It has been about ten to fourteen years since I’ve even picked up copies of The Iliad and The Odyssey (affectionately known as The Idiot and The Oddity when I was taking literature courses in college.) Now I’m teaching them to high-school students. There is a lot of wisdom in both works that is perhaps forgotten after all those years spent toiling over ‘required reading’ are done with. Those Greeks knew something about human passions; that is undeniable. Both the gods and the humans are embodiments of huge passions: pride, lust, anger, you name it…they’ve got it in spades. After awhile, like my students, the reader may be tempted to get frustrated with gods and humans alike. They’re all a bunch of self-absorbed…geeks. Yes, geeks, not Greeks. They just appear to be huge bone-crushing warriors and Don Juans, but upon closer observation, they are really nerdy little crybabies, whining to their moms for everything they want. Geekdom never had it so good. Achilles alone is a prime example. Why does his mother Thetis always have to step in and even the score? Why does he seethe with rage and revenge over every single affront to his gigantic ego? Why can’t he just let it go? The female characters rarely come up to snuff either. Athena and Hera should have known better than to get so upset over losing a stupid beauty contest. And the list goes on: both gods and mortals fail to live up to the bare minimum of justice or goodness in their actions. As my students have asked: So, why are we reading this?
Quite simply, there are people like this in the world, people who have some measure of power and influence, and are thus capable of overthrowing the whole status quo. There are people who, for good or ill, simply transcend the norm. Without self-questioning, however, the results are guaranteed to be tragic. We are all tempted to play at being gods unto ourselves, and meet only with disaster. “To be a god is to be totally absorbed in the exercise of one’s own power, the fulfillment of one’s own nature…it is to be incapable of self-questioning or self-criticism. But there are human beings who are like this.” (Knox, Bernard. Introduction to The Iliad. New York: Penguin Classics, p. 45) So reading about them is not necessarily a waste of time. If we can’t handle self-criticism, then we are bigger geeks than the gods and mortals we read about. If we can’t learn from their mistakes, how will we ever learn? Some of the more important lessons are summed up here.
1) We all have passions that can lead to good or bad actions. It amazes me that a lot of my students tend to assume that most of their passions and feelings are bad. They aren’t, and the Catechism is there to back me up on this.
1767 In themselves passions are neither good nor evil. They are morally qualified only to the extent that they effectively engage reason and will. Passions are said to be voluntary, “either because they are commanded by the will or because the will does not place obstacles in their way.” It belongs to the perfection of the moral or human good that the passions be governed by reason. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, www.vatican.va resource library)
We can’t help having feelings because we are human beings. What we do with those feelings, however, is what matters. If our intellect and will aren’t working properly, then we are well on the road to geekiness. We need our intellect to be enlightened by reason and faith, and our will to be strong in order to resist doing what we know to be evil. Even in the Greek understanding of fate, there is a measure of free will. It’s not that Zeus is dealing out thunderbolts to everyone who happens to get on his nerves. Zeus makes specific choices at every step, although he tries to maintain neutrality as the Greeks and Trojans duke it out for more than ten years. Achilles makes choices; Helen makes choices, and the gods simply add a huge push by appealing (usually) to their lower faculties. The gods are simply personifications of our passions, and we can control them, but we need will power to do this. Even more, we need grace (something those Greeks didn’t have, but we do, so we have no excuse!)
2) We all need catharsis and conversion. By the end of The Iliad, Achilles realizes what he has done and who he is as a result. There is hope even for the seemingly hopeless; there is conversion. Achilles realizes how Priam is the real man of the hour for having the guts to cross enemy lines, ask for Hector’s body, and even forgive him for the brutal murder and total lack of respect for his son. It can happen for all of us, even at our darkest and blindest hour. Hopefully it will happen when we still have a chance to right the wrongs we have done, and not at the very last moment. God is always giving us another chance and speaks to us in many ways, but we have to pray for the ears to listen and the eyes to see.
3) When we see the geek in ourselves, the one true God can work with us. The important thing is that we at least try, that we exercise our will in conjunction with our intellect enlightened by faith. When we realize our weaknesses, then we are humble enough to accept the grace and strength that God wants to give us. Odysseus had to resist major temptations in order to keep persevering in order to reach Ithaca, but he did it, no matter what the cost. He was determined to get back to his beloved family (in stark contrast to Helen, who just sat back and enjoyed all those ‘geeks’ fighting for her.) So once we know what our goal should be, we need to move ahead with all confidence that God will provide for us, that he will fill our hearts to overflowing. One of my favorite passages from The Odyssey occurs in the next to last book, when Odysseus is finally reunited with Penelope:
“…He wept at last,
As the sunwarmed earth is longed for by a swimmer
Spent in rough waters where his ship went down
Under Poseidon’s blows, gale winds and tons of sea.” (The Odyssey translated by Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Random House Vintage Classics, 1990. Book 23: 260-65, p. 436)
It’s a particularly poignant image because Odysseus has been tossed upon the raging sea, both literally and figuratively: he has had his ship and crew destroyed, and he has had to tame his own passions. But he is finally home; he has conquered himself. He has earned this and he has found his true joy. It is a profoundly hopeful image that we can all take to heart and strive for as we overcome our geekiness and become the heroes and heroines that God wants us to be.