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 grahamhancock.com, 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


Odysseus on Scheria, weeping at the tales of Troy.  Francesco Hayez, 1791-1882

Odysseus on Scheria, weeping at the tales of Troy. Francesco Hayez, 1791-1882

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 facade 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

(Updated 1/2017)  I’ve come across some additional resources that might be useful, listed at the bottom.  Not strictly on Homer’s Odyssey (see The Ideal of the Odyssey) but they 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  http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0136

Some online courses and other resources:

The Heroic and the Anti-Heroic in Classical Greek Civilization, taught by Gregory Nagy, Harvard University, free  https://www.extension.harvard.edu/open-learning-initiative/ancient-greek-civilization

Greek and Roman Mythology, taught by Peter Struck, University of Pennsylvania, free  https://class.coursera.org/mythology-002/lecture/index

Introduction to Ancient Greek History, taught by Donald Kagan, Yale University, free http://oyc.yale.edu/classics/clcv-205

Odyssey of Homer, taught by Elizabeth Vandiver, The Great Courses, $90-$200 (I found a copy at my local library.)  http://www.thegreatcourses.com/tgc/courses/course_detail.aspx?cid=302

The Western Canon from Homer to Milton, taught by William Flesch, Brandeis University http://www.openculture.com/the_western_canon_from_homer_to_milton

Homeric Resources, University of Pennsylvania  http://www.classics.upenn.edu/myth/php/homer/index.php?page=sounds

Who’s Who in the Odyssey  http://mythagora.com/whoswho/odyssey.html

Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies  http://chs.harvard.edu/

Overview of Greek History, by Thomas R. Martin  http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0009

Tour of Greek art at Metropolitan Museum of Art  http://jjcweb.jjay.cuny.edu/history/making_objects_speak/index.php/the_odyssey/

Butler, Samuel.  The Authoress of the Odyssey  http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/aoto/

Ian Johnston’s Homepage, Vancouver Island University  http://records.viu.ca/~johnstoi/homer/odysseytofc.htm

The Centre for Odyssean Studies (Greece)  http://cods.upatras.gr/index.php/en/

Wikipedia’s list of Greek mythological figures: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Greek_mythological_figures

Mythological figures on Tarot cards: http://tarotprophet.com/greek-mythology-greek-gods-and-goddesses-on-tarot-cards/

Let me know if you have found others.


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What is


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

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The Return of the Hero


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

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

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

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

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

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

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Hierarchy v. Status


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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Ideal of Winter


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

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The Ideal of Introspection

The Ideal of Introspection

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

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

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

Link to the essay.

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The Ideal of Hierarchy

The Ideal of Hierarchy

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

Link to the essay.

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The Ideal of The Odyssey

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

Link to the essay.

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What you are….

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

 The Ideal of the Quest

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

Link to the essay.

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