Defending Homer against Plato

Akilleus and Odysseus

Akhilleus and Odysseus


I’m someone who has difficulty with pure abstract thinking, the kind that philosophers engage in. When I read Plato’s proposal to ban poets from his ideal republic, therefore, his argument is not enough. I only begin to understand what Plato is up to when I examine the specific passages he is objecting to.

Homer comes in for criticism from Plato for providing examples of gods and heroes who are not behaving god-like and hero-like. The philosopher fears that unformed minds might misbehave upon encountering these scenes. In today’s post I examine two examples.

The first seems to us entirely unobjectionable. Odysseus, right before recounting his adventures, talks about how wonderful it is to eat:

There is no boon in life more sweet, I say,
than when a summer joy holds all the realm,
and banqueters sit listening to a harper
in a great hall, by rows of tables heaped
with bread and roast meat, which a steward goes
to dip up wine and brim your cups again.
Here is the flower of life, it seems to me!

Plato is worried that young men will opt for this flower of life and get drunk rather than focus on glory in battle. His question is rhetorical:

When the tables are full of bread and meat, and the cup-bearer carries round wine which he draws from the bowl and pours into the cups, is it fit or conducive to temperance for a young man to hear such words? 

Now, it must be said that The Odyssey has a lot of eating in it. Henry Fielding in Tom Jones refers to Odysseus as having “the best stomach of all the heroes in that eating poem of the Odyssey” and Plato goes on to mention an even more objectionable scene. Again Odysseus is the speaker:

And I could tell a tale of still more hardship,
all I’ve suffered, thanks to the gods’ will.
But despite my misery, let me finish dinner.
The belly’s a shameless dog, there’s nothing worse.
Always insisting, pressing, it never lets us forget–
destroyed as I am, my heart racked with sadness,
sick with anguish, still it keeps demanding, 
“Eat, drink!” It blots out all the memory
of my pain, commanding, “Fill me up!”

Fielding, as a comic novelist, has no problem with such a passage. After all, comedy revels in the earthly. Philosophy, not so much.

Another of the passages attacked by Plato is one of my favorites. He wants to “obliterate” the “obnoxious” scene where Akhilleus tells Odysseus that he would rather be poor and alive rather than famous and dead. Here’s the interchange, starting with Odysseus:

But was there ever a man more blest by fortune
than you, Akhilleus? Can there ever be?
We ranked you with immortals in your lifetime,
we Argives did, and here your power is royal
among the dead men’s shades. Think, then, Akhilleus:
you need not be so pained by death.”

                                                            To this
he answered swiftly:

                                    “Let me hear no smooth talk
of death from you, Odysseus, light of councils.
Better, I say, to break sod as a farm hand
for some poor country man, on iron rations,
than lord it over all the exhausted dead.

 Plato cites this passage, along with other doleful descriptions of Hades, as potentially harmful. After all, if death is depicted as so terrible, young men will do anything to escape it, including run away in battle.

Plato doesn’t give Homer credit for what he is up to, however. As I interpret Odysseus’s journey to the underworld, it is a interior journey where he is trying to figure out what to do with his life. Should he forego fame and spend the remainder of his days with Circe, a beautiful island nymph? Or should he venture out upon the sea again, with all the dangers that entails?

To stay is to be alive, which is why he imagines Akhilleus’s words. That’s not the end of the argument, however. Plato doesn’t mention Akhilleus’s follow-up question:

Tell me, what news of the prince my son: did he
come after me to make a name in battle
or could it be he did not?

Odysseus recounts how brave his son proved to be in the sacking of Troy, which reconciles Akhilleus to his death. Odysseus says,

But I said no more,
for he had gone off striding the field of asphodel.

See this an interior dialogue, Odysseus has had his doubts, but only when he was thinking only of himself. He then realizes that one achieves a kind of immortality through one’s children. This is one of a number of insights he gains from the underworld and he decides to leave Circe and head for home.

In other words, Plato is not looking at the overall argument, which agrees with him. Death does not get the last word. But maybe he worries that Akhilleus’s initial words are so powerful that they will drown out the rest.

In the end, we are seeing the difference between poetry and philosophy: the one delivers drama, the other delivers prescriptions.

Give me poetry every time.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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