The Aeneid

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The Aeneid

I liked the rest of The Odyssey more than the part with all the monsters; I liked The Iliad more than The Odyssey; and I liked The Aeneid even more than The Iliad. In fact, I love how The Aeneid is clearly structured as a condensed complement to the earlier epics:

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I’ve now read all three in the excellent recent translations by Robert Fagles (I like that he produced these works in chronological order, but The Aeneid was the last major translation of his long and storied career; he died only two years after publishing it, in 2008). My overall reactions to The Aeneid fall under three headings:

Fathers and sons

The first thing that struck me about The Aeneid is its focus on duty and family–themes that resonate strongly with me. I posted about one such passage on another blog.

At the end of book 2, Aeneas faces a choice–take revenge on the villainous Helen, or rescue his family from the crumbling, flaming ruin of Troy? In cinematic fashion, the scene cuts from his enraged face struggling with this decision to him running through the bowels of the city, young son in his hand and elderly father on his back.

In fact, I see another structure here: the first half of the book focuses mostly on his loyalty to his father, looking to the past, and the second half focuses on his loyalty to his son, looking to the future.

Indeed, the end of book 6–his visit to his father in the underworld, and the unveiling of his divine new shield, with its illustration of his people’s glorious destiny–is the perfect transition between the two. The quote below comes right at the midpoint of the tale, and gives me goosebumps.

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Book 8, lines 854-858

Of course, the little boy from the beginning of the story grows up over the years, and by the great battle at the end, he is a young man fighting at his father’s side.

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Property Rights in The Odyssey

I finished Homer’s Odyssey a few weeks ago, and something that impressed me in its second, domestic half is just how consistent the politics are.

Everyone knows the story: Odysseus returns home but must hide from the army of suitors that’s been leeching off of his fortune and abusing his family.  He must use his wits to trap and slay them all.

I was discouraged at first upon seeing just how many pages there were between the famous journey with its monsters and the final slaughter at the end.  It’s several sections long.

But as a middle-aged, middle class husband and father, those sections spoke to me most of all.

That kingdom, with its wealth and people, belonged to Odysseus.  The suitors had no right to encroach upon it, but not only did they do so, they did so with horrifying arrogance.  When Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, asks for the basic care that custom required for a stranger, they react with shock that anyone would dare to ask for some of “their” riches.  They sounded like trust fund babies.

Odysseus, on the other hand, when assailed by another beggar who doesn’t want Odysseus moving in on his handout racket, says that they’re both welcome to prosper as their luck and effort dictate, and berates him with this: “You’ve got no call to grudge me what’s not yours!” (Book 18, line 22).  The beggar has a scarcity mentality; Odysseus’ worldview saw agency and abundance.  The beggar resented and feared the success of others, and violently demanded his “fair share,” while Odysseus was content to live and let live.

And when the hour of reckoning came, and Odysseus was beginning to slaughter the suitors in the locked room, their leader’s plea is typical:

“So spare your own people! Later we’ll recoup

your costs with a tax laid down on the land,

covering all we ate and drank in your halls…” (Book 22, lines 57-59)

…only then suggesting that they themselves also offer something for that collection.

They expected the productive class to bail them out with a reactionary tax hike!

I think the political implications of The Odyssey are clear.  “Suitors.”  Ayn Rand would have called them by a better name: looters.

More of The Odyssey on Living Well

From the Robert Fagles translation:

On Patriotism:

Mine is a rugged land but good for raising sons–

and I myself, I know no sweeter sight on earth

than a man’s own native country. (Book 9, lines 30-32)

On Appreciating Life:

[Spirit of Achilles speaking in Hades]

“No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus!

By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man–

some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive–

than rule down here over all the breathless dead.”  (Book 11, lines 555-558)

On Sharing Memories:

We two will keep to the shelter here, eat and drink

and take some joy in each other’s heartbreaking sorrows,

sharing each other’s memories.  Over the years, you know,

a man finds solace even in old sorrows, true, a man

who’s weathered many blows and wandered many miles.  (Book 15, lines 447-451)

On Eating and Sleeping:

With the roasting done, the meal set out, they ate well

and no one’s hunger lacked a proper share of supper.

When they’d put aside desire for food and drink,

they remembered bed and took the gift of sleep.  (Book 16, lines 530-534)

 

The Odyssey on Living Well

From the Robert Fagles translation

 

On family:

“And may the good gods give you all your heart desires:

husband, and house, and lasting harmony too.

No finer, greater gift in the world than that…

when man and woman posses their home, two minds,

two hearts that work as one.  Despair to their enemies,

a joy to all their friends.  Their own best claim to glory.”

Book 6, lines 198-203

On sports:

“It’s fit and proper for you to know your sports.

What greater glory attends a man, while he’s alive,

than what he wins with his racing feet and striving hands?”

Book 8, lines 169-171