– 10th Century BC –
Western civilization is the merging of two streams of culture — the Judaic and the Greek. Follow the Greek river back all the way to its source, and you will find Homer. It was upon Homer’s epic poems about the siege of Troy and the journeys of Odysseus that Greek learning and philosophy were built.
This claim will seem dubious at first. Homer’s epics were about a bunch of warriors waging war and going on fantastical journeys. How can a few adventure stories prove so important to a people? They weren’t even historically accurate. They did not contain religious doctrines or rituals, nor did they contain philosophical discussions.
Nevertheless, Homer is quoted by both Plato and Aristotle far more frequently than any other poet or classic author. Even today, he remains one of the most popular sources of epic stories. We’ve all heard of the Trojan horse, of the beautiful but deadly Sirens, of the heal of Achilles. But Homer wasn’t the only storyteller in ancient Greece. Why did the Greek philosophers quote him more than Hesiod — who wrote out entire cosmic mythologies — or any other of the poets they occasionally mention?
The key to understanding Homer’s importance for Greece can be found, for example, in Plutarch’s biography of Lycurgus, the founder of Sparta. Though it was Athens that brought Greek culture to its highest point in the 4th century BC, it was Sparta that gave birth to Greece as a culture in the first place, beginning with the creation of the Spartan constitution by Lycurgus in the 9th century BC.
Homer, teller of adventure stories, was in fact pivotal in the reforms of Lycurgus, and in the diffusion through Greece of the ideals of equality, valor, and temperance. In short, Homer — through Lycurgus — civilized Greece.
It’s worth looking at Plutarch’s account, in his biography of Lycurgus, of how this happened. In one place Plutarch says that “some are so particular as to say that he [Lycurgus] had seen him [Homer].” Later Plutarch tells that many Spartans wanted to see Lycurgus made king, and fearing the violent jealousy of his rivals,
he thought it his wisest course to avoid their envy by voluntary exile, and to travel from place to place until his nephew came to marriageable years …; he first arrived at Crete, where … some of their laws he very much approved of, and resolved to make use of them in his own country ….
From Crete he sailed to Asia [meaning Ionia, the modern coast of Turkey]. Here he had first sight of Homer’s works … and, having observed that the few loose expressions and actions of ill example which are to be found in his poems were much outweighed by serious lessons of state and rules of morality, he set himself eagerly to transcribe and digest them into order, as thinking they would be of good use in his own country. They had, indeed, already obtained some slight repute amongst the Greeks, and scattered portions, as chance conveyed them, were in the hands of individuals; but Lycurgus first made them really known.
Serious lessons of state? Rules of morality? Here is Homer on virtue, as quoted in Plato:
Virtue is the desire of things honorable and the power of attaining them.
Homer on compassion:
‘Though a still poorer man should come here,’ said Eumaeus, ‘it would not be right for me to insult him, for all strangers and beggars are from Zeus.’
Be kind to him, for strangers and foreigners in distress are under the protection of Zeus.
Homer on leadership:
Servants live in fear when they have young lords for their masters.
Homer on courage:
Odysseus said, ‘I will fight three hundred men if you, goddess, will be with me.’
On the corrupting influence of knowledge:
‘No one has ever sailed past us without staying to hear the enchanting sweetness of our music,’ sang the Sirens, ‘and he who listens will go on his way not only charmed, but wiser, for we know all the ills that the gods laid upon the Argives and Trojans before Troy, and can tell you everything that is going to happen over the whole world.’
On the danger of temptation:
If anyone unwarily draws in too close and hears the singing of the Sirens, his wife and children will never welcome him home again, for they sit in a green meadow and warble him to death with the sweetness of their song. There is a great heap of dead men’s bones lying all around, with the flesh still rotting off them.
There is nothing better in this world than that a man and wife should be of one mind in a house. It discomfits their enemies, makes the hearts of their friends glad, and they themselves savvy it best.
On the unfathomability of reality:
What mortal tongue indeed could tell the whole story?
Sons are seldom as good men as their fathers; they are generally worse, not better.
On honesty and diligence:
Odysseus never broke his word nor left a task half done.
On honoring your parents:
It is a wise child that knows his own father.
‘See now,’ said Zeus, ‘how men lay blame on us gods for what is after all nothing but their own folly.’
Homer’s works are both entertaining and edifying. Most of the interactions among his characters are charged with ideals of honor, respect, valor, equality, and temperance. Homer’s stories set the standard for courtly manners and noble behavior in Greece for centuries.
This is the power of literature. In modern times, those of us who have “read novels” (meaning classic novels) can often find each other merely by watching mannerisms. You can tell when someone has been shaped by Austen or Conrad rather than Sex and the City or Archer, just by the way they treat others.
Imitation is the most fundamental mode of learning, and whatever you spend your time reading (or watching) — that is what will ultimately enculturate you — that is what you will ultimately become. Homer set an unprecedented image of courage, respect, and honesty before Greece — and Greece was brought to an unprecedented level of courage, respect, and honesty.
These are the abiding roots of Western civilization. Know them, and share their nearly-immortal evolutionary strength. Forget them, and posterity will almost surely forget you in turn.