A Method and its Practical Application

A Method and its Practical Application (Sophomore Essay, 1969)

St. John’s College, Annapolis, Maryland

Part I: The Method

An Ideal Definition of Art

I consider a poet to be an artist. I consider a poem to be a work of art. There is a certain method of thinking which an artist uses as he composes a work of art. It is this same method which a beholder employs as he appreciates the work of art. By composition, I mean, in a crude sense, putting together. I use the word appreciation in an unusual sense. In saying that the beholder appreciates the work of art, I mean that the beholder goes through a process of thought which is the reverse of that process through which the artist went as he composed. In a crude sense, I mean that the beholder takes apart.

How does the beholder appreciate? He begins by asking certain questions of the text. These questions grow out of one basic precept which the beholder adheres to on faith, as he approaches any work of art. This is the precept that the artist creates nothing without purpose.These questions, which the beholder asks, are questions which the artist intended him to find. The beholder finds answers in the text which the artist intended him to find. When the beholder has answered all his questions, what does he have? A philosophy is what he has. The same philosophy which the artist held and intended to convey.

As the artist is composing, he is enjoying the activity of invention. As the beholder appreciates, he is enjoying the activity of discovery. The sensations of these two activities are difficult to distinguish, and I am inclined to believe that the difference between the activities themselves is only a matter of direction. Invention and discovery are the most pleasurable and important activities of the mind, which is itself in tun the highest faculty of the body. Most men have a need to exercise the faculties of their minds. This need may be satisfied through discovery in art. The sensation of discovery in science is what art imitates.

Discovering interpretation in art gives a feeling of satisfaction which is an imitation of the sensation of discovering order in nature in the form of a physical law or a geometric proposition. The truths of physics and geometry are less available to most people because it requires long and difficult study to be in a position to participate in such fields. Few may participate in Science or Mathematics, and yet many have need for insight and discovery, the need to learn. Examining a text in this fashion is similar to astronomers examining the terrain of Mars in an effort to decide if the complex of lines is an effect of nature, or a system of canals constructed by intelligent beings.

There is an argument which states that the mind has such a drive to find meaning and significance that people given a page of nonsense or gibberish to interpret will fabricate some interpretation for it rather than say that it is meaningless. Many artists of questionable merit have supposed this argument true and have tried to take advantage of that fact. I consider these activities of invention and discovery to be the only important objects or ends in art. The work which the artist composes is merely a vehicle for the exercise of invention and is subordinate to the activity itself. The work which the beholder appreciates is merely a catalyst or agent which excites the activity of discovery in him. These activities and their accompanying sensations are what make art something distinct from both things which are merely pretty and excite the lower faculties but have no content or import for the mind and also from things which have nothing but content for the mind, or, to but it crudely, bare knowledge.

That there is a method of thought which is exercised at least on the part of the beholder.

I have admitted that my definition of art is an ideal definition, that is, in no sense conformable in it s entirety with our experience of reality. And yet, various aspects of the definition are obviously pertinent to our experience with poetry and prose. Although the argument for the validity of those things which I assert about the artist is a vain one to pursue, since the thoughts and motives of the greatest artists are inaccessible to us, it is certainly obvious that people behave as though they believed such things about the artist to be true, when they are confronted with a work of poetry or prose. People habitually make assertions and judgments about works of art which they can only arrive at by means of that certain process of thought which I alluded to above, and which they legitimately maintain only by assuming that the artist shares this same process of thought and creates nothing independent or in excess of this process. And yet no one ever tries to be explicit or exact about this method of thought which is so often employed.

That this method of thought is natural and common among people

An example may be found in Plato’s Ion, which , not in content but in form, is a paradigm for this method of thought.

(543,d) Herein lies the reason why the Deity has bereft them of their senses, and uses them as ministers, along with soothsayers and godly seers; it is in order that we listeners may know that it is not they who utter these precious revelations while their mind is not within them, but that it is the God himself who speaks, and through them becomes articulate to us. The most convincing evidence of this statement is offered by Tynnichus of Chalcis. He never composed a single poem worth recalling, save the song of praise which everyone repeats, well nigh the finest of all lyrical poems, and absolutely what he called it, an “Invention of the Muses”. By this example above all, it seems to me, the God would show us, lest we doubt, that these lovely poems are not of man or human workmanship, but are divine and from the Gods, and that the poets are nothing but interpreters of the Gods, each one possessed by the Divinity to whom he is in bondage. And to prove this, the Deity on purpose sang the loveliest of all lyrics through the most miserable poet.

What Socrates is saying is, in effect, this: The fact that the most miserable poet composed the most beautiful poem is of too high a degree of organization to be accidental or insignificant. The attendant circumstances surrounding the composition of poetry, i.e., the frenzied emotional state of the poet, and the poet’s inability to intelligently discuss his creation, together with this highly significant fact about Tynnichus, create too reasonable a ground for us not to conclude that the idea of poetry coming , not through art, but thou rh dine inspiration, is intentional on the part of some agent. I am calling attention in this passage, not to questions of divine inspiration, but only to the form of the reasoning which constituted the method of thought in art.

The epic poets seem to be explicitly inviting the reader to exercise this method of thought upon their works by including so many examples of the method, such as the following:

(Odyssey, Book XIX) Wherefore listen, and read me this dream of mine. I have twenty geese on the place, wild geese from the river, who have learned to eat my corn: and I love watching them. But a great hock-billed eagle swooped from the mountain, seized them neck by neck and killed them all. Their bodies littered the house in tumbled heaps, while he swung aloft agin into God’s air. All this I tell you was a dream, of course, but in it I wept and sobbed bitterly, and the goodly-haired achaean women thronged about me while I bewailed by geese which the eagle had killed. But suddenly he swooped back to perch on a projecting black beam of the house and bring forth a human voice that dried my tears: ‘Daughter of icarius, be comforted,’ it said. ‘This is no dream but a picture of stark reality, wholly to be fulfilled. The geese are your suitors; and I, lately the eagle, am your husband come again, to launch foul death upon them all.” WIth this in my ears, I awoke from my sleep, to be aware of the geese waddling through the place or guzzling their food from the trough, just as ever.

Odysseus replied to her, “Lady,this dream cannot be twisted to read otherwise than as Odysseus himself promised its fulfillment. Destruction is foredoomed for each and every suitor. None will escape the fatal issue.”

But wise Penelope responded, “Stranger, dreams are tricksy things and hard to unravel. By no means all in them comes true for us. Twin are the gates to the impalpable land of dreams, these made from horn and those of ivory. Dreams that pass by the pale carven ivory are irony, cheats with a burden of vain hope: but every dream which comes to man through the gates of horn forecasts the future truth. I fear my odd dream was not such a one, welcome though the event would be to me and my son.”

Again, what is being said is this. The level of organization in the events of the dream is of too high a degree for the dream to be accidental or unintentional, and, within the context of odysseus’ ab sense and the suitor’s presence, constitutes an overpowering argument for the intentional portentous significance on the part of some agent.

By a high level of organization, I mean that Penelope did not dream just of an eagle landing, which might mean the arrival of Odysseus or telemachus, or of geese dying, which might mean plague or famine or any number of other things, nor did she dream of the milkmaid dropping twenty eggs, which would yield a rather strained interpretation in the context of the Odyssey.

Of course, we do not generally trust to such a method of thinking in matters of the physical world as in the example of Penelope. But in the world of the poet’s creation such a method of thought is the only tool we have to find the physical, ethical, and supernatural laws which are made of nothing other than the poet’s own intention. In the world which the poet creates, there is no reliable future portent other than the poet’s implicit manifestations of his intention.

I may now make a general statement of my meaning. This method of thought which ends in a judgment is natural and common among men. It relies on two criteria. One is organization, especially that which is too carefully arranged to be accidental or unintentional. This first criterion is necessary in order to recognize a point of question in the text. The other is the context, or such a set of circumstances as are adequate to establish that the interpretation of this point was intended by the author and is necessary to an understanding of the work. The existence of an appropriate context together with the existence of a point of question whose interpretation would complete the meaning of the work in that context constitute a special kind of judgment upon the significance of that point of question.

The argument which this method employs is the same kind of argument which science employs in order to believe things which it cannot see. stanislao cannizzaro gives a perfect example of this kind of argument in his Sketch of a Course of Chemical Philosophy.

(Alembic Club Reprint No. 13, pg. 11) “Compare,” I say to them/his students/, “The various quantities of the same element contained in the molecule of the free substance and in those of all its different compounds, and you will not be able to escape the following law; The different quantities of the same element contained in different molecules are all whole multiples of one and the same quantity, which, always being entire, has the right to be called an atom.”

Compare certain repetitive images, whose interpretive significance you have tentatively asserted, with the context of the work itself and if you cannot escape from using this interpretive significance to explain the reason for the presence of these images, then that interpretive significance has the right to be called intentional on the part of the author.

That the relationship between the beholder and the work of art is a dialectical one.

Now that I have presented what I mean by art, and the manner in which art is appreciated, I will consider what effect these definitions have upon the relationship between the reader and the work of art. That is, what is the work of art to the beholder? I will try to do this by means of an analogy. Look at this drawing (facing page). What do you see? You see a farm landscape, a man and his dog, and a huge fly looming in the air. All these things are explicitly represented in the drawing. Now inspect the drawing closely. Examine individual lines one at a time from different perspectives and in relationship with other different groups of lines. Are you beginning to suspect that you are seeing some unusual things? A giraffe or a hippopotamus perhaps? But no, that is silly. It would be a great fault on the artist’s part if he had so little control of his lines that they conspired against him behind his back, forming all sorts of ludicrous animals to mock his ability and mar his pretty drawing. Ant yet, how can we assert that a giraffe or a hippopotamus is actually depicted unless we somehow have a knowledge of or take into account the artist’s intent. If the giraffe or hippopotamus is unintentional on the part of the artist, then we must attribute these figures to accident or chance. They are not significant as figures of animals in themselves and if they are considered at all , they must be considered as flaws and imperfections in the artist’s work.

The problem of the drawing leads us to the most generalized expression of the problems of interpretation and understanding in art; subjective and objective judgments. Look at this drawing:

There are two possible ways of interpreting this drawing. If you focus your attention to the right, it appears to be a rabbit. If you focus your attention to the left, it appears to be a bird with a gaping beak. These first two interpretations are based upon subjective judgment. A third interpretation is that the drawing consists of a dot enclosed in a continuous line, which is smooth to the right of the dot, and angular to the left. This is an objective judgment which precludes the use of imagination. Objective judgment plays no significant role in art. The question we must ask when we are faced with the opportunity for a subjective judgment is “Does this make sense in the context of this work?”

Look at the first drawing again. If you knew that the artist was aware of the presence of these figures, the giraffe and the hippopotamus, you would realize that the purpose of the drawing and the intention of the artist is not beauty or mimetic proficiency so much as this subtle insinuation of one thing by something entirely different and unsuspected. And, of course, this is exactly what this drawing is, a puzzle which conceals dozens of images. When you first look at the drawing, all you see is a picturesque farm landscape. But as you study it over several minutes, you begin to see that the leaves of the trees, the ripples on the pond water, and the clouds in the sky, conceal the shapes of animals and peoples’ faces. Once you have found all the concealed images, you are no longer capable of seeing the simple farm landscape again as you first beheld it. It moves as you continue to behold it. You strain to see all the hidden figures, but you can only see them all together for a moment before a tree or cloud intrudes again upon your vision. You try to see the farm and landscape again as you first saw it, but you can behold it only for a moment before a face or an animal peers out at you through the meadows. The drawing is no longer static, but dynamic. A poem is like this drawing. The poem and the drawing possess the same properties, and problems. But this is the point at which the analogy between the drawing and the poem breaks down. You have now done as much as you possibly can with the drawing. You have seen the gross depiction of a farm landscape, found all the hidden images, and appreciated the drawing’s optically illusive qualities. There is nothing more to experience from the drawing. There are no questions to be asked of the drawing or answers within it to be found. The drawing is not dialectical. When the beholder of the poem reaches this stage, he has only just begun the process of appreciation. he has found all the images in the poem. I spoke of these images in my ideal definition as the questions which the artist places in thew work. The reader must ask why the poet placed these images in the poem. he cannot help but recognize their presence, because they are so carefully wrought. He cannot ignore them if he believes the precept that the artist creates nothing without purpose. If he does not believe this precept, art will be for him a thing too arbitrary and uncertain to convey anything more than pretty sounds and descriptions for the gratification of his lower faculties. Where does the reader find the answers to his questions? He finds them in the context in which the poem is set, in the gross depiction of the drawing; the story or plot. The relationship between the poem and the reader is a dialectical relationship.

The kinds of works of art

Now that I have tried to sketch the relationship between the beholder and the work of art, I find that a difficult question arises. How many different kinds of works are there under the method as I have presented it? I describe a situation in which on the one hand, an artist puts together a work in which he places certain questions and answers, the asking and answering of which constitutes some sort of philosophy, and on the other hand, a beholder takes apart that work of art by finding all the questions, answering them, and discovering the philosophy of the artist. Let us say that such a work of art actually exists. I do not think it would be difficult to create such a work. If one were to make his images extremely overt, his answers simple, and his philosophy homely, I am certain that the process of taking apart would be equal to the process of putting together. Consider this work of art in terms of the definition of love in Plato’s Symposium.

(203,e) diotema: He (Love), is neither mortal nor immortal, for in the space of a day, he will be now, when all goes well with him, alive and blooming, and now dying, to be born again by virtue of his father’s nature, while what he gains will always ebb away as fast. So, Love is never altogether in or out of need, and stands, moreover, midway between ignorance and wisdom. You must understand that none of the Gods are seekers after truth. They do not long for wisdom, because they are wise.

According to this definition, the beholder will not love the work of art because, having taken it apart and understood it, he posses it. The beholder may certainly still be drawn to the work for its beauty or wisdom. He will certainly be more drawn to such a work than to a second kind, a poorly composed work in which the questions are obscure and the answers ambiguous and frustrating. But imagine a third kind of work. In order to describe this work, it must be conceded that there are two kinds of written works, the explicit and the implicit, and that two kinds of ambiguities can arise for the reader in a written work, paradoxes and contradictions. The last page of a written work may embody the ends towards which the work is directed or it may be an end only in the sense that it is the last page. When the latter is the case, the reader must consider the book as a whole in order to try to decide what ends are pointed to or arrived at in the text. In an overtly explicit work, such as a treatise, the task of deciding upon ends which are pointed to or arrived at and of drawing conclusions about their value or validity may be a simple one or it may not, depending on the subtleties of the writer and of his subject In an overt work of art, such as a poem, these ends may lie entirely within the implicit and connotative framework which the artist has constructed. Where connotative ambiguities are present in an explicit work, they may be considered stumbling blocks to understanding and may be criticized in their capacity as ambiguities or may even be considered contradictions, and the writer will be judged by some to have failed in his purpose. When these same sorts of connotative ambiguities are present in the work of a truly great artist, they are almost never though of as contradictions by intelligent readers. For a great artist is the most sensitive of all men to such ambiguities and uses them in an exquisite manner to elicit a dialogue between the reader and the text itself. Ambiguities in such a context are not contradictions, but paradoxes. Some paradoxes are not only very beautiful to contemplate, but also are very fruitful in that this dialogue which they excite demands the kind of careful thought and attention which is prerequisite to the understanding of some problems. Such a use of paradoxes is perhaps the only effective manner of approaching those matters which are most difficult because they are themselves inherent paradoxes which cannot be legitimately resolved but are most fruitfully spoken “about’, the end of such speech being the elucidation of the paradoxical nature of the matter and an understanding of the implications in such a paradox. In order to teach the reader about the paradoxical nature of the problem, the writer imitates the of the problem through the distortion of it brought to life in the of the text. The various aspects of the problems which the reader discovers in the course of his dialectical experience with the text leads him to an understanding of the of the problem itself, which is the author’s true subject and intent.

Now we are ready to imagine a third kind of work. Imagine a work of art constructed around some inherently paradoxical aspect of reality, whether it be physical nature or human nature. Since we are dealing with a paradox, it must have at least two possible alternatives, both equally likely and valid when viewed apart and yet mutually contradictory when viewed together. According to the method, the artist places certain questions in his work. Since he is dealing with a paradoxical matter of a dual nature, he must place in his work the questions and corresponding answers of both aspects of the paradox. This will cause violent argument and dissension within the reader as he tries to answer his questions. According to the method, the reader is depending upon the probability or likelihood that a character, object, or relationship has some level of meaning aside from a surface one. He is led to ask questions by two elements of the work; striking motifs – that is, continual recurrence of an unusual object or action throughout the text – and description, detail, analogy, simile, or metaphor which would seem excessive, odd, or out of place unless the artist intended some greater significance. When, through the entire work, motifs and metaphors grow into a suggestive framework which has too high and fine a level of organization to be accidental, the reader assumes it to be deliberate and questions the text to discover, if he may, the artist’s true intent. But the artist is imitating the paradoxical nature of the problem in the text. This imitation appears in the text as a framework with ambivalent properties and in the reader as a passionate struggle in his dialectical experience. Because the connotations of the work are constructed about eternally unresolvable problems, different conflicting interpretations are equally possible and valid. Camps of contention arise. The reader feels that great meaning, understanding, and insight lie just within his grasp. He is enticed to the work again and again. Only his desire is like the hunger and thirst of tantalus, something is just out of reach but eternally unattainable. His task is the task of sysiphus, simple and definable and seemingly within his abilities, and xxx eternally falling short of completion. In the Platonic sense, this kind of work or art is loved, for there is great possibility for understanding (for nothing is loved which is though impossible of attainment), and yet it can never be possessed. The question remains, which of these three kinds of works is greatest? I believe the answer to that depends upon the tastes and patience of the individual being asked. But I think it is clear that the third kind of work is most lasting.

* The drawing facing the sixth page contains an elk, peacock, shark, butterfly, lion, tiger, rabbit, book, coat, boot, hare, rake, barrel, catapillar, pigeon, yardstick, snail, match, turtle, owl, rhinoceros, antelope, watch, skull, cat, cow, giraffe, priest, mummy, humpty dumpty, squirrel, five fish, two indians, twelve faces, three mice, eleven dogs, three eagles, five letters, five ducks two camels, three elephants, seven men, two monkeys, two cymbals, four birds, four bears, four goats, eight frogs, two seals, three beavers, nine sheep, three ladies, five horses, five pigs, two chickens, four alligators, two boys, two babies, and two combs.

PART II: The Practical Application

Having outlined the method, I will now illustrate its practical application by a consideration of three epic poems; The Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer and the Aenead of Vergil. These choices will prove felicitous in demonstrating the method in two ways. First, the poet vergil, being a careful student of Homer’s works, chose certain aspects of the Iliad and the Odyssey to use in the development of his Aenead. These aspects, which Vergil chose, involve images, questions, and answers in the manner in which I have spoken. In showing that Vergil’s use of these images is compatible with Homer’s use of them, I hope that I will be able to lay firmer grounds for believing that the method of thought commonly employed by the beholder is also shared by the great artist as well. Secondly, Plato, also being a careful student of Homer, came to a certain understanding of the Iliad and the Odyssey. This understanding can easily be demonstrated by examining Plato’s use of Homer in his Dialogues. I will try to demonstrate that two of Homer’s most able students arrived at essentially the same understanding of his work and made similar use of that understanding in their own works as well. I hope that this demonstration will provide a persuasive argument in favor of the method as a meaningful way to approach a work of art.

Examining these three epics, I find certain significant details whose presence leads me to question why the poet placed them in the text. These details are not essential parts of the plot. Their absence would not change the poems at all in the judgment of many people. And yet for me these details are the heart of the poem which gives it life and makes it art. These details could be questioned in any order within the epics. Some details discovered earlier by the reader may later lead him to the discovery of other significant details in consequent readings. The details are the essential lines which sketch or determine the wisdom of the poem.


1. (Bk. I, 135) agamemnon: “Either the great-hearted achaians shall give me a new prize chosen according to my desire to atone for the girl lost, or else if they will not give me one I myself shall take her, your achilles’ own prize, or that of Ajax, or that of Odysseus, going myself in person; and he whom I visit will be bitter.”

2. (Bk. II, 800-875)
(line 801) “Hector, on you beyond all I urge this…”
(line 813)”This men call the Hill of the Thicket, but the immortal gods have named it the burial mound of dancing Myrina.
(line 830) “The strong son of Anchises was leader of the Dardanians, aeneas…”
(line 862) “Phorkys and godlike askanios were lord of the phrygians from askania…”
(line 875)”… and the whirling waters of xanthos.” (Bk XX, 73) “Against hephaistos stood the river who is called Xanthos by the gods, but by mortals scamandros.

(Bk. VI, lines 400-520)
(line 400-402) “…Hector’s son, the admired, beautiful as a star shining, whom Hector called scamandrios, but all of the others astyanax – lord of the city; since Hector alone saved ilion.”
(line 504) “But Paris in turn did not linger long in his high house.”
(line 516) “It was alexandros the godlike who first spoke to him:”

4. (Bk VIII, 220-225) “He (Agamemnon) went on his way beside the Achaians’ ships and their shelters holding up in his heavy hand the great colored mantle, and stood beside the black huge-hollowed ship of Odysseus, which lay in the midmost, so that he could call out to both sides, either toward the shelters of telamonian Ajax, or toward Achilles, since these two had drawn their balanced ships up at the utter ends, sure of the strength of their hands and their courage.

(Bk. XI,5-10) “She (Hate) took her place on the huge-hollowed black ship of Odysseus which lay in the middle, so that she could cry out to both flanks, either as far as the shelters of Telamonian Ajax or to those of Achilles; since these had hauled their balanced ships up at ends, certain of their manhood and their hand’s strength.”

5. (Bk. XXII, 143-153) ” So Achilles went straight for him in fury, but Hector fled away under the trojan wall and moved his knees rapidly. They raced along by the watching point and the windy fig tree always away from under the wall and along the wagon-way and came to the two sweet-running well springs. There there are double springs of water that jet up, the springs of whirling skamandros. One of these runs hot water and the steam on all sides of it rises as if from a fire that was burning inside it. But the other in the summer-time runs water that is like hail or chill snow or ice that forms from water.”


6. The title “Aenead”

7. (Bk. I,1) “Of arms and the man I sing…”

8. (Bk. IV, 274-277) Mercury delivering a message from zeus to Aeneas: “Consider your growing ascanius, the hope of your heir iulus, for whom the kingdom of italy and the Roman land are destined.”

9. (Bk. VI,295-310) “There in the center (of Hades) a huge and shady elm spreads out its aged arms in branches; here false dreams, they say, reside and cling beneath all of its leaves, and many shapes beside of strange wild beasts; Centaurs in their stalls, Two-formed Scyllas, hundredfold Briareus, the beast of Lerna, hissing and horrible, Chimaera armed with flames, the Gorgons, Harpies, the shadow-shape of Geryon, with three bodies. Shaking in sudden fear, Aeneas snatched his sword and turned its edge toward their approach, and, if his wiser comrade (Sibyl) had not warned him that they were tenuous incorporeal spirits flitting in hollow semblances of forms, he would have rushed and with vain steel slashed shadows.”

10. (Bk. VI, 905-910) “There are twin gates of sleep. One is of horn, they say, where an easy exit is gi en to shades which are true; the other is white and perfect, of gleaming ivory. Through it the Ghosts of the Underworld send false dreams to light. Anchises, his words completed, went with his son and the Sibyl and sent them out through the ivory gate.

I ask this question: Why did the poets speak in this manner in each of these passages? Any of these passages by itself, with the exception of the tenth, would be unlikely to raise much question in the reader’s mind upon the first hearing of the poem. And yet, when these ten passages are taken together and considered in light of the context in which the Iliad and the Aenead is set, they indicate a pattern which is too carefully organized and made use of in itself, and too necessary for understanding the action and outcome of the three epics to be considered accidental or unintentional on the part of the authors.

Finding a tentative interpretation:

What is it that we are told by the first five passages? The first and fourth passages establish a special kind of relationship between Achilles, Odysseus, and Ajax. The heros Ajax and Achilles are presented as extremes of some kind, while the hero Odysseus represents a mean between those two extremes. Or if one thought in terms of a balance, then Odysseus might be called the fulcrum of a balance with Ajax and Achilles at opposite ends of the balance’s arm. We also know that Ajax is closest to Troy. His ship is the first which the Trojans encounter as they attack, and Hector is the first Trojan to be thrown upon the ship in the attack. These facts orient this relationship between the Achaen heros with respect to Troy and the Achaean hero Ajax with respect to the Trojan hero Hector. Homer is often willing to explicitly weigh one hero against another upon Zeus’ Fate Balance.

(Bk. VIII, 70) “But when the sun god stood bestriding the middle heaven, the father balanced his golden scales, and in them he set two fateful portions of death, which lays men prostrate, for Trojans, breakers of horses, and bronze-armored Achaeans, and balanced it by the middle, The Achaeans’ death-day was heaviest. There the fates of the Achaeans settled down toward the bountiful earth, while those of the Trojans were lifted into the wide sky.”

(Bk. XXII,210) “But when for the fourth time they had come around to the well springs then the Father balanced his golden scales, and in them he set two fateful portions of death, which lays men prostrate, one for Achilles, and one for Hector, breaker of horses, and balanced it by the middle,…”

and Vergil also,

(Bk.XII, 730) “Jupiter himself lifted up the two scales with their balance made even, imposing a different fate on each of the pair (Turnus and Aeneas), which one the struggle would doom and which side destruction would cause to descend with its weight.”

Even Plato seems to have considered the possibility of some kind of relationship between homeric Heroes in the dialogue Lesser hippias.

Hippias: “For I say that Homer made Achilles the bravest man of those who went to Troy, and nestor the wisest, and Odysseus the wiliest.”

The second and third passages make a special distinction between the different names which immortals and mortals give to the same objects. I will denote this binomial nomenclature with the term “dual names” for the sake of convenience, representing such names in a hyphenated form, e.g. Xanthos-Scamandros, Scamandrius-Astyanax, Paris Alexandros, Iulus-Ascanius. “The Hill of the Thicket” in the second passage is our first introduction to a dual name. A few lines above this passage, Hector is introduced, a few lines below, Aeneas. Less than fifty lines beyond this passage, at the end of Book II, a figure named Askanios is mentioned in passing. The book ends speaking about the Xanthos river. In the third passage we are first introduced to Hector’s family. We find that his son has a dual name not between the immortals and the mortals, but between his father and the people of Troy. Hector calls his son Scamandrius, after the river outside Tory, but the people of Troy call him Astu-anax, Lord of the City. In this same passage we see Hector with his brother. His brother is denoted by the ancient name Paris, meaning fighter, and its greek translation Alexander, which may mean either “fighter” or “one who shuns or detests”. Paris’ two names have neither the distinction of godly and mortal nor the distinction of paternal and popular, but are apparently arbitrary. Plato has made note of this phenomena of dual names in his dialogue Cratylus.

(371d-392e) Hermogenes: “Why Socrates, what does Homer say about names, and where?

Socrates: “In many passages; but chiefly and most admirably in these in which he distinguishes between the names by which gods and men call the same things. Do you not think he gives in those passages great and wonderful information about the correctness of names? For clearly the gods call things by the names that are naturally right. Do you not think so?

Do you not know that he says about the river in Troyland which had the single combat with Hephaestus, “whom the gods call Xanthus, but men call Scamander”?

Well, do you not think this is a grand thing to know, that the name of that river is rightly Xanthus, rather than Scamander?

It is, I think, more within human power to investigate the names Scamandrius and Astyanax, and understand what kind of correctness he ascribes to these, which he says are the names of Hector’s son.

Which of the names of the boy do you imagine Homer thought was more correct, Astyanax or Scamandrius?

Look at it in this way: suppose you were asked, “Do the wise or the unwise give names more correctly?”

And do you think the women or the men of a city, regarded as a class in general, are the wiser?

And do you not know that Homer says the child of Hector was called Astyanax by the men of Troy; so he must have been called Scamandrius by the women, since the men called him Astyanax?

And Homer too thought the Trojan men were wiser than the women?

Then he thought Astyanax was more rightly the boy’s name that Scamandrius?

Let us, then, consider the reason for this. Does he not himself indicate the reason most admirably? For he says- “He alone defended their city and long walls.” Therefore, as it seems, it is right to call the son of the defender Astyanax (Lord of the City), ruler of that which his father, as Homer says, defended.

The Dialogue Cratylus debates whether there is any naturalness to names in the world of reality. I debate whether names denote natures in the world of the poet’s creation. Socrates is wrong in saying that Hector’s child was called Astyanax by the men of Troy and Scamandrius by the women. Hector gave the proper name Scamandrius to his son. The people of Troy called the boy Astyanax out of tribute to Hector as the defender of their city. My question is not which name is more proper by what is the distinction which the poet intended the two names to convey. Astyanax is obvious in its meaning, Lord of the City. The significance of the name Scamandrius is a more difficult question. It is the Xanthos-Scamander which battled with Achilles and was beaten by Hephaistos, swearing an oath never again to defend Troy from its fate. It was also the river Xanthos-Scamandros which protected the still living bodies of Trojans in its deep-eddying swirls, preserving them from Achilles’ wrath. I would like to say that the difference between Astyanax and Scamandrius is the difference between fighting and fleeing or, more specifically, between making a hopeless stand against an undefeatable opponent and sailing away from a burning city in order to found a new one. But this statement would be premature. I must wait until this conclusion is inescapable.

The fifth passage intimates that there are some kind of opposites or extremes present either in the scene of Hector’s defeat, in the Scamandros river, or in whatever the Scamandros river represents: Opposites in the same manner that hot and cold are opposites, extremes in the same sense that the hottest spring in winter and the coldest spring in summer are extremes.

What are we told by the second five passages? Vergil patterns his work after the Odyssey rather than after the Iliad. This is surprising when we consider that Vergil draws most of his material from the Iliad. The Odyssey is named for its hero Odysseus, who after a journey which “exhausts the sum of all miseries” arrives at the hope of “coming to a land of happy people and dying a serene old age”. The Iliad is named after the city which Achilles seals his fate to conquer, Ilium, a name which immortalizes the glory of Achilles for all generations to come. Vergil named his work after the hero Aeneas who, fleeing burning Troy, suffers a long journey and dies secure in the knowledge that his son and descendants will build a nation which will enjoy “no limit of time or possession endless power, and peace.” Vergil gives us good reason to compare Aeneas with Odysseus as well as to contrast the two.

It would be a rare person, who, reading the first page of the Aenead, would anticipate basin his entire understanding of the work upon the first three words. It is one thing to say that “arms and man” will be the subject of a poem, which is what the first line of the Aenead seems to be saying on the surface. But it is something very different to make the necessity and vainglory of combat and the prudence and cowardliness of the reservation of self and family into two extreme alternatives between which an individual stands and must choose. And yet these alternatives are established in the Aenead in a very poignant manner.

We see that Aeneas’ son, just as Hector’s son, bears a dual name, Iulus-Ascanius. In a message from Zeus he is referred to as the growing Ascanius but as the heir Iulus. I believe that Zeus is the only figure in the poem who would know the correct usage for these two names. I would like to say that the distinction between Iulus and Ascanius is the same as the distinction between Astyanax and Scamandrius, but again I must wait until this conclusion is inescapable.

In the ninth passage we learn that the false dreams of Hades are all creatures of a dual or manifold nature: Briareus, three monsters with a hundred hands; beast of Lerna, a Hydra with nine heads; Chimaera, a lion in front, a serpent in back; Gorgons, winged creatures with snakes for hair; Harpies, flying creatures with hooked beaks and claws; Geryon, a monster with three bodies. Without the aid of Sibyl or some external agent, Aeneas is unable to distinguish these false dreams from reality.

The import of the tenth passage is the most difficult question of all. Why does Anchises send Aeneas and Sibyl through the gate of false dreams? One answer is that they were not true shades but living beings. Another answer is that dreams which come after midnight were considered to be true while dreams before midnight were considered to be false. This would establish the time of day in which they left Hades. But I believe that it is most meaningful to answer this question in the light of the ninth passage. Aeneas and Sibyl left through the ivory gate because they, like the false dreams beneath the spreading elm, have a manifold nature. The sibyl is at times quiet, at times frenzied as she is ridden by Apollo, howling truths mingled with obscurities and falsehoods. Aeneas is forever between the arms and the man, his own soul a mixture of gentleness and blinding rage.

These images provide us with two propositions. That there is a balance among men implies that theres is a difference among men. That an individual has two natures may imply that he has two forces within him, that he has two alternatives from which to choose, or that he serves in two different capacities. The test of these images is whether these propositions are valid in the context of the work. A detailed interpretation of these three epics would detract from the purpose of this paper. I leave the question of the validity of these images open to the reader. I hope the reader will make good use of this question.

It is evident from the Dialogues that Plato shares with Vergil an understanding of these propositions in Homer. The Republic treats the problem of leading the good life. Plato’s conception of the kind o of education which leads to the good life and his choice of Odysseus as the one fortunate soul in the Myth of er embody Plato’s understanding of Homer.

(Bk. X, 618c-e) “And there, dear Glaucon, it appears, is the supreme hazard for a man. And this is the chief reason why it should be our main concern that each of us, neglecting all other studies, would seek after and study this thing – if in any way he may be able to learn of and discover the man who will give him the ability and the knowledge to distinguish the life that is good from that which is bad, and always and everywhere to choose the best that the conditions allow, and, taking into account all the things of which we have spoken and estimating the effect on the goodness of his life of their conjunction or their severance, to know how beauty commingled with poverty or wealth and combined with what hait of soul operates for good or for evil, and what are the effects of high and low birth and private station and office and strength and weakness and quickness of apprehension and dullness and all similar natural and acquired habits of the soul, when blended and combined with one another, so that with consideration of all these things he will be able to make a reasoned choice between the better and the worse life, with his eyes fixed on the nature of his soul, naming the worse life that which will tend to make it more unjust and the better that which will make it more just.”

(Bk. X,620,c-d) “And it fell out that the soul of Odysseus drew the last lot of all and came to make it’s choice, and, from memory of its former toils having flung away ambition, went about for a long time in quest of the life of an ordinary citizen who minded his own business, and with difficulty found it lying in some corner disregarded by the others, and upon seeing hit said that it would have done the same had it drawn the first lot, and chose it gladly.”

Plato expressed this understanding of Homer in one way in the Theatetus,

(Theatetus, 144b) Theodorus: “The combination of a rare quickness of intelligence with exceptional gentleness and of an incomparably virile spirit with both, is a thing that I should hardly have believed could exist, and I have never seen it before. In general, people who have such keen and ready wits and such good memories as he are also quick-tempered and passionate; they dart about like ships without ballast, and their temperament is rather enthusiastic than strong, whereas the steadier sort are somewhat dull when they come to face study, and they forget everything.”

and in another way, in The Statesmen

(Statesman, 306-308) Stranger: “To say that ‘one kind of goodness clashes with another kind of goodness’ is to preach a doctrine which is an easy target for the disputatious who appeal to commonly accepted ideas. This pair of virtues (courage and moderation) are in a certain sense enemies from old, ranged in opposition to each other in many realms of life. Let us see the principle at work wherever those mutually opposite qualities are manifested. We admire speed and intensity and vivacity in many forms of action and under all kinds of circumstances. But whether the swiftness of mind or body or the vibrant power of the voice is being praised, we always find ourselves using one word to praise it – the word is ‘vigorous’. We constantly admire quietness and moderation, in processes of restrained thinking, in gentle deeds, in a smooth deep voice, in steady balance in movement, or in suitable restraint in artistic representation. Whenever we express such approval do we not use the expression ‘controlled’ to describe all these excellences rather than the word ‘vigorous’?”

If speed and swiftness are excessive and unseasonable and if the voice is harsh to the point of being violent, we speak of all these as ‘excessive’ and even ‘maniacal’. Unseasonable heaviness, slowness, or softness we call ‘cowardly’ or ‘indolent’. One can generalize further. The very classes ‘energy’ and ‘moderation’ are ranged in mutual exclusiveness and in opposition to each other; it is not simply a case of conflict between these particular manifestations of them. They never meet in the activities of life without causing conflicts, and if we pursue the matter further, by studying people whose characters come to be dominated by either of them, we shall find inevitable conflict between them and people of the opposite type.

Men react to situations in one way or another according to the affinities of their own dispositions. They favor some forms of action as being akin to their own character, and they recoil from acts arising from opposite tendencies as being foreign to themselves. Thus men come into violent conflict with one another on many issues. Considered as a conflict of temperaments, this is a mere trifle, but when the conflict arises over matters of high public importance it becomes the most inimical of all plagues which can threaten the life of a community.”

The following diagram represents the understanding of Homer which Plato and Vergil shared and the uses which they made of their understanding.

(Diagram will be inserted when I gain access to a scanner)

What knowledge do these epic poems convey?

In every way of life there are alternatives. There are different goods which may be desired and possessed by men. We learn these things as we come to know the heros of the epic. No one good in itself is goodness, nor does the satisfaction of the desire for ay one good constitute happiness for a man. No excess is good. Certain different kinds of goods together do constitute goodness. The possession of certain of these goods in an appropriate measure does constitute happiness for a man. Which of these goods and what measure of them constitute happiness depends upon the kind of man who is to possess them. No power must be excessively increased, no weakness left unduly deficient. The choice of goods rests upon self-knowledge. The standard of measure is in the balance of conflicting goods which must be achieved. The result of such measure is a stable marriage of opposites. We learn these things from the actions of the heroes and their outcomes. We conclude that it is meaningful for men to speak of a happiness in life but that there may be a different kind of happiness in life for different kinds of men. Is this knowledge any different from the sort of knowledge we acquire from long years of experience with life and human nature? Is this not the most important knowledge for any man, how to live his life well from day to day? Is this knowledge of any different quality whether it is found through experience with men or through experience with works of art created by men who have an intimate knowledge of human nature and its imitation? Is the manner by which we discover this knowledge any different in life than in a work of art; that is, by taking the bare lines which are presented to you, as you meet different people and experience successes and failures, pleasures and pains, and continually viewing them from different perspectives and in relationship to other groups of lines in order to discover the most meaningful interpretations and, perhaps, a method?



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