Friday, January 20, 2012

Homer and philosophy

Today's post is based on a Philosophy Bites podcast discussion between Sean Kelly and Nigel Warburton on the question: 'Is Homer, the great poet of antiquity, relevant to philosophy and if so how?'
  • Most philosophers who study the ancient Greeks focus their attentions on Aristotle, Plato and Socrates. Do philosophers overlook Homer, the poet and attributed author of the Iliad and Odyssey.
  • Homer, who is believed to have lived in the 8th century BC, stands at the foundation of the history of the West.
  • In philosophy he is often seen as providing a poor approximation of our modern, better, understanding of what type of beings humans are. The value gained from studying his philosophy can be characterised as providing insights through working out how and in what ways he was wrong about humankind.
  • We tend to believe that humans are beings who can take responsibility for their actions - this view was first made explicit by Kant in the late 18th century. By the mid 20th century, this rationality is at the centre of our conception of mankind.
  • Is it possible that, because Homer didn't have this modern philosophical conception of the type of beings we are, he might have better understood something important about the options that are available to us in thinking about the kind of beings we are?
  • The conception of human beings as, at their best, taking full responsibility for their actions is incredibly demanding -  this view is most clearly described by John Paul Sartre (1905-1980). For Sartre, Kant's freedom becomes an enormous burden.
  • Homer has a very different conception compared to Kant of what Human beings can be, when at their best. Homer says that the best life is the life that recognises an individual's dependence upon the gods.
  • We can interpret this in a very particular way, it is not necessary to believe in the Olympic Gods for us to benefit from this way of thinking. When humans are at their best they experience their activities as having a source that is not from them. Homer says that when his heroes do great things, their activities are drawn out of them by the Gods.
  • The analogy given is of great sportsmen or musicians. People who are really skilled at something, when they are at their best, tend to describe their actions as "not having themselves as their source."
  • There is also a danger in being too rational or over-reflective and this is illustrated by the paradox of Buridan's ass. This is the hypothetical situation wherein an ass is placed precisely midway between a stack of hay and a pail of water. Since the paradox assumes the ass will always go to whichever is closer, it will die of both hunger and thirst since it cannot make any rational decision to choose one over the other.
  • To live a good life sometimes involves just acting and not necessarily having a good reason for doing it.
  • The danger is that this leads us into immoral behaviour, for example the contagious emotion of the Nuremberg rally.
  • How can we hold onto Homer's idea but recognise that it is not necessarily useful in every case? We need to identify when it is appropriate and when not - this is a skill that we can develop.
  • Surely it is not right to avoid all circumstances where we could be drawn into irrational action by the our emotions, for example Martin Luther King's speech in Washington on civil rights helped us make progress in civil rights which was good for political and cultural progress.
  • In conclusion, Homer explains not just how we are but also how we ought to be - he gives a normative account of how men behave when at their best. Homer helps us avoid or resist the threat of not being able to recognise which action is most important - Friedrich Nietzsche's (1844-1900) nihilism, and Homer thereby remains interesting to today's philosopher.

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