As the Crow Flies

The Center for Western Studies kicked off the first month of the year with Homer’s Odyssey, C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, and the first two chapters of William Fleming’s Arts and Ideas.

The foundation for our program is starting with Ancient Greek literature. Where else would you start with Western Civilization? This is where Homer’s Odyssey, and Arts and Ideas came in.

The Odyssey is the book that everyone has heard of, but I was surprised to know how little I knew about it. However, from this side of that epic poem, it was well worth the trek. After all the beautiful women, terrifying sea monsters, and raging gods of endless elemental power, the Odyssey gives a fascinating insight to the values of ancient culture. Behind all the smoke and mirrors of the twenty-year adventure of Odysseus lies a rather interesting foundation of heroic values and ideal character. During discussions, we wrestled with the idea that certain values run throughout most known cultures. The question prevailed: Why? Where did it come from?

Enter The Abolition of Man. C.S. Lewis paints the picture of the Tao, this overarching value system in nearly all civilizations and religions. Beyond explaining this sense of right and wrong in each human being since the beginning of history, he also notches an arrow at those of us today who seem to consider this value system a sort of binding chain. What does a world without morals look like? What tragic shift in perspective will occur after our ever-sought dominion of Science? I won’t lie--it took hours of processing to finally wrap my mind around everything we talked about. I couldn’t be more thankful that we drowned in the book, however. Looking back, I consider it more of a baptism.

Arts and Ideas, in all honesty, threatened to be horribly boring after weeks of epic Greek mythology and staggering theological philosophy. Yet it didn’t disappoint in the slightest. Hodges and Vowell took us through the Hellenic and Hellenistic periods of Ancient Greece, explaining that the idealist mindset behind the Hellenic period was considered Apollonian (after the god Apollo), and the Hellenistic period was considered Dionysian (after the god Dionysus). I wish I could unpack everything that those two words mean, but tragically, this is merely a newsletter and not a dissertation. Here’s the basic, mindblowing bottom line: Apollo was a god of song, order, the sun (hence, intellectual light, or Enlightenment), thus Apollonian periods in the arts focus on idealism and rationalism. What is man? He is a god. Dionysus, on the other hand, was the god of wine, debauchery, wild parties, thus Dionysian periods in the arts were fueled purely by emotion. Statues of the Hellenistic period portrayed man in struggle, facing foes, muscles tensed. Who is man? He is a warrior.

Thus the first month of the Center for Western Studies closes. I’m not sure if my mind can handle many more fireworks of knowledge, but ready or not, here I come.

Odysseus #MCM

The Center for Western Studies recently finished studying Homer’s Odyssey. While reading, I noticed a very interesting theme in the story and its many admirable (and despicable) characters. Mainly, the ethical values of pagan culture.

Obviously, The Odyssey isn’t a Christian poem. It was written in nearly 700 B.C. in Greece, during something called the Greek Dark Ages. In the novel, a council of gods and an earth full of mythical beings were simply understood. The mythology of Ancient Greece was often kept and communicated by the bards, who would recite epic poems (like the Odyssey) with a musical accompaniment for generations upon generations. Therefore, by the time Homer sat down to transcribe The Odyssey, this enormous tale of heroism and adventure had already gained credibility through the years it had endured. Because of this, I believe it’s safe to say the attributes we see in such heroes as Odysseus, Telemachus, and many of the old war kings, were generally esteemed characteristics for the Greek people.

So what key characteristics did Ancient Greece look for in a hero? Who was their ideal man? We must look no further than Odysseus himself, the man to whom immortality was offered, the man whose ally is Athena herself, the man who outlived twenty long years of voyaging and heartache. Talk about a hero. His deeds go before him wherever he ends up; as soon as his name is spoken, his legacy is recalled by character after character. What does Homer have to say about his heart, however? Who is the man behind the bronze skin, curling locks of hair, and generally winning features? In other words, which secret characteristics do the gods honor? What attributes of the heart will benefit a man?

Loyalty was absolutely vital to every heroic character in the epic of the Odyssey. Telemachus risks his life to find news of his father. Penelope wastes away while waiting hopelessly for her sea-tossed husband. Odysseus himself denies a perfect, immortal nymph, Calypso, because his heart belongs in Ithaca with his wife. In the old war heroes, too, a strong sense of loyalty is felt between the men who fought beside each other. Telemachus, being the son of war-hero Odysseus, is granted the benefits of this loyalty in the form of feasts and bountiful gifts.

Another trademark characteristic of Odysseus is his endurance in suffering. For twenty years, “the man of twists and turns” fought to return to his home. Often we see Odysseus fall into temptation of weakness. His knees shake, his heart falls. As comrades die and his beautiful home is pulled farther and farther on the horizon, Odysseus is shown to be human in that he’s not immune to discouragement. Yet the man presses on. He steels himself and urges his weary heart to move forward. With such a mentality, the Man of Suffering earns the respect of Pallas Athena and reclaims his throne and glory.

Yet the Greeks were not simply men of brawn and might. As shown in Odysseus’ craftiness, Homer and the gods of Ancient Greece also favored a man with a quick and clever mind. Odysseus is a man of impressive intellect and charisma, able to outwit a gargantuan barbaric Cyclops with his sly deceit and win the hearts of a court of young Greek upstarts with his bard-like storytelling.

Thus we find three fundamental attributes of a Greek hero. Homer’s Odyssey reflects the culture and mindset of the time (as do many works of art). It was an age of men larger than life, an age that valued strong ties, patient endurance, and unceasing wit.

On the Xenos Covenant

If your mother ever taught you to say “please” and “thank you,” to wipe your feet before entering a house, or to have good manners when guests are over, then she was teaching you xenia, although not the same xenia that the Ancient Greeks practiced. But what is xenia exactly and do we still use it today? Does the Bible say anything about it?

Xenia, the practice of hospitality between the guest and host, was a fundamental part of Ancient Greek culture. Zeus, sometimes called Zeus Xenios, was as the protector of guests and strangers and sometimes disguised himself and sought shelter and hospitality from men. If he was shown hospitality by his host, then the host would be rewarded with many blessings. Thus the Greeks’ religion inforced their believe that they should show hospitality to any man if he sought it, and that hospitality was virtuous.

Both the guest and host had roles expected of them. The host was expected to welcome strangers into their home, meet their basic needs,  not to ask them any questions until they are satisfied and comfortable, and give them a gift to depart with. The guest was to be respectful, entertaining, not outstay his welcome, and give a gift if it was possible. This helped greatly when making alliances. The xenos covenant was not only important to the Greeks. It had a big impact on the people of the Renaissance period, and is a popular subject among the classical arts as well.

But the xenos covenant wasn’t always followed as it should have been. In fact, all the problems in the Odyssey were caused by poor xenia. The reason Odysseus was even away was because he was fighting in the Trojan war caused by a break of the xenos covenant. When Odysseus is in Sicily, both his men and Polyphemus showed a lack of a proper guest-host relationship. The men ate Polyphemus’ sheep and he ate them in return. The reason Odysseus is lost at sea for ten years is because he angered Poseidon by blinding his son. Although the blinding of Polyphemus was justifiable, Odysseus entering his cave unbidden, stealing his food, mocking him was not an example of good xenia. When Odysseus lands on Circe’s Island, the men take advantage of her hospitality and in return are transformed into swine. After being warned twice of what is to come of them if they harm Helios’ cattle, Odysseus’s men are convinced by Eurylochus to kill and sacrifice the best of Helios’ cattle. The gods are angry and Zeus strikes their ship down as they leave. The suitors are probably the best example of what not to do as a guest. In fact, they weren’t even guests, as they entered Odysseus’ home uninvited, ate Odysseus’ cattle as they pleased, drank his wine, threw feasts using his resources, and tried to steal his wife.

But not everyone in the Odyssey forgot how to be hospitable. The Phaeacians, like Odysseus, respected the xenos covenant, and they showed him proper hospitality and helped him finally get home.

The Odyssey wasn’t the only book to have acts of xenia. The Bible is based around the grace and hospitality that God has shown us. Romans 5:8 says “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” This is not seen through the crucifixion of Jesus but also when Abraham is told to sacrifice Isaac.  As Abraham raises his hand, an angel stops him just before he kills his son and God provides them a lamb. Just as we were to die for our sin, God provided Jesus to die for us. All of this he did for us while we still hated him. In the parable of the good Samaritan, a man is beaten and robbed and left to die. After being passed by a Priest and a Levite, a Samaritan walks by. When he sees the beaten man, he feels compassion for him and helps him onto his donkey, takes him to an inn, mends his wounds, and pays for his stay. And Christ does the same for us: takes us as we are, heals us and pays for the price himself.

But what has come of xenia now in our modern day? In Homer’s time, traveling was done on either foot or boat and took much longer, meaning that there were more nights spent away from home. Unlike our modern world, they did not have hotels or inns they could use, nor could they afford to pay for every night they were traveling. Because we have such easy access to food and shelter we no longer have such a need to show hospitality to each other. Now we teach our kids to stay away from strangers, which isn’t inherently bad, but we begin to treat everyone as a potential enemy. With this mindset, we begin to separate ourselves as a community.

We teach our children to have good manners but not in the same way the Greeks did. You might not be afraid that Zeus might strike you down because you didn’t invite the homeless man into your house, but disrespectful behavior is still not acceptable in today’s culture. The xenos covenant was a major factor in the Odyssey and Homer wanted that known. The main theme throughout the bible is that God loved us before we loved him. Jesus was hated and cursed at as he lovingly died for us. It’s important to remember that everyone is our neighbor, not just our friends, relatives, and people who are kind to us, because in the eyes of Christ, we are all strangers whom he willingly takes in

Batman: The Christian Achilles

Batman and Achilles are strikingly similar characters, despite being created in completely different cultures and at completely different periods of time. Their main characteristic is anger--the Iliad opens with the line “Sing, O goddess, of the rage of Achilles,” and almost every depiction of Batman in various media emphasizes his anger. Their anger drives them.
The root of this anger is a deep sense of injustice and loss. Achilles’ friend Patroclus was killed in his place, and his glory had been slighted at Agamemnon’s whim. Batman’s parents were killed by an act of meaningless violence when he was a child. They both fight to regain what they lost: Achilles, his glory, and Batman, his home.

Another defining characteristic they share is despair. Achilles’ despair comes from his inability to find meaning in his life. He tries dedicating himself to the pursuit of glory, hoping that the memory of his actions would give his life purpose, but in the end, after his death, he is still unsatisfied. He has no resolution to his life; he dies fighting for glory in a meaningless battle and spends his afterlife wandering in a dull, grey, meaningless void. He has no happily-ever-after to his story: it simply continues a cycle of despair and hopelessness. Batman’s despair is rooted in his loss of family, and is recapitulated time and time again as he struggles to combat the senseless violence and the injustice that occurs regularly in Gotham. However, despite the fact that his battle seems hopeless, he continues to fight, and believes in goodness and second chances despite being proved wrong again and again.

While Greek culture shared many of the same ideals as Christian cultures, including the desire for truth, beauty, and goodness, it lacked the hope of redemption and the combination of compassion and justice that Christianity brought. This is why Achilles’ story is a tragedy and Batman’s a comedy. This is their difference: Achilles comes from a pagan culture of despair, and Batman is the product of a Christian culture of hope.

Because Achilles lived in a culture that had no forgiveness or redemption his anger is brutal, violent, and destructive. There can be no true justice; no true equalization. When Agamemnon takes Briseis from him, Achilles’ sense of injustice is what causes him to decide to stay in his tents and allow hundreds of his fellow Greeks to die. There is no other way to restore the balance caused by the offence. And when Patroclus is killed, the pain caused by the loss of his friend could not be eased by avenging himself on Hector alone, so he continued to fight in a blind rage, delivering above and beyond what was taken from him and crossing lines he should not in his anger and despair. His rage is destructive, and so it brings no resolution, and continues the cycle of pain and despair.

Batman’s anger is almost a polar opposite of Achilles’, because it is essentially compassionate, and because he is part of a culture that idealizes redemption. He forgives the man who kills his parents, and helps him redeem himself, instead of taking revenge on him. He does not enact vengeance upon his parents’ murderer because his justice is rooted in Christian law.  Batman has limits. He doesn’t cross the lines that Achilles does, even when he desperately desires to. His anger is righteous, and allows for repentance and forgiveness, and so it brings the possibility of hope.

Achilles’ justice doesn’t have any room for forgiveness, compassion, or grace, because his cultural conception of justice excludes them. It is honourable to fight those who have hurt you, to seek recompense in the form of violence. This eye-for-an-eye form of justice in a sense isn’t really justice at all, because it does nothing to resolve the actual wrong done and does nothing to ensure that the crime will not be repeated or extended. It lacks the wrong-righting aspect, and often turns into pure revenge, resulting in blood-feuds, more pain, more death, and more suffering.

Batman’s justice is Christian justice, which esteems mercy and fairness above simple retribution. Because he has boundaries, moral limits that he will not cross, he does not judge the criminal himself, but turns them over to the law where they will  be judged fairly and without bias. Christian justice is partially educational; it seeks to edify those who have done wrong in order to keep them from repeating their crimes. This is why, even though Batman works outside the law, he honours and respects it and digs up evidence to convict the criminals within the law. Obviously, it doesn’t work perfectly, and Batman failed to properly adhere to his moral system on more than one occasion, but  he aspires to do something more than continuing the cycle of pain and violence.

Achilles and Batman are both fighting a war, but their wars are entirely different. Achilles is a warrior fighting an offensive war. His sole purpose there is to gain honour, glory, and spoils of war. He kills because it is his role in life as a warrior to kill those who oppose him. The war itself is meaningless; Menelaus’s quarrel with Paris is personal and he should have been able to settle it without starting a war that lasted ten years. There is no moral reason for the Greeks and the Trojans to be killing each other, but because of their glory-centered culture and their allegiance to Menelaus, they fight and die brutally. Whether the war is just or not does not enter the equation; it is justifiable, and they fight because they must.

Batman is, in the truest sense of the word, a knight. He wages his war to protect the people in his domain against those who wish to exploit them. It is a defensive war, and it is just. Knights were intended to protect the kingdom and the people, to be defenders of the weak. While honour and glory did matter to them, they aspired to be above all Christ-like, and since Christ gave his life to save the Church, they likewise gave their lives to protect those underneath them. This is partially why Batman’s no-killing rule is so important to his character: his role is to protect the people of Gotham, not to judge and execute them.

Because their cultures and their ideals are so different, Achilles and Batman have vastly different story arcs. They’re both tragic heroes, but because Batman is a character from a Christian culture his story is a comedy. He always wins, and evil is always defeated. Batman doesn’t ever overcome his despair, but he is a character who embodies hope. He finds family, and fights to ensure that no one has to experience his pain ever again. He is a Christ-figure. Achilles doesn’t even try to overcome his despair or break free of his circumstances. His story is a tragedy, because his pagan culture could not really imagine a true comedy. There is no great evil for him to defeat: those he kills are just men fighting for the same reason he is. There is no hope, no redemption, no true justice, only pain, suffering, and hopelessness. Batman’s anger has limits, and it works for good. Achilles’ anger has no limits, and  it destroys him.