Odysseus has the art we need. I think he came by it through a rare combination of acutely honed cleverness and deep-souled imagination; we can acquire it by education. This art, the art of discovering significance, is the art of interpretation…

I am to write about my hero Odysseus and to connect him to Liberal Arts.

A tall order, you might think, considering that this clever young king of Ithaca and wily old warrior at Troy probably—no, certainly—never read a book in his life, and that to me, at least, the liberal arts are essentially arts of reading, and a liberal education is an education in interpretation, in finding the kind of meaning in the world that good readers glean from books.

The reason Odysseus was illiterate is that alphabetic writing, the kind that makes books writable, wasn’t in use yet; even Homer, Odysseus’ author, probably wasn’t himself a writer. In graduate school we learned that it was more than a century after Homer that the great epics were redacted, that is, turned into written scrolls, in sixth century Athens. He himself mentions writing only once, when a wife, disappointed in seducing a lover, devises death for him by making her husband send him away with “many life-destroying signs… scratched on a folded tablet” (Iliad VI 168-9); the Greek word for “scratched” is g-r-r-r-apsas, whence we get “grammar,” and—imagine—also “glamour.”

It seems to have been an early use of writing to let clueless people deliver themselves to their own doom—or at least to ridicule. I have a colleague, Judy Seeger, who was an anthropologist in her early days (as I was an archaeologist). She told of living with the Suiya, a pre-literate Amazonian tribe, in which men and women socialize separately. Her husband Tony was with the men, who spent much of their time telling bawdy jokes. Noticing that he had a magical device, an external memory, namely a notebook, on which he was recording their improprieties by transcribing their language phonetically, they sent a messenger over to the women’s house with a page of Tony’s transcription who made Judy read it out loud, of course uncomprehendingly, to the ladies, who roared with laughter, partly at her—I suppose she blushed. I tell this anecdote—remembered and perhaps not quite accurately—because it’s irresistible, but also to bring out the potent danger of a medium which its bearer may well not understand.

Nowadays writing, particularly in that proliferating degenerative mode called texting, poses an entirely new set of dangers, insofar as it threatens to curtail our psychic expressiveness and to usurp our human directness. But that is a topic for another day; today I want to talk about the reflection-invested and imagination-fraught writing found in good books, the writing that helps us to live.

So how will I present this illiterate pagan Odysseus, a man, moreover, with the additional disadvantage of being a fiction, as the patron saint of liberal arts, the arts of interpretation?

The two Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, are full of singers, always treated by Homer with respect, obviously as a professional courtesy. Present day scholars think that these bards got their songs from an old oral tradition of folk tales. That’s not what the singers themselves think. In the absence of a literary legacy, they believe that their poetry comes to them directly from the Muses, who live on Olympus and are the daughters of Memory and the divinities of the arts and sciences; they, in turn, get their stories directly from the Olympian gods. So both epics begin with an invocation to a Muse: “sing to me, goddess…,” and “impart to me, Muse…” In the Iliad the goddess is asked to sing of a passion, namely the anger of Achilles, an anger that sent many warriors to Hades; in the Odyssey the Muse is asked to “impart the story of a man, a versatile man,” as Homer describes him.

Now both these heroes are themselves singers. Achilles, who has been insulted by his commander-in-chief, Agamemnon, one of those pompous incompetents whom circumstances sometimes put in charge, sits, sulkily withdrawn, in his tent, and with only one auditor, the friend of his heart, Patroclos, whom he is about to send to his death, he sings of the heroic glories he is now foregoing.

But it is Odysseus who is not only an occasional leisure-time singer, but extendedly and essentially a myth-teller and poet. His voyage, the odyssey (with a lower-case “o”) that gives its name to the whole poem (with a capital “O”), that travelogue which he himself recounts within Homer’s long epic, is one marvelous piece of poetry—and over the millennia it has proved to be the very exemplar of poetry’s chief function.

On his way home from a ten-year’s war that has gained nobody anything, he turns pirate and marauder, so as to come back with something to his Ithaca now grown alienated and to his baby-boy now grown into manhood and to his wife now reaching middle age. On the way he has the usual adventures of roving sailors: encounters with a large number of seductive women working the harbors, experiences with a great variety of human types from savage to sophisticated, embroilments with every sort of drug-taking, marooning, mutiny and storm—all of those mundane mishaps and incidents composed of terror, exhaustion, boredom, that world travelers tell stay-at-homes about in boring detail. But not Odysseus: He ratchets up these common stories into wonderful tales.

This is the character of these tales as I see it: They are fictions he makes, but they aren’t made up. To explain that foggy saying, let me introduce a useful distinction; perhaps it is the most useful distinction the mastery of our own life requires. It is the distinction between “real” and “actual.” “Real” applies to the hard-edged reality, to the factual thing-likeness, to the impenetrable, unbudgeable, and impersonal objectivity of the world. “Actual” names what is meaningful, reachable, human about this same world. It is, you might say, a second take on the world, the one in which it doesn’t overwhelm us but by which we comprehend it. Often it takes the form of fiction in which whores become semi-divine nymphs, savages one-eyed monsters, and thoughts swift ships.

To elucidate, let me shift venues. On the day Socrates was found guilty of and sentenced to death for various crimes—of which, incidentally, he was undoubtedly guilty, though such guilt should have been counted to his credit—on this day Socrates made a speech in his own defense, his Apology. (Apologia means “defense” in Greek.) In it he utters a famous sentence, usually translated as “The unexamined life is not worth living” (38a). But Socrates says something a good deal more dramatic, which is rightly translated this way: “The unexamined life is not livable” or even, “is not lived.” I think he is referring to the distinction I just tried to catch by the terms “real” and “actual.” “Real” are the mere mundane occurrences that we pass over in time; “actual” are these events as we live through them in the soul. —I can explain later why I chose the terms “real” and “actual” to distinguish between the factual time that runs by once and is gone and the meaning-charged life that is re-lived in awareness.

So that is what I think Odysseus, Homer’s poet, is up to. Things don’t just happen to him: he relives happenings in their meaning—just where we all relive life: in the human memory, where resides an individual deputy of the divine Mother of the Muses, Memory, whom I named before.

I think that Odysseus the sailor, who “lived,” so to speak, about eight centuries before Socrates the sage, anticipated him in doing what Socrates says makes a life really lived, really taken in, reactivated in thought and imagination, made actual. Actualized life is twice-lived life. So says Socrates, the most thoughtful man I know of, and before him Odysseus, the most versatile man who ever—so to speak—lived.

So now the connection to the intended subject of my talk—liberal arts and liberal education as seen through the figure of Odysseus.

I think there is reason to claim that this illiterate man is the very incarnation and exemplar of a liberally learned man. For, as I see it, it is the purpose of a liberal education to make our life actually lived by making it twice-lived. To be sure, we never hear of Odysseus being educated at all. Achilles was in fact — or should I say, in myth?—educated by a tutor, a humane monster, a centaur, that combination of a horse’s spirited body and tail below, with a man’s wise chest and head above. But royal Odysseus had no systematic schooling, though he was no doubt trained in arms—sword, spear and bow—at his father’s court and in myth and song by the excellent bard belonging to the palace. No one in heroic Greece had much learning; down in the underworld of Egypt, scribes and priests underwent a real scriptural education, but not the heroes in the land of Mount Olympus.

And yet Odysseus had the art that is the central fruit of liberal learning: the art of interpretation. I’ll just say right now what I mean by claiming that the first result of being liberally educated is the ability to interpret, now even more than it was in antiquity. Our world, our environment, is more and more a world of second nature, of torrents of symbols, floods of words, mud-slides of images, tsunamis of information, and everywhere there is artificial stuff, there are edifices, excavations, machines, devices, systems. Being human-made, this second world is replete with hidden meanings, intentions, calculations. If in pre-modern times, life needed to be twice-lived to be consciously appropriated, in contemporary times it needs to be thrice-lived: first, as the natural beings that we were at birth and never cease to be, then as savvy users of the fiendishly sophisticated devices that constitute our artificial environment, and, third, as stern examiners of that, our second life and as searchers for a way back to human significance and purpose. We have to be Odysseuses to the third power.

For Odysseus has the art we need. I think he came by it through a rare combination of acutely honed cleverness and deep-souled imagination; we can acquire it by education. This art, the art of discovering significance, the art of interpretation, has a fancy name. It is called “hermeneutics,” after the messenger god Hermes, who conveys divine meanings to gods and humans. He also conveys souls to Hades, the Greek underworld, where live the shades of mythical heroes and the tales they tell. In fact this is the true schooling Odysseus receives when he goes down into Hades—one of the very few humans to go to that ghostly land alive and to return from there; he comes back laden with the stuff of poetry, the tales of the dead.

So now I have made two claims to which not all practitioners of the liberal arts would agree: first, the less comprehensive one, that they are primarily arts of interpretation and only secondarily skills of learning or initiations into traditions. And second, a pretty encompassing postulate, that you can’t live an actual life without them. I’ll spend the next few minutes attempting to make these assertions stick.

I’ll begin by distinguishing the liberal arts from liberal education. The liberal arts might be described as the required courses, so to speak, by which you are prepared for the upper level: 1.0 in the catalogue of learning, as it were, the requirements for entry into the 2.0 courses. But that’s not quite right—you actually are already learning in the liberal mode, being liberally educated, even while training in the liberal arts.

What are these arts? Well, one college, one set—every school has its own, and in the universities you get everything at once, a great muddle. To my mind, the most muddled notion of the liberal arts is the one that is nowadays practically universal—the one which cuts them off from mathematics and science and leaves the liberal arts (and so, liberal education) reduced to the humanities. Those humanities are themselves a reduction; in early modernity they were conceived as the non-theological disciplines, what remained when divinity was discounted as the queen of studies. Now they are thought of as the humane, the squishy studies as opposed to the non-human, the hard sciences—hard in two ways: solidly effective and intellectually difficult. It is, I think, a disfiguring mutilation.

To me, these arts ought to be the skills and techniques of interpretation that draw in everything that is fundamental and learnable. Will you be surprised to hear that mathematics is a Greek word meaning “what is [inherently] learnable”? Galileo famously said that the book of nature is written in mathematical terms. So to take part in the interpretation of nature, which is reported in books of physics and biology, you have to know some mathematics. Mathematics on its own is also the purest and most engaging product of human thinking, and that’s true whether we think of it as an invention or a discovery of the intellect — that is, whether it is made up by us as the supreme intellectual fiction, or imparted to us as a reception from a trans-human realm.

Now we study mathematics and physics by learning some skills and techniques—how to grasp and prove propositions, how to devise and conduct experiments. But on the way we also acquire some products and results, what these techniques yield by way of beautiful theorems and satisfying hypotheses. So along with learning these liberal arts comes the possession of lovely objects worth having in one’s mind. Who could seriously say that they only want merely to exist and don’t care about reflecting on the ways and the contents of their mind within and of their world without?—No one who has risen even for a moment above mere mindless involvement in life’s business.

There is a second set of techniques and contents that deal with language—with correct speech and its necessary rules, with persuasive speech and its moral limits, even with expressive speech and its therapeutic functions. All these verbal skills are learned by close attention to good examples, by attending carefully to the best writing, from muscularly colloquial through wittily elegant to exaltedly powerful—say from Ray Chandler, to Jane Austin, to the Bible.

So the techniques and contents of the arts of speech are learned and practiced in tandem: It is a sin against the word to make students practice writing as a process, abstracted from substance.

To my mind these are the liberal arts, however realized, and they are both the preparation for, and the first introduction to, liberal education. This kind of liberal education, to be sure, can go on anywhere anytime, wherever whenever people stop and pay attention to their life. But I think it is is least sporadic, most effective, when it is in fact carried on in tandem with the liberal arts. That implies, it seems, that it is primarily for the young who are given by their caring parents a grace period of reflection before the busy involvements of life overtake them. What the young lack is much life to re­live, to reflect on, and therefore middle-aged or old people often learn more liberally, although often without the benefit of the helpful know-how imparted by a liberal arts curriculum. They manage pretty well on a decent primary and secondary school training and on sheer Odyssean inquisitiveness. They often wish the arts of learning had been taught to them more carefully, more enticingly. But that wish, that realization itself, works wonders. In liberal learning, to know what you lack is a pretty good stand-in for possessing it.

Then finally, what is liberal in a liberal education? Here’s what I think: Liberal education is that life-long learning in which the terms “liberal” and “conservative,” so alienated in the sphere of practical politics, simply merge into each other. For it is conservative to think twice so as to recover our lives, to be careful of the tradition that we have inherited, to love it and reverence it, to practice conserving respect for what is given to us, to examine it so as to save it. And it is liberal to face this tradition in an untrammeled spirit of critique, to examine it so as to break it loose from calcified prejudice and stultification, to assert the role of liberating intelligence in reforming life.

Liberal education as the fruit of the liberal arts is, then, something beyond them and beyond politics. It is conservative liberalism—that is to say, care-taking freedom, and it is liberal conservatism—that is to say, freethinking attachment. More concretely, its most effective source is books (however delivered), in which the major and most articulate part of our inheritance comes to us, and its most fruitful activity is reading — not lazy scarfing-up of amusing with-it lingo and of titillating, hyperactive plots, but careful ingestion of good or great books—the books of which Francis Bacon says: “…some few are to be chewed and digested; …wholly, and with diligence and attention” (“Of Studies”).

So at my end I’ll go back to my beginning: to interpretation, the art of Hermes. When attending to these books as an accompaniment to daily business we find in them companionable interpreters of our lives. Without them we are carried away on life’s stream, certainly painfully alert to the scraping rocks on its bed, certainly blissfully aware of the kindly billows on its surface, but somehow absently enmeshed in our current involvements. The books waft us to the shore, even while we’re still rowing on the busy river, there to watch ourselves go by and see it all together: the now, the whither, and the wherefore—to relive our life even while living it, to make of mute reality a speaking actuality, to turn, as did our patron hero Odysseus, the elusive happenings of factual reality into the secure significances of living actuality.

Here’s a final bonus: In order to extract from Bacon’s chewable books the interpretations we seek, we first have to digest them. And that’s where it all starts: when we get together to help each other to read, with diligence and attention, a worthwhile book, and come away not only with new understandings in our mind but also with new additions to our life. For the friendships of book-lovers tend to be for good—unclouded and long-lasting.

Video version of this talk, which begins at 4:30:

This essay was originally published here in June 2014, and appears again in celebration of Dr. Brann’s ninetieth birthday.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

These remarks were delivered at the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, as part of The Common Ground Initiative Summit 2014: “Have the Liberal Arts Become Too Politicized? A Meeting of Minds, Right and Left.”

Editor’s note: The featured image is a detail from “Odysseus in front of Scylla and Charybdis” (1794-96) by Johann Heinrich Füssli, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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