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Homer Teaches Us to Die

This morning, while Elanor scribbled with her sixteen new crayons, I sifted through my new translation of the Iliad. I read how Teuthras’ son, Tydides, killed a good man from Arisbe and his loyal servant:

Next Teuthras’ son distain’d the sands with blood,

Axylus, hospitable, rich, and good:

In fair Arisbe’s walls (his native place)

He held his seat! a friend to human race.

Fast by the road, his ever-open door

Obliged the wealthy, and relieved the poor.

To stern Tydides now he falls a prey,

No friend to guard him in the dreadful day!

Breathless the good man fell, and by his side

His faithful servant, old Calesius, died.

I continued: Dresus is slain, then Opheltius with his twin children, then Polypoetes, then Pidytes. When reading Homer, you connect with a minor character and then move on, like the sad pauses you give acquaintances after learning they’ve passed away, yet Axylus kept returning to my mind. I decided write about him during Elanor’s morning nap.

Why did his death impact me so? I identified with him. I’d like to be a friend of the human race, opening my door and sharing wealth with those passing by, and so his mortality became my mortality. His brief obituary became my brief obituary. I’ll be fortunate to end my life with a few deep relationships, having helped a few people. I’ll be like a pebble tossed into the Atlantic with ripples expanding and growing faint in the waves.

Logically, I know I will die. All humans are mortal. I am human… But being able to think logically about a truth isn’t the same as being able to live consistently with that truth. Perhaps this is the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Reading these ten lines in Homer made me a little wiser.

Wisdom can be found in many places—talking to old people, hard life experiences, the movies—but I suspect it’s easiest to find in the classics. My dad took me to an Orthodox Greek minister for therapy one summer. I’d broken up with my high school girlfriend. The kind bearded man told me to read classic literature—Shakespeare. I was skeptical. What would he tell me that I didn’t already know? My therapist knew he couldn’t get to me with logic—he needed the wisdom of our great writers. I got over that girlfriend without Shakespeare’s help, but maybe I would have gotten over her more quickly with it.