The Importance of having a Love of Literature


But #the Cyclops is also one #of the many examples, in the Odyssey, of people who are sub- political, and that is the first thing we are meant to notice about the island. For Odysseus reckons up the place with the eye of #a landsman and a leader. The Cyclopes have excellent bottom land for growing grain; the fields lie overrun with weeds. The Cyclopes have wild grapes growing everywhere; they do nothing with them. They have a harbor for ships; they do no sailing. They herd, and that is all. They have no marketplace. They have no assemblies. Each Cyclopes is the despot over his wife and offspring, and every family ignores its neighbors. –Anthony Esolen, “Out of the Ashes Rebuilding American Culture” 

The quote above by Anthony in his book is in the context of the #importance of the “Polis” or political place and the importance that Ancient Greeks put into it and how it is very important to the United States historically. His going back to and using the Odyssey to make his argument is both very informative and beautifully well done. In the end, Anthony’s arguments not only make the case for the usefulness of the “Polis or political life” to civilization and Western and American in particular, but it also indirectly makes the case for why reading and studying great #literature and the “classics” is so important to humans and human civilization.

As we see from the quote above great literature is not just about telling a great exciting story about heroes and monsters and such. It is about life and how to live and get along with fellow human beings. Great literature is about offering up lessons on life in new creative ways that the attended audience will pick up and listen to. It is also about answering the “great questions” of human existence and of the times. This is very true of the epic mid-evil saga Beowulf. Beowulf besides being about monsters and a hero “kicking ass” is also chuck full of lessons about life from the virtues required to be a hero, the conflict of good and evil, and how humans are supposed to get along and how they don’t get along.

What great literature is at heart are stories, but not just any stories, but stories of learning; for we as humans learn best with being told stories. Great literature is admired, remembered and told throughout the ages because of the fact that they don’t just entertain but tell/answer something of great significance about life, the world, and/or human existence and the meaning of life.

Going back to Anthony and his quoting of the Odyssey, he was arguing the case in his book that American society needed to return to a “polis” like based society where everyone was a part of the “political life” and did their part to help each other and society function. He quoted from Odyssey because he believed that its underlying purpose was to teach those who read it (Ancient Greeks) the importance of the “Polis.” If one is going to argue for a “polis” mentality in society than one obviously has to go back to the civilization that came up with and practiced the idea, the Greeks. Then, of course why not make the point by using what the Greeks used to teach the importance of the “polis” to political life, stories.

I have engaged in this meditation upon the Odyssey for several reasons. First, it was the Greeks who gave us the very word, polis, from which is derived our word for action that has to do with the passage of laws: political. Second, it was the Greeks who invented the study of political structures: Aristotle famously says, in his Politics, that man is a zoon politikon, a political animal. Third, the Greeks bequeathed to us also the form of government we have or believe we have, in part: democracy. And yet-this is my most impressing reason-those same Greeks would not recognize what we have as political at all, but as a corruption of the political, transformed in part by our cultivation of idiocy. –Anthony Esolen

This here is what Literature is all about, finding a new and creative way to teach the importance of and the values of the way things are the way they are in the world and society and why. For Odyssey, and the Greeks, it was what exactly the “polis” was and its importance to society and the “political life.” For the Greeks, it was the everyday interaction of everyone in society and their participation in the political life of the “polis;” that is “getting along with people.” One of the things that was important to the life of the “polis” was that one had to be small to function properly and that the bigger one got the more problems that would emerge to break one down. This was one of the messages in the Odyssey and why literature/stories are so good when they offer up lessons or discuss the questions of life.