What we need today to re-create the beautiful city, an icon through which to see the glorious City of God, is a new Iliad, a new story that will manifest “what the many do together,” for what the many do together “rarely lacks a certain nobility, or beauty”…
In his Metamorphoses of the City, Catholic political philosopher Pierre Manent posits Homer as the “father of the Greek city”; in a careful and ingenious reading of the Iliad (that first poem of the Western world), he speaks of the poetic birth of the city. Seeds of the city, that is, were contained in potentiality in a social form that did not yet exist in actuality. Although Shelley’s claim that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world” is rife with Romantic hubris, even that ultimate skeptic of poetic knowledge, Plato, makes arguments concerning music in his Republic, which we may transpose to poetry: “Any musical innovation is full of danger to the whole state, and ought to be prohibited… when modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the state always change with them.” In his Laws, Plato goes on to muse upon the consequences of poor music; and, again, we may extend this to poor poetry):
They were men of genius, but they had no perception of what was just and lawful in music…. And by composing licentious works, and adding to them words as licentious, they have inspired the multitude with lawlessness and boldness, and made them fancy that they could judge for themselves about melody and song…. In music there first arose the universal conceit of omniscience and general lawlessness; freedom came following afterwards, and men, fancying that they knew what they did not know, had no longer any fear, and the absence of fear begets shamelessness. For what is this shamelessness, which is so evil a thing, but the insolent refusal to regard the opinion of the better by reason of an over-daring sort of liberty?
Contemporary music and poetry, particularly the dominant forms and narratives popular today, have contributed to, and resulted from, the “licentious and shameless” ethos of our contemporary moment. We are badly in need of a poetry—and we may here use this word broadly to include everything from music to verse to fiction to film—that contains poetic knowledge of the city, to which our descendants will be forced to turn to mitigate what cultural chaos they have inherited.
But, we rightly ask, how could Homer grant us access into the birth of the Greek city? After all, when he gathered oral traditions around the year 725 B.C., he gave voice to a state of Greek life that is definitively different from and prior to Greek civic life. How, then, could he be considered the educator of Greece, “not in a general and so to speak decorous sense, but in the precise and rigorous sense of a master to whose teaching one should conform all the actions of one’s life”? Mr. Manent suggests that we can answer this question by turning to Plato’s Republic, in which Socrates and his companions examine the question of the education of the just and beautiful city’s guardians. They first critique the “old” method, calling into question “the stories that mothers and nurses tell children and that, ‘are, as a whole, false.’” These nurses’ tales are not individualized in each family, but are common across the Grecian households. Such stories are faulty first and foremost in that they say unacceptable things about the gods.
The Trojan War that drives The Iliad is “the condition and the consequence of the self-discovery of ‘mortals.’ That is why,” writes Mr. Manent, “while it speaks of nothing but war, nonetheless [it] says everything about human life, or at least considers it in its entirety.” The gathering of Achaeans around the outskirts of Ilion does not constitute a city per se, but “one can recognize in it a heroic or aristocratic republic, this republic of quarrelsome persuasion that is the invention of Greece and whose virtues democracy will spread and develop. In short, the camp of the Achaeans, the city ‘in speech’ whose founder is Homer, was the common mother of the real Greek cities.” What are some of these virtues? We cannot possibly render them justice here, and so I will point to just a few. First, however, I will summarize the opening conflict of the Iliad.
King Agamemnon has offended the priest of Apollo by refusing to surrender the priest’s daughter, Chryseis, even as she had come part en parcel with an immense ransom. In reply, Apollo sends a plague on the Achaean camp. The epidemic eats away at them for nine days. On the tenth day Achilles rallies the men and summons the greatest prophet-diviner, Calchas, who explains to the Achaeans that the cause of the conflict is Agamemnon—his unruly, possessive action. In essence, then, the conflict bears on “the share that belongs to each man, to which each man has a right.” Agamemnon agrees to surrender Chryseis, but only because he has decided to take Achilles’ captive Briseis as his own. Filled with rage, Achilles declares that he and his men will no longer fight for Agamemnon. Zeus sends Agamemnon a dream urging him to attack Ilium. Before he heeds the dream, Agamemnon summons the Achaean armies, and, to test them, tells them by inviting them to flee, to avoid fighting “his war.” He expects the men to push back against his seemingly cowardly insistence. “Thus, by advocating black, he will make them crave white. [Although Agamemnon is “king,] this is not our idea of an absolute ruler. The Achaeans need to be persuaded.” Unfortunately, “his typical trick has failed lamentably He is at the end of his power. The only recourse resides in the prudence, or wisdom, of Odysseus. Only Odysseus is capable of confronting the exceptional situation, or the state of emergency [in which Agamemnon’s supposed sovereignty fails to win men over]. In this sense Odysseus, and not Agamemnon, is the true sovereign.” Speaking in turn to the few (the nobles) and the many (the general crowd of soldiers), Odysseus uses various means of persuasion to win the men back into battle, and he succeeds.
The Iliad, then, though it describes a world before the city, before democracy and the virtues that drive it, manifests in Odysseus one of the greatest democratic virtues: persuasion, which is given at random, is not relegated to a particular class or institutional authority, and thus “it is no coincidence that Odysseus’ other name is Nobody.” Yet, even as Odysseus succeeds in persuading nearly everyone, Thersites continues to mock and spew his spleen at Agamemnon. Odysseus rebukes him harshly and cruelly strikes him with his scepter. In Pierre Manent’s reading, Thersites stands as an incarnation of the disrespectful person who criticizes power, who speaks truths better left unspoken. “He thus has some important things in common with Odysseus, first of all a freedom of outlook that stems from independence of mind with respect to social ties…. One could say that Theristes is the spirit of comedy…. Thus, as we see the Iliad, that with Achilles and Agamemnon contains the source and model of all later tragedy, and with Odysseus the prototype of the wise man and we might say the first version of Socrates, with Theristes also contains the living seeds of comedy. Homer was indeed in every sense the educator of Greece.”
With Ulysses Joyce gave us a new Odyssey, which is more of an anti-Odyssey, an unheroic quotidian dramatization of singularity—a triumph of what William F. Lynch, S.J, in Christ and Apollo, calls the “equivocal imagination.” In so doing he captured the gritty thisness of modernity, but though it describes modern messiness with aplomb, Ulysses is—besides a work of art—description and at best diagnosis, but not a goad; it may delight, but it cannot educate. He gave poetry to “the educated.” We need a poetic education fit for what Plato could only call “the many.”
What we need, then, is a new Iliad, a new story that will manifest “what the many do together,” for what the many do together “rarely lacks a certain nobility, or beauty.” Such a story must give us poetic knowledge of the city that future generations will have to use to build upon the waste of postmodernity that they will inherit: the fragmented songs of self-aggrandizement and self-pity, the therapeutic confessionals and small-minded sentimentalism, the barely discernible whispers of the beautiful, the true, and the good. We need to expand our conception of beauty beyond the mere aesthetic. As Mr. Manent writes in “The Original Experience of the City”: “Whereas the Greeks situated beauty in things themselves, we situate it in the eye of the beholder, or of the artist, and thus beauty for us is divorced from any explicit idea of greatness.” For moderns, beauty, being a thing in our eyes, is to be found in the smallest things: a fruit bowl full of plumbs will do, thank you very much—you can have your epic back. “But if we detach ourselves even a little from the complacency or laziness of the spectator,” Mr. Manent goes on, “from the desire that everything be smaller than our view, we will find meaning in the series of notions that are joined in Aristotle’s definition [of beauty]: self-sufficiency, perfection, happiness, and beauty… what is more noble, or beautiful, than the city”? And without a beautiful city, people will lack an icon through which to see the glorious City of God. For, as Augustine said, “Socialis est vita sanctorum”: even the lives of the saints are a life together with others.
While we await the one or the ones who will compose this epic story again, I want to point to one living author who is at the very least is theoretically capable of composing such a poem. His name is Jeremiah Webster. I do not say that he can compose this poem on command, or that his mind and style are fully matured to the point that he could write the enduring epic that will last however many years or centuries as is necessary for the new city to emerge. I do, however, know that he has looked into the past long enough and in a prophetic sense looked into the future long enough to be able to write it. For now, I give you part of his poem “Ilium,” excerpted from his recently-published debut poetry collection After So Many Fires, a sort of prelude to the new Iliad, written amidst one of the many fragmented forms of contemporary human life, a form so fragmented we can hardly call it a city:
But thou, O Daniel, shut up the words, and seal the book, even to the time of the end: many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased.
“What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is a star?”
thus asks the last man, and he blinks.
Far enough back
all was born of fire.
See how ordinary
the Pangaea becomes
when home is used
to describe it?
We begin with the silent
I have no words to sink
below a sea with no fire,
but perhaps you can begin
naming these familiar hills.
* * * *
Mortar was left to dry on the trowel
the day we threw down shovel, pick,
left wheelbarrows to bake in the mud,
saw the moon in broad daylight
appear from behind the mountain
before being flung to the sea.
As boys throw stones from a sling,
so the moon flew from its circuit to boil
in the space of the sea.
Why downcast my soul?
Why marvel at the hour of Earth’s unraveling?
Even the experts forecasted as much: the terminal
path of empyrean forms.
God is the first
mover, the second
to return, and the third
authority among Moderns.
There is only fear
when the earth gives
way and the mountains fall
on our freeways and interstates.
He begged for the rough rind
before juice could dry
from her mouth and chin.
She asked for a cherry pit
to suck on and survey the landscape.
The shore gave
way under waves
as a split sun
lit plankton and spare parts
from deserted ships.
They gathered antiques,
dug beneath the remains
of a once proud no longer nation.
As cutworms, imperceptible
from the air, feed off the underbelly
of a leaf, so this Adam, this Eve, subsisted
Behold, the drunk whispers
as he wanders the streets.
City of Dis, I love you.
I live among your citizens
and praise each one as they pass,
faces flush after meals
on the waterfront.
People stare at passing human
traffic mute to themselves and
others. People talk and wonder
why no one listens.
See the world in your halls,
the vast diversity
the moment on the metro
when all was silent save
for the clanking of metal against warm bodies,
strangers all texting below the radiant light,
passing all stops wordless to slouch (like shepherds)
over the private miracle:
the incarnate screen.
Gaze with me now,
coliseum, pyramid, gaunt cathedral,
climb my stairs beg skyscrapers, the radio towers reaching in desperation.
Nature lies prostrate before your electric defiance.
Construction sites, hoarse workers, steel, wood, brick, bellow the NEW
with brittle voices.
Praise the promise.
Drink to towers.
Receive this wine.
We’ll have plenty to eat,
Mother? the child asks.
With reverence, she rests
a hand on the generator
for when the lights go out.
One pen for the meat birds.
One pen for the cow.
One pen for heirloom seed.
One pen for the sow.
Water is drawn from wells,
purified through activated carbon filters.
Fiber optic lines run for miles,
the monthly funds funneled in
from urban banks.
Out on the hills, toiling
with able hands, a father builds
With those he loves indoors,
he works until palms blister.
His assurance: the plateau
of a world defined by
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