Geoffrey Chaucer: Middle Ages (1343–1400)

THE CANTERBURY TALES
The Franklin’s Tale
The Prologue

“In faith, Squier, thou hast thee well acquit,
And gentilly; I praise well thy wit,”
Quoth the Franklin; “considering thy youthe
So feelingly thou speak’st, Sir, I aloue thee,
As to my doom, there is none that is here
Of eloquence that shall be thy peer,
If that thou live; God give thee goode chance,
And in virtue send thee continuance,
For of thy speaking I have great dainty.
I have a son, and, by the Trinity;
It were me lever than twenty pound worth land,
Though it right now were fallen in my hand,
He were a man of such discretion
As that ye be: fy on possession,
But if a man be virtuous withal.
I have my sone snibbed and yet shall,
For he to virtue listeth not t’intend,
But for to play at dice, and to dispend,
And lose all that he hath, is his usage;
And he had lever talke with a page,
Than to commune with any gentle wight,
There he might learen gentilless aright.”

“Straw for your gentillesse!” quoth our Host.
“What? Frankelin, pardie, Sir, well thou wost
That each of you must tellen at the least
A tale or two, or breake his behest.”
“That know I well, Sir,” quoth the Frankelin;
“I pray you have me not in disdain,
Though I to this man speak a word or two.”
“Tell on thy tale, withoute wordes mo’.”
“Gladly, Sir Host,” quoth he, “I will obey
Unto your will; now hearken what I say;
I will you not contrary in no wise,
As far as that my wittes may suffice.
I pray to God that it may please you,
Then wot I well that it is good enow.

“These olde gentle Bretons, in their days,
Of divers aventures made lays,
Rhymeden in their firste Breton tongue;
Which layes with their instruments they sung,
Or elles reade them for their pleasance;
And one of them have I in remembrance,
Which I shall say with good will as I can.
But, Sirs, because I am a borel man,
At my beginning first I you beseech
Have me excused of my rude speech.
I learned never rhetoric, certain;
Thing that I speak, it must be bare and plain.
I slept never on the mount of Parnasso,
Nor learned Marcus Tullius Cicero.
Coloures know I none, withoute dread,
But such colours as growen in the mead,
Or elles such as men dye with or paint;
Colours of rhetoric be to me quaint;
My spirit feeleth not of such mattere.
But, if you list, my tale shall ye hear.”


We know little of the personal life of Geoffrey Chaucer.  The extant records show him to be both skilled and versatile, but we can only divine his character from his work.  He translated Boethius’  In Consolation of Philosophy into English, which apparently shaped his worldview, but his Canterbury Tales reveal a man more interested in savoring the journey of daily life than the arrival into perfect heaven.

In his book, The Great Books Reader, John Mark Reynolds, said the following:

Chaucer, like Homer, writes about a journey, but as a Christian he has a different goal. Homer wanted to go home, but Chaucer’s pilgrims want a piece of man’s true home: paradise. The pilgrim is heading for a piece of heaven on earth, the shrine with its relics, but he must pass through the cities of man and through the wilderness.

Homer’s hero, Odysseus, is a storyteller, and so are Chaucer’s pilgrims. Homer’s stories bring him glory, but the stories of the pilgrims entertain and educate men on the Way. Chaucer is a pioneer of edutainment, and no story in Canterbury Tales is so bawdy as to lack a moral—even if a mistaken one.

 

Is your focus more on your present journey, your past or your destination?

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John 1:1

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


On Idealism and Limitations

Diane Vincent

Happily-ever-after is where “The Franklin’s Tale” begins. Hardly thirty lines are devoted to Arveragus and Dorigen’s embodiment of late-medieval romantic ideals: the lady’s beauty and nobility, the knight’s many quests and feats, his long suffering of love-pangs and devoted service to her, and finally her realization of his worth and pity for him.

Once married, Dorigen and Arveragus attempt to keep some of the core romantic ideals of the medieval code of courtly love in conjugal love. Arveragus, freely and unprompted, promises to remain her lover insofar as he rejects the “mastery” often thought the husband’s due and promises instead to continue his service of his beloved by following Dorigen’s will in all things. She, in response to his generosity, pledges to be his true wife, who will never willfully grieve him. Their marriage is established not by a contract or exchange of services—though we do see such a contract define the relationship between Aurelius and the magician—but by the utterly gratuitous gift of the lover and the free response of his beloved.

Thus, as the Franklin comments, Arveragus succeeds in having both his lady and his love. By contrast, that famous medieval lover Lancelot could only ever have his love, since Guenevere was Arthur’s lady, and while he may be praised for his devotion to her, his passion could only ever attain to the temporary fulfillment of sex, rather than the lasting union of a happy marriage.

Elsewhere in The Canterbury Tales, too, romantic idealism does not fare well. We laugh or cry over the pilgrims’ cynical views of marriage, in which any mutual love has disappeared and one spouse dominates or deceives the other. But the Franklin emphasizes repeatedly that Dorigen and Arveragus are faithful spouses and passionately devoted lovers. Their ability to remain lovers and spouses is, in part, what the tale puts to the test. And as much as the plot of “The Franklin’s Tale” relies on exaggeration and elements of fantasy, the lovers’ endeavor to translate their romance into their married life had real-life implications, because the behavior of English lovers was actually influenced by the ideals of the courtly lover’s humble service and courtesy as well as of the ennobling power of love.

Of course, the best way to test the romance of a marriage is to send one spouse away for a long time (and include the risk of death for good measure) and to present the other with a seemingly perfect substitute lover. In Aurelius, we have all the outward trappings of the ideal courtly lover. He sings and dances better than any man alive (ever). He is also the handsomest man alive, young, rich, strong, popular, a prolific poet, and, conveniently, a near neighbor. Like Lancelot, he goes mad when rejected and is willing to sacrifice everything to attain his lady. “A servant in the game of Venus,” he is love-sick, without question, but it’s also clear that love is a game—however deadly—that he’s playing.

His rhetoric is almost perfect, but beneath the veneer of courtesy he reveals the churlish heart he only owns up to later. Chaucer is careful to make it clear that Aurelius only achieves the illusion of satisfying Dorigen’s condition, just as he only achieves a barely coherent illusion of humble service when he confronts Dorigen with his claim on her. “You know what you promised. Not that I challenge anything of you by right, sovereign lady, but by your grace” is a far cry from Arveragus’s gift of freedom to her. Aurelius’s shallow commitment to courtly love only becomes ennobling when he gives up the vulgar passion that had lain hidden beneath the elegant flourishes of love’s game. What’s more, in renouncing his ill-gotten power to constrain Dorigen’s affection, he gives himself the gift of freedom from Venus’s rule, from the passion that has been dominating his life for years to his detriment, to the sorrow of his brother, and to the deep distress of Dorigen and Arveragus.

Though a far nobler lover than Aurelius, Dorigen also suffers from play of courtly love. It is when the scene is set for love—after a jolly dance in a garden in the springtime of Love—that she playfully adds the impossible task to her refusal of Aurelius’s advances. She intends her words to reinforce her emphatic rejection of his plea, since she knows her condition “will never happen.” But by rhetorically playing Venus’s game and giving the lover an impossible quest to achieve, she has implicitly agreed to abide by Venus’s rules.

As much as her marriage to Arveragus successfully realizes the ideals of courtly love—service, humility, faithfulness in spite of suffering, and generosity—their marriage is no game. Dorigen understands and embraces the exclusive claims of conjugal love, but her careless play puts her in the impossible bind of having to choose between honor of word and honor of body. Her dilemma is impossible not only because failing in “truth” attends either choice, but also because it is precisely in conjugal love that honor of word and body are inextricably linked; to lose either is to lose both, and thereby to lose herself.

No wonder death is such an attractive option. Though we might protest that such an empty vow couldn’t be binding, no one in the tale rejects its force. That ultimately her truth can be preserved only in the context of forgiveness shows the limits of our ability to speak and fulfill the truth of our words. Our promises, even when freely and consciously made, are subject to our limitations as much as to our wills.

———

What makes Geoffrey Chaucer such compelling reading is his creation of a riveting conversation between the ideal and the everyday: can Dorigen and Arveragus remain lovers and spouses when confronted with not just their temptations but also with their limitations? Such tensions are the root of much of Chaucer’s well-known, and often biting, satire, but it’s likewise the root of his insight into human relationships.

Here, in “The Franklin’s Tale,” we see the ennobling pursuit of an ideal lived out in the strains and trials that the world can place on even the most ideal of relationships. While it may be hard to be faithfully married to an ideal, it’s impossible to stay passionately married without one. Arveragus’s generosity to Dorigen and to Aurelius, though shocking, is as he says, “well-paid,” and not only by the faithful love of his wife and by Aurelius’s sacrifice. More than that, he is well-paid insofar as his and Dorigen’s pursuit of a passionate conjugal love offers a chance for a boorish faker to abandon Venus’s empty game and finally begin to become a noble man.

Diane Vincent, PhD, is an assistant professor of Medieval Literature at Biola University’s Torrey Honors Institute.

John Mark Reynolds, The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2011).

 

And We Will Come Back Home; Home Again by Josh Herring

A Meditation on Home in Three Great Books and a Film

 

Josh Herring

What a fascinating year 2018 has already turned out to be. Cosby’s conviction still makes my heart simultaneously sing and cringe; North and South Korea are about to sign a peace treaty? Have we slipped into an alternate reality? If I were writing the screenplay of the 21st century, perhaps this first quarter of 2018 would serve as a balancing act to the rough scene that would have been 2017. Contemporary moments and the current news cycle are, at their best, fleeting. Perhaps tomorrow we will awaken to more news about why the world is terrible. In terms of literature, reading contemporary authors rather resembles the roller coaster that is the the news cycle: authors come and go, and their momentary fame may or may not indicate a significant author who is worth the time investment to study his work.

The books John Mark Reynolds names as “Great Books,” however, are something different. They stand above the faddishness of what publishers think will sell today, and they speak to each generation with a fresh voice. The messages and themes of the Great Books function as a sort of eternal conversation between the living and dead; such themes appear in contemporary works as well, and when we are aware of the previous conversation, their reappearance hits us with greater power. To illustrate this claim, I want to briefly survey the longing for home in three Great Books (The Odyssey, The Bible, and The Aeneid) and then examine the same theme in the recent film The Greatest Showman. By immersing ourselves in the conversation which connects the living and dead, we are able to contribute to this conversation in our contemporary moment.

Homer’s greatest poem tells the tale of that “man of winding ways” and his journey home. Above all else, Odysseus longs to return home. After ten years fighting Troy, he turns towards his beloved Ithaca. Along the way, he tells us, he met with continual misfortune. A gift from Aeolus, god of winds, blew him and his men to the shore of Ithaca; his men then opened the bag and released the winds which drove them across the sea. Odysseus escaped the cyclop’s lair, only to brag to blind Polyphemus that “It was Oddysseus” who speared his single eye; Polyphemus’ rage resulted in sea-god Poseidon’s active work against Odysseus’ return. Alone, shipwrecked, and naked, the king of Ithaca begged for help from the king and queen of Phaeacia. At long last, twenty years after leaving home, the king returned. Home, however, is not just a physical location for Odysseus. It is also a person: his queen, Penelope. Reunited with his queen and his son in his land, Odysseus has finally reached his destination. The Odyssey is a great adventure tale, and it depicts us, the hearers and the readers, as humanity searching for our home. Home is not reached quickly or easily; many dangers, distractions, and distances must be overcome to achieve the goal. But home is where happiness and flourishing reside, Homer shows us, and as such is a worthwhile goal for human beings.

Half the fun of reading through a list of Great Books lies in the internal contradictions such books contain. Homer fits squarely within the enchanted, mythological reality of the Greek imagination. The Bible does not; it claims to describe the real world, and occasionally pulls back the theological curtain to show us God’s purposes behind the mundane world. Home is an active question considered in Scripture. We first meet humanity in paradise, where home is a sinless physical existence with Man and Woman dwelling in the presence of God as fully alive human beings. After sin, however, Genesis depicts human life as being in “the wilderness.” The life of humanity involves seeking to recreate home in the wilderness; cities, nations, kings, peasants, men, women, and children all long for that first home, but cannot return. Jesus speaks to this desire when he told his disciples, “I come to bring life, and that more abundantly.” Jesus came not to establish an earthly kingdom, but to restore the life which had been yielded to the domain of sin. The biblical canon concludes with a picture of restored human living. John’s Revelation does not show disembodied souls floating on Hallmark clouds, but rather humans living on a “new earth” which has been joined with the “new heavens” through the descent of the “new Jerusalem.” Under the benevolent rule of Jesus, humanity finds their true home. The Bible shows us a current picture of home, where the Church becomes the foreshadow of our future reality. One day, we will live together in harmony without sin; in this world, while we “have troubles,” we also have a foretaste of the peace which is coming.

Writing just before the birth of Christ, Virgil took the question of home and extended it into the narrative of the exile. Aeneas and his Trojans have suffered the worst fate: they witnessed the utter destruction of their city by their dishonourable foes. The gods have promised a future home, but Aeneas and his men must find and build it. The Aeneid is less a tale of tricks and cleverness and more a story of hope denied. Three times Aeneas tried to build his city, and three times the gods rejected his efforts. He seemed to find everything he and his men could need with Dido in Carthage, but the gods called him onwards (to Dido’s dismay). By the conclusion, Aeneas and his men had built Alba Longa and received the prophecy that one day Romulus and Remus would build the greatest city, for which “no limits” would be set. Virgil died with The Aeneid incomplete, but his narrative contains the beginnings of a new home for the exiled Trojans. Virgil displays the world as having all the necessary components for home, but home depends on humanity’s ingenuity. Home is what we make in the world.

In these three Great Books, home is a substantial theme. Contemplating them calls us to consider the question of home in our own day. The study of Great Books is not content to remain in ancient days, but equips us to better examine the contemporary moment in which God has placed us. The Greatest Showman contains a beautiful exploration of home which resonates with humanity of the 21st century. P.T. Barnum (played by Hugh Jackman) creates his circus by recruiting unusual humans for his acts: the strong man, the bearded woman, the midget, the tightrope walker, and so on. Over the course of the film, Barnum is sucked into the politically advantageous world of the cultural elite; the climax of the film occurs in the song “From Now On” where Barnum repents of his pride. For these unusual human beings, the circus had become their home. For them, this was the place where they were celebrated for who they are; the mockery and fear of the crowds transformed into admiration and amazement under the circus lights. By the conclusion of the film, The Greatest Showman turned from a (possibly fictional) biopic into a meditation on home for those previously shunned by humanity. As the viewers, our hearts sing with theirs in the lyrics: “And we will come back home! Home again! And we will come back home! Home again!” The reopening of the circus is the return to their home. The emotional depths of The Greatest Showman are best expressed in this song, and reveals that the circus became something more; far from a crass exploitation of the strange, Barnum created a way for those who had never experienced it to discover the home they lacked.

It is easy to focus on the present needs, events, and ideas. Reading a list of “great books” expands out perspective; such a project draws us out of ourselves and reminds us that we are the latest in many generations to ponder and answer significant questions. Suddenly, the new book, film, or song grows in importance because it is contributing to an intergenerational conversation about an idea which unifies mankind. Such a project helps to connect the living with dead, and better equip us with their wisdom; along the way, we become more human.

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John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Josh Herring is a Humanities Instructor at Thales Academy, a graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Hillsdale College, and a doctoral student in Faulkner University’s Great Books program. He has written for Moral Apologetics, The Imaginative Conservative, Think Christian, and The Federalist; he loves studying the intersection of history, literature, theology, and ideas expressed in the complexities of human life.

Aristotle: Classical Greek (384–322 BC)

NICOMACHEAN ETHICS
Books I & II

I.7

Let us again return to the good we are seeking, and ask what it can be. It seems different in different actions and arts; it is different in medicine, in strategy, and in the other arts likewise. What then is the good of each? Surely that for whose sake everything else is done. In medicine this is health, in strategy victory, in architecture a house, in any other sphere something else, and in every action and pursuit the end; for it is for the sake of this that all men do whatever else they do. Therefore, if there is an end for all that we do, this will be the good achievable by action, and if there are more than one, these will be the goods achievable by action.

. . . Since there are evidently more than one end, and we choose some of these (e.g. wealth, flutes, and in general instruments) for the sake of something else, clearly not all ends are final ends; but the chief good is evidently something final. Therefore, if there is only one final end, this will be what we are seeking, and if there are more than one, the most final of these will be what we are seeking. Now we call that which is in itself worthy of pursuit more final than that which is worthy of pursuit for the sake of something else, and that which is never desirable for the sake of something else more final than the things that are desirable both in themselves and for the sake of that other thing, and therefore we call final without qualification that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else.

Now such a thing happiness, above all else, is held to be; for this we choose always for itself and never for the sake of something else, but honour, pleasure, reason, and every virtue we choose indeed for themselves . . . but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, judging that by means of them we shall be happy. Happiness, on the other hand, no one chooses for the sake of these, nor, in general, for anything other than itself.


In less than thirteen years, a young man named Alexander conquered every kingdom between Greece and Egypt, defeated the Persian army and created an empire that stretched all the way to India.  In his masterful book The Written World, Martin Puchner argues that his success was due in part to a book he kept under his pillow – a copy of Homer’s Iliad annotated by hand by Aristotle, his teacher.  He was said to have been buried with this treasure.  Perhaps the annotations were too subtle for Alexander to see what Dante realized: He was, quite simply, “il maestro di color che sanno— master of those who know” (Dante’s encomium to Aristotle in Inferno IV: 131).

Aristotle would have lamented his student’s eventual end.  In his book The Great Books Reader, John Mark Reynolds said:

Aristotle’s student, Alexander, became “the Great” in the eyes of history but not by the standards of Aristotle. Alexander was good at everything he tried except flourishing as a man. Conquering the world turned out to be easier for the godlike Alexander than vanquishing his inner demons and learning to control his excesses and passions.

The Ethics would have prevented Alexander’s failure as a man, if he had been willing to listen to his teacher’s ethics. Aristotle would have pointed his brilliant student to mastery of the soul instead of mastery of nations. The teacher assumed the superiority of the small community for human happiness, but Alexander preferred grandiose palaces and great empires. Aristotle urged men to be moderate; Alexander lived large.

Is moderation always superior?

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John 1:1

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


Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

Jeff Lehman

One of the founders of Western philosophy, Aristotle wrote many treatises on a wide variety of topics, including natural science, poetics, rhetoric, logic, and philosophy. Among these works, his Nicomachean Ethics has had a profound and enduring influence upon ethical reasoning in the Western tradition, as well as an incalculable influence on Christian moral thought in particular.

Like Socrates and Plato before him, Aristotle understood the moral life to consist in caring for one’s soul. He sought to answer fundamental moral questions: What is the purpose of life? How do we become good? How do we determine what is right in any given situation? Aristotle’s account is no ivory-tower philosophy, removed from common experience; rather, he engages our moral common sense from the beginning and uses it to come to solid, real-world conclusions about how we ought to live.

Aristotle begins the Ethics by determining the highest human good. In other words, what do we desire always for its own sake and never as a means to something else? He contends that man’s highest good is eudaimonia, a Greek word typically translated “happiness.” While this rendering is adequate, however, we should bear in mind that Aristotle’s essential meaning is “complete well-being” or “human flourishing.”

Now, while all people tend to agree that happiness is the highest good, there is certainly disagreement over that in which happiness consists. Is it pleasure? Honor? Wealth? Something else? In order to answer, Aristotle identifies man’s “function”—i.e., the activity that is proper to his nature. The specific difference of human nature, or what distinguishes him from other species, is his rationality. Thus, happiness must consist in rational activity, which involves both knowing and choosing.

Aristotle defines happiness as “the activity of the soul in accordance with [complete] virtue.” By “virtue” he means human excellence; since rational activity, again, involves both knowing and choosing, there are both intellectual and moral virtues.

After establishing the general context in Book I, Aristotle gives a more detailed account of moral virtue in Book II. A moral virtue is a deliberately chosen habit that’s typically a “mean” between “extremes” of excess and deficiency; for example, the virtue of courage is the mean between the vices of rashness and cowardice. So, for Aristotle, it’s not enough simply to act in accordance with reason once in a while. We must cultivate habits of virtue that develop into a firmly established moral character over a lifetime.

Furthermore, Aristotle is convinced that perfect moral virtue is difficult to acquire, at least in part because many particulars must be considered. As he puts it, “Anyone can get angry; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for every one, nor is it easy.”

After spending the first half of Book III arguing that we’re responsible for those actions we voluntarily choose, Aristotle begins an account of specific moral virtues (starting with courage and temperance) that continues through Books IV and V; he takes up intellectual virtues, such as wisdom, art, and prudence, in Book VI.

In Book VII, Aristotle addresses the reality of moral weakness in the struggle to do what is right. Unlike the Socrates of Plato’s dialogues, Aristotle does not view moral failure as simply an intellectual mistake; even if we know what’s right, we may still fail to do it. He concludes Book VII with a discussion of pleasure.

Books VIII and IX concern friendship, which Aristotle considers necessary for happiness. He identifies two imperfect kinds of friendship—those of pleasure and of utility—and a perfect kind, a friendship of virtue. In Book X he returns to a treatment of pleasure and then concludes by making a new claim regarding happiness, namely that the happiness involved in the life of contemplation is superior to the happiness of an active life. This is not to say, however, that the active life is unnecessary. We must live with others, and the life of moral virtue is an indispensable part of happiness.

———

Nicomachean Ethics is one of the few “great books” that’s always near the top of anyone’s list. Given its influence on the Western tradition, reading the Ethics is essential to understanding the Great Conversation that continues to unfold through the centuries. And as for Christian moral reasoning, there is certainly no other work by a non-Christian author that has had so profound an impact on the way we think about morality.

The Ethics is filled with pearls of ethical wisdom and provides a detailed, orderly account of what happiness is and how to pursue it. It’s also invaluable for the questions it provokes: Is Aristotle’s account of moral failure adequate? How does the difficulty of attaining virtue, of which he speaks, point to original sin (a primeval wounding of human nature) and to our need for grace to help us become good? Is his general account of human happiness true, as far as it goes? Is the contemplative life superior to the active life? How does the happiness of which Aristotle speaks relate to the happiness the Christian desires to enjoy in heaven?

Jeffrey S. Lehman is a tutor at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California. He is also a fellow of the Center for Thomas More Studies and holds a PhD in philosophy from the Institute of Philosophic Studies at the University of Dallas.

John Mark Reynolds, The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2011).

Homer: Ancient Greek (c. 850 BC)

THE ODYSSEY
Book IX

“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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John 1:1

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?

Al Geier

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).