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

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

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

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

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

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



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Odysseus v. Agamemnon



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

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

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

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


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



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More on “The Odyssey”


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

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

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Learn the language!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Iliad v. Odyssey


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


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

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


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

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It’s All Greek to Me


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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Twice Born Again


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

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The Republic of You


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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If life gives you lemons….


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

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Adjectives and Nouns, Part 2.


I try to keep this blog free from contemporary influences, preferring to concentrate on those which are timeless.  But there is so much attention given to diversity now–and by process of elimination to its opposite: uniformity*–that I thought I’d wade in a little deeper than I did in my first post.

Now there are many different adjectives we can apply to ourselves, but for purposes of “diversity” only two really matter, those which are immediately apparent: race (or nationality) and gender.  These are characteristics we are born with, and over which we really have no choice.**  There are of course other adjectives of religion, sexual orientation, political affiliations, etc.  (Age enters into it also, but the consequences are less well defined.)  So in these terms I will identify myself as a straight white male (and I realize that for many that disqualifies me from having any opinion on this subject).  For the society as a whole, those three adjectives are superfluous–I am the norm.  And they are certainly barriers to any kind of self-examination. We are trained to see only differences, and those differences are what provoke the question “What am I?”  Seeing only uniformity does not lead to self-examination.  Many people might think of being a straight white male as winning the lottery, but if your goal is self-realization, it’s a loser.  It may seem to be a blessing from a societal point of view, but in terms of a spiritual quest, it’s a disaster.  The sense of being different that occurs to young children can be the start of a lifetime of self-examination.  Unfortunately, it usually stops with the most obvious adjectives.

So if you are not a straight white male, if you are an oppressed minority (a term that’s really redundant), what do you do?  Well, if you’re like most people, you also take your adjectives–gay/trans, black/brown/yellow/red, female–to be nouns.  They are what you are.  You start from a place of suffering, of anger, you band with others of the same adjective, and take actions to increase your power, your share of the country’s big apple pie.

And it may well work–you may get the part, the contract, the job, the respect, the gig–hey, you may even become president!  And I don’t mean to belittle the suffering and hard work of those oppressed who have struggled to overcome the conscious and unconscious barriers that the rulers have put in their way.  But still, in terms of self-realization, of remembering that you are a noun, this too can be a disaster.  Each “victory” becomes just another way to perpetuate the illusion that those adjectives are what you “are.” At some point we all have to turn in our body/mind/heart apparatus, and how difficult that will be depends on how attached we are to it.  (It does seem to me that the older one gets, the less one holds on to this attachment.)

We all need to look more deeply within and realize that we are something universal.   We are not just the accidents of our birth, or products of the epithets that have become attached to us, like polytropos Odysseus or constant Penelope.  We are not just beautiful, we are Beauty; not just loving, but Love; not just individuals, but the One.

A closing thought from Maya Angelou: “All great artists draw from the same resource: the human heart, which tells us that we are all more alike than we are unalike.”¹

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*The coded subtext to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is “Make America White Again.”

**Of course you could claim, as does Plato in Book 10 of The Republic, that we choose our lives on earth, and part of that would be the body/mind/heart apparatus that goes along with it.  That is a very interesting and relevant question, but since we don’t really have a way to verify it, I’ll leave it to one side for time being.

¹Letter to My Daughter, 2009.

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Daemons and Suitors


Another of the common traits in religions/spiritual systems is the presence of what I’ll call daemons, disembodied forces that seem to do battle using us as their battleground.  For all practical purposes, it doesn’t really matter whether we call them disembodied spirits or ingrained synaptic circuits; the result is the same.  They carry on monologues or arguments within our minds and take our attention away from what is in front of us.  They can be “good” (angels) or “bad” (devils), but as long as we identify with them and allow them to feed on our attention, we will be unaware of the influence they hold over us.  A good primer on this influence, at least from the “dark” side, is The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis.  Primers on the influence of “our better angels” also abound (you can find many of them here), but their message is getting harder and harder to hear amid the continuous chatter of the mediasphere.

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Norman Lewis


Title unknown (March on Washington), 1965, oil on fiberboard, 351/4 × 471/2 in., L. Ann and Jonathan P. Binstock, © Estate of Norman W. Lewis; Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, LLC, New York, NY

This morning I was taken by some friends to an exhibit of works by the American artist Norman Lewis (1909-1979) at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Art.  I had vaguely heard of him before and may have seen reproductions of one or two of his works.  But spending real time in his presence (via his artwork) was very moving, and if any of you live near Philadelphia I would encourage you to visit this show before it closes on April 3.

I’ve often spoken of Emerson as writing from that boundary where the expressible transforms into the inexpressible, where words meet their forms.  Lewis’s work brought that to mind in painting.  Normally I am less than thrilled by abstract painting–most of it strikes me as very ego-driven, trying to find some edge to draw attention to oneself.  Lewis, by contrast, works in a place that borders on the representational with the abstract.  Many of his works contain suggestions of human and animal forms, but they are shown against a background of what could be called the primal stuff of creation.  It brings to mind Plato’s Divided Line; that fine line where the physical touches its source.  Lewis’s works are portals into that place if we can be still and take the inner leap.

A truly transcendent artist.


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Pay Attention!?


One of the great crimes of the modern age (by which I mean since around the time of the Renaissance) is the “professionalizing” of philosophy.  It has, often among people with the best of intentions, become a purely academic study, with no “real world” implications.  It is exemplified in the statement, “There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers.” If I tell you that was said by Henry David Thoreau in his work Walden in 1854, you’ll realize how long this problem has been around.¹  (A recent article in the New York Times supports this contention, although I would push the authors’ timeline further back.)

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A Man of Constant Sorrow


Recent posts have started me thinking about sorrow and its purpose in human life, especially in the spiritual quest.  It may seem a strange topic to consider in relation to the Ideal, in the presence of which we know no sorrow, but as humans it is something with which we must contend until we realize the Ideal.  Our plight until then is that we are absent from our real self, and all the different forms of sorrow exhibit a sense of absence: absence of food, of friends, of health, of self-knowledge.

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A Quote about Ficino


Ficino was fascinated by Plato and tried to imitate him in almost all respects. He made his
estate in the Florentine countryside like that of Plato’s near Athens. The stone pines at
Montevecchio were intended to play the role of the platanus trees in the Academy’s groves.
The Terzolle brook corresponded to the Cephissus River. On the walls of the lecture hall
where the members gathered, over time various fitting maxims appeared (just as in the
Athenian Academy): “A bono in bonum omnia dirigentur” (“Everything comes from the
good and returns to the good”), “Fuge excessum, fuge negotia, laetus in praesens” (“Avoid
excess, flee from troubles, rejoice in the present moment”). In the hall there was also a bust of Plato before which burned an eternal lamp. Like Plato, Ficino opened his home to his friends, whom came to be called academics (Academici). Their master was called princeps Academicorum. The place where they met came to be called the Accademia Carregiana.
With Ficino’s growing fame, he was called the “second Plato” (alter Plato), and the title of
academic was an honorary distinction bestowed by Ficino himself. In this way he gathered
around himself a circle of persons known as Ficiniani (at the Academy there were also the
Pichiani or disciples of Pico, and the Savonaroliani or disciple of Savonarola). He created a
community of “brothers in Plato” (fratres in Platone) who were the “Platonic family”
(Platonica familia). He became the “father” (pater Platonicae familiae). They greeted each
other with the words “salus in Platone” (“good health in Plato”). The basic conditions for
membership were erudition, moral probity and friendship with Ficino.

Marian Ciszewski,  Universal Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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Some will seek the limelight; I will seek the sublime light.

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Wilde’s “De Profundis”


A couple of posts ago I wrote a comparison of Emerson and Oscar Wilde and their takes on what constituted sin: “limitation” for Waldo, “stupidity” for Oscar.  At that time I speculated about whether the experience of being in prison would have changed Wilde’s chronic flippancy, and I’m both happy and sad to report that….well, it seems to have.  I’ve reread his De Profundis (From the Depths), and I would encourage you to do the same.  It is as many have noted a remarkable document, and despite some moments of self-pity and score-settling, he is shown as a man who painfully realizes the suffering he has brought upon himself, his family and his friends.

I must say to myself that I ruined myself, and that nobody great or small can be ruined except by his own hand. I am quite ready to say so. I am trying to say so, though they may not think it at the present moment. This pitiless indictment I bring without pity against myself. Terrible as was what the world did to me, what I did to myself was far more terrible still.

What he discovers through this experience is the value of suffering: “Where there is sorrow, there is holy ground.”  It, along with the strictures of prison life, pare the soul down to its essence, and can either make one permanently bitter, or opened up to a greater sense of self.  Wilde ultimately becomes one of the latter.

And the first thing that I have got to do is to free myself from any possible bitterness of feeling against the world.  I am completely penniless, and absolutely homeless. Yet there are worse things in the world than that. I am quite candid when I say that rather than go out from this prison with bitterness in my heart against the world, I would gladly and readily beg my bread from door to door.

What seems to change him is his loss of ego; not his individuality, but the sense that it’s all about me.  What makes the change is his discovery of humility.  To recall the topic of the last post, it is the letting go of the adjectives while keeping the noun.  “One cannot acquire it, except by surrendering everything that one has. It is only when one has lost all things, that one knows that one possesses it.”

I hope you will not settle for my quick recap here, but will get your own copy and read it attentively.  Its long passages on Christ will help you to see him in a new way, and the whole work will open your heart and renew your faith in Beauty.


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Adjectives and nouns


Are we confusing the two?  Are we thinking we “are” our descriptors?  Is it a ring of gold or gold in the shape of a ring?  Am I a white male or a human with light skin and penis?  What is the raw material from which humans are made?


The Sirens, by John Flaxman. From Wikimedia Commons.

As I’ve argued, Homer’s Odyssey can be seen as the process whereby Odysseus sheds all the adjectives and epithets that had become attached to him–“polytropos,” sacker of cities, cunning, resourceful, etc.–and becomes one again with his real self: his noun.  He does this by letting go of his past glories; hearing from Achilles in the underworld about the emptiness of kleos, weeping when he hears Demodokos sing of Troy, bearing up under the temptations of the sirens, and so on.  So it is with us.  Our adjectives are the identities with which we are born, really, whether from our sanskara or our genes, which we accept as givens and carefully nurture.  Our talents, preferences, tastes, sexual orientation, team affiliation.  Heart or head, cat person or dog person, left or right, materialist or idealist.  These are never really conscious choices–rather leanings we are born with, and then attempt to justify.  We can agree with the political, religious and social dogmas with which we are raised, or rebel against them.  But as with most of the academic analysis of the Odyssey–or any work for that matter–these are all just on the same plane.  Rearranging, or upgrading the furniture.

But we seldom observe the choices being made, since we are identified with mind that makes them.  So we pile on the adjectives, thinking we are becoming more complex, deeper, multifaceted, polytropos.  Meanwhile the observer, our noun itself, waits in the background for us to start letting go.  Waiting to lift the roof off the house.

Update 1/27: Just came across this video, which I think also makes the point.

Update 2/4: And came across this advice quoted in Bob Richardson’s book about Emerson’s writing process, First We Read, Then We Write: “Avoid adjectives.  Let the noun do the work.” (p. 35)  (Originally in Talks with Ralph Waldo Emerson by Charles J. Woodbury.  Also available online.)

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What am I?


What am I?  This is said to be “the master question of the philosopher.”  It’s also a category of riddles which is the closest most people get to thinking about the question.  But in a very real sense, it is the question we are on earth to answer, and until we do we will keep coming back–to earth and to the question.  Not “Who am I?”  That is too easily answered with all the adjectives we’ve come to associate with a particular body-mind-heart entity: name, gender, race, job, talents, etc.  “What am I?” forces you to go deeper, to something more essential.  Read complete page.

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Spirituality and the “Iliad”



Anton Mozart, “The Battle of Troy,” 1614 or 22.

In contrast to the Odyssey, for me there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of spiritual significance in the Iliad, unless you count degrees of conflict and division as significant.  As I pointed out in my book The Journey Back to Where You Are, “The Iliad is a description of a world–and a soul–at war.  It’s first word is menin, “rage,” or “wrath,” and that sets the tone for the whole poem.  It is a world ruled by anger and conflict.”  Aside from the overall conflict between the “Greeks” and the Trojans, there is constant bickering among the Greeks, from the opening scene of the conflict between Agamemnon and Achilles right on through.  There are of course moments of relative peace and reconciliation, but they are the exceptions.  The detente between Achilles and Priam that closes the work is of course just temporary, and we know what happens after that.

If anything, it seems to be a negative lesson: this is what happens when we submit to conflict, to our desire to be superior, to win.  It inevitably leads to the use of force, and as Simone Weil says,

The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad is force.  Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away.  In this work, at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relations with force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to.¹

In most ways, then, a taxonomy of the ego, and the opposite of a spiritual quest.  But lately I have come to appreciate that the overarching metaphor in the Iliad is that of the citadel under siege.  (To articulate the obvious, which is my own special skill.)  If we examine this metaphor more closely, we can see some lessons for resolving the conflicts within our own beings.

As humans, we seem to accept that we are a mass of contradictions: conflicting desires, isolated egos longing for connections, stealing–that is, taking as our own–that which is given to us.  The archetypal example of this is Agamemnon, who tells Achilles,

I care neither for you nor for your anger [kotos]; and thus will I do: since Phoebus Apollo is taking Khrysēis from me, I shall send her with my ship and my followers, but I shall come to your tent and [185] take your own beautiful prize Brisēis, that you may learn how much stronger I am than you are, and that another may fear to set himself up as equal or comparable with me.²  (1:183-189)

This is the ultimate in “do unto others before they do unto you,” the same kind of arrogance or hubris that is the downfall of all “superpowers.”  (Agamemnon of course does get his when he arrives home, but goes on making trouble in the Underworld.  See Odyssey 11:455)  Odysseus himself becomes infected with this hubris, and it is his work in the Odyssey to overcome it, shedding it piece by piece in the course of his return home (nostos).

We may think of ourselves as conflicted beings, but all spiritual teachings, including those of the Greeks, tell us that we are in fact the Being (ontotes) of Parmenides, the Boundless (apeiron) of Empedocles, the Good (Agathon) of Plato.  We are in truth more like Troy than we are like Agamemnon.  If you have ever had the feeling of unity, the “citadel-ness,” alluded to by these terms, even to a small extent, you’ll know what this means.  Physically, the body is still, upright yet relaxed.  Mentally, thoughts can be seen as they come and go.  Emotionally, desires are minimized or absent.  There is an overall feeling of well-being, harmony approaching bliss, that comes not from getting what we want, but from knowing who we are.  (Thou art That.)  We have the sense that we are part of a great saga (or epic poem) and are merely playing the part we’ve been given.  We can understand Alkinoos in the Odyssey when he says: The gods arranged all this and they wove the fate of doom for mortals so that future generations might have something to sing about. (8: 579-80)  We want nothing other than that all beings should feel such love.

And yet most of the time we do not have this understanding.  We are like Penelope, wanting to be constant and faithful to the prospect of reunification, but surrounded by suitors–thoughts and desires–who, whatever their apparent good traits, are united in trying to convince her that Odysseus is dead, that reunification is not possible, and she must choose one of them as a new husband, even as they go on “devouring (her) substance.”  They are in fact parasites.  We are constantly tempted by the suitors and usually do end up marrying one of them, “a baser man.”  (20:83)

Or in the context of our current metaphor, we are like the citadel of Troy that is under long-term siege by “baser men.”  (Sorry, fellow Greek-lovers.  The Greeks are usually thought of as the heroes of the Iliad, but in just about every respect they behave like barbarians.)  From what we learn of Troy, it was not unlike how Ithaka is described: a peaceful kingdom ruled by “a gentle father.” (Priam:Troy, Odysseus:Ithaka)  It is self-contained and serves as a beacon for civilized behavior, perhaps just a notch or two below the Phaeakians.  But then, as we might say today, “there is a disturbance in the Force.”  Specifically, Paris absconds with Helen, and the saga begins.  As Robert Lamberton says, Helen

is worldly beauty, the fragmented, imperfect copy of the form of the beautiful inhabiting the material world. The implication is that it is this beauty that entices souls (i.e., the Greeks) to leave their true home and to enter into a mode of existence for which war provides the most apt metaphor.³

We forget that there is a “form of the beautiful,” as Plato says, a “Beauty Absolute,” available to us all at all times.  It is this desire to own one manifestation of Beauty, to have it all for oneself, that is the cause of the fall from the state of grace.  (It must be said that it is this same desire that drives and corrupts much of the art world today.)  From there the events are inevitable: the Greeks must try to get Helen back, the Trojans must resist, the Greeks who cannot win by force must do so by deceit through the Trojan Horse.

So it is with our internal “Greeks.”  We may think we have held them off, that they have given up and are sailing away for good.  But then they sneak in and take over.  (Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.)

I’ve made it sound rather hopeless, but it’s not.  If “Ares is just, and kills those who kill,” Athena is also just and gives wisdom to those who wish to be wise. We are born with knowledge of the Good (the One), but we settle for the knowledge of good and evil (the two).   Wisdom does however require our constant attention and vigilance against anything we might let in that would diminish it, a continuous choice of the true over the untrue, the whole over the partial, of love over force.  It requires a continuous remembering (anamnesis) that what we are is in fact perfect.

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¹Simone Weil, The Iliad, or the Poem of Force, in War and the Iliad, New York Review Books, 2005, p. 3

²Homer, The Iliad, translated by Samuel Butler et. al., http://chs.harvard.edu/CHS/article/display/5286  (All other Iliad quotes are also from this translation.)

³ Robert Lamberton, Homer the Theologian: Neoplatonist Allegorical Reading and the Growth of the Epic Tradition, University of California, 1989. p. 200.


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Sin: Stupidity or Limitation? Discuss.


So this was the plan: I’d read somewhere (okay, actually it was a clue in the NY Times crossword puzzle) that Oscar Wilde had written “There is no sin except stupidity.”  Remembering Emerson’s dictum “The only sin is limitation,” I said to myself, “Aha!  Here is a good opportunity to contrast the universality of Emerson with the snarky phrase-making of Wilde, who evidently regards anyone with whom he does not agree as stupid.”  So opening up my trusty search engine, I found that the Wilde quote is from The Critic as Artist, with Some Remarks upon the Importance of Doing Nothing, which I then downloaded onto my Kindle and started scanning through to find the quote.  Which, as it turned out, was very near the end.  So I did actually start to read the work, and I must say that while it did not lessen my regard for Waldo, it did increase it for Oscar.  It is a serious manifesto arguing the need for beauty and the veneration of the creative act wherever it is found–even, perhaps especially, in criticism.  Another lesson for me against reading with an ulterior motive in mind.


Oscar Wilde. Undated albumen print by Napoleon Sarony. From Wikimedia Commons.

Wilde was very popular in his own time (1854-1900), but of course his life had a tragic arc.  Born into a well-to-do family in Dublin, he was very well educated and became a darling of London society before being prosecuted for “gross indecency” (read “homosexuality”) and sent to prison at hard labor–itself a crime from which he never recovered.  When released he moved to France and died in poverty at 46.  Today he is often seen as a caricature of a homosexual, and his penchant for long hair and languid poses did nothing to counteract that.  Perhaps because of lingering homophobia, he is not read much these days as far as I can tell, and the contemporaries whom he quotes–Cardinal Newman, Robert Browning, Walter Pater, Ernest Renan and others–are not much either.  But he also shows a familiarity with writers in the Ideal tradition: Homer, Plato of course, and Plotinus.  There is even a quote by Emerson, from The Over-Soul, “that great artists work unconsciously, that they are ‘wiser than they knew,’ as, I think, Emerson remarks somewhere.”¹  But the quote is put into the mouth of Ernest (pun no doubt intended) who serves as a rather feckless foil for the real views of Wilde who speaks in the voice of Gilbert.

It is, yes, presented as a Platonic dialogue between these two, with Ernest’s Phaedrus playing straight man (pun not intended) to Gilbert’s Socrates.  The dialogue is a literary device which Wilde uses self-consciously², and it makes his points rather more palatable than a conventional essay might.  The main points are conveniently summarized by Ernest near the end of it:

You have told me many strange things to-night, Gilbert.  You have told me that it is more difficult to talk about a thing than to do it, and that to do nothing at all the most difficult thing in the world; you have told me that all Art is immoral, and all thought dangerous; that criticism is more creative than creation, and that the highest criticism is that which reveals in the work of Art what the artist had not put there; that it is exactly because a man cannot do a thing that he is the proper judge of it; and that the true critic is unfair, insincere, and not rational.  My friend, you are a dreamer.

I won’t go through all of these arguments–read the work yourself–but it did get me thinking about the nature and role of the critic and the artist, between which, in Wilde’s view, there is no distinction.  All artists, he says, begin with some raw material and transform it into something new; the critic just starts with another work of art as his or her raw material.  The word “critic” come from the Greek word kritikos, related to “crisis,” and denotes judging or choosing between two paths. For me it brings to mind the “resourceful” Odysseus, as he makes his way home and constantly has to discriminate the right action at any given moment to achieve his nostos.

For Wilde, our nostos is a return to the world of beauty, the love of which he reminds us is what Plato called the true aim of education.  “Good” art is what brings us closer to that timeless world, expands our view, stirs our better feelings, and brings us to a state (from stasis) of “doing nothing.”  It will bring us to a condition of stillness:

Like the Persephone of whom Landor tells us, the sweet pensive Persephone around whose white feet the asphodel and amaranth are blooming, he will sit contented “in that deep, motionless quiet which mortals pity, and which the gods enjoy.”  He will look out upon the world and know its secret.  By contact with divine things he will become divine.  His will be the perfect life, and his only.

“Bad” art does the opposite; essentially it diminishes us. It is the sin Emerson speaks of as “limitation.”  In contrast, Wilde at one point says, “The world is made by the singer for the dreamer,” a phrase that evokes Alkinoos in the Odyssey, “The gods arranged all this, and they wove the fate of doom for mortals, so that future generations might have something to sing about.”  Life is the raw material of art.

How much his views were changed by his legal ordeal and imprisonment, I can’t say.  I’m planning to read De Profundis and/or The Ballad of Reading Gaol, which describe that experience, and I’ll write about that sometime in future.  But for now, we can hear Wilde speaking through Gilbert as he answers Ernest:

Gilbert: Yes, I am a dreamer.  For a dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.

Ernest: His punishment?

Gilbert: And his reward.


¹The quote in context is actually about our own ability to separate the true from the untrue in the literature we read: “In the book I read, the good thought returns to me, as every truth will, the image of the whole soul. To the bad thought which I find in it, the same soul becomes a discerning, separating sword, and lops it away. We are wiser than we know. If we will not interfere with our thought, but will act entirely, or see how the thing stands in God, we know the particular thing, and every thing, and every man. For the Maker of all things and all persons stands behind us, and casts his dread omniscience through us over things.”  (The Over-Soul) Wilde expressed admiration for Emerson (“I think Walt Whitman and [Ralph Waldo] Emerson have given the world more than anyone else”), and toured America in 1882, the year Emerson died, but they never met.  Wilde did, however, meet Whitman.

²”Dialogue, certainly, that wonderful literary form from which, from Plato to Lucian, and from Lucian to Giordano Bruno to that grand old pagan in whom Carlyle took such delight, the creative critics of the world have always employed, can never lose for the thinker its attraction as a mode of expression.”

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The Odyssey: A Dramatic Retelling of Homer’s Epic, by Simon Armitage


Another bargain-table find, this book was developed as a radio script and read on the BBC (where else??) in the summer of 2004.  (Note: the link takes you to the BBC page, but the play doesn’t seem to be available.)  I doubt that anyone who really loves the Odyssey will find much to love in this script, other than a few isolated passages of poetry.  As many of you know, I have my own interpretation, which would never come through in this adaptation.  Although Armitage acknowledges “taking a few liberties,” I’d say what he leaves out is more telling: the prophecy of Tireseas about planting the oar, the reunion with Laertes, the whole reconciliation at the end.  No doubt made for exciting radio drama–ironically, since the Odyssey was originally meant to be heard–but I’ll stick with the written version.

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