Student Newsletter of the cws
The following are the Center newsletters (most recent on top) written and produced by the students themselves. You will find references to ideas encountered from our faculty lectures, or faculty-led discussions, filtered through the experiences and interests of our students. Please feel free to post comments below.
As The Crow Flies
Hello, again! It’s been a while. I’ve missed you.
A lot has happened since we last spoke. The 2017-2018 year of The Center for Western Studies has been flying through history and loving every minute of it. However, and it pains me to say this, there’s a little too much information to give you within one newsletter. I can tell you about some pretty cool stuff, though (and show you a few of the works we’ve studied, too).
So, there was this thing called the Enlightenment. Have you heard of it? Descartes started the ideas behind this movement at the end of the 16th century, but it didn’t take off until the 18th century. It is the moment in history that flipped Earth’s spiritual and moral axis. Now all of a sudden our planet is spinning in a completely different direction, and the whole of Western Civilization is caught up in the momentum of this little thing called the Enlightenment.
Now, you’ll have to excuse me, because this is where I get happy typing fingers. Just bear with me—this stuff has produced the social smog you breathe in every day.
Before I dissect the monster of the Enlightenment, I want to show you her ancestors.
Our director, John Hodges, has broken down historical Western thought into three main categories: pre-modern, modern, and post-modern.
Before the Enlightenment, the world was clothed in the ideas of pre-modern thinking. This form of belief recognized the small size of our world and our species. The idea many great minds of the earliest centuries had was that man is too small to know anything for sure. The only way that truth (take note of that word, because it used to mean something) could be revealed is if there was an omniscient God that was willing and able to reveal it to us. The universal assumption of pre-modern man was that there was a God willing and able to do just that. In Augustine’s Confessions, he discusses God’s hand through his life starting at birth. Granted, St. Augustine was a religious man, and when he wrote about deity he referenced Yahweh of the Bible. However, it wasn’t purely Christian minds that believed in the idea of an omniscient god. Plato and Aristotle also lived with the idea that there was a force and plane of being beyond ours. They called this area of philosophy metaphysics. Aristotle argued that the only way to learn about the concrete particulars of your world was through the study of general ideals (metaphysics). The two lived in the polytheistic culture of Ancient Greece, where nearly every action throughout your day was connected to one god or another. The point being that cultures all across Western Civilization held to religion to understand the reality of their world.
Now we get to the beast. The Enlightenment flipped Earth on its axis and preached the idea that everything that’s knowable in the world is knowable by human reason and intellect. “If God existed,” says the Enlightenment, “He’s long gone now, and besides, if I can’t experience Him through my five senses then how can I truly know He exists at all?” Descartes (remember him?) made the assertion that “I think, therefore I am.” In a nutshell, Descartes was determining proof of existence. Obviously anything not concretely experienced could be a lie, so only the five senses could really be counted on to determine what existed and what did not. However, he reasoned, even our five senses can be tricked into believing something that isn’t. So, he came down to his final conclusion. Because his mind is wrestling with the idea of existence, and because he can be sure of that, he can be sure that he exists. Nothing else he could be absolutely sure of, but his own existence could be justified by his philosophical ponderings.
Can you see the problem here? Can you see how empty and terrifying this existence is? Everything is a lie except your own tumultuous mind.
During the Enlightenment there were a lot of ideas like the one above. God was no longer assured. If he was believed in, he was mainly a clockwork god, who wound the universe up like a child’s toy and threw it into space to do what it will. He was not a present or personal god, and he had no interest in us any longer. Man turned to science, to his own unbeatable reason, to follow throughout life. The Enlightenment begged the human race to look to itself for all things, to strip away any colorful emotion or religious ties to anything, because those things held back the ability to rationalize thoroughly. Enter Emmanuel Kant, one of the great thinkers of the Enlightenment. Kant separated the human existence into two places: fact and value. I’m sure you can already guess his prioritization. Facts of life were provable, objective, and therefore reliable and profitable. These were scientific thought, rational philosophy. Value, on the other hand, were the things of the human experience that were subjective, not provable, and therefore not reliable and entirely unprofitable. Kant couldn’t dismiss the fact that humans were drawn to beauty and art and God, but he told men to put those things in their proper place.
My dear friends, can you see the ruby heart of humanity fluttering bloody and desperately in the violent hand of the Enlightenment? This period of time brought us some wonderful things. Science advanced infinitely, but at what cost? As soon as God became a value, as soon as art and beauty became inessential, the world shifted entirely.
Now I bring you to the child of the Enlightenment. Welcome to our century. It is a post-modern place. Our age cries that there isn’t a God, and therefore, nothing is knowable. Because of the fact/value establishment of the Enlightenment, we are a people afraid of absolutism. None of us are willing to make claims to truth, because how can we claim what is true? Everything is relative to us. You believe what you want, and I’ll do the same. All I can be sure of is my own personal experience. As a reaction to the extreme rationalism of our mother, we are a people led by fast-action feelings. Do what you want, when you want, with whomever you want, and the rest can meet you in hell.
However, friends, don’t despair. Believe me when I say that I know how overwhelming this all can be. If you simply walk away with this knowledge and no intention of utilizing it, I’m afraid life will remain as bleak and foggy as it seems now. But if you walk away from this short little philosophy lesson, turn around, and fight your culture to find universal truth and ask Christ for knowledge from His Holy Spirit and His Holy Scripture, then this moment of fright won’t be for nothing.
That’s what my fellow students and I are learning to do with everything they’re taught. Western Civilization was not always and certainly isn’t now a lovely utopia without flaw or pitfall. Yet we live in it nonetheless. Which means that we have a responsibility to our history and our future to learn and keep marching forward.
Thanks for joining me. Until next time!
A Midsummer Night's Mirror
By Jaelle Salsbury
I’ll say it, and I don’t give a hoot who hears me: A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the most delightful Shakespeare play. There it is. You heard it here first, from an eighteen-year old who, before this year, had only read Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar for school.
I can respect the language in any Shakespeare play. The man was a marvelous connoisseur of the English language. However, I’ve never been so immersed in one of his works before. This play threw me onto a rollercoaster ride. I knew I loved this play when I was in public, having my dinner and studying, and I came across the argument catastrophe in the forest between the four lovers.
“Get you gone, you dwarf!” says Lysander, and I gasp out loud and look around at all the other people enjoying their sushi, wondering if anyone understands just how infuriating this young man is. No one understood my horror. But I finally understood the power of William Shakespeare. I was transported to the audience of the 16th century, gasping and laughing and crying with and for these characters. The man was a genius! And this certain play is just. Hilarious. Where else can you find an elegant, beautiful fairy queen admit to her king, “Methought I was enamored of an ass” (4.1.76)? Where else can you fall in love with a delightfully imbecilic overachiever who wants so desperately to be a lion (and every other part in the play) that he cries, “I will aggravate my voice so that I will roar you as gently as any sucking dove” (1.2.74-75)? I’ll wait.
But there was one problem in this delightful little comedy. One little bruise on this peach that left a sad taste in my mouth. Her name was Helena.
Shakespeare threw a curve ball into his comedy. Bottom the Weaver was a character with a similar purpose to Helena—he was a relatable goofball. The audience could laugh at Bottom and themselves simultaneously, and leave the theater more humble than they came.
However, it’s difficult to laugh at Helena. She alone is the character to inspire tears in the audience during this masterpiece. The young lady is strong and beautiful. Her love for Demetrius is entirely unspoiled throughout the whole of the play.
“It is not night when I do see your face,
Therefore I think I am not in the night;
Nor doth this wood lack worlds of company,
For you, in my respect, are all the world.
Then how can it be said I am alone
When all the world is here to look on me?” (2.1.220-226)
Isn’t it beautiful? The girl is smitten and true to the sentiment, to her love, during five acts of turbulence.
But Helena’s hope is quickly draining as the plot furthers, because this unfailing love of hers is also unrequited. Demetrius is a cruel young man focused on a woman that does not care for him. To Helena he is heartless.
“Do I entice you? Do I speak you fair?
Or rather do I not in plainest truth
Tell you I do not nor I cannot love you?” (2.1.199-201)
Perhaps the unrequited love from your youth wasn’t quite as wounding, but we can all recognize and sympathize with the fall of Helena’s heart here. She’s an incredibly relatable character, but she’s a rather tragic character to relate to. We begin to believe ourselves just as “ugly as a bear” (2.2.100) as our beloved Helena while she wanders muddy and forgotten through the forest.
But then, Oberon. Here is where Shakespeare shows his Christian side. This is the redeeming character for our tragic Helena.
While Helena is being torn apart by Demetrius’ sharp words, the fairy king is watching. He sees the entire exchange, and by the time Demetrius deserts her, Oberon shows a very tender affection for the girl. He goes so far as to make her a promise.
“Fare thee well, nymph. Ere he do leave this grove
Thou shalt fly him, and he shall seek thy love.” (2.1.245-246)
This fairy king values the underdog of this story. More than that, he can recognize the unfailing love Helena has for this young man, and Oberon wishes to encourage it, this human characteristic that will be the same thing to inspire Puck to declare, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” (3.2.115). Please, reader, don’t miss this. Oberon calls this pathetic, heartsick girl “nymph.” Nymphs were often the victims of satyrs in old Greek mythology. They were the enticing presences that often fled from eager lustful creatures. Then, the promise. It’s clear as a bell: the language of Oberon’s line gives us a hint that Helena has reason to hope. The fairy king is flipping the script for her.
Though she believes she’s alone, Oberon sees her. Though she believes her case is hopeless, Oberon makes her a promise. Then he begins working behind the scenes for her, to make his promise come true. Sound familiar? Our very own El Roi is depicted through Shakespeare’s fairy king. And He is depicted on behalf of the most tragic, least confident of the four lovers. He is depicted for those of us who see Helena more like a mirror than a character on a page or a stage.
Now, let’s skip the terrible muck and mix-up that happened right after Oberon orders Puck to find “A sweet Athenian lady…in love with a disdainful youth” (2.2.260-261). However, don’t forget that it happened.
Let’s pick back up at our happy ending, our strange, inexplicable happy ending. This is another incredible Christian Easter egg. By Oberon’s magic, Helena has her Demetrius. The “disdainful youth” from Act II is the only one that leaves the forest enchanted. The audience has a bit of a hitch in their hearts. Why does Helena need magic for her true love to see the value she has? Yet all is set right by Oberon’s spell. We can hardly say that we would prefer Demetrius walk in freedom of mind and continue breaking Helena’s poor heart.
Sound familiar? Have you ever seen a heart change by the power of Christ? Does it not happen as if by magic? Does it not seem like a dream dreamt by multiple people at once? Yet the man is made right, transformed into a new creation. Therefore, like Helena, we are tempted to call this changed brother or sister, “Mine own, and not mine own” (4.1.191). Helena didn’t do a thing to change Demetrius herself. Neither did Demetrius! It was a third party, a backstage deity that saw and cared for our underdog, Helena.
Helena is a Christian’s hope in a world with a higher power.
The tragedy of plot twist: the king of denmark
By Grace Cumbee
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is quite obviously a tragedy, and as such, there must be a tragic hero. Tragedies have always been an important part of Western storytelling, and tragic heroes span the literary distance from Achilles to Anakin Skywalker. The tragedy was considered the highest art form in Ancient Greece, and the tragic hero was a riveting character that the audience could sympathize with and aspire to, but who was also doomed to fall. Aristotle identified six main characteristics of a tragic hero: hubris, an excessive pride and disrespect for the natural order; nemesis, a punishment or fate the tragic hero can’t avoid; hamartia, a flaw that causes the hero’s downfall; peripeteia, a reversal of fate; anagnorisis, the moment in time when the hero makes an important discovery in the story; and catharsis, the compassion or pity the audience feels toward the hero. While it is commonly assumed that Hamlet is the tragic hero of Hamlet, he does not possess all of these characteristics. However, Claudius, the antagonist of the story, does. He is what one could call virtuous, but not eminently good - he possesses admirable traits, and was evidently honourable enough that he managed to be voted monarch instead of Hamlet. However, he has a fatal flaw - deceitfulness - and this, his hubris, and his inescapable death by Hamlet’s hand point to his being the tragic hero of Hamlet.
Claudius consistently shows disrespect for the natural order throughout the entire play. He first kills the old Hamlet, who was not only his king, but also his brother. He put his personal ambitions over the sacred bond of family, and the political bond of king and citizen. He then married his sister-in-law, Gertrude, scarcely two months after his brother’s death. He also usurped the throne, which ought to have gone to Hamlet, as he was fully capable of ruling Denmark and was the previous king’s son. He was willing to sacrifice the very stability of his country for to fulfill his own desires, and he paid no heed to his country’s tradition, his due loyalties, or the proper behavior expected of him. His pride - his hubris, to use Aristotle’s definition - is evident in these actions.
Throughout the play Claudius is shown being more and more deceitful and treacherous. What started as a simple murder - not premeditated, as far as we know - turns into intricate schemes, manipulations, and vicariously attempting murder through various members of the court. The fact that he murdered his brother and married his sister-in-law is enough to condemn him, but he did not stop there. In order to secure his position, he used Ophelia to spy on Hamlet, effectively destroying their relationship, and, in the long run, contributing to her eventual death. He also ensures the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whom he was using to try to kill Hamlet. He constantly deceives, manipulates, and uses everyone around him like simple tools, without conscience, to benefit himself.
By the third act Claudius is aware that Hamlet knows he murdered the king, and tries to take steps to prevent Hamlet killing him. He has a perfect plot to ensure Hamlet’s death, but he manages to foil it and return to Denmark to kill him. Claudius again tries to escape his death by conspiring with Laertes to kill Hamlet through fowl play - and once again, by mere chance, Hamlet escapes death and finally kills Claudius. Claudius has no control over his own fate, and he cannot stop his ultimate demise.
Claudius also fulfills the other three characteristics of a tragic hero. His fate is reversed when Hamlet slips out of his clever scheme and returns to Denmark with a new-found confidence in providence. He makes an important discovery - or perhaps, he discovers that his suspicions were correct - when the play Hamlet set up to guilt-trip him confirms Hamlet’s knowledge of his ill deed. In Act III, his despair and inability to fully repent of his crime and his sin shows us his broken humanity in a way that is deeply tragic. He is not a monster; he is a fallen man, just as we are.
Hamlet cannot be the tragic hero, even though his story is deeply tragic, because he lacks a fatal flaw and even has an off-screen redemption arc that allows him to finally put his indecision aside and fulfill his destiny. He starts off in the lowest place he could be - mourning his father alone, unable to trust his mother, whom he feel has betrayed him and his father. He knows that something is deeply wrong in Denmark, and knows that it is his duty and his destiny to remedy it. His indecision does create conflict in the play, but he moves past his “To be or not to be” speech of Act III to a complete trust in God and a tranquility that is astonishing. “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow”, he says in Act V just before his fight with Laertes. In fact, Hamlet’s role in the story is similar to Macduff’s role in Macbeth. He had to right the wrong done by Claudius and restore order to the kingdom of Denmark.
Hamlet is a uniquely Christian tragedy because of this. Hamlet dies, but only after he redeems himself and fulfills his destiny. The villain is defeated at the end of the day, and Denmark itself is saved. There is murder and betrayal and death, but in the end order is restored.
Hamlet: Changed in providence
By Devon Floyd
From the moment we first meet Hamlet until he leaves for England, he is trapped between will and action. But when he returns to Denmark in Act V he is a changed man: still serious, yet far less melancholy and far more at peace. Even his letter to Horatio in the end of Act IV reveals a different Hamlet from the one we met in the beginning of the play. How is this? What changed him?
All Hamlet does in the first four acts is mope around pondering what he should do: should he kill Claudius, was his father’s ghost really a demon, or should he live or escape all the pain in the endless sleep that is death? When ever he actually does do something, it does not go as planned.
After his encounter with his father’s ghost, Hamlet is certain it is his duty to execute the culprit behind his father’s death, Claudius. But still Hamlet can’t shake the feeling that he might be wrong about the ghost. What if the ghost wasn’t his father, but really a demon? This question haunts him, and so, he comes up with a plan to see If his uncle truly is a murderer: a play depicting the events of his father’s death as told to him by the spirit. The play is a success - Claudius flees the scene. He knows he’s been found out. Hamlet follows him back to his chambers, where he is praying, and is ready to strike him down before thinks to himself
“Now he is a-praying. And now I’ll do ’t. And so he goes to heaven.
And so am I revenged.—That would be scanned.
A villain kills my father, and, for that, I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven. Oh, this is hire and salary, not revenge.” (3.3.77-83)
Hamlet’s soul remains conflicted. Boiling with hatred, Hamlet rushes to his mother’s room to confront her. Polonius is there too and hides behind a curtain as to eavesdrop on what the “troubled child” will say. In a fit of rage, Hamlet accuses his mother and threatens her, frightening her so that she cries for help. Hearing this, Polonius does the same, and Hamlet, thinking it is his uncle behind the curtain, recklessly thrusts his sword into Polonius, killing him. When Claudius is told what happened, his is outraged, and even more so when Hamlet hides the body and refuses to tell where it is hidden. Claudius then sends Hamlet off with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to England with the intent of Hamlet never returning. Hamlet has just about given up when just before they set sail, Hamlet is consulted by a Fortinbras captain. The captain tells Hamlet that they are on their way to invade a small portion of Poland worth almost nothing. Hamlet knows that this small disagreement will lead to more trouble than it’s worth. Hamlet now knows he’s wasted enough time and must act on his revenge.
“How all occasions do inform against me,
And spur my dull revenge! What is a man If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.” (4.4.31-34)
Hamlet knows he has the will and ability to do what he must, but whether it be sheer cowardice or from thinking to much, he won’t allow it to stop him any longer.
Hamlet is determined to confront his uncle when he returns from England but is strangely attacked by pirates. In this scuffle, he discovers two things: one, a letter from his uncle detailing Hamlet’s murder (the perfect piece of evidence to convict his uncle), and two, he is no longer on his ship and surrounded by pirates. But by the grace of God, they treat him quite well, in return for a favor to which Hamlet agrees. It is in his letter to Horatio that there seems to be something cheerier about Hamlet. We see this more when he and Horatio meet the grave digger as they almost flippantly discuss a very grave matter.
Hamlet: Whose grave’s this, sirrah?
Gravedigger: mine, sir. [sings]
Hamlet: I think it be thine indeed, for thou liest in ‘t.
Gravedigger: You lie out on ‘t, sir, and therefore ‘tis not yours. For my part, I do not lie in ‘t, yet it is mine.
They banter on until Hamlet discovers the identity of the owner of the grave - his beloved Ophelia. The death of her father has driven her mad to the point that she had drowned herself. Hamlet is heart-broken, realizing he had caused this with his uncertainty and burst of foolish rage. Laertes is infuriated that Hamlet would dare show his face at Ophelia’s funeral after what he did to her, telling her he never loved her, that she should be sent to a nunnery, and killing her father. Laertes charges Hamlet rightfully accusing him for the lost of Ophelia. When separated, Hamlet tell them he he intended not for this but that he truly loved her.
“I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers
Could not with all their quantity of love
Make up my sum. What wilt thou do for her?” (5.1.285-286)
Hamlet never meant to hurt Ophelia and must face the consequences of his thoughtless actions. He and Horatio move on to discuss the events that took place whilst he was away and how he managed to survive.
Hamlet almost didn’t believe it himself when it happened. In the middle of a pirate attack he stumbled upon the letters to the King of England containing instructions from his uncle to have Hamlet killed. Hamlet took the original letter and quickly wrote a new letter to the king ordering that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern be killed, and sealed it with his father’s signet that he just so happened to have in his purse. During the orchestra of yelling, cannon and gun fire, Hamlet boarded the enemy vessel only to then realize that his ship had escaped the mess and left him to the pirates. The pirates realized who they had just captured decided rather to ask for a favor and return him home on the account of his current family situation. Hamlet realizes none of what had just happened was by chance. (“There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,” 5.2.11) Hamlet knows that if it is God’s will for him to enact revenge upon Claudius then it will happen. If Hamlet is to die today, he will; and if not, then he will die some other time.
“There is a special Providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is ‘t to leave betimes? Let be.” (5.2.233-238)
Hamlet tells Horatio this just before he faces Laertes in a duel - a duel that is Claudius’s final attempt to kill Hamlet. Hamlet has come to grips with providence and lets go of the reigns, knowing that God is in control. With in a hundred lines, everyone is dead; Claudius, Gertrude, Hamlet, Laertes. Horatio is the only one left. Horns blare as Fortinbras arrives, expecting to take back what is rightfully his by force, only to be told by Horatio of the tragic and heroic scene has just taken place. Fortinbras is astounded by the events, but orders that Hamlet be given an honourable burial.
“Let four captains bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage, for he was likely, had he been put on, to have proven most royal; and for his passage, the soldier’s music and the rite of war speak loudly for him.” (5.2.441-446)
Fortinbras knew Hamlet has overcome a battle not many men face and yet managed to come out victorious, having restored justice and peace to Denmark. Hamlet succeeds in avenging his father, and also pays the price for killing Polonius. In the end all, was made right.
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.
by Jaelle Salsbury
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
by Devon Floyd
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
by Grace Cumbee
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.