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.

For books related to the Ideal, click here.

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Fear Not


Some time ago it occurred to me that if the “ter­ror­ists” who per­pe­trated the World Trade Cen­ter attacks of 9/11/01 wanted to main­tain the fear, it wouldn’t be that hard.  They could eas­ily walk onto a PATH train–a kind of sub­way that runs between Newark NJ and the World Trade Center–with a large device in a back­pack.  If they got into the first car, espe­cially on an anniver­sary of the event, and set it off just as the train was reach­ing the WTC sta­tion, they would kill many peo­ple, dis­rupt com­mu­ni­ca­tions, and put them­selves back on the front pages of the media cen­ter of the world.  This thought occurred to me as I was sit­ting in the front car of the PATH train on Sept. 11 2006.

I was reminded of it of course by the reac­tions to the attacks in Paris, hear­ing of the ter­ri­ble deaths and then the brave reac­tions of peo­ple who would not let their own lives be altered by the mad­ness of a few.  For every action, there is an equal and oppo­site reaction–the equal reac­tion has appar­ently found the per­pe­tra­tor, and the oppo­site reac­tion has seen the French peo­ple refuse to be intim­i­dated, much as Amer­i­cans refused in the days after 9/11.  But it is dis­heart­en­ing to hear the rhetoric that has emerged from those events, and it’s become evi­dent that “ter­ror­ism” is a great gift to the “law and order” mind­set, and the sound bite poli­cies that want to respond with bor­der clo­sures and iso­la­tion­ism.  This is a long haul prob­lem, of which we are not inno­cent, and there will no doubt be other attacks in the future.  My point is that we can­not stop liv­ing our lives.  We are all going to die at some point, and the odds of dying from “ter­ror­ism” are minus­cule com­pared to the other plagues of mod­ern life: auto acci­dents, gun vio­lence, bad diet and so on.  The good news is that we are in fact immor­tal–we don’t really die, just change bod­ies.  To the extent that events like this cause us to exam­ine our own mor­tal­ity, our rea­son for being on the earth, they can be gifts to us as well.  This is of course not to let the “ter­ror­ists” off the hook–they will have much to answer for after their own life on earth ceases.  But we must learn to see this kind of twisted vio­lence, even if we lose our own life, or that of some­one we love, as just another form of human igno­rance, and fear not.

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Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, by Patrick Leigh Fermor.


Mani: Trav­els in the South­ern Pelo­pon­nese, by Patrick Leigh Fer­mor. New York Review Books 1958

When my wife handed me this book from a bar­gain table at a nearby book­store, I admit I hadn’t heard of Fer­mor (1915–2011), but now have learned that he was a highly regarded travel writer with a spe­cial fond­ness for Greece. He fought with the Greek resis­tance in WWII and led the oper­a­tion that cap­tured the Ger­man Gen­eral Kreipe, one of the more dar­ing “spe­cial ops” of the war, and which helped to turn the tide against the Ger­mans in Crete. He had quite a life—he was once described by a BBC jour­nal­ist as “a cross between Indi­ana Jones, James Bond, and Gra­ham Greene”–and there is now a soci­ety which pro­motes his life and work. So he is of inter­est to Greek schol­ars, as well as those who just like rip­ping yarn.

On the map,” he says, “the south­ern part of the Pelo­pon­nese looks like a mis­shapen tooth fresh torn from its gum and with three penin­su­las jut­ting south­ward in jagged and car­i­ous roots.” (Much of whether you will enjoy this book depends on how you feel about that sen­tence.) The mid­dle penin­sula is Mani, which comes across as a harsh, rel­a­tively bar­ren land that has remained untouched by the out­side world for cen­turies. (Note that the book was writ­ten in 1958, but I would doubt much has changed.) It’s impos­si­ble to encap­su­late the book here, but I’ll note a few of my favorite passages—passages that alter­nate with some long and rather tedious digres­sions, which I’ll allow that some peo­ple may find fascinating.

On p. 25–6 he describes wak­ing up from a day­time nap in the hills to find him­self and his party, which included his wife Joan and a local guide, being scru­ti­nized by “two bare­foot, raggedly dressed and ikon-faced lit­tle girls of ten and twelve, both of them extremely beau­ti­ful.” They share some moments of mostly unar­tic­u­lated mutual curios­ity, until it was time for the party to leave.

Go towards the Good,” one of them said, and the other, “May you have the Good Hour.”

The immo­bile fig­ures of these two lit­tle Byzan­tines dwin­dled as we zigzagged down­hill. Even at a dis­tance we could sense the wide efful­gent gaze which those four eyes aimed from their ledge half-way to the sky. They waved when we were just about to dip out of sight. There are very few peo­ple in these sur­round­ings, Yorgo observed. “They are wild and shy and not accus­tomed to talk.” He pointed straight up into the air. The canyon was clos­ing round us. “They see noth­ing by God.”

Chap­ter 5, “Lamen­ta­tion,” describes the Mani prac­tice of com­pos­ing spon­ta­neous funeral ora­tions, or miroloy, a job which fell mostly to the women, and which per­haps as a result seems not to have been much stud­ied. But the way Fer­mor describes this prac­tice, “tempts one to think that here again is a direct descen­dant of Ancient Greece, a cus­tom stretch­ing back, per­haps, till before the Siege of Troy.” This seems there­fore to be fer­tile ground for study, as with Lord and the Yugoslavs, and per­haps it has been. If not, this chap­ter is a good start.

On p. 140: “A spell of peace lives in the ruins of ancient Greek tem­ples. As the trav­eller leans back among the fallen cap­i­tals and allows the hours to pass, it emp­ties the mind of trou­bling thought and anx­i­eties and slowly refills it, like a ves­sel that has been drained and scoured, with a quiet ecstasy. Nearly all that has hap­pened fades to a limbo of shad­ows and insignif­i­cance and is pain­lessly replaced by an inti­ma­tion of radi­ance, sim­plic­ity and calm which unties all knots and solves all rid­dles and seems to mur­mur a benev­o­lent and unim­pe­ri­ous sug­ges­tion that the whole of life, if it were allowed to unfold with­out hin­drance or com­pul­sion or search for alien solu­tions, might be lim­it­lessly happy.”

Through­out the book, one gets a strong sense of the prac­tice of xenia, the wel­com­ing of strangers and their news of the out­side world, remains here as strong as it did in Homer’s time. That, as he says, “hos­pi­tal­ity in Greece car­ries an almost reli­gious impor­tance.” (p. 234) It brings to mind the ancient prac­tice of theox­eny, where the gods them­selves would wan­der the coun­try­side to see if they would be hon­ored. One gets the sense that there is almost a com­pe­ti­tion for the stranger among vil­lagers, with the sta­tus they would bring to the host’s family.

On p. 243, speak­ing of see­ing an old church which among the images of saints fea­tured the “pagan sages of the Greek world,” …“but bereft of haloes. Their pres­ence, due to pas­sages in their writ­ings inter­preted as prophecy or rat­i­fi­ca­tion of the incar­na­tion of Christ, seems to announce the age-old truth that the Greek Ortho­dox Church glo­ri­fies not only the Chris­t­ian mir­a­cle as revealed to the Evan­ge­lists but the con­ti­nu­ity and inde­struc­tibil­ity of Hel­lenism and the part played in Chris­tian­ity by the thought and dis­ci­pline of the pagan Greek philosophers.”

The world Fer­mor describes in some ways seems as remote as that of Homer, but he often makes it as vivid. It shines a bright and lov­ing light on this par­tic­u­lar “tooth” that seems to exist out­side of time.

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Simone Weil’s Apologetic Use of Literature, by Marie Cabaud Meaney (Oxford University Press, 2007)


It seems that any­one who pur­sues an inter­est in Greek lit­er­a­ture and/or spir­i­tual writ­ing sooner or later encoun­ters the work of Simone Weil.  She left lit­tle in the way of com­pleted works, but filled many note­books and let­ters, from which much of the mate­r­ial in this book is drawn.  She is always described as a bril­liant intel­lect, but who later in her short life expe­ri­enced a mys­ti­cal vision about which she wrote that “Christ him­self came down and took pos­ses­sion of me.”

She was famously not a “joiner,” either of the acad­emy or of the (Catholic) Church, but cul­ti­vated and expressed a unique vision that attempted to rec­on­cile the two.  In this book, which is really an apolo­gia to Weil’s apolo­gia (in the ancient Greek sense of “defense”), Cabaud Meaney sets out to pro­vide the kind of coher­ent sup­port for this vision that Weil her­self in fact may have if she had lived longer.  Their basic premise is that the ancient Greek tragedies pre­fig­ure many of the themes that became cen­tral to Chris­tian­ity: for­give­ness, the duty of love, obe­di­ence to God vs. obe­di­ence to the law, the soul-killing effects of force, etc.

While Weil’s focus was on Greek lit­er­a­ture, she was not the first to see this con­ti­nu­ity.  I hap­pened to be alter­nat­ing between this book and one by Patrick Leigh Fer­mer called Mani (New York Review Books, 1958), which describes a walk­ing tour he took of a remote Greek penin­sula of that name in the 1950’s.  He describes see­ing rep­re­sen­ta­tions of Greek philoso­phers in an old church there, although “bereft of haloes.”  He goes on, “Their pres­ence, due to pas­sages in their work inter­preted as prophecy or rat­i­fi­ca­tion of the incar­na­tion of Christ, seems to announce the age-old truth that the Greek Ortho­dox Church glo­ri­fies not only the Chris­t­ian mir­a­cle as revealed to the Evan­ge­lists but the con­ti­nu­ity and inde­struc­tibil­ity of Hel­lenism and the part played in Chris­tian­ity by the thought and dis­ci­pline of the pagan Greek philoso­phers.” (p. 243–4)  Weil, and Cabaud Meaney, make the case that this glo­ri­fi­ca­tion can also be found in the trage­di­ans: Sopho­cles, Aeschy­lus, and Euripi­des, as well as Homer.

With­out her vision­ary expe­ri­ence, this insight might have been rel­e­gated to an aca­d­e­mic jour­nal some­where, but it gains more force from her descrip­tion of the per­sonal encounter with Christ, and her sub­se­quent efforts to help revive inter­est in the Catholic Church.  But while I admire Weil’s insis­tence on an out­sider sta­tus (some­thing I share), I can’t help but won­der why she remained loyal to the insti­tu­tion of the Church after her rev­e­la­tion.  From my own expe­ri­ence and other accounts I’ve read, such glimpses of the “super­nat­ural” or “tran­scen­den­tal” are beyond name and form, which is what makes them so impos­si­ble to describe and so often results in their being dis­missed by pure rationalists.

That is cer­tainly not to say that they aren’t valid; my point is that both the Greeks and the Chris­tians are express­ing some­thing more uni­ver­sal than either.  In another famous pas­sage, Weil speaks of the Greeks “build­ing bridges,” but which we have turned into habitations–we choose to live there rather than be trans­ported to some unknow­able “other side.”   I think if she had retained the mys­tery of what is on the other side, rather than pro­vid­ing the safe image of the Church, or even of the Christ, her work would be more uni­ver­sal.  It is unfor­tu­nate that she died so young, still it would seem in the “material-gathering” phase of her work, and not hav­ing time to express it fully, even if it meant devel­op­ing a new lan­guage.  This book by Cabaud Meaney may be clos­est we get to that expres­sion, and I’d rec­om­mend it to those inter­ested in Weil’s thought.

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How to Kill a Dragon, Pt. II



Her­cules Slay­ing the Hydra-headed Mon­ster. Engrav­ing from the 17th c. by Gilles Rousselet.

In the last post I looked at how some of the “themes and ‘motifemes’” iden­ti­fied by Calvert Watkins as they related to scenes in Homer’s Odyssey.  Now I’d like to look at them in more depth as they relate to the spir­i­tual quest in gen­eral. This quest, which we may dimly remem­ber, is our attempt to “jour­ney back to where we are,” to remem­ber our true eter­nal Self by let­ting go of the illu­sory lit­tle chang­ing selves with we are con­stantly iden­ti­fied.  Seen this way, our nor­mal life, our “com­mon day,” is turned upside-down, and we are adrift in a kind of dream­world where the absurd is normal.

As a quick reminder, Watkins iden­ti­fies ten of these themes:

  1. abnor­mal or inverse social or sex­ual relations
  2. the abuse or vio­la­tion of hospitality
  3. abnor­mal servitude
  4. an injunc­tion
  5. vio­la­tion of the injunction
  6. the tem­po­rary vic­tory of the (mon­ster) over the hero; as a result
  7. the hero’s dis­fig­ure­ment or muti­la­tion, itself caus­ing real or poten­tial loss of sta­tus or power
  8. the abuse or vio­la­tion of the respon­si­bil­ity of “hos­pi­tal­ity” to an inferior…
  9. the under­wa­ter locale of the combat
  10. the final paean, in direct speech of the vic­tory which reestab­lishes order over chaos, fol­lowed by the death of the hero.

Some obser­va­tions about how these themes can be iden­ti­fied in our own lives:

  1. If we can appre­ci­ate that our daily lives are but picture-shows, shad­ows pro­jected onto the cave wall (as Plato describes them), we can also appre­ci­ate that all our rela­tion­ships can be described as “abnor­mal or inverse.”  In our lim­ited con­scious­ness, we see all rela­tions as more or less equal and cer­tainly lim­ited them­selves.  We do not rec­og­nize gods and god­desses when we see them (even in our­selves), and we jus­tify hang­ing around with demons by our need for mak­ing money or for pres­tige.  By the same token, we can become enchanted by mak­ing love with deities and for­get our quest; if we have fallen in with the demons of mat­ter, it means we’ve already for­got­ten.  Enjoy your fame and toys, but good luck with try­ing to get back on the quest.
  2. I’ve writ­ten more exten­sively about the idea of hos­pi­tal­ity, or in Greek xenia, else­where, so I won’t go into it again in detail, but the basic idea is that every other human being is not other than your own self, just as you are not other than your own Self.  As the Irish prayer goes, “Often often often goes the Christ in the stranger’s guise,” which the Greeks would call theox­eny.  Our dimin­ished word “hos­pi­tal­ity” derives from the places of lodg­ing, often run by the “Knights Hos­pi­tal­iers,” for peo­ple on pil­grim­ages, which in a real way we all are.  Again I would say that this does not appeal to our lit­eral sense of tak­ing in strangers off the street, but to the way we treat other humans in all our inter­ac­tions with them: whether we judge them, let them make us feel angry or envi­ous, infe­rior or supe­rior.  To do that is to vio­late this rule of xenia by think­ing of our­selves as a sep­a­rate being.
  3. Abnor­mal servi­tude.  This is some­thing in which we pretty much all are engaged, in the sense that we see our activ­ity, our work, as a means to an end rather than an end in itself.  Our true work is a gift which most of us tend to for­get, along with most every­thing else, and so we look for ways to make up for it through money and sta­tus.  (I think I’ve finally found mine, by writ­ing this blog and my books.)  Our true work is some­thing to which our atten­tion is nat­u­rally drawn, on which it rests and expands to its full con­scious­ness.  As Emer­son says,

    There is a time in every man’s edu­ca­tion when he arrives at the con­vic­tion that envy is igno­rance; that imi­ta­tion is sui­cide; that he must take him­self for bet­ter, for worse, as his por­tion; that though the wide uni­verse is full of good, no ker­nel of nour­ish­ing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.

  4. An injunc­tion.  This is a topic that prob­a­bly requires its own book, since I think it is the cause of so much mis­un­der­stand­ing and suf­fer­ing in the world, which tends toward the prac­tice of “any­thing, any time, any­where.”  And let me say that I am not one who wants a gov­ern­ment or reli­gion dic­tat­ing what I can or can­not do–many of those “thou shalt nots” have become cor­rupted over the years.  But the fact remains that not all activ­i­ties are equal:  there are actions which are com­pat­i­ble with the spir­i­tual quest, and oth­ers which per­pet­u­ate the illu­sion that we are sep­a­rate, lim­ited and mor­tal beings, for whom

    Life’s but a walk­ing shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Sig­ni­fy­ing noth­ing.  (Mac­beth, 5:5)

    If we wish to avoid this depress­ing view of our lives, we need to find a way to escape our “abnor­mal servi­tude.”  There­fore injunc­tions, i.e. “not joining.”

  5. Vio­la­tion of the injunc­tion.  Because we mis­un­der­stand the pur­pose of the injunc­tions, because we tend to see them as some arbi­trary author­ity try­ing to keep me from enjoy­ing myself, we are quick to vio­late them, often just because they are injunc­tions.  We dis­obey, we “sin” or “miss the mark” and because we are not imme­di­ately pun­ished, we think we can vio­late them all with impunity.  But this is a case of being bound to them, just as surely as unques­tion­ingly obey­ing them.
  6. That we are not imme­di­ately pun­ished is the “tem­po­rary vic­tory of the mon­ster,” in that we think we are some­how exempt from the rules of the quest.  But none of us is, and the hero in us needs to reassert him– or her­self.  We are in fact pun­ished by being in pro­longed sep­a­ra­tion from our true Self.  We can cer­tainly expe­ri­ence the pleas­ant, but not the good.
  7. Dis­fig­ure­ment.  In the Odyssey the dis­fig­ure­ment and muti­la­tion is made clear–Odysseus is made to look old and dimin­ished through the hand­i­work of Athena, which results in his being mocked and humil­i­ated by the suit­ors, which you know (if you’ve read my book) rep­re­sent the self-important thoughts and desires that plague us day and night.  To become “dis­fig­ured, muti­lated” is to become free from their power over us.  (I hope at this point that you real­ize I’m not talk­ing about phys­i­cal dis­fig­ure­ment.)  In a way we become invis­i­ble, one of “God’s spies,” per­haps not that inter­est­ing to talk to, not that ambi­tious, but “pure of heart.”
  8. To become dis­fig­ured in this way though is to invite “abuse of hos­pi­tal­ity.”  We come to be on the receiv­ing end of the lack of xenia that we may have prac­ticed upon oth­ers.  We are ignored, we don’t mat­ter.  But this too can be liberating–we are free of other peo­ples’ expec­ta­tions.  (I am expe­ri­enc­ing this more and more as I get older and become more and more invis­i­ble to those younger.)  We can let go of the need to assert our­selves and enjoy the sta­tus of observer.
  9. The under­wa­ter bat­tle.  Again, in my book I speak of the sym­bol­ism of water as rep­re­sent­ing igno­rance, that force that is con­stantly try­ing to pull us under and end the quest through what­ever agent of the mon­ster: Polyphe­mus, Sirens, Crash­ing Rocks, Skylla, Charib­dis.  In the Odyssey it is always pre­sented as an evil; a “vast waste” at best, a source of dan­ger and death at worst.  The hero will always have access to some kind of wood to see him through these ordeals.
  10. The final paean.  “I am I again, unnamed and whole.”  Start writ­ing yours now.


Posted in History, Literature, Philosophy, Spirituality | Comments Off on How to Kill a Dragon, Pt. II

Books About the Ideal


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

This book views Homer’s Odyssey 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

The Ideal in the West (book)

The Ideal in the West

The essays on this blog have been col­lected into book form, avail­able through

A com­mend­able attempt to beat back the dark­ness and inspire revelation.

In clear, unclut­tered prose, free of undue sophistry, Beard­s­ley cov­ers an immense amount of ter­ri­tory with alacrity, begin­ning chrono­log­i­cally with Athens in its golden age and touch­ing next on the Greek-influenced Roman philoso­phers. He then moves on to the Renais­sance, and finally to the 19th-century tran­scen­den­tal­ists of New Eng­land. …  Read­ers who brushed lightly against the Greek philoso­phers in the course of their edu­ca­tions will appre­ci­ate this chance to replen­ish and expand their store of knowl­edge, but those start­ing from scratch could do worse than learn­ing the basics from Beard­s­ley. At its best, his book may even spark a flame that leaps “from one soul to another” and ignites deeper understanding—though he believes, like Socrates, that the spo­ken word of the dialec­tic, face-to-face method can cre­ate a spark more surely than the writ­ten word ever could.  –Kirkus Reviews, Sept. 2015

The Ideal of Beauty and Other Essays

The Ideal of Beauty and Other Essays

The 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.

Posted in History, Literature, Philosophy, Spirituality | Comments Off on Books About the Ideal

How to Kill a Dragon


I was recently look­ing for a lit­tle light read­ing, so I got a copy of Calvert Watkins’s page turner (kid­ding!), sub­ti­tled Aspects of Indo-European Poet­ics.  If you don’t know it, it is a remark­able achieve­ment dis­play­ing a level of schol­ar­ship that is truly hum­bling to some­one like me whose atten­tion span is usu­ally mea­sured in nanosec­onds.  His knowl­edge of var­i­ous West­ern (and some East­ern) lan­guages derived from Indo-European is vast, and his abil­ity to see con­nec­tions among them most impres­sive.  I will admit that I did not read the book cover-to-cover.


A Giant of the Earth, by Antoine Wiertz (1806–1865). Musee Wiertz, Brussels.

As you may be able to tell from the title, after some open­ing chap­ters in which he delin­eates com­mon­al­i­ties in the lan­guages them­selves, he con­cen­trates on a basic theme that is com­mon to the mythol­ogy of many of these cul­tures, from Irish to Indian; i.e. HERO SLAYS DRAGON.  He gives mul­ti­ple exam­ples of this theme from across cul­tures, and I’m sure we can all think of our own exam­ples, such as The­seus and the Mino­taur, and Odysseus and the Cyclops (even though he is not slain), Bilbo and Smaug. Later, Watkins expands this def­i­n­i­tion to include HERO SLAYS HERO and HERO SLAYS ANTI-HERO, specif­i­cally includ­ing the slay­ing of the suit­ors by Odysseus in this for­mu­la­tion.  “.…an exam­ple of the sec­ond, where the anti-hero is assim­i­lated into a mon­ster, would be Odysseus and the suit­ors, or Orestes and Klu­taimes­tra (sic).  In both the action is bidi­rec­tional, poten­tially rec­i­p­ro­cal; either mem­ber may be the sub­ject of the verb.“¹

But what I also found inter­est­ing is an analy­sis of the slayer myths in a chap­ter titled “Fer­gus mac Léti and the muir­dris,” which con­cen­trates on an Irish myth of that name.  I won’t repro­duce it here, but I will quote his list­ing of “themes and ‘motifemes:’”

  1. abnor­mal or inverse social or sex­ual relations
  2. the abuse or vio­la­tion of hospitality
  3. abnor­mal servitude
  4. an injunc­tion
  5. vio­la­tion of the injunction
  6. the tem­po­rary vic­tory of the (mon­ster) over the hero; as a result
  7. the hero’s dis­fig­ure­ment or muti­la­tion, itself caus­ing real or poten­tial loss of sta­tus or power
  8. the abuse or vio­la­tion of the respon­si­bil­ity of “hos­pi­tal­ity” to an inferior…
  9. the under­wa­ter locale of the combat
  10. the final paean, in direct speech of the vic­tory which reestab­lishes order over chaos, fol­lowed by the death of the hero.²

If you know the Odyssey at all, a num­ber of these will jump out at you as com­mon themes, per­haps espe­cially in the sec­ond half where Odysseus returns to Ithaka.  If not, allow me to point out some of the more obvious:

  1. Odysseus sleeps with two god­desses, and while dis­guised as a beg­gar, demands the atten­tion of Pene­lope, mis­tress of Ithaka.
  2. a num­ber of these vio­la­tions of xenia, includ­ing the encounter with the Cyclops
  3. Athena’s atten­tion to Odysseus (a bit of a stretch, per­haps), and Odysseus him­self play­ing the part of a beggar
  4. sev­eral of these also, most notably the com­mand not to eat the cat­tle of the sun god Apollo
  5. vio­la­tion of that injunc­tion, (“They ate them.”), with its tragic effects of the crew being drowned and Odysseus alone surviving
  6. Posei­don (the über-monster) tem­porar­ily wins, and Odysseus is cast adrift.  The theme recurs when he sails off from Calypso’s island and is washed ashore on Phaeakia
  7. when he first returns to Ithaka, he is trans­formed into a wretched beg­gar by Athena
  8. again the vio­la­tion of hos­pi­tal­ity, this time by the suit­ors to the dis­guised Odysseus
  9. the final com­bat does not take place under­wa­ter, but sev­eral of the pre­vi­ous bat­tles are in the sea
  10. Athena speaks the final paean³, after which at some point in the future as pre­dicted by Tire­seias, Odysseus dies “(far) from the sea.”

So a pretty nice con­ver­gence of themes, which I doubt I’m the first to notice.  But of course my premise is that the Odyssey describes a spir­i­tual quest, so how does this for­mu­la­tion relate to that?  Pretty well, I think, if we remem­ber the alle­gor­i­cal aspect: a world of unity (light and life) inter­rupted by chaos (dark­ness and death) with the ulti­mate vic­tory of unity.  The chaos is our every­day world, which we don’t rec­og­nize as “dark­ness and death,” and the state of unity is our true state, but one we have for­got­ten.  At times of course it seems that Posei­don and his agents will win the day, but always Odysseus has enough “good karma” in his rela­tion­ship with Athena to over­come their traps.  (I’ll look at each of these ele­ments of the quest in more detail in another post.)  In this case I think one can read the death of Odysseus as not like that of Achilles or the suit­ors, trudg­ing down to the shad­owy world of Hades, but as a per­ma­nent ascent into unity.

¹Watkins, Calvert, How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poet­ics.  Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press, 1995, p. 471

²Watkins, op. cit., p. 443–4

³“Son of Laertes, sprung from Zeus, Odysseus of many devices, stay thy hand, and make the strife of equal war to cease, lest haply the son of Cronos be wroth with thee, even Zeus, whose voice is borne afar.”  Odyssey 24:543–4

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More or less


I am, I know, a lesser light, but a light nonetheless.

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Sweet Chariot


A sur­vey of the metaphor of the char­iot to describe the human soul.  Click here.

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Recently I was in an online dis­cus­sion over the rel­a­tive mer­its of the Iliad vs. the Odyssey.  If you think about it, you prob­a­bly have a pref­er­ence for one or the other–mine of course is for the lat­ter.  Any­way, in the course of one of the exchanges some­one used the phrase “Phi­los­o­phiz­ing is easy,” going on to say that deal­ing with the “nitty-gritty” is tougher.  And of course that’s what most peo­ple seem to think, but on fur­ther reflec­tion, I would beg to differ.

Phi­los­o­phiz­ing, that is “lov­ing wis­dom,” is per­haps the tough­est thing one can do.  The “real world” tells you that you are of a cer­tain race, and gen­der, and nation­al­ity, even a cer­tain age.  But wis­dom teaches that you are none of these.  You are the One, and para­dox­i­cally so is every­one else.  As George Har­ri­son says, “Not too many peo­ple can see we’re all the same.”  That peo­ple should go to war with each other in the name of reli­gion is per­haps the most extreme exam­ple of this–it would be funny if there weren’t so much pain involved.

The back story of the Iliad is that it was caused by Eris, god­dess of Strife, result­ing in Paris (Alexan­dros) want­ing to “own” Beauty, in the form of Helen.  Wis­dom would have told him that it can’t be owned; it is, as Plato says, and Ideal that stands behind all indi­vid­ual expres­sions of it.  But of course if he had been a philoso­pher, there would be no Iliad, and even I would think that was a loss to the world.  But Beauty is as much in us as it is any­where else, and until we real­ize that we will always look for it out­side, always think we are less than the One.

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A Course in Consciousness


I for­get now where I first con­nected with it, but I’ve spend­ing time recently with this course which was taught by Prof. Stan­ley Sobot­tka (1930–2014) at the Uni­ver­sity of Vir­ginia.  Although I have tried on a num­ber of occa­sions to under­stand quan­tum physics, each time I reach a stage where it sounds like the struc­ture of the lan­guage and the uni­verse has just fallen apart and my eyes start to glaze over–which may be the point.  (I think I’m start­ing to get Schrödinger’s cat, how­ever.)  But the impres­sion I always get, is that of two realms–the solid pre­dictable world of “clas­si­cal physics,” of “things” which obey “laws,” the world of New­ton and Galileo.  The one in which you and I (or at least our bod­ies) live.  Then there’s this sub­atomic realm where all bets are off.  This is like the Wild West.  It’s a realm not of things but of wave­forms, and which don’t obey laws but may adhere to prob­a­bil­i­ties.  The world of Heisen­berg, Bohr, Ein­stein.  We go there at our peril.

But Prof. Sobot­tka is work­ing more in the ser­vice of con­scious­ness rather than just physics, and so he brings into ques­tion the whole con­cept of the observer, and after a lot of back­ground in physics and phi­los­o­phy (the “monis­tic ideal” which includes a cri­tique of Plato’s Cave Alle­gory), he posits a quite unique take on it: The ego, or false self, is an assumed sep­a­rate entity with an assumed power of agency that is asso­ci­ated with the clas­si­cal, con­di­tioned, deter­min­is­tic part, while the uncon­di­tioned self is an expe­ri­ence that is dom­i­nated by the full range of pos­si­bil­i­ties of the quan­tum part.  (Part 2, 7:7)

And later: There is only one con­scious­ness. Our con­scious­ness is non­lo­cal con­scious­ness. My con­scious­ness is iden­ti­cal to your con­scious­ness. Only the con­tents are dif­fer­ent. The enti­ties that we falsely think we are result from iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of this con­scious­ness with a con­cept in the con­di­tioned mind. (Part 2, 7:8)

I would rec­om­mend this course if you want to get out of your com­fort zone, and find some val­i­da­tion for the Ideal.


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New Review of “The Ideal in the West”


This just in, from Kirkus Reviews.  Full dis­clo­sure: I did pay for the review, but they are not oblig­ated to give a good one.  (I would just note that at one point the reviewer speaks of “a wordy chap­ter.”  I’m sure that’s a typo and s/he meant “a wor­thy chap­ter.”  It’s a com­mon mistake.)

A brief philo­soph­i­cal his­tory of the West­ern under­stand­ing of the “Ideal” and the “Good,” from the ancient Greeks to Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Blog­ger, pod­caster, ama­teur philoso­pher, and author Beard­s­ley (The Jour­ney Back to Where You Are, 2014) shows the instincts of a teacher as he sheds light on a West­ern spir­i­tual tra­di­tion going back 2,500 years, to the era of Socrates and Plato. His intent in this vol­ume, he writes, is to share his real­iza­tion that “West­ern civ­i­liza­tion is itself in pos­ses­sion of this spir­i­tual tra­di­tion which is every bit as com­pelling and mag­nif­i­cent as any to be found in the East—not that there’s any­thing wrong with them.” Indeed, the East-West sim­i­lar­i­ties are strik­ing, such as a shared per­cep­tion that the soul is immor­tal. In clear, unclut­tered prose, free of undue sophistry, Beard­s­ley cov­ers an immense amount of ter­ri­tory with alacrity, begin­ning chrono­log­i­cally with Athens in its golden age and touch­ing next on the Greek-influenced Roman philoso­phers. He then moves on to the Renais­sance, and finally to the 19th-century tran­scen­den­tal­ists of New Eng­land. Through­out, he relies on care­fully selected words and works to elu­ci­date mean­ings, and adds gen­er­ally cogent com­men­tary of his own. As a side trip, he con­sid­ers whether the works of William Shake­speare fit within this West­ern philo­soph­i­cal tra­di­tion, and con­cludes that some do and some don’t. The book’s sec­ond part sug­gests how to live a life imbued by the Ideal, and includes a wordy chap­ter on get­ting beyond ego as a nec­es­sary first step. Read­ers who brushed lightly against the Greek philoso­phers in the course of their edu­ca­tions will appre­ci­ate this chance to replen­ish and expand their store of knowl­edge, but those start­ing from scratch could do worse than learn­ing the basics from Beard­s­ley. At its best, his book may even spark a flame that leaps “from one soul to another” and ignites deeper understanding—though he believes, like Socrates, that the spo­ken word of the dialec­tic, face-to-face method can cre­ate a spark more surely than the writ­ten word ever could.

A com­mend­able attempt to beat back the dark­ness and inspire revelation.


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The Religion With No Name


Recently I was com­mended to the site, which seems to spe­cial­ize in alter­nate inter­pre­ta­tions of his­tory and mythol­ogy, and to one arti­cle in par­tic­u­lar by Brian Muraresku.  It speaks for itself, and I hope you find it as fas­ci­nat­ing as I did.

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We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.


This quote, usu­ally attrib­uted to Pierre Teil­hard de Chardin, is a help­ful reminder of our real nature.  It seems that the nor­mal assump­tion of reli­gious and “self-help” sys­tems alike is that we are small, alien­ated beings look­ing for hap­pi­ness and pur­pose.  But we can choose to see our­selves as bliss­ful by nature; it is our nor­mal state, our birthright.  The prob­lem lies that we allow our­selves to be kid­napped from it.  Like Pene­lope in the Odyssey, we are con­stantly dis­tracted by the suitors–our ran­dom thoughts and desires–which pre­tend to want the best for us but in fact are “devour­ing our sub­stance.”  Her­mes Tris­megis­tus calls this phe­nom­e­non our “res­i­dent thief,” steal­ing away what is nat­u­rally ours.  This is not some benign process, but in fact our biggest obsta­cle to remem­ber­ing who we really are.  We can start by remem­ber­ing that our true nature is “truth, con­scious­ness, bliss,” and then observ­ing what­ever (or who­ever) comes along and tries to take this away.

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The Throwaway Comment 2


Some time ago I did a post on throw­away lines–short quotes in the mid­dle of a work that car­ried a sig­nif­i­cance that far out­weighed their num­ber of words.  There are of course many more that could be added, and may be, but I wanted to con­sider one more; this from the open­ing of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1842 address deliv­ered at the Masonic Tem­ple in Boston called The Tran­scen­den­tal­ist. 

The first thing we have to say respect­ing what are called “new views” here in New Eng­land, at the present time, is, that they are not new, but the very old­est of thoughts cast into the mould of these new times. The light is always iden­ti­cal in its com­po­si­tion, but it falls on a great vari­ety of objects, and by so falling is first revealed to us, not in its own form, for it is form­less, but in theirs; in like man­ner, thought only appears in the objects it clas­si­fies. What is pop­u­larly called Tran­scen­den­tal­ism among us, is Ide­al­ism; Ide­al­ism as it appears in 1842.

In par­tic­u­lar the sec­ond sen­tence should jump out.  At a point in an address when most speak­ers are clear­ing their throats and wait­ers are clear­ing the plates, Emer­son deliv­ers one of the most suc­cinct and accu­rate descrip­tions I know of the Ideal.  Its man­i­fes­ta­tion in the phys­i­cal world is light; a form­less mix­ture of fre­quen­cies, invis­i­ble in itself, taken for granted, not seen until it strikes some object and reflects it back to our eyes.  Like­wise, the Ideal, or con­scious­ness “is always iden­ti­cal in its com­po­si­tion,” itself taken for granted, never noticed until it illu­mi­nates a thought.  Then we think the thought is the thing, not the con­scious­ness that allows us to see it in the first place.

Indeed, what can be con­scious of con­scious­ness?  This is the fatal para­dox in all the “sci­en­tific” con­sid­er­a­tions of it.  It is not just another spec­i­men to put under a micro­scope; I think it was Meis­ter Eck­hart who said, “Peo­ple expect to see God with the same eyes with which they would see, say, a cow.”  Any­thing that can be observed is nec­es­sar­ily less than that which is observ­ing it, and is changed by the act of being observed.  Every­thing mate­r­ial is in a con­stant state of change; only that which observes remains the same, “iden­ti­cal in its com­po­si­tion.”  This observer, this Con­scious­ness is what you are, what I am.  Emer­son knew this (in 1842!), and in another throw­away line states, “I feel like other men my rela­tion to that Fact which can­not be spo­ken, or defined, nor even thought, but which exists, and will exist.”

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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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