Homeric Foundations

Ancient Greek thought, as expressed both in philosophy and the arts, is pervasively influenced by the Homeric epics the Iliad and the Odyssey. The psychological perspectives of the ancient world are comparably indebted, for these poems are at once studies of character (“personality”) and of the conditions that impel action, distort perception, cause thoughts and feelings, and shape social life.

Any brief account of the Homeric foundations must be incomplete and even misleading. For present purposes it is sufficient to draw attention to two features of the works that appear repeatedly in the later philosophical periods of Greek thought. First, there is the objectification of the human condition, a relentless examination of what it is that distinguishes gods and mortals, one mortal from another, one psychological state from another. The famous maxim inscribed at Delphi, “Know thyself,” has something of an echo of the Iliad and the Odyssey, whose major figures are presented as a kind of typology, each engaged in both external combat and inner struggle. The self-indulgent anger of Achilles is no less portentous than the “wolf’s rage” of Diomedes, who would turn on the gods themselves. In addition to objectifying the moral and psychological dispositions, the epics also, surprisingly, tend toward utterly naturalistic modes of explanation. Thus the impelling motives are found in the chest or the heart, conditions of the body causally producing passions and convictions that lead to action. Homer’s gravely wounded hero falls to the ground audibly, life leaving the body as it loses the blood and the very organs that are life sustaining. There is a literal and a figurative earthiness in the accounts, with only occasional intrusions by the occult and chimerical.

Of equal importance are the simultaneous tentativeness and the multiplicity of explanations presented in these works. There is no pretension to certainty or infallibility, no last word, nothing that a later age would be obliged to take as a received truth. In a word, Homer was scripture, but not revelation, for even the Olympians themselves are accorded no particular epistemological authority. As for the Olympians, they tend to be concerned with their own affairs, often indifferent to and even contemptuous of human lives and foibles. They cannot be ignored, but they also cannot be counted on for help with the eternal questions. In the matter of fundamental truths and their implications, human beings are left to their own resources.