“The cruel wretch vouchsafed me not one word of answer, but with a sudden clutch he gripped up two of my men at once and dashed them down upon the ground as though they had been puppies. Their brains were shed upon the ground, and the earth was wet with their blood. Then he tore them limb from limb and supped upon them. He gobbled them up like a lion in the wilderness, flesh, bones, marrow, and entrails, without leaving anything uneaten. As for us, we wept and lifted up our hands to heaven on seeing such a horrid sight, for we did not know what else to do; but when the Cyclops had filled his huge paunch, and had washed down his meal of human flesh with a drink of neat milk, he stretched himself full length upon the ground among his sheep, and went to sleep. I was at first inclined to seize my sword, draw it, and drive it into his vitals, but I reflected that if I did we should all certainly be lost, for we should never be able to shift the stone which the monster had put in front of the door. So we stayed sobbing and sighing where we were till morning came.
Long before there was a Fee, Fi, Fo or Fum, there was a man eating giant who terrorized young and old alike. The Cyclops of Homer, however, was at first not a terror of the page but rather the oral story. Epics, morality tales and historical fact and fiction each trace their western roots to a genius called Homer. His work stood on its own merit, but its true grandeur was in its effect on philosophy and religion.
As John Mark Reynolds wrote in The Great Books Reader:
Homer was so great that Greek culture became imaginatively captive to him. This was a good thing up to a point, because his works were spectacularly wise. They had limits, however, and when those were reached, the Greek religious establishment refused to change. Homer made powerful men slavish devotees of idols unfit for a free man’s worship.
Socrates died for his failure to defeat the Homeric idols, and even Plato could not remove Homer’s evils from the Western imagination. It fell to a Jewish rabbi named Paul to begin the process, on the Areopagus in Athens, centuries after Socrates died.
Was Homer’s work ultimately a positive or negative cultural influence?
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In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
John Mark Reynolds is the president of The Saint Constantine School, a school that aspires to preschool through college education. He is also a philosopher, administrator, and joyous curmudgeon. Reynolds was the founder and first director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He was provost at Houston Baptist University where he was instrumental in starting the graduate Apologetics program and a cinema and new media arts major. John Mark blogs at Eidos on the Patheos Evangelical platform and has written for First Things and the Washington Post. He is an owner of the Green Bay Packers.
D I G D E E P E R
Odysseus a Christian?
When Cyclops devours two of his men, Odysseus, their warrior leader, immediately is inclined to take revenge, draw his sword, and slay—or try to slay—the monster. But just at that moment, it is said, a different kind of spiritedness (heteros thymos) prevails. Odysseus realizes that if he kills Cyclops, he and his men will be unable to move the boulder that guards the entrance to the cave they’re in; they’ll be trapped forever. Odysseus’s restraint here is not an act of virtue but rather, under the circumstances, a completely pragmatic act.
A little later, Odysseus suffers a relapse. When he and his men are departing, he cannot keep himself from boasting to the now blinded Cyclops that it was he, Odysseus from Ithaca, who took his sight. Cyclops, provoked, hurls a boulder and almost destroys the ship. This boast is neither virtuous nor pragmatic, but foolish.
We are reminded of a similar foolishness in The Iliad by Achilles, the supposed best of the Achaians. As he is drawing his sword to slay Agamemnon, Athena comes down from Olympus and checks Achilles; she tells him to not draw his sword and to put aside his anger. Achilles does cease from drawing his sword but, in flagrant disregard of the command and the authority of the wise goddess, he does not put aside his anger, with terrible consequences developing.
Odysseus, on the other hand, eventually recovers from his failure and, by the end, has become transformed. When Athena commands Odysseus to cease from anger toward the kin of the slain suitors, “he yielded to her, and his heart was glad.” Thus, unlike Achilles, Odysseus shows a proper regard for wisdom. Furthermore, his gladness suggests that here his restraint is not only pragmatic but that of a virtuous man.
The first word of The Odyssey is “man” (andra). After all is said and done, it is Odysseus who’s the real man, and the best of the Achaians.
“I say unto you, that ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39). The response of he who is smitten is not at all pragmatic, but neither is mere self-restraint virtuous. Nor is it “goodness” simply not to seek revenge.
The only way the evil of smiting can be acknowledged is if it is not denied. And the only way it cannot be denied is if it is affirmed. Offering the other cheek, therefore, is a denial of the goodness of retaliation, of “getting even.” Getting even is not just; it is the repetition and increase of evil.
On the other hand, offering the other cheek is the ending of any further evil. It too is a “different kind of spiritedness,” where the virtue of not getting even prevails over evening the score.
What Odysseus refrained from doing was the manly thing to do. But it was also the Christian thing.
Al Geier, PhD, is an associate professor of Classics at the University of Rochester and is the author of Plato’s Erotic Thought: The Tree of the Unknown.
John Mark Reynolds, The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2011).