Thursday, July 27, 2006

Praise for Homer's Iliad

I'm working on reviews of two books: Homer's Iliad and a study guide for it (it's sort of nice to have to spend time re-reading the Iliad after almost twenty years). Inspired by a quote about the Iliad in Chesterton's The Everlasting Man, I decided to collect some quotes from Catholic tradition about the importance of this book and, by extension the study of the classics of antiquity.

Cardinal Newman says that we should "know what you know and what you do not know". I know that I don't know enough to have the appreciation for The Iliad that I should, but I know that it is an absolute giant in the "common experience" of mankind and has been warmly embraced by Catholic tradition. So much so that it is referenced many times in the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia, including a number of references in homilies and writings of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church.

Here is the quote from The Everlasting Man (from the chapter "The Antiquity of Civilization":

Somewhere along the Ionian coast opposite Crete and the islands was a town of some sort, probably of the sort that we should call a village or hamlet with a wall. It was called Ilion but it came to be called Troy, and the name will never perish from the earth. A poet who may have been a beggar and a ballad-monger, who may have been unable to read and write, and was described by tradition as blind, composed a poem about the Greeks going to war with this town to recover the most beautiful woman in the world. That the most beautiful woman in the world lived in that one little town sounds like a legend; that the most beautiful poem in the world was written by somebody who knew of nothing larger than such little towns is a historical fact. It is said that the poem came at the end of the period; that the primitive culture brought it forth in its decay; in which case one would like to have seen that culture in its prime. But anyhow it is true that this, which is our first poem, might very well be our last poem too. It might well be the last word as well as the first word spoken by man about his mortal lot, as seen by merely mortal vision. If the world becomes pagan and perishes, the last man left alive would do well to quote the Iliad and die.

The following quote was preceded by a history showing how Homer's works have had a pre-eminence in classical studies for, literally, millenia. I noticed in a number of writings by and about Cardinal Newman (gotta love the ease of searching for such things with the Internet) that The Iliad had a substantial influence on his own writings and thinking.

I pass thus cursorily over the series of informations which history gives us on the subject, merely with a view of recalling to your memory, Gentlemen, and impressing upon you the fact, that the literature of Greece, continued into, and enriched by, the literature of Rome, together with the studies which it involves, has been the instrument of education, and the food of civilization, from the first times of the world down to this day;—and now we are in a condition to answer the question which thereupon arises, when we turn to consider, by way of contrast, the teaching which is characteristic of Universities. How has it come to pass that, although the genius of Universities is so different from that of the schools which preceded them, nevertheless the course of study pursued in those {262} schools was not superseded in the middle ages by those more brilliant sciences which Universities introduced? It might have seemed as if Scholastic Theology, Law, and Medicine would have thrown the Seven Liberal Arts into the shade, but in the event they failed to do so. I consider the reason to be, that the authority and function of the monastic and secular schools, as supplying to the young the means of education, lay deeper than in any appointment of Charlemagne, who was their nominal founder, and were based in the special character of that civilization which is so intimately associated with Christianity, that it may even be called the soil out of which Christianity grew. The medieval sciences, great as is their dignity and utility, were never intended to supersede that more real and proper cultivation of the mind which is effected by the study of the liberal Arts; and, when certain of these sciences did in fact go out of their province and did attempt to prejudice the traditional course of education, the encroachment was in matter of fact resisted. There were those in the middle age, as John of Salisbury, who vigorously protested against the extravagances and usurpations which ever attend the introduction of any great good whatever, and which attended the rise of the peculiar sciences of which Universities were the seat; and, though there were times when the old traditions seemed to be on the point of failing, somehow it has happened that they have never failed; for the instinct of Civilization and the common sense of Society prevailed, and the danger passed away, and the studies which seemed to be going out gained their ancient place, and were acknowledged, as before, to be the best instruments of mental cultivation, and the best guarantees for intellectual progress. (John Henry Cardinal Newman, Christianity and Letters)
More on the importance of Greek thought in traditional Catholic education:

Two other movements form the climax of the Church's activity during the Middle Ages. The development of Scholasticism meant the revival of Greek philosophy, and in particular of Aristotle; but it also meant that philosophy was now to serve the cause of Christian truth. Men of faith and learning like Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas, far from dreading or scorning the products of Greek thought, sought to make them the rational basis of belief. A synthesis was thus effected between the highest speculation of the pagan world and the teachings of theology. Scholasticism, moreover, was a distinct advance in the work of education; it was an intellectual training in method, in systematic thought, in severe logical reasoning, and in accuracy of statement. But taken as a whole, it furnished a great object-lesson, the purport of which was that, for the keenest intellect, the findings of reason and the truths of Revelation could be harmonized. Having used the subtilities of Greek thought to sharpen the student's mind, the Church thereupon presented to him her dogmas without the least fear of contradiction. She thus united in a consistent whole whatever was best in pagan science and culture with the doctrine entrusted to her by Christ. If education be rightly defined as "the transmission of our intellectual and spiritual inheritance" (Butler), this definition is fully exemplified in the work of the Church during the Middle Ages.
(from the entry on "Education" in the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia)


Enbrethiliel said...


I am also rereading the Iliad and parts of The Everlasting Man at the same time. However, unlike your case, it was Homer who encouraged me to take a second, closer look at Chesterton.

Is this just a coincidence or do the Iliad and The Antiquity of Civilisation really go together that well? Personally, I have found that the context in which Uncle Gilbert puts the Iliad is the only one worth considering. :)

Love2Learn Mom said...

Yes, I think they do! When Chesterton described the Iliad as the most beautiful poem in the world, I was particularly intrigued and wanted to understand. Naturally, reading more of The Everlasting Man is helping and I've been working my way back and forth.

I was glad that I had recently re-read The Phantom Tollbooth as well.

Thanks for stopping by! :)

Banshee said...

Give yourself a real treat, and listen to the Iliad as an audiobook. I got it out of the library, and....

Honestly, there are just no words for how much better it is, as a poem heard. I'd read the poem before in a couple different translations, but all of a sudden, it was all new. Also, a lot of parts that had seemed boring and unnecessary suddenly were raising the hair on the back of my neck.

Love2Learn Mom said...

I believe it! I've found that even reading something aloud to my own kids has made it a lot more meaningful to me than just reading it to myself (The Ballad of the White Hose by Chesterton comes to mind). Do you know what audio edition you listened to?

Love2Learn Mom said...

Oops. I like that "Ballad of the White Hose". LOL

Enbrethiliel said...


I guess I should brush the dust off my own copy of The Phantom Tollboth, then. :)

Can it really be related to the Iliad? That's a fascinating thought . . .

Love2Learn Mom said...

I'd love to see if you think the Phantom Tollbooth is related too. For me it provided a hint of the worth of personification of ideas (much more grim in the Iliad of course) that I saw more clearly explained later in the Everlasting Man.