Homer: The Very Idea
By James I. Porter.
University of Chicago Press, 2021.
Hardcover, 280 pages, $27.50.
Reviewed by Jesse Russell.
In 2011 Harvard Professor of English and noted historicist critic Stephen Greenblatt published The Swerve. In this fascinating, if somewhat derivative work, Greenblatt chronicles how the Italian humanist Poggio Bracciolini rescued the De Rerum Natura or On the Nature of Things by Roman poet Lucretius (c. 99-55 BC). In The Swerve, Greenblatt argues that the reintroduction of Lucretius to the West helped to inspire the secular strains of Enlightenment thought. While Greenblatt’s thesis is not entirely correct (Lucretius’s philosophy of Epicureanism was known during the Middle Ages), it does point to how influential one book (in this case, one poem) can be in the formation of centuries of culture.
There are few writers who have inspired millennia of culture. There are few figures without whom entire civilizations might never have arisen. Among these few is the Greek poet Homer. From the Roman poet Virgil’s Aeneid to James Joyce’s high modernist epic Ulysses, Homer has played a critical role in the formation of not only Western conceptions of the epic genre, but how European civilization has conceived of such primal ideas as fate, the home, masculinity, justice, and friendship. It is not a shock, then, that Homer would be a prime target for “canceling.” His epics detailing the Trojan War, The Iliad and The Odyssey, have been called “proto-colonial,” and his works celebrating the importance of self-sacrifice, familial unity, bravery, and piety, are certainly out of sync with the long tradition of deconstructionism that has culminated in twenty-first century “woke politics.”
In his recent work, Homer: The Very Idea, Berkeley literature professor James I. Porter explores the history of Homer’s reception, focusing on the various attempts to construct the illusive identity of the Greek poet. At the same time, following a revisionist tradition popular not only in classical studies but also pervasive in academia through the past nearly seventy years, he argues that the real reading of Homer has been obscured by millennia of Western chauvinism and ideology.
Porter argues that Homer was not always held to a high ideal in Western culture. The great Greek poet was often the target of mocking biographical stories and his heroic poetry could often be the object of biting satire. The fifth and sixth century BC Greek writer Xenophanes criticized Homer for his depiction of the immorality of the gods. The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus likewise argued for the expulsion of Homer from rhapsodic competitions. At the same time, however, Homer was nearly deified in the classical world, called simply “the Poet” in both Greek and Latin. In an anonymous Greek epigram, Homer is referred to as a god or at least someone who should be reverenced as a god. It is this exaltation of Homer as the Western poet par excellence—especially the first canonical Western epic poet—that draws Porter’s criticism.
Porter notes that the Iliad and Odyssey are both poems about war and contain the trauma of PTSD—Homer has been even used to help vets of the Afghan and Iraq Wars. However, Porter argues that classicists have obscured the brutality of Homer’s epic. For Erich Auerbach, to cite one example, Homer was a way to escape and withdraw from the real world during the Second World War. Auerbach’s approach was drawn from 18th and 19th century German Weimar classicist writers such as Goethe and Schiller who focused on the calming and even therapeutic effects of Homer. These arguments seem to ignore (or perhaps ironically highlight) the violence in Homer.
Porter also attempts to deconstruct the Western appropriation of Homer. Homer, since the defeat of the Persians in 480 BC, represented Greece itself. Homer was then appropriated by Athens, Alexander the Greek, the Roman Empire, Christianity, later classicism, and finally, Porter argues, fascism. The not too subtle argument is that Homer was appropriated by Europe and the West in its self creation. Porter tries to deconstruct this world by arguing that even Greek identity itself is a fiction. He further argues that Homer clearly sympathized with the Trojans, who are not too different from the Greeks themselves in the poem. Citing Isocrates as an example, Porter argues that Greeks later toned down Homer’s sympathy for the Trojan enemy in their attempt to create an “ideology” of Greek identity.
Achilles’s wrath and vengeance proved to be a problem for early readers, including Aristotle, who viewed such barbarism as unbecoming of a Greek hero. The anger and the violence in Homer’s poems were aestheticized by critics such as the second century BC writer Demetrius, the first century BC critic Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and the much more famous Longinus, who in On the Sublime praises Homer’s description of battle. In Porter’s view, these classical critics were unequipped to handle the violence in Homer’s poem. Porter suggests, in contrast, that readers should remove the aura from Homer, and, by implication, remove him as cultural capital for the formation of Western identity; they should see Homer’s works as both gruesome and pieces of aesthetic delight. As earlier scholars did for Virgil, Porter seems to depict Homer as an anti-war poet who castigates war as opposed to aestheticizing and celebrating it. Porter takes aim at what he sees as the “aesthetic fantasy” of reading Homer as a great tragic poet who teaches the noble virtues that can be produced by war. Rather, Porter argues, it is the futility and bitterness of war that is Homer’s primary message.
While he provides several interesting historical anecdotes, readers may object to Porter’s method and his ultimate message. There is no question that Homer has been used as “cultural capital” and as “ideology” by Westerners for nearly three thousand years. However, this appropriation of Homer is not entirely artificial and illusory. There are real ethnic and cultural connections between Virgil and Homer, for example, although Virgil certainly does appropriate Homer for Roman use. Moreover, as Victor Davis Hanson notes in The Western Way of War, there is a real living tradition of waging war from ancient Greece (and perhaps earlier) to the contemporary United States Marine Corps. As a result, Homer is just as real to a Marine Corps grunt as he was to a fighter in the Persian Wars, for these two soldiers participate in a real cultural and societal tradition that extends over millennia. Finally, while Homer is, like every great poet of war, critical of elements of battle, he is not necessarily an anti-war poet. War is awful, but it activates certain deeply human qualities that demonstrate true human greatness. In Homer, one of the great fathers of the West, these values include courage, perseverance, and ultimately, as Helen notes of Hector at his funeral at the end of the Iliad, kindness.
Jesse Russell has written for publications such as Catholic World Report, The Claremont Review of Books Digital, and Front Porch Republic.
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