Meeting Homer Again for the First Time


Thomas Farrell

OpEd News: January 7, 2015

Adam Nicolson’s new book WHY HOMER MATTERS (2014) is deeply informed and accessible. Nicolson characterizes the imagined Trojan War as a conflict between a heroic warrior culture dating back to the Bronze Age (the Greeks under Agamemnon) against the city-culture represented by the Trojans. But Nicolson brings this imagined conflict to new life by likening the loose Greek confederation of forces to street gangs today.


The Renaissance humanists encouraged the study of the three classical languages: Greek, Hebrew, and Latin. But Latin was studied far more than Greek — or Hebrew. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams are among Americans who knew Greek. However, Hellenism never became as prominent in American culture as it did in British culture and in European culture over the centuries. We Americans should be thankful for this.

As part of his British formal education, Adam Nicolson, the grandson of Sir Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West, studied Greek. Vita Sackville-West was Virginia Woolf’s friend and perhaps her lover as well. In any event, Virginia Woolf deeply regretted that as a woman she was excluded from studying at Cambridge University, where her brother had matriculated — and where Adam Nicolson also matriculated at a later time. However, with the assistance of tutors, Virginia Woolf studied Greek to a certain extent, as Theodore Koulouris explains in his book HELLENISM AND LOSS IN THE WORK OF VIRGINIA WOOLF (2011).

The theme of loss is also a prominent part of Adam Nicolson’s clear-sighted book WHY HOMER MATTERS (2014). For example, Nicolson claims that the Homeric epics about the imagined Trojan War are “driven by the demands of grief” (page 5). He characterizes Achilles’ grief as “the lunacy of grief over Patroclus’s death” (page 149). He also says that Achilles on his killing rampage is driven by his being “grief-mad from the death of Patroclus” (page 199).

Toward the end of the text of his book, Nicolson rounds off his discussion of grief in various places throughout his book by saying that “the ability [of Homer in both Homeric epics, the ILIAD and the ODYSSEY] to regard all aspects of life with clarity, equanimity and sympathy, with a loving heart and an unclouded eye . . . is his value, a reservoir of understanding beyond the grief” (pages 244, 245).

No doubt men and women today who participate in wars and see their comrades in arms die need to allow themselves later on to experience grief and mourn their losses.

No doubt all of us have experienced losses in our lives due to the deaths of loved ones, as Virginia Woolf experienced at a young age. In addition, all of us have experienced non-death losses that we should also mourn in a healthy way.

Even though Nicolson does not come right out and say that the Homeric epics can serve to encourage people to mourn their various losses in life, he seems to intimate that they can do this — and might have done this for the ancient people who listened to them and participated imaginatively in the actions been described.

This possibility is intimated by Nicolson’s combined emphasis on audience participation in the oral presentations of the Homeric epics and on the sense of immediacy of the poetry on these two epics (pages 2, 8, 30, 31, 32, 92, 227, 246).

Nicolson’s emphasis on the sense of immediacy in these two epics dovetails nicely with Walter J. Ong’s characterization of the world-as-event sense of life in primary oral cultures, and in residual forms of primary oral cultures. See Ong’s article “World as View and World as Event” in the journal the AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST, volume 71, number 4 (August 1969): pages 634-647.

Moreover, what Nicolson refers to as the sense of immediacy in the Homeric epics dovetails with what C. G. Jung refers to as active imagination that activates images and imagery from the collective unconscious. Of course each Homeric epic begins with an invocation of the Muse. Each Homeric epic is inspired by the Muse. So it may not be a stretch to associate inspiration by the Muse with the collective unconscious. A selection of Jung’s writings about active imagination can be found in the book JUNG ON ACTIVE IMAGINATION, edited and introduced by Joan Chodorow (1997).

Jung’s view of active imagination is not inconsistent with the view of Homer that the character named Socrates voices in Plato’s REPUBLIC: “There is no invention in him [Homer] until he has been inspird [by the Muse] and is out of his senses, and the [conscious] mind is no longer in him” (quoted by Nicolson, page 33).

Closely related to Nicolson’s theme about the immediacy of the Homeric epics is his theme about their deep retrospective orientation (pages 4, 55, 64, 65, 245-246). Despite their deep retrospective orientation, he claims that they are not nostalgic or sentimental.

In Ong’s book INTERFACES OF THE WORD: STUDIES IN THE EVOLUTION OF CONSCIOUSNESS AND CULTURE (1977), he also discusses retrospectivity (posteriority) in literature, which he connects with nostalgia (pages 240-244). In the same essay Ong says, “The way material anterior to the ILIAD and the ODYSSEY is incorporated into these poems leaves such material hardly any discernible historical base of its own to stand on” (pages 252-253).

Exactly! The ILIAD and the ODYSSEY are constructed in mythic time and space, not in historical time and space. As I indicated above, the Trojan War is an imagined war. No siege of a city in the ancient world could have possibly lasted nearly ten years. And within the mythical time and space of the ILIAD and the ODYSSEY, Nicolson claims, they are presented with a sense of imaginative immediacy, as though they were happening in historical time and space.

Even though Nicolson does not happen to mention the collective unconscious, he says that the ODYSSEY “is not a poem about ‘then’ and ‘there,’ but ‘now’ and ‘here'” (page 8).

In addition, Nicolson says, “These [Homeric] epic poems may enshrine the past, but they exist in a radiant present and in that way are hymns to present being” (page 246).

Now, about a half century ago, in the book PREFACE TO PLATO (1963), the classicist Eric A. Havelock argued that the Homeric epics, the ILIAD and the ODYSSEY, functioned in the pre-literate culture of ancient Greece a tribal encyclopedia (pages 61-86). Lest Havelock’s use of “encyclopedia” be misunderstood as referring to modern printed encyclopedias, he clarifies what he means by a tribal encyclopedia:

“The metaphor which describes Homer as a tribal encyclopedia is in fact loose if we use the term encyclopedia in that book sense which is proper to it [i.e., our modern printed encyclopedias]. For Homer continually restates and rehandles the ‘nomos’ and ‘ethos’ of his society as though from a modern standpoint he were not quite sure of the correct version. What he is quite sure of is the overall code of behavior, portions of which he keeps bringing up in a hundred contexts and with a hundred verbal variants” (page 92).

Nicolson does not happen to advert explicitly to Havelock’s claim that the Homeric epics are a tribal encyclopedia. Nevertheless, Nicolson says that “Homer for classical Athens was an encyclopedia of moral choice” (page 59; also see page 11). He here uses precisely the term Havelock uses: encyclopedia. Nicolson’s expression “moral choice” combines the two terms Havelock uses: “nomos” and “ethos.” In addition, Nicolson’s explicit reference to classical Athens would include of course Plato, who is one focus of Havelock’s book PREFACE TO PLATO.

In two fine passages, Nicolson suggests that for the people who heard the Homeric epics, including the earlier versions of them, they were in effect being prompted to ask themselves if they wanted to be like Achilles or Agamemnon or Hector or Odysseus:

(1) “These are the two possibilities for human life. You can either do what your integrity tells you to do [as Achilles does], or niftily find your way around the obstacles life throws in your path [as Odysseus does]. That is the great question the poems pose. Which will you be? Achilles or Odysseus, the monument of obstinacy and pride or the slippery trickster in whom nothing is certain and from whom nothing can be trusted? The singular hero or the ingenious man?” (pages 64-65; but also see pages 243, 244).

(2) “The ILIAD’s subject is not war or its wickedness but a crisis in how to be. Do you, like Agamemnon, attempt to dominate your world? Do you, like Odysseus, manipulate it? Do you, like Hector, think of your family above all and weaken your resolve [as a warrior] by doing that? Or do you, like Achilles, believe in the dignity of love [i.e., his love for Briseis] and the purity of honor as the only things that matter [to a warrior] in the face of death?” (pages 151-152; but also see pages 243, 244).

Of course Agamemnon dishonored Achilles by taking Briseis, the captive slave girl, away from him after he (Agamemnon) was compelled by the army to give up Chryseis, another captive slave girl, and return her to her father, the priest of Apollo. No doubt Agamemnon was thereby pulling rank on Achilles.

But Nicolson correctly argues that Achilles did indeed truly love Briseis in a heart-felt way, whereas for Agamemnon, both Briseis and Chryseis before were just possessions by which he measured his own standing and importance.

However, as Nicolson proceeds to discuss layer after layer of meaning in the Homeric epics, he in effect suggests that the Homeric epics in their earlier versions functioned as encyclopedias of moral choice in earlier cultural conditions far beyond classical Athens.

As a follow up to Havelock’s book PREFACE TO PLATO (1963), I would recommend Havelock’s far more detailed later book THE GREEK CONCEPT OF JUSTICE: FROM ITS SHADOW IN HOMER TO ITS SUBSTANCE IN PLATO (1978). In various places in my book WALTER ONG’S CONTRIBUTIONS TO CULTURAL STUDIES: THE PHENOMENOLOGY OF THE WORD AND I-THOU COMMUNICATION (rev. ed., 2015), I discuss Havelock’s work (use the index to find specific page references).

Now, as Nicolson discusses layer after layer of meaning in the Homeric epics, he draws on archeological evidence to flesh out certain aspects of the heroic and violent preliterate cultures in various parts of Europe and the Near East.

Nicolson argues that the deepest layers represent the Bronze Age World and the heroic cultures of the Steppelands and elsewhere throughout Europe in the Bronze Age. He says that this is the cultural world out of which Achilles emerges.

Nicolson likens the loose confederation of Greeks to gangs. Drawing on Bruce A. Jacobs and Richard Wright’s book STREET JUSTICE: RETALIATION IN THE CRIMINAL UNDERWORLD (2006), Nicolson likens certain aspects of violence described in the Homeric epics to similar aspects of violence in street gangs in St. Louis today (pages 185-187) — especially the emphasis on honor and avenging slights to one’s honor. Remember Achilles’ burning desire to dispatch Agamemnon for dishonoring him.

Even though I admire Nicolson for connecting the code of honor and vengeance in the Homeric epics with the code of honor and vengeance in street gangs in St. Louis today, I wish that he had broadened the scope of his discussion to include examples of other honor-shame cultures not only in the Mediterranean and Near East area but also in Asia and elsewhere.

Today news reports have come in from Paris about an attack there on a satirical newspaper by Muslim gunmen. The gunmen are reported to have killed 12 and injured 11 others.

The honor/shame culture that Nicolson discusses in connection with Bronze Age heroic culture in the Mediterranean and Near East area and with street gangs in contemporary St. Louis is still alive and well in the Muslim world today and elsewhere. See, for example, the anthropologist Philip Carl Salzman’s book CULTURE AND CONFLICT IN THE MIDDLE EAST (2008). For a far more sweeping discussion of male agonistic (from the Greek word “agon” meaning contest) behavior, see Ong’s book FIGHTING FOR LIFE: CONTEST, SEXUALITY, AND CONSCIOUSNESS (1981), the published version of his 1979 Messenger Lectures at Cornell University.

Nicolson sets up and skillfully works with the contrast between the ancient pre-literate heroic cultures of the Steppes, represented in the Homeric epics by the gang-like Greeks, and the more settled culture of the fortified city, represented by the Trojans in the walled city of Troy.

Because classical Athens in the time of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle was a fortified city — indeed, the hub of a regional empire — the portrayal of Achilles and the Greeks in the Homeric epics might have served as a cautionary tale for those Athenians. But they were conquered by the young Alexander of Macedonia, who greatly admired the portrayal of Achilles in the ILIAD.

Of course today the United States is the most fortified country on the planet. So the ILIAD can still serve its function as a cautionary tale for Americans today.

Unfortunately, the United States has in recent years engaged in a questionable war on terror. I would note that the willingness of certain terrorists to risk possible death resembles the spirit of Achilles after he re-enters the war, knowing for certain (because his goddess-mother told him) that he will die. When he re-enters the war after the death of Patroclus, Achilles is “grief-mad from the death of Patroclus,” says Nicolson (page 199). No doubt the grief of Achilles over the death of Patroclus drives him powerfully. Achilles and Patroclus had been comrades in arms, just as Agamemnon and Menelaus are.

Throughout the ILIAD, we have been led to think that Achilles is, by far, the most formidable warrior that the Greeks have. Under normal circumstances, he is an unstoppable force. Fueled by his grief over the death of Patroclus, Achilles goes on a rampage killing Trojans left and right.

As everybody knows, the Trojans in their well-fortified city ultimately lose the war, just as Athens lost to Alexander of Macedonia. And in the course of battle, Achilles dies.

Nicolson emphasizes the violence and destructives of the ancient heroic and violent culture that Achilles represents. Nicholson also emphasizes the violence and destructiveness of Odysseus in the episode in the ODYSSEY known as the Slaughter of the Suitors. With the assistance of his son Telemachus, “Odysseus slaughters all 108 of the young men. It is a frenzy of killing, an orgy of revenge,” says Nicolson (page 240). No doubt after the attacks of September 11, 2001, revenge prompted the two unnecessary American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with their enormous death tolls.

But I would argue that that ancient heroic culture is part of the collective unconscious of Americans to this day. In addition, I would argue that the violence and destructiveness of certain American soldiers in war — for example, the Mai-Lai massacre in the Vietnam War — can be understood as the violence and destructiveness of the ancient heroic culture in their collective unconscious coming to the surface. To paraphrase the title of Ong’s book THE BARBARIAN WITHIN: AND OTHER FUGITIVE ESSAYS AND STUDIES (1962), the barbarian is within us — in our collective unconscious.

In the title essay in that book, “The Barbarian Within: Outsiders Inside Society Today” (pages 260-285), Ong compares and contrasts what he terms the Greek position with the barbarian position. However, what he characterizes as the Greek position is based on classical Athens around the time of Pericles. As a result, the Greek position that Ong delineates resembles the Trojan position that Nicolson describes, based on the Homeric epics. Conversely, the barbarian position that Ong delineates resembles the Greek position that Nicolson delineates, based on the Homeric epics.

In a speech that Harvard-educated President-elect Kennedy gave before the Massachusetts legislature in 1961 about a week before his inaugural address, he invoked Pericles’s deservedly famous “Funeral Oration” (as reported by Thucydides).

Ong received his Ph.D. in English from Harvard in 1955. So it is fair to say that the Greek position that Ong articulates in his 1962 essay probably represents the understanding of the prestige elite in the early 1960s of the experiment in participatory democracy in classical Athens.

For a deeply informed account of the Vietnam War, see L. Fletcher Prouty’s book JFK: THE CIA, VIETNAM, AND THE PLOT TO ASSASSINATE JOHN F. KENNEDY (2011).

Nicolson’s final assessments of the Homeric epics are sobering:

“Homer does not provide any kind of guidance to life if the lessons derived are the usefulness of violence, the lack of regret at killing, the subjection and selling of women [as commodities], the extinction [execution] of all men in a surrendering city [genocide] or the sense that justice resides in personal revenge. That recipe for gang hell has always been troubling to the civilized” (page 243).

“Homer’s embrace of wrongness, his depiction of a world that stands at a certain angle to virtue, is the heart of why we love him. He does not give us a set of exemplars. These poems are not sermons. We do not want Achilles or even Osysseus to be our model for a man. Nor Penelope or Helen for a woman Nor do we want to worship at the shrine of Bronze Age thuggery. What we want is Homeric wisdom, his fearless encounter with the dreadful, his love of love and hatred of death, the sheer scale of his embrace, his energy and brightness, his resistance to nostalgia” (page 244).

Because Nicolson’s two final assessments that I have quoted here are so sobering, we should keep two of his earlier points in mind as a counter-balance to them.

(1) Nicolson says “Homer is a foundation myth, not of man nor of the natural world, but of the way of thinking by which the Greeks defined themselves, the frame of mind which made them who they were, one which, in many ways, we have inherited” (pages 2-3).

(2) Nicolson says of himself, “I began to see Homer as a guide to life, even as a kind of scripture” (page 8). In the DIVINE COMEDY, the poet Dante imagines himself as the character named “Dante” who is accompanied in his journey in the underworld by a character named “Virgil” (through the Inferno and Purgatory; “Beatrice” takes over as “Dante’s” guide to Paradise). So just as the poet Dante has imagined the poet Virgil as a guide to accompany “Dante” in the underworld, so too the author Adam Nicolson has discovered the poet Homer as a guide to accompany him in thinking about both the ancient and the modern world.

Finally, I’d like to mention the biblical scholar Marcus Borg’s book MEETING JESUS AGAIN FOR THE FIRST TIME: THE HISTORICAL JESUS AND THE HEART OF CONTEMPORARY FAITH (1995). As I read Nicolson’s new book about the Homeric epics, I did indeed feel as though I was meeting Homer again for the first time.

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Submitters Bio:

Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student — nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book WALTER ONG’S CONTRIBUTIONS TO CULTURAL STUDIES: THE PHENOMENOLOGY OF THE WORD AND I-THOU COMMUNICATION (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2000; 2nd ed. 2009, forthcoming). The first edition won the 2001 Marshall McLuhan Award for Outstanding Book in the Field of Media Ecology conferred by the Media Ecology Association. For further information about his education and his publications, see his UMD homepage: Click here to visit Dr. Farrell’s homepage.


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