose consciousness for all eternity.  But if I’m wrong, I’ll make a deal: if we do just basically lose all awareness and character, I will come and find you and apologize.  Until then, I will just face The Death with equanimity.

Posted in History, Literature, Philosophy, Spirituality | Comments Off on The Death

The Naked Saint

 

Naked Sadhus, Kolkata (from wikimedia commons)

In his introduction to Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace, which he also edited, Gustave Thibon makes the following statement: “The hero wears armour; the saint is naked.”  As someone who has written much about the “hero’s quest,” this statement gave me pause.  It made me realize that while heroes get most of the press, it is the saints who do the hard work of becoming naked–or giving up everything, including an identity as a hero, in order to see the One.  The would-be saint is on a quest not unlike that of the hero, but does not stop when s/he has completed the mission.  S/he continues on to give up the mission, and the heroic identity along with it.  No parades, no medals, just never-ending bliss.

It points up the distinction between Achilles and Odysseus–the former is all about kleos and wanting eternal fame, which means taking up arms and killing as many of the “enemy” as he can.  Odysseus fits that description also, to an extent, but I would argue he becomes a saint during his return to Ithaka, where he gradually sheds his hero status and becomes naked.  Of course in the very last “book,” he has just killed a member of one of the suitors’ family, and it requires Zeus and Athena to come in and dictate forgiveness (or “creative mercy“) rather than to perpetuate the cycle of vengeance.

But while the narrative stops there, we have been given enough information to know what happens next: as decreed by Zeus, Ithaka will become peaceful again, with Odysseus as its rightful king.¹  As predicted by Teiresias², he will go on a journey inland, carrying an oar, and will be told by someone he meets that it is a winnowing fan.  As instructed, he will plant it in the ground, and it will symbolize two things: The seafarer is dead–he will never again wander and be tossed about on the salt sea of ignorance. And the harvest is complete–he will no longer need to use his discrimination, because everywhere he looks, he sees the One.³

For this reason also, he will no longer need armor.  Armor provides protection only on the physical level, for the body, and Odysseus will have transcended that.  In my interpretation of his journey, he has also transcended his senses and his turning thoughts, and so is ready to take the next step in the quest for the One.  All his trials and temptations are behind him now.  He will be given, as Teiresias says, “a sign that will not get lost in your thinking,” but it will not be an ordeal, just information.

We are all of us being given such signs (sema) all the time, but they do get lost in our thinking.  We take them personally; we have opinions about them, we like or dislike them.  They just provide food for our ongoing inner monologue.  Like Odysseus, we need to learn to see them as just information, free of anything personal.  When we can do that, and also give up our existing thoughts, we too can become saints.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License Graphics are not copyrighted, and are believed to be in the public domain.

¹And Zeus gatherer of clouds answered, “My child, why should you ask me? Was it not by your own plan [noos] [480] that noble Odysseus came home and took his revenge upon the suitors? Do whatever you like, but I will tell you what I think will be the most reasonable arrangement. Now that Odysseus is revenged, let them swear to a solemn covenant, in virtue of which he shall continue to rule, while we cause the others to forgive and forget the massacre of their sons and brothers. [485] Let them then all become friends as heretofore, and let peace and plenty reign.” This was what Athena was already eager to bring about, so down she darted from off the topmost summits of Olympus.  Odyssey 24:479-486

²….you must go on a journey then, taking with you a well-made oar, 122 until you come to a place where men do not know what the sea is 123 and do not even eat any food that is mixed with sea salt, 124 nor do they know anything about ships, which are painted purple on each side, [125] and well-made oars that are like wings for ships. 126 And I will tell you a sign [sēma], a very clear one, which will not get lost in your thinking. 127 Whenever someone on the road encounters you 128 and says that it must be a winnowing shovel that you have on your radiant shoulder, 129 at that point you must stick into the ground the well-made oar [130] and sacrifice beautiful sacrifices to Lord Poseidon 131 a ram, a bull, and a boar that mounts sows. 132 And then go home and offer sacred hecatombs 133 to the immortal gods who possess the vast expanses of the skies. 134 Sacrifice to them in proper order, one after the other. As for yourself, death shall come to you from the sea, [135] a gentle death, that is how it will come, and this death will kill you 136 as you lose your strength in a prosperous old age. And the people all around [your corpse] 137 will be blessed [olbioi]. All the things I say are unmistakably true.’  Odyssey 11:121-138

³D. A. Beardsley, The Journey Back to Where You Are: Homer’s Odyssey as Spiritual Quest, Ideograph Media, 2015

Posted in History, Literature, Philosophy, Spirituality | Comments Off on The Naked Saint

More on Metaphor

 

Thou Art That, by Joseph Campbell

As many of you know, I am a strong believer in the metaphorical interpretation of many classic works, (and Homer in particular).  I recently read the book Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor, a collection of works by Joseph Campbell and edited by Eugene Kennedy.  To me it shows how universal the use of metaphor is in expressing the inexpressible, in expressing myth.  Thou Art That!  What a perfect metaphor right there.  Not a simile, not “thou art kinda like that,” but a metaphor: You Are That.  (If you have to ask what “That” is, I can only recommend that you read the book.)

It deals primarily with Judeo-Christian texts and metaphors, and will not convince anyone who was raised to think that the events described in the Bible were actual historical happenings, but I believe it is important to keep trying.  It is similar in its approach to another book I’ve recommended, The New Man by

The New Man, by Maurice Nicoll, MD

Dr. Maurice Nicoll.

I don’t know if these two men ever met, although they were both followers of Carl Jung (Campbell in fact edited his works into The Portable Jung), but the same message comes through in both works: the stories of the Bible are really metaphors for one’s own spiritual quest.  That our real purpose on earth is to make the journey, the nostos, “from darkness and death to light and life,” in the words of Douglas Frame.

This was a lot easier to believe when language had not fallen into such literalness.  When it still operated on at least two levels at once.   When it still exhibited “fossil poetry,” as Emerson said.  Or, as Campbell says, “The metaphorical language of both mythology and metaphysics are not denotative of actual worlds or gods, but rather connote levels and entities within the person touched by them.  Metaphors only seem to describe the outer world of time and place.  The real universe is the spiritual realm of the inner life.  The Kingdom of God is within you.”  (op. cit. p. 7)

 

 

Posted in History, Literature, Philosophy, Spirituality | Comments Off on More on Metaphor

Observer and Commentator

 

I had a mini-, or maybe not so mini-, revelation this morning of the distinction between the Observer and the commentator.  The Observer just sees, notices unities, but keeps its attention on the One.  The commentator has to start blabbing about what is seen.

Now that’s not always a bad thing; if the commentator is skilled enough it can point the way back to what the Observer has observed.  (Obviously my commentator is writing this.)  But if not–or worse, if he takes other commentators as observers–we end up on the slippery slope that takes us down to where we start seeing other humans as, well, other.  We find that we can become capable of terrible acts of inhumanity.

It is evident that the Observer is the “higher” of these categories.  It is the original faculty, an expression of the One, which looks at its creation and “sees that it is good.”  It corresponds to the highest on Plato’s Divided Line.  It is noesis: it requires no proof; it is all intuition.  It is Reason as distinct from reasoning.  In Plato’s account, it is the faculty that allows us to “reason” about geometrical shapes and other mathematical concepts without actually seeing them.  Or to reason about where things will end up if we start to see other people as other.

The commentator is a step down from this.  It uses the wonderful gift of language to apply discursive reasoning to the subject, but lays itself open to the traps of language: logic, duality (at least), with its distinctions between superior and inferior.  It is dianoia, or understanding.  (I could give examples, but I’m trying to keep this on a level of noesis.  I’m also aware that I’m creating a duality between them.)  And if we get in the habit of listening to it, it will keep on commenting on anything and everything, and eventually we will forget the Observer altogether.

In the teachings of the East, this would be the distinction between the Atman and the manas; the former is identified with the One, the latter is the servant of the One.  It is like the senses or discursive mind; the crew and the suitors as opposed to Odysseus.  So it really comes down to the relationship between the two.  Competition?  Cooperation?  If the Observer rules and counts on the commentator as its servant, things are working as they should.  If they are in conflict–which always starts with the commentator trying to usurp the role of the Observer–we begin the slide down the line to opinion.  And then we are really lost.  Until, if we are lucky, the Observer reasserts its primacy, and we turn our gaze again to the One.

 

Posted in History, Literature, Philosophy, Spirituality | Comments Off on Observer and Commentator

Against Winning

 

Talk about hierarchies.  The ancient Greeks pretty much invented the idea of agon, a contest in which people (men, really) competed with each other to see who was the best at

Chariot rider from an ancient Greek krater. From the Metropolitan Museum, New York.

a given sport, e.g. discus throwing or chariot racing.  It probably started out as a way to keep in practice for the next war, which was always on the horizon, but soon took on a life of its own.  There was some justification for it when you knew that the guy next to you was going to have to pull his own weight when the going got tough, but the point I wish to make is that there is a difference between doing your best and striving to win for the sake of winning.

It is of course still with us today in the form of any sport, from relatively benign ones like baseball to marginal ones like football to ones that aren’t even legal.  (Or shouldn’t be–extreme boxing comes to mind.)  George Carlin’s take on the difference between baseball and football come to mind: “baseball is played in a park, football on a gridiron,” etc.  From my experience, there is a clear difference in the mindset of the fans.  Baseball fans seem to be a lot more forgiving if their team doesn’t win for…well, decades, really.  But football fans are definitely less patient, and will start to call for the coach’s head after just a couple of losing seasons.

The obsession with winning I think springs from insecurity on the part of the fan.  He (pretty much always a he) wants to be associated with success, with winning, with a public socially sanctioned display of testosterone.  (Ergo, President Trump.)  There is a subtle but profound difference between doing one’s personal best and the need to win at any cost.  The first gives us true gentleman athletes like Michael Jordan, while the latter gives us doping scandals and performance-enhancing drugs.  And of course many sad cases like Tiger Woods.  A real athlete I think knows that his records are just temporary, that they are made to be broken.  The “agonist-athlete” wants them to remain in place forever, like Achilles wanting eternal kleos.

So my point is: don’t get sucked into the winning part.  It makes for a good story, but it’s just temporary–really, no one in the Iliad finds lasting happiness.  Returning to your true self is a better story.  Read the Odyssey with this in mind.

Posted in History, Literature, Philosophy, Spirituality | Comments Off on Against Winning

Gifts

 

All we have is a gift from the One.  All our talents, our skills, our consciousness itself is on loan to make up the character we play in this world.  Not all are good gifts, but they are necessary gifts, gifts we have earned.  They are not given to us; they are given for us.  Our faculties–memory, foresight, reasoning, discrimination, loving–are instruments, which we need to care for.

Posted in History, Literature, Philosophy, Spirituality | Comments Off on Gifts

Hierarchy and Delphi

 

I heard an observation recently (can’t recall where) that came up during the president’s visit to the Middle East and Europe regarding the fight (you notice how automatically one falls into martial language) against terrorism, to wit that “the pope has connection to the Source Code, whereas Trump has connection only to the display.”  Or words to that effect.  The implication being that the pope is in a better position to deal with terrorists since he understands what can make them commit horrible actions while claiming to be part of a religious tradition.  He can be proactive, whereas Trump can be only reactive.

Read more.

Posted in History, Literature, Philosophy, Spirituality | Comments Off on Hierarchy and Delphi

Immortalization in the Agora

 

Something I felt very strongly when visiting Athens was the dichotomy between the acropolis and the agora.  Of course everyone associates the acropolis with the wisdom of Greece–the Parthenon, Athena, the PanAthenaic Festival and all that.  And of course that is important.  But we need to remember that Socrates spent his time in the agora, the marketplace, bringing the dialog to the people, the sacred to the everyday. Plato mentions the acropolis only a couple of times; his main concern is with the agora.  How ironic–or

fitting–then, that Socrates should die there, poisoned by the people he was trying to enlighten.  His last day is well-documented in the dialog The Phaedo which is a kind of summary of all his teaching, and a great primer on the idea of immortality.

I had the privilege of being at the site of the prison with Gregory Nagy, Director of Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies, and he has an interesting take on Socrates’ last words: “…don’t forget to sacrifice a rooster to Asklepios.”   He relates it to the process of immortalization, i.e. how heroes are created through performing certain rituals.  What Plato stresses throughout his dialogs is that Socrates is a new kind of hero–not one who relies on military accomplishments for his kleos (although he apparently did have them),  but rather his efforts to persuade through reason that the Ideal exists and we can come to know it directly.  In other words, that we can transcend the physical world and realize that we are already immortalized, like Socrates, like Jesus.

Greg makes the point that when one made a sacrifice to Asklepios, the god of healing, one would then enter into a state of incubation.  This is a special kind of sleep, not unlike death, which enables one to offer up the particular illness to a more universal state, and in the process become cured of it.  In the case of Socrates, the specific sacrificial rooster dies, but the form “rooster” lives on, crowing on the morning of the next day.  Socrates will leave his own body, but his essence–that of engaging in dialog–will go on, and he will thus be immortalized.  Another “tourist” on this trip, a psychoanalyst from Ottawa named Cecilia Taiana, put it this way in a comment to Greg’s article,”Healthy people incubate them into something new, thereby preparing them to engage the new day as ‘new’ (creativity) and not as a repetition (trauma).”

So we need to ask ourselves: how often do we allow ourselves to engage in repetition rather than creativity?  How often do we repeat things over and over when we could just let them go and be free?  I believe this is a core message of all spiritual traditions: that we don’t need to live among past “traumas,” including the trauma of being reduced to an ego.  We can let go of the experiences that hold us as prisoners and greet each day–indeed each moment–as new, fresh, creative.  By doing so we show our kinship with Socrates, and with the whole Ideal tradition.

Posted in History, Literature, Philosophy, Spirituality | Comments Off on Immortalization in the Agora

E Unum Pluribus

 

We shouldn’t be surprised at all the divisions and contradictions occurring on an almost daily basis: things grow by dividing.  Fortunately, this process is reversible.

Posted in Philosophy | Comments Off on E Unum Pluribus

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!

Posted in History, Philosophy, Spirituality | Comments Off on Greek “Emotions”

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.

 

Posted in History, Literature, Philosophy, Spirituality | Comments Off on Athena and “Creative Mercy”

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.”

Posted in History, Literature, Philosophy, Spirituality | Comments Off on Criticism vs. Discrimination

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)

Posted in History, Literature, Philosophy, Spirituality | Comments Off on The “Agon” Spectrum

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.

 

Posted in History, Literature, Philosophy, Spirituality | Comments Off on Simone Weil and Homer

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.

Posted in History, Literature, Philosophy, Spirituality | Comments Off on Emerson’s Legacy

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.

Posted in History, Literature, Philosophy, Spirituality | Comments Off on How Are You Feeling?

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.)

Posted in History, Literature, Philosophy, Spirituality | Comments Off on The Hierarchy of Law

Homeric Hymn (7) to Dionysus

 

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

Posted in Literature, Philosophy, Spirituality | Comments Off on Homeric Hymn (7) to Dionysus

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.

Posted in History, Literature, Philosophy, Spirituality | Comments Off on We Are Not Amused

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.

Posted in History, Literature, Philosophy, Spirituality | Comments Off on Judgment of Paris/Garden of Eden

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.

 

Posted in History, Literature, Philosophy, Spirituality | Comments Off on Denton J. Snider

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.

Posted in History, Literature, Philosophy, Spirituality | Comments Off on Suitors of the Mind

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.

 

 

Posted in History, Literature, Philosophy, Spirituality | Comments Off on Apocalypso

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.

 

 

Posted in History, Literature, Philosophy, Spirituality | Comments Off on Odysseus v. Agamemnon

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!

Posted in History, Literature, Philosophy, Spirituality | Comments Off on More on “The Odyssey”