Reading Great Books changes you. Though we read long books, which are sometimes long poems, much can happen to us in the process. If we are receptive to the words and wisdom of these voices, then new worlds can open to us, the experience of which can affect us for the rest of our lives.
Consider what seventeenth century English poet John Keats has to say "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer":
Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
There are several images in this poem which function as the analogy to explain the strange spell that comes upon one when reading Homer's poetry. The first should be familiar to us, the "watcher of the skies," who finds a new planet or star and who, like the magi in the gospels, mark a cosmic event to be remembered for all time. In this sense, judgment of Homer as "good" or "bad" or "tedious" or "exciting" is not possible. This is because Homer transcends our subjective experience. He is like a comet or the discovery of a new constellation.
The last comparison—to Cortez the explorer—has become less popular for us today. We find it difficult to imagine the glory that attends the "Age of Exploration," because the idea that Western Culture possessed not only the tools for discovery of other worlds but also the desire and virtue to accomplish it is distasteful. It grates against our swollen sense of pity for those natives who seemed to exist in peace and shrouded in a Rousseauian twilight of natural innocence. But facts are stubborn things, and the truth sheds light of the natural state of man. Take the Aztec sacrificial systems, for instance. Remember, the ancient world was not one of innocence and peace, but rather a dark world where violence was a given as the only means by which to accomplish peace. This is not to defend the bad things that happened in the colonization that followed. It's simply to point out that our judgment of the past is often flawed, and we'd be wise to ask ourselves, "By what standard are we judging?" and "What was the indigenous culture actually like?" and "What does it take for someone to explore unknown worlds and how does a society come to encourage that kind of behavior?" Thus, for Cortez and his men to be "silent upon a peak in Darien" (the name for Old Panama), it conveys a sense of astonishment in their estimation of the glory they might find.
Agenda for the week:
Finish reading Lycurgus
Read Book 20 of Homer's Iliad (have your books!)
Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect. Pray, that you may not stumble.
HW for Tuesday:
Read the rest of Book 21 in Iliad.
Read "Solon, Lawgiver of Athens"
Be ready for a quiz tomorrow.