June 1, 2019

1. Jaeger on Ancient Greece: Homer

I’d like to continue my discussion of Werner Jaeger’s Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture. Jaeger says that the Iliad is older than the Odyssey. The Iliad depicts noblemen on the battlefield. “We cannot imagine them existing in peace: they live on the field of battle. Apart from battle, we see them only during temporary pauses in the war, at their meals, at sacrifice, in council.”

The Odyssey, on the other hand, reflects “the taste of a more contemplative, hedonistic, and pacific age.”1 It depicts “noblemen settled on their estates.” It has a “vivid realism” that the Iliad lacks. The Odyssey is “an epic changing into a novel.”

The Odyssey depicts an aristocratic civilization. “The presuppositions of aristocratic civilization are fixed residence in one place, ownership of land, and respect for tradition.” Another element in an aristocracy is education, training, “good breeding.” “Aristocracy, in all ages and all nations, is marked by discipline, the deliberate formation of human character through wise direction and constant advice.”

Perhaps one part of this educational project is the Odyssey itself, which could provide a youth with models of character, maturity, and manners. Jaeger says that the creator of the Odyssey

loves the men and women whom he portrays: we can see in every line that he admires their culture and their high refinement. It is certain that he had an educational purpose in thus exalting them. He presents the courtesy of his heroes as an absolute value.... For him, the forms and formalities of their life are inseparable from their conduct. Courtesy is the bloom on their lives.

If courtesy, like culture, is linked to an aristocracy, one wonders what will happen to courtesy (and culture) now that the aristocracy has crumbled. As I wrote in a previous issue, “Trump has made a policy of rudeness, but Democrats aren’t far behind. One Democrat, California Senator Kamala Harris, has adopted the slogan ‘Courage Not Courtesy.’”

The Odyssey depicts the education of Telemachus, son of Odysseus. Telemachus is guided by Athena, who takes the form of Mentes, a family friend, then takes the form of another family friend, Mentor. “Mentor watches every step his pupil takes, and helps him at every turn, with kindly words and wise advice.” (This is the origin of the English word “mentor.”) The Odyssey, Jaeger argues, is about education, paideia. “It is impossible to read the Odyssey without feeling its deliberately educational outlook as a whole, although many parts of the poem show no trace of it.”

We see Telemachus mature, under the guidance of Athena/Mentor.

At first, Telemachus is only a youth, helpless before the arrogant suitors of his mother.... mild and incompetent.... It is Athena, then, who trains Telemachus to be a man of strong decision and ready daring, a fit companion for that last fight [against the suitors].

Like the Odyssey, the Iliad has an educational tendency. This is apparent, Jaeger argues, when Achilles’ tutor, Phoenix, tries to persuade Achilles to re-join the army. Like every didactic speech, Phoenix’s speech includes an “instructive example,” the example of “Meleager’s wrath and its disastrous consequences.” Both the Iliad and the Odyssey often adduce examples from mythology, such as Meleager.

Phoenix fails, Achilles refuses to re-join the army. The Iliad portrays “the wrath of Achilles as a universal problem.” Perhaps we can describe this problem as, How to let go of anger, how to govern blind passion. Achilles clings to his anger, he is in the power of Até, the goddess of ruin, “the madness of doom.”

Phoenix’s eloquence falls on deaf ears, Achilles won’t cooperate. “Against the vast irrational power of Até, the goddess Infatuation, every educational resource and every form of exhortation is vain.”2 Homer (or whoever wrote the works attributed to Homer) understood the power of education, but also understood that education is sometimes powerless against human nature, against passion, against the shadow. Homer has “a grave consciousness of the limitations of every type of education.” Man is sometimes controlled by larger forces than his conscious mind. Jaeger scoffs at “modern ideas of free-will, choice, and guilt. The ancient conception is far wider and far more tragic.”

When Phoenix tries to persuade Achilles to let go of his wrath, he mentions the wrath of Meleager, and its disastrous consequences. When Athena tries to persuade Telemachus to take bold action against the suitors, she mentions Orestes, “who revenged himself on Aegisthus and Clytemnestra for murdering his father.”

It could be argued that the examples of Meleager and Orestes point in opposite directions: Meleager points to cooperating, swallowing one’s anger, while Orestes points to hardening one’s anger into violent action. It could be argued that these examples cancel each other out, and show that example can’t guide us in our own lives, we must decide for ourselves, we must listen to our own inner voice, our situation is always unique.3

Or we could argue that Meleager is a good example for someone who’s excessively stubborn/angry, and Orestes is a good example for someone who’s excessively passive/immature. We can view mythical examples, like Meleager and Orestes, as correctives of our excesses, just as a dream might be a corrective of our one-sided tendency. Jaeger says, “myth is a natural corrective influence.”4

Jaeger believes in the educational power of a heroic example. Jaeger argues that an example from history or mythology or our own family can inspire us, mold us, educate us. In an aristocratic culture, Jaeger says, education is about example. He speaks of, “the vast number of pattern-lives described in traditional lore.”

For a child, the most important examples are his parents, the “great man” is his father. Jaeger doesn’t mention parents, perhaps because he wasn’t a student of Freud, Jung, etc.; Jaeger overlooks psychology. In my book of aphorisms, I discussed education-by-example:

The writer is sometimes a father-figure rather than a friend. Shakespeare was a father-figure to Goethe, and Schopenhauer was a father-figure to Nietzsche. When a young reader idolizes a writer, he often wants to imitate the writer, to model his whole life after the writer. The young Victor Hugo, for example, said that he wanted to be “Chateaubriand or nothing.”

In my own life, the most important type of education was education by example. I write philosophy today because I idolized Nietzsche in 1980, I followed his example. Nietzsche was as important in my life as my own father, he was a second father. So my own experience prepared me to understand Jaeger’s argument about the importance of education by example.

Jaeger concludes with some remarks on Plato’s theory of Ideas. Plato’s Ideas are templates, “patterns established in the realm of Being.”5 The ultimate Idea, according to Plato, is the Idea of the Good. Jaeger suspects that Plato’s Ideas originate in “pattern lives,” in heroic examples: “The Idea of the Good..., that universally applicable pattern, is directly descended from the models of heroic areté which were part of the old aristocratic code.”6

When Jaeger writes about Homer, he writes like a literary critic; one might say that Jaeger is a literary critic on the verge of being a philosopher. Jaeger does an excellent job of bringing out the moral and educational aspects of literature, which are often overlooked in our time.

He also appreciates what might be called the Nietzschean aspect of literature — literature as stimulus-to-life, literature as glorifier-of-reality. He speaks of “that ideal world into which the epic raises everything it touches.... The ancients themselves observed how Homer transports everything — even ordinary objects and common events — to a higher plane.”7

But Jaeger doesn’t appreciate the psychological aspects of literature, he doesn’t appreciate that literature can be a message from the unconscious of the writer to the unconscious of the reader, literature can be both created and appreciated unconsciously. Homer succeeds on all three of these levels: he succeeds on the moral/educational level, he succeeds on the mythical/unconscious level, and he makes life more attractive, he glorifies reality.

2. The Trade War

A year ago, I quoted a German journalist named Jochen Bittner, who writes for the New York Times:

Allowing China into the World Trade Organization [was] a huge mistake.... China, which has grown wealthy in part by stealing intellectual property from the West, is turning into an online-era dictatorship, while still denying reciprocity in investment and trade relations.

Thomas Friedman, who also writes for the New York Times, recently made a similar argument:

Trump’s instinct that America needs to rebalance its trade relationship with Beijing — before China gets too big to compromise — is correct.... When we let China join the World Trade Organization in 2001, it propelled China into a trading powerhouse under rules that still gave China lots of concessions as a developing economy. [China no longer deserves these concessions, but it’s reluctant to give them up.] This is no ordinary trade dispute. This is the big one.... China grew not only by hard work, by building smart infrastructure and by educating its people, but also by forcing technology transfers from U.S. companies, subsidizing its own companies, maintaining high tariffs, ignoring W.T.O. rulings and stealing intellectual property.

China must be confronted. In fact, we probably should have confronted China sooner.

3. Putnam and Tocqueville

In the last issue, I discussed the savagery with which Americans treat each other in business situations. Our society has become a free-for-all, a no-holds-barred scramble for wealth, a war of all against all (bellum omnium contra omnes). This seems to be the result of an increase in ethnic diversity, a decline of social classes, and a decline of religious restraints.

Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, argued that, in a diverse society, there’s less trust and cooperation.

More diversity in a community is associated with less trust both between and within ethnic groups.... Putnam describes people of all races, sex, socioeconomic statuses, and ages as “hunkering down,” avoiding engagement with their local community.

People don’t feel “we’re in this together,” they feel, “I need to look out for myself and my family.” It’s every man for himself. According to Tocqueville, in a democratic society, “Equality puts men side-by-side without a common link to hold them firm.”8

In an aristocratic society, on the other hand, each class forms a “little fatherland,” the members of each class are tied to each other.9 The aristocracy may feel an obligation toward society as a whole — noblesse oblige. But in a society as large as ours, as diverse as ours, and as class-less as ours, no one feels responsible for society, no one feels that they can make a difference, so each person looks out for his own interests, and hopes that, as society crumbles, his family can survive and thrive.

© L. James Hammond 2019
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1. Ch. 2, p. 19 back
2. Ch. 2, p. 28 back
3. I think Hegel made the same point with regard to nations: a nation can never act according to historical examples because its situation is always unique. back
4. Ch. 3, p. 40 back
5. Ch. 2, p. 34 back
6. In the last issue, I said that, according to Jaeger, Plato’s Ideas originated in “the Greek urge to seek the underlying law, the universal pattern.” This notion would seem to be at odds with the notion that Plato’s Ideas originate in heroic examples. Perhaps Plato’s Ideas are “over-determined,” perhaps they have more than one source.

Jaeger seems unaware of the unconscious. Scholars are often fifty years behind the cutting edge. Myth is largely a product of the unconscious, but Jaeger says that myth is “the tradition of the great deeds of men of old.... Myth [is] doubtless the echo of historical events.”(Ch. 3, pp. 40, 41) Jaeger doesn’t understand the unconscious roots of myth. back

7. Ch. 3, pp. 41, 42 back
8. Democracy in America, Volume II, Part 2, Ch. 4. “As each class catches up with the next and gets mixed with it, its members do not care about one another and treat one another as strangers. Aristocracy links everybody, from peasant to king, in one long chain. Democracy breaks the chain and frees each link.” (Ch. 2) back
9. Democracy in America, Volume II, Part 2, Ch. 2 back