Louis Markos: Exploring the Greater Goal of the Great Books

Though there will always be some dispute as to what books belong on the list of Great Books, no one who believes that such books exist will dispute the permanent relevance of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, and Dante’s Divine Comedy. These four epics have always stood at the center of the Great Conversation that defines not only western literature but the ethos and culture of Europe and America. But what is it about these poems that have made them so essential to the way westerners, and those most strongly influenced by the west, have thought about themselves, their purpose, and their relationship with the divine?

The Iliad takes up a theme that no human being—whether west or east, ancient or modern, pagan or Christian—can avoid or ignore: mortality. Its hero, Achilles, was supposed to be the immortal son of Zeus and Thetis—instead, he was born the mighty but mortal son of Thetis and Peleus. Throughout the two decades of his life, his mother has constantly reminded him that his life will be glorious but short, filled with honor and with bitterness.

These grief-stricken warnings build up in Achilles an obsession with his own mortality, an obsession he is able, temporarily, to mollify by putting all his focus on winning war prizes. When, however, Agamemnon takes one of those prizes away from him, Achilles pulls out of the war and decides that a boring but lengthy life might suit him better. All that changes again when Hector kills his best friend, Patroclus, and Achilles reenters the war on a crest of inhuman rage. In the end, he regains his balance when he returns the body of Hector to his father, King Priam of Troy, and the two enemies grieve alongside each other.

Though few people will be put in the situation of Achilles, we can all sympathize with his triple rage against Agamemnon, who dishonors him, Hector, who steals from him what he most loves, and Death, who pursues him remorselessly, casting darkness and despair over all his brief pleasures and victories. For three millennia, countless people have gained self-knowledge and self-control by wrestling with and through Achilles. For how can one be fully heroic if he has not grappled with his fears, fully alive if he has not looked death in the face, or fully human if he has not discerned that same humanity in the eyes of his enemy.

Compared to the primitive, existential power of the Iliad, the Odyssey offers a quieter but no less crucial meditation on the rituals that give shape and purpose to our lives. While the former epic is a tragedy that forces us to peer into the abyss, the latter is a comedy that takes us on a comingof-age adventure through the rites of passage that define what it means to be human. The parallel journeys taken by Odysseus and his son Telemachus represent the successive stages of growth and maturity that all people must face. While Telemachus learns how to conduct himself as a responsible adult with a place and function in society, Odysseus learns the centrality of home and family to his identity. 

By navigating the battlefields of the Iliad and the domestic spaces of the Odyssey, western civilization has learned how to find the proper balance between the desires of the individual and the needs of the group, the freedom to explore and assert one’s dignity and the duties and sacrifices that make familial and communal life possible and sustainable. These epics ask the right questions and provide the right forum for dialogue and deliberation.

Virgil’s single epic positions itself within the debate initiated by Homer’s two. Centered on the founding of Rome, the Aeneid is at once narrower in its focus than the Iliad and Odyssey and broader in its application. While continuing to call individuals to balance the demands of self and society, the Aeneid speaks, as the Old Testament does, to tribes, countries, and nations eager to discern and fulfill the divine destiny that has been laid upon them.

Like Odysseus before him, Aeneas must choose to forsake a lover, descend into the underworld, and find a home, but all three of these choices/trials are imbued with far greater and wider significance. With the Aeneid, to borrow an insight from C. S. Lewis’s A Preface to Paradise Lost, the epic grows up. Aeneas does not merely forgo a lover, he decisively rejects a life of ease and personal pleasure for one of civic duty. That is why his visit to Hades changes him more profoundly than it does Odysseus: during the descent and ascent, Aeneas the Trojan dies, and Aeneas the Roman is born. As such, his arrival in Italy does not restore to him the life he lost but propels him into a radically new future for himself…and for all mankind!

The Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid plumb the heights and depths of what it means to be human, but they do so apart from the revelation of Christ and the Bible. Dante, as both poet and protagonist of his great trinitarian epic, makes that fusion for himself and, in doing so, for all Christians who would join the Greco-Roman legacy of Athens and the Judeo-Christian legacy of Jerusalem.

The vision of hell, purgatory, and heaven that Dante weaves in his Comedy is solidly biblical, while being fully infused with the wisdom and insight of Homer, Virgil, and those other great writers whom he calls virtuous pagans. As such, the Catholic Dante—like the Protestant Milton after him—extends and complicates the Great Conversation begun by Homer, inviting his readers to envision, conceive, and build a pluralistic world that is yet focused on and anchored by that which is good, true, and beautiful.

That is the final and greater goal of the Great Books, one which the western world achieved when it was most worthy of itself—but which, apart from those Books, it threatens to lose.

Louis Markos, PhD, Professor in English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Christian University, holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities; his 25 books include The Myth Made Fact and From Plato to Christ. His Passing the Torch: An Apology for Classical Christian Education and From Aristotle to Christ are due out in 2024 and 2025 from IVP Academic.

Dr. Louis Markos
College of Arts and Humanities English,
Communication, Great Texts, and Modern Languages

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