Virtue, Vice, and Homer’s Heroes

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This is an Altum essay by Megan Waardenburg.

ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον 

“Of a complicated man, sing, muse” 

μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος 

“Of the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles, sing Goddess” 

The heroes of literature are transfixed in education: from the stories we read, the paintings and statues we revere, the virtues and vices we ponder, and beyond. Homer’s epics, the cornerstone of classical Greek education, earned Homer the nickname of “the Educator of Greece.” Students memorized and recited passages of the Iliad and Odyssey to learn language, poetry, oratory, and music. The tradition remains, and we continue reading Homer’s stories in school today — but what do we hope to learn from them? Are we looking to them to teach us to tell stories, learn about ancient history, contextualize the literary and artistic canon, or to teach us virtue? 

Homer’s heroes do display virtue — Achilles weeping beside Priam in the Iliad’s final book, Odysseus telling tales of his companions and their bravery to the Phaecians, Hector sharing tender moments with his wife and son. Though in typical human fashion, they display vices as well. Which are they historically defined by, and which ought we define them by today? 

Homer tells us in the opening lines of each epic. Odysseus is a complicated man, neither virtuous or vicious. His most common epithet, πολύτροπος, translates as wily, shifty, ‘of many tricks,’ or ‘of many turns.’ His widespread fame rests not on his virtue, but on his cruelty, lies, and merciless disposition. Achilles is fueled by his rage, not virtue. Though his rage begins as a defense of his honor in the face of Agamemnon’s public slights, he hardly warrants the reverence we lend him when we think of the Iliad and its warrior kings. 

Classical educators and thinkers invoke the Homeric epics often as a call to recognize the virtues our ancestors knew. In recent weeks, amid debates about the nature of classical education, educator Matthew Freeman described the Iliad as “a hymn to the excellence—the virtue—of a hero whose power surpassed that of a whole generation of heroes.” On the other side of the debate, Jeremy Tate referenced Odysseus as an example of “heroic virtue,” concluding by saying “if we want young men to act like Odysseus, they need to hear the story.” Both writers, clearly well-educated in the classical tradition, rightly advocate that readers consider the classics when grappling with the concepts of virtue and living rightly. It seems that some of us have formed a pattern of misunderstanding or misrepresenting the lessons of the classics in favor of appealing to them to support the arguments we wish them to make. It should give us pause to think that perhaps Homer would not want an audience to walk away from his Chionian campfire after his recitation of the Odyssey thinking the imitation of Odysseus is a noble pursuit. 

Recognizing the disparity between the characters of Homer’s poetry and the characters formed from centuries of Homeric reception easily bridges this gap. Around the height of Christendom, Homeric reception fell into the hands of a Europe obsessed with the honor and chivalry we associate with knights in shining armor. Thus Homer’s readers reoriented Odysseus’ and Achilles’ characters to epitomize those values. Instead of an Odysseus who pushes homeward at the cost of his companions’ safety and shamelessly murders the maidservants of Ithaka’s palace, we emphasize the Odysseus who mourns for his lost companions and pines for Penelope after twenty years away at war. Instead of an Achilles who cuts down soldiers begging for mercy while clasping his knees in supplication, we imagine the Achilles who buries his closest friend and avenges his honor. 

Matthew Freeman’s article encourages the reverence of great figures of the past in his article, saying “from Homer till [sic] now, Western Civilization has meant hero-worship; but not just hero-worship in general, or as a principle. It means Achilles, Odysseus, Aeneas, Romulus, Alexander, Caesar, and Jesus Christ.” 

Recognizing the virtues of these figures, both historical and fictional, is not only permissible but commendable — but to compare Jesus Christ to ‘tricky’ Odysseus and vengeful Achilles misunderstands the complexity of man and morals amid the intensity of war, especially one as fraught and bloody as the Trojan war in myth — and undercuts the reverence we ought to have when exalting Jesus Christ as the ultimate role model. 

Why are we comparing men who notably slaughtered their supplicators like Achilles, sacked cities with fire and sword like Odysseus, or destroyed unsuspecting neighbors with murder and rape like Romulus? These acts are not mere cherry-picked stories from the lesser-accessed depths of ancient literature- they are the most notable acts these men committed. 

Jesus Christ does not belong on the same list as these men — ruling by the sword, wielding immense political power, and cutting down neighbors and enemies alike for the advancement of one’s self and one’s polity things Jesus distinctly sought not to do. If we are to make a list of heroes to worship, Jesus Christ is the only one on this list who ought to remain. This is not to say flawed men and women cannot be role models — but the heroes the ancient writers handed down through their stories are not the ones we should be looking to for a depiction of how to live rightly as flawed men and women seeking the Good. 

The problem of both learning virtue and learning from great literature is timeless. St. Augustine himself struggled to reconcile his love of epic poetry with his Christian faith. Ultimately, literature is a corruptible good — it holds potential to spur its readers on to great acts of virtue, but equally holds the potential to justify acts of great evil. St. Augustine in the first book of his Confessions summarizes this in regards to Virgil and Homer: “not one whit more easily are the words learnt for all this vileness; but by their means the vileness is committed with less shame.” 

How ought we respond in the field of classical education? A movement of education seeking to introduce young minds to what is true, good, and beautiful must interact with traditions that include those things, even if corruptible. The virtues must be learnt, regardless of the vices that precede and follow them — and the vices are evils to beware of, holding lessons about living rightly in a world with evil embedded in it. However, we ought not revere the classics to the disordered extent of idolizing them as incorruptible goods, even if we may have unintentionally venerated them as such. Recent dialogue has misunderstood what we must glean from the classics, and we ought to re-order our approach to these heroes to properly contextualize them in the education we present young minds encountering them for the first time. 

Perhaps a more modern bard understood the well-ordered respect for legacy better than we do. Shakespeare’s Hamlet may have said it best when considering the legacy of his own father: 

“He was a man, take him for all in all.” 

—Hamlet Act 1 Scene 2

Megan Waardenburg is a graduate of The King’s College Humanities program and a rising MA student of Classics at Villanova University. She works full time at Classical Academic Press as a Marketing Coordinator.

Note: Contributors to Altum share their own thoughts and do not represent ClassicalU.com or Classical Academic Press. If you are interested in writing for Altum, please complete the form at the bottom of our landing page.

Responses

  1. Thank you for this article — a great start that doesn’t ignore the glaring problems of our classics heroes when well-meaning educators ignore their vices and only applaud their virtues. But I wish the article would have addresses the how more specifically and how to apply it when we seem to use classic heroes as examples more often than not. So…it’s okay to regard Odysseus as a great husband, even though he slept with many women, because he eventually came home? Or Odysseus was a great man, even though his own ambitions and pride led to the death of all those who followed him? I get so confused how to think about classical heroes.