The First Question and The Iliad
In one week I’m teaching the first college class–ever–at The Saint Constantine School. It’s on the Iliad, and to say I am excited is an understatement. First questions are always important in a class, but this is the first question of the first class of college at TCSC.
So what will I ask? Not the worst question ever conceived: how did you feel about the text? Iliad is beyond our feelings. If I was bored by the text–and sometimes the ship lists get tedious–then the problem is (generally) in me, not in the great book. How I feel is interesting to my wife and my priest, but not as interesting to my community. We are here to learn the wisdom (such as it is) of Homer and not maunder about me.
A good first question should last a lifetime, because it keeps unfolding over time. We get one insight and that insight leads forward with the question guiding the way. As a result, the question must be big enough to encompass the entire text. Yet the question should also be small enough to force us to particular passages. Otherwise, our discussion runs the risk of skimming over top of the book and not plunging down into the depths.
A good question must be timeless like the text. Homer did not write the Iliad to solve my particular problems, but he wrote to the human condition. To the extent that I am a human person, Homer speaks to me, but my particular circumstances are my own. As a result, a great question will help all people, including me, and so might be applicable to my peculiar place in space and time without being exhausted by it.
The conversation is about the text’s wisdom and only after finding that wisdom about any application to my life.
The Iliad begins in a war and ends with the Greeks and Trojans still at war. The best of the Trojans, Hector, is dead, and the best of the Greeks, Achilles, has shown a fatal flaw: he is human and divine and the two parts of his soul are at war with each other. All Greek readers knew what was coming: Achilles would be dead and Troy destroyed. Nobody would profit from the war as even the winners have been gone from home too long and sacrificed too much to return in triumph.
Zeus, the great god, has willed (or planned) an end for the men of Troy and Greece. What is it? The simple answer, true as far as it goes, is the destruction of Troy and the death of many Greek heroes, yet the Iliad never reaches this end. This may be because there is more to the plan of Zeus. What is his end? Is it being accomplished at the close of Iliad? Does it relate to the place of the gods?
All of us are bound by the laws of nature, the will of God, but still can exercise choice, if only in submitting to fate or screaming against it. What did Homer see? If I can see what this wise poet saw, then perhaps I too can become wiser. At the very least, I will be in community with excellent students looking for wisdom, virtue, and joy.
I cannot wait.