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The epithet “much-enduring” is often associated with moments when we see the interplay between Odysseus’ self-knowledge and his ability to use his experience to judge and adapt himself to circumstances; between his enduring self and purpose, and the many-ness of his schemes and courses of action…

OdysseusEditor’s Note: This essay is part of a series dedicated to Senior Contributor Dr. Eva Brann of St. John’s College, Annapolis, in this, the year of her 90th birthday.

In honor of Eva Brann on her 90th birthday, and with gratitude for her support of the Graduate Institute in Liberal Education of St. John’s College, I want to say a few words about learning as an adult—and say them through a reflection on one of Eva’s favorites, Odysseus, the “man of many ways.”

It is clear from the very beginning that the Odyssey will be the tale of a man at or even past the prime of his life, not a character in formation. He comes to us already with a back-story, one we know primarily through the Illiad. And even on the plain before Troy we encounter him as one of the older, more experienced warriors. He is not a prodigy like Diomedes or Achilles, but a man whose value to his companions comes even more from his experience with stratagems and his sagacity than it does from his prowess as a warrior. The opening lines of the Odyssey read as follows (all translations are Richard Lattimore’s):

Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was
Driven far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.
Many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of,
Many the pains he suffered in his spirit on the wide sea,
Struggling for his own life and the homecoming of his companions.

So from the start we are told that this is a complex man, a man “of many ways,” who has already lived through great adventures as part of the sack of Troy. And we are told that the story we will hear now is not one of going out, winning a great battle, and gaining glory, but a story of returning home.

It almost goes without saying that a story of a homecoming of this sort, a homecoming through great trials after long years and a great adventure, is a story of an adult. The characteristic story of a young person is a story of setting out, launching oneself into the world. We have such a narrative in the Odyssey, in the story of Telemachus’ quest to find his father; it is part of the incomparable beauty of the epic that the story of Telemachus’ setting out and Odysseus’ coming home are intertwined. Classes in undergraduate programs are full of young people launching themselves with greater and lesser degrees of bravado, trepidation, curiosity, and ambition. Like Telemachus in the court of Menelaus, they encounter the adult world with wonder and with a longing to be recognized and welcomed, and it is a delight to converse with them. In the Graduate Institute, on the other hand, students of different ages bring to their classes a wider range of human experience. Some around the table are still setting out, just out of college, reaching for what they will become. Others bring to the discussion decades of experience in a wide variety of professions, in families and communities, in peace and in war. These latter are students who have made an unusual and deliberate choice to seek a liberal arts education as adults. One of the great joys leading classes of adults is experiencing the interaction of the perspectives that students of differing ages and experience bring to our discussions.

So, to continue my inquiry, Odysseus returns home not to find out who he is, but to re-establish himself as husband, son, father, and king. There is, as my colleague Margaret Kirby noted in a fine lecture on the Odyssey, a motif of recognition running through the epic. Odysseus must know again his wife, son, father, and faithful retainers, and be known again by them, as well. This recognition is only possible because—although he returns to Ithaca decades older and disguised as a beggar—the “man of many ways” remains recognizable. The interplay between the aspects of Odysseus that are complex and fluid and that within him which, through it all, remains recognizably Odysseus is brought to our attention by the epithet that is most frequently applied to him. He is “polutlas” (πολύτλᾱς) often translated by Lattimore as “much-enduring.”

“Much-enduring Odysseus.” The phrase certainly emphasizes the suffering Odysseus has undergone, the adventures he has lived through, and the disguises in which he has appeared, but it is also indicates that there is an enduring center to this man. Let’s look, very quickly, at a couple of instances in which the epithet occurs. When, after leaving Calypso’s island, Odysseus is on a storm-tossed raft and is in sight of shore, the sea nymph Ino appears to him telling him to abandon the raft and swim for it. She gives him her veil to tie around himself, saying it is immortal and will not allow him to perish. Instead of immediately taking her advice, however, “much-enduring Odysseus” consults himself and decides to stay on the raft as long as it will carry him, swimming toward shore with the aid of the veil only after the raft has been dashed to bits. We don’t know what would have happened had he followed the nymph’s advice more exactly, but the course of action he decides upon for himself is successful. A second example occurs at the very end of his journey: when he sees his father Laertus, Odysseus desires to reveal himself, weep, and tell his father everything—but suppressing that first impulse “much enduring” Odysseus decides instead to approach his father in disguise and test him before allowing himself, finally, to embrace and kiss the old man.

The point I am trying too hastily to make with these examples is that the epithet “much-enduring” is often associated with moments when we see the interplay between Odysseus’ self-knowledge and his ability to use his experience to judge and adapt himself to circumstances; between his enduring self and purpose, and the many-ness of his schemes and courses of action. In the two examples I have chosen we see him question the advice of an immortal and gauge his own chances in a battle with the sea; and we see his ability to evaluate and hold in check his own first impulses while he gains greater understanding of the state of mind of the father he longs to embrace. In each situation he endures not by being unyieldingly inert but through a prudent adaptability that demands both knowledge of the world in evaluating the situation and settled self-knowledge in determining his way forward. This sort of knowledge may occur occasionally in the young, but is characteristic of adults.

Resuming now the subject of education, I will ask—what does any of this imply about the ability to learn? Doesn’t learning imply a self that is not settled but that is formed by the learning process? There surely is a sort of learning that is mostly formative. Returning to the example of the young man Telemachus, we can see that he is engaged in this sort of learning—gaining skill in speaking in public assemblies, and in planning and fighting, as he grows to become a leader and man like his father. Odysseus learns too, however. We actually hear it in the first lines of the epic, that I quoted at the beginning of this essay. Lattimore’s translation of line three reads: “Many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of.” [The Greek word is a form of “gignosko” (γινώσκω), to learn or recognize, and in past tenses to “know”] His skills as an orator and warrior are unquestioned, his experience of the world is vast, but about the deepest questions, including about the minds of men, Odysseus learns. And some of that learning may be most effectively undertaken by one who questions, judges, and evaluates knowing something both of the world and of the self she or he brings to inquiry.

Thinking about these different types of learning may give us insight into the difference in curriculum between the undergraduate program at St. John’s and the program of the Graduate Institute. Note the distinction between liberal education (an education that is freeing) and the liberal arts (the seven subject areas of the trivium and quadrivium… grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music) which are the tools of that education. As the motto on the seal of the college puts it, we are educated into free adulthood “by means of” books and a balance. In the undergraduate program fully half the classes are devoted to learning skills associated with these seven liberal arts. Students have classes in language, mathematics, and music. In the Graduate Institute, on the other hand, we assume a student comes to the program having some level of competence in these arts. And so we spend almost all our time not learning techniques associated with one or another of the liberal arts but rather reading slowly and discussing with one another some of the books that, in our judgment, contain some of the greatest thoughts that have been conceived by human beings—or, echoing the opening lines of the epic—by the minds of men. This is an education that, although it may help form children into adults, is also completely fitting FOR adults—for anyone, in fact, who desires wisdom and greater freedom.

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Editor’s Note: The featured image is a detail of “Mosaïque d’Ulysse et les sirènes,” courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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