Orthodox -- Unification Dialogue -- Constantine N. Tsirpanlis Editor 1981

The Heroic Code of Homer -- James Kleon Demetrius

To those extraordinary students at the Seminary, who reaffirmed my faith in America.

Part I

The doctrine "man the measure" is so very Grecian. Perhaps it would behoove us to say that it is so very Homeric. It was Homer who propagated it first in the Iliad and then it was passed on to Protagoras, who re-echoed it as his own. This is Greece's chief legacy to Europe, and because of this doctrine, we can say with assurance that Homer invented European civilization. This belief did not exist in any other civilization prior to the Homeric. Neither could the Egyptians, nor the Babylonians, nor the Sumerians, make such a boast. Neither did a sudden efflorescence of creativity occur anywhere else in Europe. Its birthplace was Grecian soil and its teacher was the beloved blind poet.

It is easy to locate this doctrine within the context of the Iliad. In Book 6, verse 208, Hippotochus admonished his son "to strive always for excellence and to surpass all others." In Book 11, verse 784, Peleus reaffirms this creed when he speaks to Achilles, "Always be first, be the greatest individual..." Only on these two occasions had Homer uttered this doctrine of "man the measure." The Greeks were able students; they did not need prodding. It is essential that we analyze this precious legacy and describe its significance.

Homer constantly challenged his heroes with a desire to excel and this could only come about through a course of vigorous action. The pursuit of this excellence would give the individual honor, dignity, fame. Furthermore, Homer taught his heroes not to bow to tradition; they must struggle to transcend it. That is why Greece has given birth to such great heroes whom we admire so much today -- because Homer believed that a man became a real man when he used his own human intelligence and strength and zeal at their highest effectiveness. Only when he did this would he be able to achieve the impossible dream.

In the Iliad and Odyssey we can probe the fierce individuality of each hero. We can sympathize with the sulking of an Achilles, and we do admire the antics and ingenuity of an Odysseus. Each one has extraordinary characteristics of his own, and the reason for this is that Homer taught the importance of individuality. Homer saw the Divine light in each individual, and uncompromising heroes fill his pages, not with the filthy lust such as we have on our literary market today, but with the actions of glorious individuals who understood the worth of human life. Homer never created a single line of poetry where we can read of the standardization of the human mind. He refused to produce carbon copies. Homer made his heroes set their gaze on sublimity and this could only come from heroes who were engaged in passionate activity. Homer's heroes were not those produced on a mass-productive scale, nor were they heroes as we would know them in today's drama and novel. Homer created independent thinkers who could take and shoulder responsibility; he created heroes that live forever, self-reliant, fiery, indestructible, independent in spirit.

This Homeric ideal has had a power of persistent life for nearly 3,000 years. It was stilled to a great extent during the Middle Ages, but this code was reborn during the Renaissance and it was subsequently transmitted to the modern world. Today we have lost sight of it. This is disastrous. It is the fault of our educators and the system of education which they have developed over the last fifty years or so. Education in our society is based upon "studies" and "projects," rather than virtue leading to excellence, and chaos is the direct result. Rousseau and Dewey, with their materialistic doctrine of despair, led us to silly notions. The quality of food which was given to the student to digest was bad, for it was lacking in those important values that lead us toward unity with what is noble. Homer's values inspired devotion, faith, self-sacrifice. Those were the stimulants of the Homeric spiritual life -- away from today's mediocrity, which does not place a premium upon excellence. Toynbee, the great authority on history, had stated that "Hellenism has influenced the world deeply in every branch of intellectual life..." The reason for this he does not give. But this, too, is not difficult to discern. We need to examine carefully what produced such minds in antiquity. Hellenism was a beautiful spirit in constant pursuit of the eternal.

Part II

The heroic world, with its concept of man, was profoundly revered and it set the pattern for all subsequent action of the Greeks for ages to come. Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics (1123a) singled out once again this precious Homeric legacy, "... it is the prize appointed for the noblest deed." He was referring, of course, to the code of honor or what we may call arete; specifically, this would be the Hellene's desire to excel, and the excellence he would be seeking would bring him fame. The furious struggle going on within the emotions of the Hellene would extend him to make the utmost use of his mind and body, and thus through this fantastic agony, he would be able to make a powerful contribution to the cultural improvement of his city. The late President John F. Kennedy was enamoured of this doctrine when he expounded: "Ask not what your country can do for you, but seek what you can do for your country." With this utterance, President Kennedy, without being aware of it, was so very Homeric.

We know that history is a continuous process, but we must affirm that Homer broke away from the antiquated, static societies that had existed for centuries in the Near East. Homer described a new way of life which glorified the individual and placed an emphasis on man as the center of the cosmos -- anthropos ponton metron. Homer's Near Eastern neighbors had recognized a type of existence which had kept the individual obscure for centuries, whereas on the other hand, and for the first time in history (nor can China and India lay claim to such a boast), the Homeric code glorified his dignity. This certainly was the birth of a new philosophy which changed man's entire historical outlook. Homer discovered humanism and he may be called Europe's first true philosopher. His doctrine was highly original, and from this fountainhead has come the nourishment that has served as the backbone to many historical epochs.

What Thucydides states (Book i, 70. 8-9) is very applicable to the Athenians. This conversation is a facsimile of the Homeric code -- " Their view of a holiday is to do what needs doing; they prefer hardship and activity to peace and quiet. In a word, they are by nature incapable of either living a quiet life or of allowing anyone else to do so." Once again, we envision a free man, striving to compete with his neighbor, seeking to excel, searching for his full worth of excellence. Although the individual was pursuing something extraordinary, he was not allowed to break the bonds within which he was to perform. He was offered the opportunity to carve out for himself an El Dorado, but he had to comprehend fully the logic behind the arithmetic that five + five = ten. If he stumbled on the path toward greatness, we would have the birth of a colossal, dramatic figure. We can see examples of this in the character of Prometheus and Oedipus. They, too, are so very Homeric. Thus the Homeric individual was uncompromising, and when he erred along the way, he provided artists with valuable themes for tragedy and poetry. Perhaps Pericles (Thucydides ii, 40.i) kept Homer's memory in mind when he uttered these lofty words: "Our love of what is beautiful does not lead us to extravagance; our love of the things of the mind does not make us soft." Heraclitus was another who had reverberated the Homeric doctrine: "Character is destiny." (Fr. 119) And by this he meant that man ought to make the most of himself.

To the Homeric hero, psychological education and training were totally unknown. What disturbed this hero and what interested him the most was the type of action he had to pursue which would glorify his name forever. He had to unite all his physical and all his mental powers to achieve the tremendous success he was seeking. These fantastic achievements never made the Hellene a neurotic; nor did he find it necessary to observe a visit to a psychiatrist's couch. Athens, too, had been likened to a single individual, who because of the fantastic dedication of its members was able to rise to unheard-of deeds. She had rejected the ways of other worlds and heeded the suggestion of the blind poet, who created for the first time in history, the special worth of man. Wasn't Sophocles being reminiscent of Homer, too, when he uttered in his Antigone (332-3), "There are many strange wonders, but nothing more wonderful than man"?

Part III

The growth of great minds must receive nourishment which comes from the study of a long line of torchbearers -- and this must begin with Homer. Many of the youths of today's world have not studied these works with diligence. They have ignored a very precious legacy and this indeed is a pity. Homeric scholarship is the root and soil from which all future studies must emanate; the study of Homer is the study of human life. Students, and some of their misguided educators, must profit from the reading of Homeric works. The Iliad and the Odyssey have become for mankind the record of a way of life; and through some of the Homeric virtues one gets to know the values by which man ought to live. Sophocles and Euripides -- and we must not forget Aeschylus and Plato and Aristotle -- lived in a troubled world, but never lost faith in the gift of man's great spirit. Homer never sought a classless society. T. S. Eliot had suggested many years ago that a "classless society is indeed a cultureless society." And American education is doing that to its citizens. Its school system is neglecting the intellect for the sake of mass-producing citizens.

We must conclude this discourse with a comment made many years ago by Dr. Gilbert Murray in his Rise of the Greek Epic. He gave a valid explanation for the Athenian miracle which I wish to share with you. There was "in each citizen the willing sacrifice of himself to something greater than himself." This code of conduct did produce the "best and to us the most helpful of ancient religions." This was Homer's philosophy revitalizing a society once again with man the measure of all things. 

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