‘The Odyssey, the most magnificent travelogue of all time, will concern us here…’
Ulysse et les Sirènes, Victor Mottez, 1848
No matter what age we are, it seems we never lack for well-wishers who understand just what our faults are, just what we’re doing wrong, and just what we need to do to set our lives aright. If by chance we should suffer no such lack, then our own consciences may tell us that we’re on the wrong path, that others like us have done better or achieved more, and we should follow their example. As writers, we may judge ourselves by which magazines choose to print our work, or whether the book we’ve spent so much time on has found a publisher. Ever and always, some well-traveled road beckons, the thickets of standards and convention narrow our view, and the woods rising beyond look dark and dangerous.
To be sure, there’s something to be said for listening to the opinions of others. The British philosopher and logician Bertrand Russell advised us that, “One should as a rule respect public opinion in so far as is necessary to avoid starvation and to keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny, and is likely to interfere with happiness in all kinds of ways.” “Unnecessary tyranny”—well put. But once we have decided to ignore convention, at least within reason, and especially if we’re writers, for whom few established routes exist, we still confront the question: How should we best live our lives? Assuming we’ve rejected or outgrown the theistic creeds, ideological credos, and treatises of self-help nonsense still propounded as saving by an unfortunately large number of our contemporaries, is there any philosophy that can help us get the most out of our brief time on this planet?
There’s no one answer, I think, but rather a variegated constellation of possibilities looming above our horizon, sparkling with the stars of literati of bygone ages. We don’t really need a classical education to consult these stars, to know the work of these men and women of letters. A start can be had by anyone just by opening a book. But one star does burn more brightly than others. The classical European tradition that forms the basis of Western culture owes its greatest debt to the Greek bard Homer, who probably lived in Ionia in the 8th or 9th century BC, and his epic poems, “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.”