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Hillsdale Hour w/Larry Arnn – Homer’s Iliad Introduction

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HH: Welcome to the Hillsdale hour. It’s the last hour of broadcast of the week. It’s the hour that we raise our eyes, and perhaps some of you raise glasses a little bit higher. And when I am lucky, I do that with Dr. Larry Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College. And we do two things. In the first segment, we review events of the week, and then in segments two, three and four, we talk about one of the classics in order to lift us all up. Dr. Arnn, Happy New Year to you.

LA: Happy New Year, Hugh. How are you doing?

HH: I’m terrific. I’ve got to begin by talking with you not about current events, but Jefferson. I just finished a two hour conversation with Jon Meacham about his new book, Thomas Jefferson: The Art Of Power. It’s a fine book, by the way. I’m not a fan of Jefferson, and I was educated about some of his better aspects, and made more aware about some of his less. What’s your opinion of the man?

LA: Well, all honor to Jefferson who had the forecast to place in a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth applicable to all men in all times. That’s Abraham Lincoln.

HH: Okay. So you’re just going to go with one of the easy ones?

LA: Yeah, no, Jefferson was an odd man.

HH: Yes.

LA: And he reached his greatness in the company of James Madison, who helped to sort out some of his oddness. But his greatness, he did reach. And so he’s not my favorite founder, but the document he wrote is my favorite founding document.

HH: That is something I can agree with. But when I learned additional details, he seduced his best friend’s wife. He was a philanderer throughout his entire life. He spoke ill of Washington behind his back. He contrived and connived, and was paranoid all the time. And on the occasion of Hamilton’s murder, said nothing. These are small things that stick with me. On the other hand, but for the Declaration and the Louisiana Purchase, either of those, we wouldn’t be here. What did you make of his exercise of executive authority on the Purchase?

LA: Well, I think he was wrong to think that it was unconstitutional.

HH: Okay.

LA: So the truth is in between him and Alexander Hamilton, and therefore, it’s about where James Madison said it was about the Constitution. The Constitution is less a set of strict rules of what the government can do, although it is that, than it is a structure. And the danger to America today is how much we violate the structure of the Constitution. We don’t, the procedures don’t, this fiscal cliff stuff that happened this week, for example, didn’t really follow the procedures of the Constitution. And Madison says in the Federalists Papers that the structure is the main source of safety in it. So the Louisiana Purchase followed the structure, and looked to me like it was okay. So…and Jefferson was very precious about things like that in a way that his colleague, Madison, was less precious.

HH: Yeah. Now I today have been talking, we have over at all of the Salem hosts’ websites a petition to support the Second Amendment. It seeks nothing other than assent that it’s important to do so. And that is in the news right now, obviously. People are upset with the Second Amendment. There is a great demand that something be done. And it’s for a period such as this that those amendment procedures exist, Larry Arnn.

LA: That’s right, and the Second Amendment, to understand it, the first thing to understand is it isn’t special. It’s like the whole Constitutional scheme. The Second Amendment protects our right to be involved in the defense of our nation, and of ourselves, and our neighbors. And Constitutional government depends upon many things happening privately that are of great public significance. And that’s the great strength of America – free people can achieve very much under limited and clear laws. Well, the Second Amendment delegates the safety of the country mainly to private parties. And that’s, by the way, the way it delegates most everything the government does. And you know, Jefferson says famously about the Second Amendment that your friend, Jefferson, your new friend, Jefferson, say, that in America, in Europe, you cannot go from town to town unescorted. But in America, you never see a highwayman. And the reason is somebody will shoot him.

HH: Yup.

LA: So that’s the purpose of it.

HH: I was talking with Meacham, who by the way, is a fine guy. Have you met him?

LA: No, no. I admire his book about Churchill and Roosevelt, and think that the book is wrong. But I admire him.

HH: And his book about Jackson is also very admirable, as is this book. It is no small thing to take on Jefferson and emerge on the other side not having embarrassed yourself, much less having written something good. But Dumas Malone and other people there, you know, you’ve got some pretty big people in front of you. But if you had him up to the college, he would be interesting, because he’s a man of faith, quite explicit, but he’s also sort of a man of the center-left, and waltzing around so much with the framers, it would be interesting to see what it’s done to the way that he thinks about politics at some point.

LA: Oh, maybe we’ll ask him. That’s a good idea.

HH: That’s why I’m here. Actually, the reason I’m here is to ask you questions like the one that follows. Two weeks ago, I asked you about what has to happen. You said the House has to go back to the regular order. They have to propose and pass bills and send them to the Senate. Yesterday, I asked Mitch McConnell, and the transcript is over at, if he welcomed the return to regular order. And he was emphatic in saying that’s what must happen now. So I think this, I know, if I am well informed, you’re going down to talk to the House Republicans at their retreat, something I did a couple of years ago, and I doubt I will be invited back, because I say impolite things like you do not know how to message. You couldn’t sell water in a desert to them. But talk about what regular order means, and how it would apply as we approach this debt ceiling crisis.

LA: Well, the United States has a form of government that is divided, but the people who set that form up set it up with a purpose for it to be effective and powerful. And so a mechanism exists for the legislature to cooperate when they’re of divided mind, which by the way, they always are, even if they are controlled by a single party. But the mechanism is, and remember in the mechanism is the Senate and the House were to, they don’t so much anymore, but they were to perform very different functions. And so the idea is the Senate, if something’s got to be done, the Senate passes a bill, and the House passes a bill. And then they appoint a conference committee, and members from each house get together and they have a conference. And there are conference rules, and they’re very old. And the rules say that whatever is in both bills is included, and then the conference committee puts in a new bill the things that are necessary to complete the function that the two bills are after. So let’s say the debt limit thing that’s coming up now – to extend the debt limit so the government can operate. There’d be a House bill and a Senate bill. And whatever is in both of them would go in the bill. And then whatever it took to get the extension, and extend the government, would be added so long as each thing is between the parameters of the two bills, nothing from outside. And so what would have happened in the fiscal cliff thing is something like what did happen, although it could have been much more orderly and less hurried. And that is there would have been some tax increase, probably, but there would have been some spending cuts, too. And that is the method. And it’s true that the House, I was told this the other day, and I think it’s true. I was told it by Congresswoman Rogers from Washington, that the House did appoint conferees on more than one occasion last year. And the Senate refused to reciprocate.

HH: Right.

LA: They wouldn’t send anybody to the conference. Well, I have an idea what you do about that.

HH: Which is?

LA: Well, last summer, Harry Reid and the Senate passed a bill that raised taxes on anybody over $250,000. The House should have taken up that specific bill and amended that however they wanted, a lot. And then they should have said we’ve now passed our version of your bill. Time for a conference.

HH: Time for a conference, yup.

LA: And then that should have been their answer right then.

HH: Yeah, that would have been well done. And now, as they face this, I’m urging that they do the debt ceiling in the House, and append to it crucial entitlement reforms, and send that over. And let them have at it now. Dr. Arnn. Do you think that the Republicans have figured out they have to go straight at the target if they wish to achieve spending discipline?

LA: I think so, and you know, as you mentioned, I’ve been called to come and speak with them at their retreat. I’ve done it once before. This time, I think I’m speaking to the whole bunch of them, which I didn’t before. And I’m proud about that, and I of course know a lot of people in the Congress who are very fine people. And I understand that Speaker Boehner, by the way, is very inclined to this way, has been from the beginning. But it’s hard to manage, because the system places him under very intense pressure. They need to do two things. One of them you mentioned, or you mentioned both of them now. One is they need to go on the offensive, and that means put together what they would do and broadcast it, and talk about it.

HH: Hold the second until after the break.

– – – –

HH: When we went to break, Dr. Arnn, you were saying to things the House has to do. Number one, go on the offensive. And number two is?

LA: Well, then they have to talk about. They have to explain. For example, I think that there’s a major opportunity right now before the American people as regard to the question of race, because we are implementing grossly racist policies all over the government – picking by race, discriminating on the basis of race. And large majorities of Americans are against that. The Republicans should start talking about the fact that every American has the same rights, and none has special rights. And they should go on an offensive about that. They should start putting that in bills. They should bring it up a lot. And that, by the way, is a great way to counter, and also elevate and refine, the great debate we’re going to have about immigration, because Obama is getting ready to bring it up.

HH: Yes. I also hope you tell them they need to be trusting of the people, and to be specific with the people, because these generalities are killing us, Larry. They don’t ever speak with, like you just said, specifically to name where race is being used unconstitutionally and immorally, and be specific about its eradication, and to also be specific about, you know, we’ve to raise the retirement age, and everybody knows that. Well, say it. And they just never say anything.

LA: We’re the only nation on Earth that has got precisely the perfect principles to have a multiracial society. And the idea that we have to start discriminating on the basis of race because there are people of many different races in the country? That’s what Lincoln called the old, black serpent in men. You work and I’ll eat.

HH: Yeah.

LA: You know, if you can’t sustain that campaign, then we’re done. But we should go down fighting.

HH: Now let’s turn to our original purpose. We are originalists on the radio show here at the Hillsdale hour, and that is about elevating the mind by going back to some of the great books. But the first question, we’re going to start with Home this week, next, and for as long as you think we ought to stay there. But first, how do you teach people who maybe haven’t used the skill in a long time, or maybe have never used the skill ever, how to read a decent and a hard book?

LA: Well, that’s, it’s an attitude thing, and then it takes some time. So first, the attitude. Homer is the first author of the West, and it’s, you know, 1250BC. And so that’s a long time ago. And we don’t have any writings that Homer wrote existing. And so it’s even unclear who Homer is. It’s very old. In fact, so that’s 700 years before Aristotle.

HH: Wow.

LA: That’s a long time ago, right?

HH: Yeah.

LA: So Homer was a legend to Aristotle. So that’s interesting, because you can have the attitude, this is so old I’ll never understand it, and it can’t say anything to me. And if that’s your attitude, by the way, you will have the attitude of very many classics and philosophy professors, because that’s what they teach in so many schools today. But if, on the other hand, you want to read a fantastic adventure story where a few human types are placed in particular people, and those people are put in action in a great and terrible war, and their virtues and their vices are placed on display, if you go read it like that, and then with that attitude, with the idea, did you ever meet a really brave human being who was also too proud? You’ve met somebody like Achilles. Did you ever meet somebody who was lethal and cunning, and you learned to be careful when he was talking to you, because whatever he was saying, it might mean a dozen different things, and it was extremely effective? You just met Odysseus. In fact, those two people are the archetypes of such people. No one has painted a better picture of such human types in all of human history than those two. And we know people like these people. So, you know, and so the point is Hector, the Trojan hero, Hector was a very brace, and an extremely effective soldier on a battlefield, and he was a wonderful family man, a superb son, husband and father, brother. He was a wonderful human being. Everybody loved him, right? Achilles slaughtered him on display in anger, and then abused his body. Now if that’s not an exciting and an amazing story, set by the way to a poem that has lasted for, what, 3,700, 3,300 years? Then that’s how you learn to read books like that. And there’s a premise, which I’ll just state, because I try to just put it in common sense terms. But here’s the premise. If you think that there’s such a thing as human nature, then anything that’s a really great display of that, it wouldn’t matter how old it is. And certainly Homer, I mean, wow. If you have it, by the way, did you ever read a really great war story? Now read Homer. It’s the greatest of them.

HH: Let’s talk before the break, and afterward, people now may get excited and run out and say I’m going to do that. And they’re going to go and they’re going to find there are a hundred translations in the iBook store. How do you pick a translation? And as to this book, which one do you recommend?

LA: Well, the most famous one is Lattimore, and that’s been around since the 50s, I think. And there’s a new Kindle edition of it. I went and looked. I thought you might ask me that question. And it costs $4.99, and I went and got it. It’s got a good introduction by a guy from Stanford in it that’s worth reading. And Lattimore tries to be noble. And that means the language is elevated, but you get the cadence of it pretty quick. If you’ve ever read James Fenimore Cooper, you know, the Deer Slayer.

HH: The Deer Slayer.

LA: …and all that. Then the Last of the Mohicans is the best one, in my opinion. When you first start reading him, it’s kind of hard. And then it takes off like a roller coaster. So you should expect that from Homer. And by the way, read it aloud. That’s a very good idea, by the way, no matter what you’re reading. If you’re reading Aristotle, who’s wonderful, in my opinion, and also kind of hard, read it aloud to yourself. Stand up and walk back and forth. And with Aristotle, that’s good, because it lends clarity. With Homer, that’s good, because Homer is written in a powerful cadence.

– – – –

HH: I’m talking with Dr. Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College, about one of the great works in literature, Homer’s Iliad. And we haven’t really begun the book, yet, because there are a few more preliminaries. Dr. Arnn, when we went to break, you were saying read it aloud. And here’s something I think a lot of people may stumble over. We are used to quick things now. We are used to YouTube videos and short stories, and edits on television which are quick. And reading the Iliad, and many of the other books we’re going to be talking about in these segments each week, is not a quick thing. And it denies ourselves pleasures to force it to be so.

LA: Yeah, and that’s what’s good about it, see, because I know somebody who is a very well-educated woman, I won’t say her name, but you actually know her, Hugh. And she once, she flogs herself through six books a week, and feels bad about herself if she doesn’t.

HH: Wow.

LA: And you know, it’s impressive, by the way. And she reads good books, too. And she said how many books do you read a week? And I said you know, I don’t really read a book every week. She said you don’t? Wow. What’s wrong? She couldn’t believe it. But the truth is pick some good book, and you know, my teacher, Harry Jaffa, always said you can only really pick three. And Homer is not one of my three, by the way. But pick that, and you know, I can tell you something, if you read Homer with attention, you will never forget it. And it will be your friend until the day you die.

HH: Now what about, though, as you mentioned, this is poetry. This is a completely different form even to people who are seasoned readers who consume a lot. And reading it out loud, as I thought you might say that, but it’s also, you’ve got to learn how to read through poetry.

LA: And that’s practice, right? Just go do it. And it’s very absorbing. It should be quiet and not distracted where you do it, although my daughter, who is an Aristotle scholar, says she does her best writing at the kitchen table when she’s home and everybody’s talking.

HH: Oh, that’s impossible.

LA: There are people who are like that.

HH: She’s a mutant.

LA: She is.

HH: She’s come from a different planet.

LA: She from wherever her dad is. But yeah, if you start, I mean, I’ll read you the opening of it if you want me to.

HH: Please.

LA: If you start, it’s really good. And then just keep at it for a while, and you’ll find out that it’s very good. There’s a scene, maybe it would be better if I read you this little bit. The Iliad, which I think is mostly what we’re going to talk about today, is the story of the Trojan War, which apparently did, darn it, happen. And you know, that’s recent knowledge, because they found Troy. And they’ve been excavating it. And there are things that come together that make them, make you think that it really did happen just like this. Now the Trojan War, do you want me to tell you what happened?

HH: Yes.

LA: I can tell you pretty quick. First of all, it starts with a fight among the gods. And they end up giving rise to a mortal child, Achilles, who’s the hero. And the gods are, and they’re fighting. And the gods even, they even decide to let there be a really big war so a bunch of humans will get killed. And they’re sort of on sides. Some of the gods like the Trojans, and some of the gods like the Greeks. Paris, who’s a Trojan prince, judges a contest among three gods, and he picks Aphrodite. And she gives him something. You get to seduce the most beautiful woman in the world, whoever that happens to be. And it turns out to be Helen, the wife of a Greek, or Mycenaean king. Menelaus is his name. and his brother is Agamemnon. And so darned if he doesn’t carry off Helen. And the Greeks go get her. And all of that I just told you, and the whole first nine years of a ten year war, none of that’s in Homer, in the Iliad. That’s all just known at the time. The Iliad, the 24 books of the Iliad, take place in a few weeks of the last year of the war, and don’t include, by the way, the conclusion with the Trojan Horse.

HH: You see, it’s remarkable when you open it for the first time, and you walk in and Achilles is raging, you have no idea unless you’ve gotten that little summary. When we come back, Dr. Arnn, for our last segment, I want to do things. I would like you to give us a little summary of the role of the gods in literature like this, whether they are believed at the time to exist as they act, and what their relationship is to the characters, and then number two, the segments you want to tease people into. And then we’ll let people know what they ought to read for next week if they want to be up to speed.

– – – –

HH: Larry, three things I want to get in our eight minutes here. The role of the gods in this book, and with the Greeks generally, number two, what segments do you want to read to give people a taste, and number three, what ought they to read to be ready for next week?

LA: Okay, well the first one, the last one is easiest. They should read the Iliad.

HH: How much of the Iliad?

LA: Well, read Book 1 and Book 24.

HH: There you go.

LA: Either one. We’ll start with those. We’ll do those next time. The gods, these are, there are two kinds of gods in the Greek world that matter. There are the family gods, the ancestors. Those are the gods of the individual cities. And that is family piety, which is very strong in Greece and Rome. You kept a fire burning 24 hours a day. You fed them part of the meal. If you failed in that very hard duty, think what it’s like to keep a fire going all the time, then you yourself would not be fed. And the ancestors of the prominent families were the chief gods of the city. The gods that we’re talking about in Homer are the Olympian gods, the great gods, kind of all the Greek gods, or all the gods, because they include the Trojans, too. And those gods are big enough to account for the massive phenomena in nature that go on. They can move the Sun around, things like that. But on the other hand, they’re kind of like us. In fact, way too much like us. Zeus is an incredible philanderer. He rises to power because of a fight between his mother and his father. And his mother favors him, and he kills a lot of people, gods. And they take sides in the wars. And they’re not always just or good. And so that’s a kind of a picture of nature, isn’t it, as it might look to us, because nature does things to us, right?

HH: Sure.

LA: And why does it do them? Why is it like it is? It’s a very different way of looking at the world than the way that is current in, for example, Plato and Aristotle in the great age of Greece that comes later. And that contrast is very important between Homer and the Attic classes, 700, what is it, 700 years later.

HH: Attic classes meaning the Greeks?

LA: Yeah, well, Greece at the time of the Persian wars and the Peloponnesian wars, and the greatest art, the greatest in sculpting, the greatest plays, and philosophy – Plato and Aristotle, and there’s Socrates and their schools.

HH: Now to finish up, you wanted to give us a couple of selections this week to bait the hook for next in Chapters 1 and 24.

LA: Well, I said that Achilles killed Hector, and he drags his body around the Trojan walls, and he bring him back, and he won’t submit him for burial. And Priam, the Trojan king, feels his way with the help of a god into the midst of the Greek camp, and goes to the camp of Achilles to ask, unarmed, an old man, to this greatest of all warriors, for his son back. He writes, line 500, Book 24, “You killed a few days since as he fought in defense of his country, Hector, for whose sake I come now to the ships of the Achaeans to win him back from you. And I bring you gifts beyond number. Honor, then, the gods, Achilles, and take pity upon me, remembering your own father. Yet I am still more pitiful. I’ve gone through what no other mortal on Earth has gone through. I put my lips to the hands of the man who has killed my children.”

HH: Wow.

LA: Isn’t that great?

HH: Yeah.

LA: And then, see, I’ll just tell you, go read it, but I’ll just tell you, Achilles cries and remembers his father, and remembers his very best friend, whom Hector has killed, mistaking him for Patroclus. And he remembers them, and he gives the body back. It’s just lovely.

HH: Now when did you first red this?

LA: I read this in college.

HH: And how often have you read it?

LA: Not very many. Two or three times, I think.

HH: Now here’s a question which has always interested me. Every year when I was n undergraduate, the great John Finley was a professor at Harvard, and people would, he would teach this book, just this book. And hundreds of students would sign up, and hundreds more could not get in. Then they would go, and they wouldn’t show up. Then it would be empty, because no one took attendance, and they still don’t take attendance. Why are people trying to go, and then why don’t they persevere?

LA: Well, that’s, you know, first of all, your listeners are people who listen to you. And so obviously, they’ve got more patience than most. But you should try a little patience. It is so rewarding. And you know, Aristotle’s doctrine is you are what you do. And everything is thin gruel today. Everything is too fast. And so you should populate your minds with beautiful and great things. And you can do that. And by the way, there’s nothing but pleasure in it, although it’s like working out. When you first start, you’re not terribly good at it. But you get better fast.

HH: When do you teach the students at Hillsdale the Iliad?

LA: In their first semester.

HH: So they have to tackle it early?

LA: Oh, yeah. Everybody does. And it’s an art history reader which you can buy off Amazon or our website, and selections from it are. And there are a bunch of people here who really know their Homer. And you know, there are things I really know. But as I always say when I’m talking to you, you want to treat me like I have a deep knowledge of everything, and I don’t. I know Homer pretty well, but I know his context, and we’ll talk about Winston Churchill or Aristotle and the founding, and I know about those things.

HH: A minute to go, the opening of the Iliad, Achilles is raging. About what, so we give people a little lift up into the book?

LA: Well, he gets into a big fight right away with Agamemnon, who’s proud. And they fight over a woman, and they fight, more importantly, over priority. One of the lessons of the Iliad is that glory is important to mortals, because it is a way of immortality. And these are people, you know, I mean, Achilles is told, we learn in a later book, Achilles is told before he goes that if you go to Troy, you will die. But you will be remembered forever, whereas if you stay home, you’ll be happy with your family. Guess what choice he makes?

HH: He goes. Dr. Larry Arnn of Hillsdale, we’ll talk again next week. Thank you, my friend.

End of interview.


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