Homer, Hegel, History and Hope

Folks who saw virtue in unquestioning devotion to established values didn’t like the 1960s. No institution, custom or belief seemed safe from scrutiny.

Even the idea of progress — a cherished heirloom from the Age of Enlightenment — was challenged, disputed, and ultimately rejected.

Visions of a technotopia, where our greatest challenge was deciding how to spend our leisure time, were fading.

Hopes for nuclear power’s abundant clean energy were giving way to fears of an atomic holocaust and reactor meltdowns. Assuming that pollution didn’t kill us first. (July 28, 2017; February 17, 2017)

Perhaps even more disturbing for social Luddites, the nation’s youth seemed ill-suited for their assigned role as torchbearers for liberty, conformity and suburban living.

Earnest articles and op-eds warned that television was rotting the minds of America’s youth. And popular music was subverting values which so many held dear:

“…Creature comfort goals
They only numb my soul
And make it hard for me to see….”
(“Pleasant Valley Sunday” The Monkees (1967))

“…If the mind is baffled
When the rules don’t fit the game,
Who will answer?…”
(“Who Will Answer?” Ed Ames (1967))

“…Go ahead and hate your neighbour
Go ahead and cheat a friend
Do it in the name of heaven
You can justify it in the end….”
(“One Tin Soldier” Dennis Lambert, Brian Potter (1969))

Some felt it was the end of civilization as they knew it. I think they were right.1

America has changed. So has the world. I think some changes were improvements. Some aren’t turning out as well as I’d hoped. And many are simply change: which happens, whether we like it or not.

I’m cautiously optimistic about our future, partly because I know a bit about our past.

The Walls of Troy

That’s part of Troy VII’s acropolis: what’s left of it after the Trojan War and Late Bronze Age collapse.

Until around the 19th century, most folks thought the Trojan War had happened pretty much the way Homer described it in the Iliad: the non-mythic parts at any rate.

Then some European scholars took what they’d been learning about ancient history, and compared that to Homer’s account. Parts, at least, didn’t match what they expected. Either their educated guesses were wrong, or Homer’s epic poem was basically fictional.

Quite a few decided that they knew more about history than some ancient chap. Some also figured the Iliad, fictional or not, was composed by some other poet.

Academic one-upmanship — it’s a real word — followed. A humorist’s opinion probably made as much sense as many: Homer didn’t compose the Iliad. It was some other Greek in Homer’s day — whose name was Homer.

There’s still considerable debate about how much of the Iliad is strictly factual. Even Thucydides figured Homer had stretched the facts a bit, and that’s another topic.

I think poets of ancient Greece were a bit like today’s screenwriters: more interested in drama and spectacle than accountant-like precision.

Professional scholars weren’t the only folks who wondered if Troy really existed: and if it did, where we might find “the lofty gates of Troy.”

Frank Calvert, an Englishman born in Malta, learned about Hisarlik, a hill in what’s now northwestern Turkey that might conceal Troy’s ruins.

Frank and his brother Frederick bought a farm that included part of the hill. They uncovered part of what Frank thought was Troy.

A German archeologist, Heinrich Schliemann, met Calvert and thought the Englishman was right. Schliemann dug into the hill and uncovered what had been a city. More exactly, he excavated Trojan ruins from at least two periods.

Schliemann had also, regrettably, obliterated what we are pretty sure had been significant parts of the city. Archeologists are much more careful these days. As I keep saying, we do learn. Eventually.

It’s still not unanimous, but these days most academics think Troy was real and Hisarlik is where the city used to be.2

The Trojan War was real, too, and almost certainly part of the Late Bronze Age Collapse. We haven’t had a catastrophe quite like it since. (November 3, 2017)

“Nothing Stands Still”

Descendants of folks who survived the Collapse eventually returned and lived where Troy had been.

But the city never fully recovered. Partly, I think, because the river which flowed past Troy kept carrying water and sediment to the sea.

The site’s a few miles inland now. Troy’s natural harbor long since filled in and became farmland.

The Hellespont is still part of an important trade route, but today’s major east-west crossing point is Istanbul. Another three millennia or so, and some other place may be the region’s major metropolis. It’s like the fellow said:

“πάντα χωρεῖ καὶ οὐδὲν μένει”
“Everything changes and nothing stands still.”
(Heraclitus, As quoted by Plato in “Cratylus”)

Learning From the Past: Or Not

Our cultures and tech change. So do our jobs, roles we play in society. But human nature doesn’t change. Not that I can see. Whether that’s hopeful or not may depend on attitude:

“Perhaps the cause of our contemporary pessimism is our tendency to view history as a turbulent stream of conflicts — between individuals in economic life, between groups in politics, between creeds in religion, between states in war. … History has been too often a picture of the bloody stream. The history of civilization is a record of what happened on the banks.”
(Will Durant, As quoted in “The Gentle Philosopher” (2006) by John Little at Will Durant Foundation)

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
(“The Life of Reason: The Phases of Human Progress,” George Santayana (1905-1906))

“What experience and history teach is this — that nations and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted upon any lessons they might have drawn from it.”
(“Lectures on the Philosophy of History,” Georg Hegel (ca. 1830s) Introduction, as translated by H. B. Nisbet (1975))

The Durant and Santayana quotes are closer to what I think than Hegel’s. I am quite sure that we’re not doomed to ignorance and futility.

But I can appreciate Hegel’s viewpoint.

The Enlightenment was in progress when Hegel was growing up. Enlightenment ideals, valuing liberty and reason, offered hope for a better future. (November 6, 2016)

As an adult, Hegel saw the French Revolution’s bright promise of Enlightened and rational government produce the Cult of Reason and mass executions.

Napoleon sorted that mess out. He had been a military commander for the Revolutionary government before having himself elected Emperor of the French.

Meanwhile, Europe’s other leaders continued having their subjects slaughter each other in a seemingly-endless succession of turf wars. Napoleon followed suit, which brings me back to Hegel. He saw Napoleon just before the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt.

Hegel was a 30-something university professor at the time. Napoleon won, adding the Kingdom of Prussia to the French Empire.

Hegel’s brother joined Napoleon’s army and was killed a half-dozen years later, when Napoleon learned why invading Russia is a bad idea.

German states joined other countries for the War of the Sixth Coalition. Or War of Liberation, depending on who’s telling the story.

Hegel published the second volume of “Wissenschaft der Logik,” “Science of Logic” around that time.

The War of the Sixth Coalition ended in 1814. Napoleon was exiled to Elba, ushering in an era of peace — which lasted until the War of the Seventh Coalition in 1815.

Several wars, epidemics and a cholera pandemic later, Hegel was living in Berlin. He got sick and died. Doctors said it was cholera, possibly because the disease had reached Berlin by that time.

A lifetime immersed in Europe’s turf wars, epidemics and politics might leave anyone a trifle less than optimistic about humanity’s capacity for learning from mistakes.

“…The Future, Far as Human Eye Could See….”

“…For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be…
“…Till the war-drum throbbed no longer, and the battle-flags were furl’d
In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world….”
(“Locksley Hall,” Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1835))

I’m not sure why I think Tennyson’s imagined “Federation of the world” isn’t entirely a poetic pipe dream.

I’ve known folks around my age, with similar backgrounds, and some who aren’t, who apparently feel that government leaders don’t learn, or can’t. Others see climate change, genetically modified organisms, vaccines or the Internet as a dire threat.

There’s probably considerable overlap among those groups.

I think folks who fear that it’s the end of civilization as we know it — are right.

But unlike many, I think that’s a good thing. Partly because I think we may finally have seen the end of Western civilization’s empire-collapse-rebuild cycle. (April 15, 2018; February 5, 2017; July 24, 2016)

And partly because I think God didn’t botch humanity’s design. (July 23, 2017)

“We Should Work Together”

We’re made “in the image of God,” matter and spirit, body and soul. Each of us is a person, made from the stuff of this world and filled with God’s’ ‘breath.’ (Genesis 1:2627, 2:7; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 355, 357, 362368)

God gave us dominion over this world, and let us decide how we’ll act. The first of us made a really bad decision. We’ve been dealing with its consequences ever since. The mess we’re in isn’t God’s fault. (Genesis 1:26; Catechism, 390, 396401)

Our circumstances have changed, but not our nature. We still have “dominion” — and the responsibilities that go with it. (January 21, 2018; August 20, 2017)

What we decide to do is still up to us. We all have free will. We can decide that loving our neighbor, and seeing everyone as a neighbor, makes sense. (Matthew 5:4344, 22:3640; Mark 12:2831; Luke 6:31 10:2527, 2937; Catechism, 1704, 1730, 1789)

That’s not easy for me. But easy or not, I think it’s a good idea. So is passing along what we’ve learned, and some of our goals.

“…In this sense the future belongs to you young people, just as it once belonged to the generation of those who are now adults…. …To you belongs responsibility for what will one day become reality together with yourselves, but which still lies in the future….”
(“Dilecti Amici,” St. John Paul II (March 21, 1985))

“…The answer to the fear which darkens human existence at the end of the twentieth century is the common effort to build the civilization of love, founded on the universal values of peace, solidarity, justice, and liberty….”
(“To the United Nations Organization,” St. John Paul II (October 5, 1995))

Building a close approximation of St. John Paul II’s “civilization of love” will take many generations of hard work, and willingness to remember that truth and love matter.

“…For our part, the desire for such dialogue, which can lead to truth through love alone, excludes no one, though an appropriate measure of prudence must undoubtedly be exercised. We include those who cultivate outstanding qualities of the human spirit, but do not yet acknowledge the Source of these qualities. We include those who oppress the Church and harass her in manifold ways. Since God the Father is the origin and purpose of all men, we are all called to be brothers. Therefore, if we have been summoned to the same destiny, human and divine, we can and we should work together without violence and deceit in order to build up the world in genuine peace.…”
(“Gaudium et spes,” Second Vatican Council, Bl. Paul VI (December 7, 1965) [emphasis mine])

Working together to build a better world.

It won’t be easy, but I think it’ll be worth the effort:

1 Change happens, so does how we see it:

2 Troy, Homer, and all that:

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About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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7 Responses to Homer, Hegel, History and Hope

  1. Thank you very much for this motivating piece, good sir.

    …and surprisingly, that’s pretty much what I have to say about this post, hahaha~ XD

  2. Peggy Haslar says:

    Thank you for this inspiring (and realistic) piece! Sets a vision we need now and always.

    • It’s my pleasure. Thank you for those good words.

      And agreed, about “and always:” building a “civilization of love” will be a work-in-progress for the foreseeable future.

  3. Thank you for this article, Brian.

    We can always learn from the past (if we want to) and look in hope to the future (if we want to).

    God bless.

Thanks for taking time to comment!