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Hillsdale College’s Larry Arnn & David Whalen on the Odyssey

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HH: The Hillsdale dialogues mark the hour of Hillsdale each week, where I huddle up with one or more of the great, distinguished faculty members of Hillsdale College in Michigan, The last few weeks, it’s been Dr. Larry Arnn, and President Arnn is back with us. He’s joined today, though, by Dr. David Whalen, also of Hillsdale College. Dr. Whalen, welcome to the Hugh Hewitt Show, it’s great to have you with us.

DW: Thank you, Hugh, it’s great to be here.

HH: Now Larry has been introduced before, but tell people a little bit about what you teach routinely at Hillsdale.

DW: I routinely teach English literature, Victorian and 20th Century British literature, in particular, authors such as Browning and Tennyson, and Evelyn Waugh, the great writers of the past two, three centuries. But really, here, we tend to be generalists, so I have taught courses in the Renaissance, drama, lyric poetry, all kinds of things.

HH: Now Dr. Arnn has spent a couple of weeks talking with me about Homer’s Iliad. And today, we’re going to go to the other great epic poem. So I’m going to let Larry Arnn set up again why is it, Larry, that the Odyssey is more well known, perhaps even better loved in modern times, than the Iliad.

LA: Well, it’s a happier. There’s that. It doesn’t end with the death of the heroes and their partial or full disgrace. And also, the Odyssey filled to the brink with examples of the saving power of good behavior, of the practice of the virtues, because there’s a kind of justice that runs through it. And in the end, there’s a real hero who wins through because of good decisions he makes, and moral action he undertakes. So in some ways, it’s more satisfying.

HH: Now Dr. Whalen, I think the Odyssey may be the first real story I ever knew. I think I had it read to me, and I read it many, many times. I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who had the same experience, but many, many more who will not have heard of it in recent years. Could you do us the favor of sort of summarizing what the story arc is before we begin to break it down and why it is considered one of the classics?

DW: Sure, that’s a bit of a challenge, because the hallmark of this story is that it’s really about a dozen and a half stories wrapped up into one. It’s, one of the reasons it’s often read to children is because it’s a rollicking adventure on one level.

HH: Yup.

DW: One adventure in disaster after another. But it’s a story of one of the Trojan, or one of the Greek warriors at Troy who spends ten years returning home. He is the king of Ithaca, and he has a small army with him. But he finds returning home very difficult, because he’s always sidetracked by this or that island adventure that awaits him. He will pull into this island, and half of his crew will be killed by the Laestrygonians, or he’ll pull into that island, and another group of crew will be turned into swine by a divine Circe. So it’s really a series of adventures. But behind all of these adventures is the persistent desire for home, for reunion with his wife and his son, Telemachus. And this, combined with his own kind of restless curiosity, restless energy that frankly causes a good bit of the trouble.

HH: And Dr. Whalen, at the end of the Greek rainbow is Penelope…

DW: Correct.

HH: …who in the Iliad, there are wives, but they’re not really heroines. But Penelope is really a heroine. Is she the first heroine in literature?

DW: Gosh, that’s a good question. I don’t know if she’s the first, but she’s probably the greatest, the greatest certainly of the early ones. Penelope is in contrast of the very engine of the Iliad. The engine of the Iliad, of course, is a domestic catastrophe, the breakup of marriage, and the flight of a wife. Penelope is the model of fidelity. And she is the very opposite of both Helen and Clytaemnestra, whose figures sort of haunt the entire Iliad. So yes, Dr. Arnn mentioned that this is a happy story. Part of the reason it’s happy is because it’s the solidity, it’s about the stability, even amidst peril, of the family and of the home, mostly through Penelope.

HH: Now Dr. Arnn, you have the great, good fortune of being married to a Penelope, who’s also a great heroine, because she has in fact been putting up with you for as long as I’ve known you. And so you might have a dog in this fight, but in terms of why this is sniffed at, I believe, in the academy more than the Iliad, why isn’t is at the same level of respect or taught as much? It’s read more by popular readers, but it’s taught less.

LA: Well, and you know, remember the Iliad is a great assertion of will. The reason Achilles comes to Greece is because he lacks restraint. He rages. And his magnificence, his wonder, his tremendous martial virtues and beauty are just transcendent, except he falls. And so it’s a story of that kind of thing, whereas the Odyssey, you know, first of all, think of the kinds of things that happens. A goddess turns a bunch of Odysseus’ men into swine in their upper torso, and he gets them out of there. Now he commits an infidelity with her to do it, but he’s forced to do it. In another place, Odysseus and his men are locked in a cave with a giant with one eye, who’s a son of Poseidon, the sea god. And the giant is eating them, and Odysseus manages, he’s very clever, to get him drunk. And in his drunken stupor, first his idea is to kill him. And then he stops, and he says no, if I kill him, I won’t be able to get the great rock away from the door. So I have to induce him to get the great rock away from the door. And so he does two things. This is very clever. The first thing is he finally tells the Cyclops his name, and he says that his name is the Greek word for nobody. And then he pokes his eye out with a spear. And then when this particular Cyclops is raging and carrying on, others come to the gate, come to the door and say who is besieging you. And he calls out nobody, nobody. And so he can’t get any help. They keep going away. So he has to remove the stone. So this is a man who thinks under pressure, who restrains himself, who…and all to win his way back to the most faithful woman in human history until the birth of my Penelope.

HH: And he has a faithful son. We have a minute to the break, Larry Arnn. Take us out and tell people about the young man.

LA: Well, Telemachus is, first of all, he’s named after sort of the end of war if you translate his name. And he is, you know, he’s in this house, and it’s the house of the king, and there’s a court there, right? And this courtiers become suitors of the mother. And it goes on for a decade, for goodness sake. And in decency, the royal family has to marry again. And so she puts him off by saying she has to finish this thing she’s weaving for her father. And she weaves all day and unravels it all night. Well, the son is caught up in all this, and is badly treated by these guys, and he’s growing up. And he looks for a way out, and he goes on several adventures to find his father and meet some of the great heroes from Troy. And so Telemachus is a tremendous young man.

HH: And we’ll talk about him, whether there are any Telemachus’ at Hillsdale.

– – – –

HH: Dr. Whalen, as we went to break, we were talking about Odysseus’ son, also known as Ulysses, of course, in the English translation. Do your students read the Odyssey? Do you make the Hillsdale students read Odyssey?

DW: Oh, yes. Most of our students do read the Odyssey. It’s read in freshman English course. And you asked a moment ago are there any Telemachuses at Hillsdale, and in fact, you might say there are nothing but Telemachuses.

HH: And so expand on that. What do you mean by that? What are the virtues of Telemachus?

DW: Well, Telemachus, as Dr. Arnn said, Telemachus is growing up, and he’s suffering this humiliation, having all these suitors abuse him and abuse his mother in his presence. But he’s too young to do anything about it. Well, Athena, the goddess, comes in disguise to Telemachus, and says you know, you need to go from here. You need to leave. You need to leave home, go out into the world and learn, if you can, something of your father’s fate and his history. And she knows exactly what’s going on with Odysseus, but she tells him this because she knows that Telemachus needs to grow up. He needs to leave home, he needs to encounter great men, and great issues, and conquer them in a certain respect. I don’t mean a military respect, I mean he needs to win the respect of great and older people. And Telemachus does just that. So the quip, yeah, Hillsdale is full of Telemachuses, is really a reference to the fact that our college students not only read Telemachus, when they read them, they identify with him. They have recently left home, as I say, mostly freshmen. They’ve left home, and they are experiencing great things, and they’re having to master them.

HH: He comes back, eventually, to the island and makes common cause with his father in restoring his rule. Larry Arnn, there’s…I can remember this from, you know, it’s 50 years ago now, where an old and aged servant encounters the returning Odysseus, and spies him out, understands who he is. It’s very moving, but it’s interesting that that’s part of this as well, and it resonates through the years.

LA: Yeah, well, that’s…you meet, I think there are only two servants left in Odysseus’ household who remain faithful. And they don’t, and neither of them is ambitious for anything, and many of the rest of them are connivers. And when Odysseus encounters them, he discovers, because he returns home concealed as a beggar. And so they treat him well. And then when he reveals himself to them, they are loyal. And he and Odysseus’ father, Laertes, and Telemachus, and these two servants, they kill all these suitors.

HH: Yeah, they kill them all.

LA: Yeah, it’s very satisfying. Penelope comes up with a test. She says now she’s going to announce that she’s going to give way and pick one of them. And it’s just full of wonderful symbolism. It has to be the one who can string Odysseus’ bow, strong enough to do that, and can fire an arrow from it, shoot an arrow from it through 12 axe handles. And so none of them could even string the bow. And then the beggar, Odysseus, walks up, and he strings it, and he fires through the axe handles. And then the servants and Telemachus, and Odysseus’ father, lock all the doors, and they kill them all. And so it’s just one of the happiest events in all of recorded history.

HH: It’s justice is what it is. It’s justice. Now Dr. Whalen, what’s interesting, the recognition of the missing, or the sudden understanding, this is the Road to Emmaus that Christian listeners will recognize, that you are disguised, and they you are made obvious. Is this a recurring, you’ve been teaching a lot of literature for a lot of years. Is this one of the devices that have been used, really, from the time of Homer, to always the same effect, of satisfaction?

DW: Very much so. Maybe not always to the effect of satisfaction, but this business of disguise and revelation is both a device in literature, but also a reality of human experience. I think that’s why literary artists use it so often. In many respects, people are disguised to themselves, and then it takes great events so that their own natures can become revealed to the world and to themselves. I mean, in the case of, you were just discussing the servants, one of the ways in which, although it’s not a disguise, it is nevertheless a revelation, occurs in the novel, is that Eurycleia, this old woman, is faithful to Penelope and Odysseus as well, just as the swing herd, Eumaeus, is faithful to Odysseus and Penelope. And this means that the great fidelity of the aristocrat, Penelope, is not the only place that virtue is to be found. That virtue is to be found high and low. We don’t often see it, perhaps, in the low, but there it is. Homer exposes it for us. And so although it’s a very aristocratic poem, it clearly understands virtue as belonging to humans everywhere or anywhere.

– – – –

HH: All right, now let’s talk about Ulysses, about Odysseus. And you referenced in the very first conversation in this series, Larry Arnn, that he’s the counterpart to Achilles. He is wise, he is cunning, he is not without his flaws, but he’s a completely different sort of leader than Achilles. Good or bad?

LA: Better. Yeah, and see, especially in the Odyssey, Odysseus appears as a great warrior. It ends in a battle. And he wins against overwhelming numbers. And these people are all bad people. But along the way, Odysseus calculates. He proves…he’s the one who thought of the Trojan horse, and that story is told in the Odyssey. It’s not in the Iliad. And so he thinks of ruses. He takes care, he listens to the gods when they give him advice. He is respectful. He has a massive self-restraint. And there are many places in the Odyssey where others in Odysseus’ company eats something they shouldn’t, or takes something they shouldn’t, give into a desire when they should not, and they’re killed for it. And Odysseus, over and over again, does not do that. And that’s a moral example. And to go back to your question about why the Iliad might be more popular these days is that we’re not so much into moral examples as we used to be, and we look for ways to tear them down.

HH: Now Dr. Whalen, the counterpart to that, of course, is nobody gets out alive if you’re in Ulysses’ company. Odysseus doesn’t bring anybody back. And so is there an undercurrent here that he did pretty well by himself, but along the way, every single member of his crew is dead?

DW: Well, as Dr. Arnn said, he’s not perfect. He is magnificent, and he has enormous self-restraint. But he also has something of an adolescent whimsicality. I mean, he is insatiably curious, and so he will see smoke rising from a distant till, and say let’s go over there and see what it is. And his men will say no, no, no. Let’s just get back on the ship and sail away. And he says no, no, let’s go see. And of course, a number of them end up dead. So it’s not that he’s wildly irresponsible. He’s called a polytropos, or a man of many turnings. He’s very wily. He’s very crafty. And he does exercise enormous self-control, but not all the time, and not about everything.

HH: There is a famous episode where he lashes himself to the mast, Larry Arnn, because he wishes to…so he’s very sensual as well.

LA: Oh, yeah. Yeah, he’s Greek. But see, part of David’s point, which is true, is made by the fact that these guys are ancient Greeks. They’re not Puritans. And so when I say self-restraint, he wanted to listen to the Sirens, right?

HH: Yes.

LA: And he stopped up the mens’ ear, and the Sirens call to you and tempt you onto the rocks, and you’re killed, right? They ruin your life. He wants to hear them. So he doesn’t stop up his own ears. He lashes himself to the mast. And that, you see, is, that’s David’s point, and it’s true.

HH: Now we’ve got just a few minutes left, so it’s amazing how much of this, you called it a novel, Dr. Whalen. That was interesting. I was going to say poem, but you called it a novel. It’s in our language, and in our ordinary speech, the Sirens song, when people want to describe, but I’m not sure, and tell me if I’m wrong, that people even know where those come from anymore.

DW: Do you mean the Sirens?

HH: Well, just the whole number of references that have come to us from Homer that people refer to, but sort of unwittingly, almost.

DW: No, no, that’s right. It populates our language so deeply that most of us don’t even know we’re referring to it. By the way, I did misspeak by saying novel. It is, of course, a great epic poem. But like Shakespeare, you know the old joke about Shakespeare, that somebody said he’s not so great, he just strung all these famous lines together. Well, the same could be said of Homer.

HH: Is there a part of it that you want to comment on, you know, a couple of minutes each, that I haven’t touched on, yet?

DW: Well, I might say that an example of this self-restraint is in Odysseus’ dealing with a very young girl, an adolescent girl named Nausicaa. He is in desperate need of her assistance, she has something that he needs, notably clothing. He’s washed ashore on this island, he has no clothes, he’s exhausted, he’s in desperate shape. And there’s this young adolescent girl encounters him, and this is obviously an awkward, nearly impossible situation. He could just take what she has, that is some clothing, clothe himself, and then go into town and see what he can do for himself. But instead, he wins her over to his cause. He holds himself back, he exercises restraint, and while normally he should grasp her knees and beg for her help, he doesn’t touch her. He’s naked, you know. He holds himself back, he talks his way into her trust. And that’s just a magnificent scene, a magnificent moment.

HH: And Larry Arnn, anything I have missed that we’ve set the table here in an attempt to go pick up the Odysseus?

LA: Well, I repeat that it’s this great, long journey, and it’s full of adventure and frustration, and it culminates in a fantastic result. You ought to go read it.

HH: Dr. Larry Arnn of Hillsdale College, Dr. David Whalen, thanks to you both. I would recommend to anyone, is it Lattimore, by the way? Did he do the Odyssey as well, Dr. Whalen?

DW: Yes, he did.

HH: That’s the best translation, and the one you recommend?

DW: It’s a very good one. The one that’s most often recommended now is by Fagles.

HH: All right. Either one, and they’re often almost free, if not absolutely free, if you’ve got a Kindle or an iPhone from which to download. Indulge. Next week, America, we’re going to turn to another very old book, Genesis. And we begin, I don’t know how long we’re going to be in the Bible with our friends from Hillsdale, but they do have a certain order that you follow if you’re going to go from the beginning of Western civilization to the end. And you start with Homer, and it’s not long before you end up over in the Old Testament and Scripture. Thanks to you both.

End of interview.


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