I have just begun reading Homer’s The Iliad, partly out of curiosity, partly out of guilt for being a history educator and never having read Homer’s legendary epic. It might seem odd to write about the introduction to the poem, but as I read the extended essay I became more and more fascinated by what Barry Powell (the translator) was trying to say in it. So without further ado, here is my synopsis of Powell’s intro:
I found Barry Powell’s intro to The Iliad quite beneficial to read. While I’m not so interested in the details of the life of Homer, the writing and editing process of The Iliad, and the inconstancies that go along with it, what Powell has to say on the importance of the figure of Homer truly was profound.
In today’s age of skepticism and measured data, we have grown quite arrogant in our understanding of the world, particularly in the fields of history, theology, and science. We have worked up endless theories about a solution to a complex problem in our understandings. But what we are especially good at is being skeptics. We are really good at pointing out discrepancies in data. What this really ends up revealing is our lack of knowledge.
As Powell puts it, “we are not by nature intended to know all things.” And we aren’t. This is okay. Especially in history and theology, the whole time we are exploring the minuscule details of a man who lived three millennia ago, we miss the larger, more beautiful picture.
All the details of Homer’s life don’t line up perfectly. This has perpetuated a long, stagnate intellectual debate over Homer’s legitimacy, and whether he actually wrote The Iliad.
Everything isn’t consistent. Shocking right? We can’t perfectly fit together the details of a man who lived almost 3,000 years ago? A book that has been re-translated, re-copied, over and over again for thousands of years doesn’t maintain pure consistency?
Sarcasm aside, not everything will be consistent, especially in the case of someone as ancient as Homer. It’s okay if we can’t figure everything out. Maybe Homer wasn’t real. Maybe Noah and Abraham and Adam and Eve weren’t real. Maybe The Iliad is not the work of a single author but a compilation of 16 different people. But the longer we put on our skeptic glasses in search of the inconsistencies and errors, the longer we withhold from ourselves the beauty of a legendary poet who wrote a world-altering song.
The same can be said about the great Patristic fathers of the Jewish tradition. So much effort in today’s intellectual circles have been exerted trying to disprove the figures of Genesis and beyond, that I fear we are losing the importance they have played not just in Judeo-Christian circles, but in shaping the world as a whole.
“Our faith in the author of The Iliad may be a mistaken one, but as yet nobody has taught us better,” claims Powell. This is why history is important. This is why powerful figures are important. They teach us. They guide us. Let our arrogance and skepticism not tear them down.
Here are some further quotes and a poem from this introduction of Barry Powell that I thought were awesome. Whether you care about The Iliad or not, I believe these are beneficial to examine.
“In brief, to write a history we must know more than mere facts. Human nature, viewed under an induction of extended experience, is the best help to the criticism of human history. Historical characters can only be estimated by the standard which human experience, whether actual or traditionary, has furnished. To form correct views of individuals we must regard them as forming parts of a great whole – we must measure them by their relation to the mass of beings by whom they are surrounded, and, in contemplating the incidents of their lives or condition which tradition has handed down to us, we must rather consider the general bearing of the whole narrative, than the respective probability of its details.”
“The critic eye – that microscope of wit
Sees hairs and pores, examines bit by bit,
How parts relate to parts, or they to whole,
The body’s harmony, the beaming soul,
Are things which Kuster, Burmann, Wasse, shall see,
When man’s whole frame is obvious to a flea.”
“The ingenuity which has sought to rob us of the name and existence of Homer, does too much violence to that inward emotion, which makes our whole soul yearn with love and admiration for the blind bard of Chios. To believe the author of The Iliad a mere compiler, is to degrade the powers of human invention, to elevate analytical judgement at the expense of the most ennobling impulses of the soul; and to forget the ocean in the contemplation of a polypus. There is a catholicity, so to speak, in the very name of Homer. Our faith in the author of The Iliad may be a mistaken one, but as yet nobody has taught us a better.”
“We are not by nature intended to know all things; still less, to compass the powers by which the greatest blessing of life have been placed at our disposal. Were faith no virtue, then we mighty indeed wonder why God willed our ignorance on any matter. But we are too well taught the contrary lesson; and it seems as though our faith should be especially tried touching the men and the events which have wrought most influence upon the condition of humanity. And there is a kind of sacredness attached to the memory of the great and the good, which seems to bid us repulse the skepticism which would allegorize their existence into a pleasing apologue, and measure the giants of intellect by a homeophatic dynameter.”
“Whatever were the means of its preservation, let us rather be thankful for the treasury of taste and eloquence thus laid open to our use, than to seek to make it a mere center around which to drive a series of theories, whose wildness is only equalled by their inconsistency with each other.”