Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Warrior and Thinker

This is partly in recognition of seeing Heidi Studer yesterday, for the first time in many years, and partly because my son is reading the Iliad and talking to me about it as we walk to the bus in the morning. (He is finishing up a co-op job in Toronto; as Heidi said, it doesn't get much better than that). I'm going largely from memory.

Homer's Iliad and Odyssey are two masterpieces focused on two different individuals: Achilles and Odysseus. Both are highly intelligent warriors and leaders in the Greek cause. Both are "gentlemen" in the sense of Aristotle's Ethics. Yet they are different: Achilles is more the warrior, more inclined to action and less to deliberation; Odysseus is more the intellectual.

It is possible that Homer simply presents us with two alternatives, similar but different, in order to suggest or reinforce the suggestion that both are admirable. Perhaps it is a sign of the success or spendour of the Greeks compared to other people known to Homer that both Achilles and Odysseus were, so to speak, produced among them. The Trojans, although basically worthy opponents, and somehow partly Greek, do not have great individuals comparable to Achilles and Odysseus.

Another possibility is that there is a development or ascent. The Odyssey clearly comes after the Iliad in chronology--the events of the Iliad take place with the war at Troy still underway, those of the Odyssey center on Odysseus' long journey home after the war. Odysseus is somewhat obscure in the Iliad, before becoming the hero of the Odyssey. Achilles becomes more like Odysseus over time. In the Iliad, at a moment my son recently discovered, Achilles is practically begged by the other Greek leaders to set aside his dispute over honour, and join the fight. (Everyone assumes rightly that his participation in the fighting will be decisive). Achilles says this appeal to him really depends on the whole notion of being willing to sacrifice one's life for a great or noble cause, or simply for the honour for which he has been contending in his deliberate decision not to fight. As if for the first time, he questions whether this promptness to sacrifice oneself, even if noble, really makes sense. At this point he may be rationalizing for his continued abstention from the fight (it is a personal matter of friendship or love that finally draws him in). But in the Odyssey, Odysseus encounters Achilles in Hades, and the latter famously says that now that he has experienced the afterlife, he knows that he would rather be a serf on earth than a king in Hades. The whole quest for honour, or the life of service to the noble, now apparently seems futile to him compared to living a modest life, as long as possible, on earth.

Odysseus, in a funny way, personifies the desire to live a long comfortable life on earth. His service in Troy is apparently required by his position as king--it would have been very difficult to avoid. He does his best to get Achilles to bring the fight to an end--he is in no hurry to fight at the head of the troops himself. And although he performs bravely as well as cleverly in his adventures, he does not seek any of them, and it is clear in fact that his main desire is to get home to his wife and comfort. Odysseus is practically bourgeois compared to Achilles, and like the bourgeois, he is rational in a powerful if not particularly noble way. In the Iliad, with the tremendous fighting going on and the gods themselves apparently regarding the war as the greatest thing ever--something in which one must long to participate--Odysseus can appear slightly ridiculous, like Sancho Panzo to Achilles' Don Quixote. Yet over the course of the two works, the cooler and more rational life arguably emerges as the superior one. Among other things, it may be more coherent: is Achilles fighting for girlfriends and boyfriends, for his home country, for all the Greeks, for the disembodied honourable or noble, or what? For another thing, rationality may be something we can make progress in. We may even figure out how to shorten wars, or how to limit the damage they cause, or how to prevent them. This brings to mind the bourgeois again.

If I am right in all this, Homer is waiting for a hero like Socrates who questions the nobility of all lives other than his own, and at least implicitly debunks them. If Nietzsche is right that Western rationalism has culminated in nihilism, and the seed of nihilism is sown by Socrates, more or less at the beginning, then Homer may be among the plants that give rise to the seed (sorry for the horrible figure of speech).

Seeing Heidi reminded me of the whole company and phenomenon of students of Leon Craig at the University of Alberta. Leon, like all the so-called Straussians, came to emphasize the teaching of the great books as the fundamental approach to political philosophy and political science. He added some personal points of emphasis of his own, delivered to students in carefully crafted lectures. Heidi was one of his closest students, if not the closest, and later became his colleague. He and Heidi have both been literally inspirations to many students, and Heidi updated me on how many former students at Alberta are now teaching in the U.S. She said something like: if any prof in political science at Alberta has ever had an international reputation, it is Leon. What has inspired students? This is obviously hard to say, but a demonstration of personal passion is certainly part of it.

Going way beyond anything I could prove, I would venture to say Leon and Heidi know that Western rationalism "as read," as known to thoughtful observers, corresponds at least roughly to what Nietzsche says: the end has been nihilism, and that end was at least somewhat anticipated in Socrates. They want to say to students, and they obviously have some success in delivering this message, that the end need not be nihilism, that there is real hope of restoring or re-discovering natural right.

How this compares to Leo Strauss himself, who certainly inspired students in his day, I'm not sure. From what I gather, he had a kind of cheerfulness about him, as opposed to a zealot's conviction that righteousness lay ahead. His actual published sentences about natural right are famously cryptic and deliberately comic. He agreed with Nietzsche to the extent of saying the West has come to a crisis, the crisis has been driven largely by great books and great thinkers, and presumably there is not likely to be a resolution or improvement without new and different great books. Leon as I recall came to use Nietzsche to interpret Plato, rather than the other way around, and I'm not sure Strauss did that. And at a fairly simple level, Leon has argued that the warrior and the philosopher are not far apart in Plato's Republic or in Nietzsche. Their closeness is somehow related to Leon's hopefulness about natural right.

I'm in way over my head, but having written this, I may be able to come back to it some day.

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