Why is Homer so Great?

Originally posted March 23, 2017

Classical schools are popping up all over the country, proclaiming the virtues of Latin, Augustine, Dante, and Homer, though perhaps not in that order. Latin improves mental acuity, vocabulary, and serves as an entrance into Romance languages. Augustine is the voice of western Christendom, second to St. Paul, of course, but equal with Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther. All educated people west of Constantinople should know Augustine. Dante is everyman's poet, writing in Italian but leaning--sometimes literally--on Virgil. And Homer is Homer, enough said. 

Yet publicly educated souls, such as my own, may want to know why Homer's works have achieved such unquestioned fame. Perhaps we are skeptical of the opinion of one 17th-century Duke of Buckingham, who proclaimed, 

Read Homer once, and you can read no more,
For all the books else appear so mean, so poor,
Verse will seem prose; but still persist to read,
And Homer will be all the books you need.*

This is the sort of verse that only convinces the convinced. Maybe the sad truth is that Homer is popular simply because Homer is popular. The blind poet was in the right place at the right time, and his works survived, so they were acclaimed. In Homer's lifetime, there must have been an equally talented Elmer or Phainopepla whose works were buried in history's inbox. 

I would refer such skeptics to Aristotle's Poetics, a short treatise on drama and poetry written by the Philosopher in the 4th century B.C. Here Aristotle provides the uneducated reader with helpful tidbits on art, such as the observation that plot, not character, is the soul of tragedy or "beauty depends on magnitude and order."*

Poetics is a great repository for the names of lesser known Greek authors, although Sophocles and Euripides make their appearance. And so does Homer. Specifically, Homer the "pre-eminent among poets" and Homer, who is "admirable in all respects." Nor does Aristotle stop at homage; he gives reasons for it. Here are a few: 

1. The plots of the Iliad and the Odyssey, respectively, center around a unified action. Homer doesn't try to tell everything there is to tell about Odysseus, which would confuse or bore the audience.

2. Homer knows his place, which is not in the story he's telling. After a brief preface, he at once brings in a worthy character to begin the story. Aristotle thinks the poet "should speak as little as possible about his own person," so he commends Homer's choice.

3. Everyone likes stories that are wonderful, and to provide wonder, the poet often makes his stories more colorful, while still believable. Aristotle claims that "it is Homer who has chiefly taught other poets the art of telling lies skillfully."

These are not obscure virtues that were applicable only to Greece. Homer did much more than use dactylic hexameter properly. His virtues in composition remain virtues to this day. No author wants to confuse or bore his readers; a novelist should write her characters so well that the novelist herself disappears; the art of storytelling (while I won't call it a lie) should have a balance of the marvelous and the believable. 

There are several other points where Aristotle uses Homer as a laudatory example. The classical schools are on to something. When a beloved fourth-century philosopher recommends the specific strengths of a famous eighth-century poet, perhaps we should pay attention.

Go, read Homer. Not just because everyone else has, but because, apparently, he's a good storyteller.

*John Sheffield, An Essay on Poetry

*All quotes and references are from Poetics, VI; VII; XXIV (not necessarily in this order), transl. by S.H. Butcher