5c BCE

Odysseus Resting (I)


Kurtz & Allison chromolithograph, “The Battle of Quingua, April 23, 1899.”

Talking about Homer is tricky.  There’s the wonderful story: the spellbinding yarns of old soldiers and lost sailors, spinning out tales of battles that shine with the forces of the gods and cunning escapes with clever lessons for us about how to be at home in the world.  But even in Athens, by the 5th century BCE, there were serious doubts about the ability of narratives to accurately convey the facts.  Even epics as marvelous and apparently comprehensive as the Iliad and the Odyssey might distort our understanding of what happened in the past and how it continues to shape events around us.  Thucydides, in particular, worried about the way that, in a democracy, Homeric poetry and other sinuous forms of persuasive rhetoric, could give rise to a world of “alternative facts.”  The historian of the Peloponnesian War was deeply suspicious about a democracy’s susceptibility to the flowery words of would-be tyrants.  Josiah Ober points out how Thucydides repeatedly distinguishes between mere rhetoric and the foundations of actual power:

[W]e have no need of a Homer to sing our praises, nor of any suchlike whose fine words please only for the moment, since the truth (alētheia) will show that in comparison with the facts (erga), [the verbal depiction] is an underestimate.  (Qtd. in Political Dissent in Democratic Athens, 85.)

Ober argues that the famous Funeral Oration of Pericles, as related to us by Thucydides, is a complex, “self-subversive,” demonstration of the dangers of Athenian exceptionalism.  Pericles makes an elegant defense of democratic knowledge, of the idea “of making policy on the basis of logoi” and “reject[ing] the existence of a hierarchy between logoi and erga,” but, as Thucydides presents him, Pericles undercuts his own logos as manifested in words rather than in more durable monuments of architecture — or verifiable historical narrative (88).  Thucydides, Ober writes, “considers untested and competing logoi to be a dubious basis for understanding reality” (88).

The OED tells me that the earliest instance of “tricky” in English having the colloquial sense of containing “unexpected difficulties” and requiring “cautious action or handling” is surprisingly recent.  Their earliest instance is from Charles Locke Eastwood’s Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, and Other Details, published in London in 1868:

Chromo-lithography […] accustoms the eye to easily rendered and therefore tricky effects of color which falsify rather than illustrate nature.

Does Homer also “accustom the eye” to false colors?  Does the flash and resonance of the conflict among the gods trick hearers into thinking that an analogous conflict of reasons and frank speech will lead to stable government?