October 08, 2008

The afterlife of an epic

Plato (left) and Aristotle in a detail from Raphael's The School of Athens. Image courtesy of wikipedia.

This is the very last week here of a long running series on the Odyssey of Homer and what it has to say to us today. You'll also find links and comments about (some) current events. If you like the classics, check the blog archives. The series started August 4 and has run on weekdays since then, hitting most of the stops of Odysseus on his 10 year journey home.

Given the popularity of this story over the ages, it's no surprise that people would have a hard time leaving it alone. The figure of Odysseus keeps showing up in works of literature over the ages.

One place where he showed up in classical Greece was in Plato's Republic. This is a little ironic since Plato didn't have a very high impression of Homer or at least of the moral value of his epics (probably because he didn't get it).

Toward the end of Plato's most famous dialogue comes a discussion of the afterlife commonly known as "the myth of Er." In the story, Er is a soldier who has what we would call a near death experience in which he gets to explore the afterlife and return to tell the tale.

In the afterlife, souls are rewarded or punished for their deeds on earth. For the very wicked, the punishment seems to last forever. Others, after a suitable interval, have a chance to choose their next life. Some humans choose to live as animals and vice versa. Many souls make grave mistakes at this point, choosing what seems to be a pleasant life even though it may lead to further punishment and sufferings.

After all his travels and sufferings, Odysseus has had his fill of adventure and the quest for glory. He chooses a dull life that others rejected. As Plato put it,

There came also the soul of Odysseus having yet to make a choice, and his lot happened to be the last of them all. Now the recollection of former tolls had disenchanted him of ambition, and he went about for a considerable time in search of the life of a private man who had no cares; he had some difficulty in finding this, which was lying about and had been neglected by everybody else; and when he saw it, he said that he would have done the had his lot been first instead of last, and that he was delighted to have it.

As we'll see tomorrow, Dante envisioned a whole different scenario for Odysseus...in hell.

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LATIN LIVES. Who said it was a dead language anyway?


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