Homer and the Greek Ideal

By Geoffroy, Berenice | UNESCO Courier, September 1992 | Go to article overview

Homer and the Greek Ideal


Geoffroy, Berenice, UNESCO Courier


THE two great epic poems of ancient Greece, Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, have been called "The Bible of the Greek world". An inexhaustible source of fable and myth, they lay bare before us the system of values of an elite warrior society. Leaving aside their literary qualities, the Homeric epics become a kind of manual of ethics or treatise on the ideal. Regarded as "classics" in the same way as, later, were the works of Dante in Italy and Shakespeare in England, they were essential reading for any cultivated Greek. Alexander the Great himself is said to have carried them with him on his compaigns.

Behind the shadowy figure of Homer the poet, there seems to loom the silhouette of the archetypal educator, the "transmitter of culture" that one comes across in many civilizations. Whether the works of "Homer" were born of the inspiration of a single man or of a number of bards (a question that does not concern us here), the epic became a "teaching art", containing elements of both technology and ethics, which was to have considerable influence on the poets and philosophers of later centuries. Did not Plato himself accord to Homer the glorious title of "Educator of Greece"?

The Iliad and the Odyssey (generally thought to date from the middle and the end of the eight century BC respectively) are peopled with gods and heroes who provide models for posterity and are the instruments of an incipient paideia (education system). Far from being a kind of spontaneous emanation from the people, as was the accepted view in the nineteenth century, the epic was a complex creation which became the main instrument in the training of the individual and his or her integration into society.

Like Valmiki, the supposed author of the Ramayana, like the Akkadian, Kirghiz and Tibetan poets, and like Scheherazade of the Thousand and One Nights, Homer draws on heroic inspiration to convey a moral message. The French philologist and historian Georges Dumezil was not mistaken when he declared that the Indo-European epics were "works of mature reflection, carefully thought through by talented, ingenious, learned experts" with the backing of a warrior class imbued with aristocratic ideals.

PATHS OF GLORY

As the German historian Werner Jaeger has pointed out: "The history of Greek culture is paralleled in most important respects by the history of Greek literature; indeed, literature, in the sense that this was understood by its earliest creators, was the expression in words of the process by which the Greek ideal was formed." The word paideia did not come into use until the fifth century BC, but the word aretee (virtue, in its original sense) occurs frequently in the epics, signifying a mixture of manly pride, courtly behaviour and soldierly valour. In Homer, aretee means not only individual merit but also the perfection of things superhuman, and then, finally, the essential quality of a noble man. The root of the word aretee is the same as that of aristos (best), from which is derived the English word "aristocrat" in the sense of member of the nobility.

Used at first to extol the manly strength and skill of the soldier or the athlete, then primarily ardour in battle, aretee gradually took on a wider ethical significance. In addition to the notion of manly valour, it came to take on the sense of aidos (duty) and its counterpart in case of dishonour, nemesis (retributive justice). Bearing this in mind, it becomes more clearly evident that the Iliad is really a tragedy of offended honour, as portrayed through the wrath of Achilles. The unending struggle to achieve supremacy over one's peers ("Always be the best and maintain your superiority over others"--such was the precept that Peleus gave to his son Achilles) now developed, for the first time, into the combative ideal, which saw life as an athletic competition and was to become one of the most significant features of the Greek psyche. …

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