Why Should we Read the Classics? A Meditation on Understanding Ourselves Through Our Past
Often I am asked, "Why should we read the Classics or the Epics? What's in them, apart from a Patriarchal and oppressive narrative that appeals to the worst aspects of toxic masculinity?!". Honestly, I cannot blame anyone for holding this position. I myself was of that very same opinion, until a university course forced me to study them.
Now, while I did indeed find all of the above present, I also found one of the earliest precursors to our modern day Feminism is there, in Calypso's monologue to Hermes in the Odyssey. For another, the precursor to our judicial system is there, in the trial by a jury of peers in the Oresteia. Much of our other history is there as well, and if we care nothing for it, the Classics and the Epics are if nothing else beautifully written on the most basic, linguistic level.
I will focus on the Odyssey for this article; it tells of Odysseus's truly remarkable journey from the conclusion of the Trojan War, through trials and tribulations, successes and failures, until he finally returns to the city from whence he came.
Allow me, dear reader, to bring Calypso's monologue as an example:
“Hard-hearted you are, you gods! You unrivaled lords of jealousy— scandalized when goddesses sleep with mortals, openly, even when one has made the man her husband. So when Dawn with her rose-red fingers took Orion, you gods in your everlasting ease were horrified till chaste Artemis throned in gold attacked him, out on Delos, shot him to death with gentle shafts. And so when Demeter the graceful one with lovely braids gave way to her passion and made love with Iasion, bedding down in a furrow plowed three times— Zeus got wind of it soon enough, I’d say, and blasted the man to death with flashing bolts. So now at last, you gods, you train your spite on me for keeping a mortal man beside me.” (81)
I draw your attention to the stunning way in which Calypso levels her accusation, the examples she brings – of deities, not of mortals, who are controlled. And then, I should like to draw your attention to the similarities between the way the Odyssey treats women, and the way in which the western, civilized world has treated and still treats women to this day.
In the Odyssey, Odysseus's wife, Penelope, is considered as good and moral because she tricked her suitors while her husband is away – and she did so for twenty years, remaining faithful despite not knowing whether her husband was still among the living (and considering the rest of the army returned many years prior, he most likely wasn't).
We saw echoes of this in the crusades, of course, when men went to war for an unspecified length of time, and locked their wives in metal chastity belts to ensure their faithfulness, and we see this in its latest incarnation in the responses a Sensacionalista (a Brazilian satire site) article which got picked up by the popular tech site Gizmodo, as documented by mediaite.com: "The funniest part of the whole incident is the tone that most of these news articles took in reporting the story. Nearly every one insulted the 'husband' for being stupid enough to believe such a ridiculous tale."
Which brings me to my final point: the Classics and the Epics shine a mirror on ourselves, they teach us about our own behavior far more than our contemporary narratives; we fancy ourselves as enlightened, post-patriarchal, feminist men and women, but the moment we see a story like the above our immediate gut reaction is to attack, to mock, and to ridicule the man. Had we stopped to think about it, perhaps we would have realized we are all collectively trying to shame him into behaving in the very same toxic way we all otherwise condemn.
Of course, had he dumped her, we would all wag our fingers at him and cry "toxic man!" and accuse him of having unrealistic expectations that his wife would remain celibate for three whole years in the event he might come back in a good enough shape (physically and mentally) to make and provide for a family, and that he would still want her.
So the man was gone for three years and his wife cheated on him. If after talking things over they decided to stay together, what business is it of ours? The Classics show us how far we have come from those times of old. In this case, we still impose the same constricting moral code for women from all those years ago.
Main picture: Calypso Island by Herbert James Draper 1897