Nature and Order in Homer

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Rembrandt’s Homer Dictating His Verses in 1663

It has been argued that Homer represents a significant turning point for philosophy, especially toward politics and nature. Odysseus, the man that most closely resembles Socrates, is identified as a well traveled man knowing many cities and many men’s minds. He is fascinated by these minds of the men he encounters. He yearns to learn more, and also to experience more. He is both a tactician, and also a man of action. Frequently in the Odyssey, during his most painful moments, he speaks to his heart and persuades it to overcome his passing strife.

The key turning point, or reorientation, in Homer comes, oddly enough, when the plant moly is introduced by Circe and the word “nature” is used to express the common characteristics among its group, as an organic thing that is ruled by a force other than mankind. The word “nature” was never used in the Hebrew Bible, a similar phrase that can be loosely translated as “way” is more appropriate to describe what, in Homer, is clearly articulated as “nature.” It might be said that wily Odysseus is the first to utter this distinction. Being a well-traveled man, he sees strong distinctions and differences that arise between the many cultures of the earth, but he also notices some similarities. For example, the Ethiopians may have a closer kinship with Poseidon while the Phaeacians find favor among Apollo of the sun, however starting a fire happens by the same process whether he is in Troy or Ithaca -that is to say fire has a nature. Towns or tribes may differ, but fire burns the same everywhere. This critical separation provides a grounding for later inquiry into the nature of things, such as Heraclitus or Parmenides, and other PreSocratic thinkers who inquire into the original first principles of nature. Heraclitus makes the claim that fire is the first principle, while Parmenides asks the question: why does anything have being rather than nothing at all? Also, this separation runs the risk of being exposed to a particular assumption, namely that the nature of humans is somehow unnatural, in contrast to the mysterious self-perpetuating natural cycles found throughout the earth.

The birth of the city comes out of this radical separation -humans devise laws in the cities to complement the nature of things found throughout the cosmos. Natural order is imitated in the city. Consider the similes invoked by Homer -wild lions, gazelles, bees, low hanging grapes, olive trees, eagles, serpents, and so on. The Achaean and Trojan forces are “like” these naturally occurring organisms -they are mimesis or imitations of things that have a nature, or physis.

Therefore, the Homeric turn is to ground early philosophy toward the nature of things, and it inevitably becomes a quest to discover first principles of things such as air, water, fire and so on. This puts the inquiry of philosophy at odds with the city which depends on convenient myths to explain its origins, rather than venturing into the far-off regions of first substances (recall the image invoked by Socrates in the Theaetetus of a bumbling Thales who is so focused upward on the heavens, while he clumsily falls down a well and is made a mockery). Philosophy necessarily comes into conflict with the city in this endeavor -the city is threatened by philosophy. Not until Socrates does mankind’s mode of thinking undergo a more fervent reorientation than Homer.

(for more see Michael P. Zuckert’s writings on Homer)

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