"From Greek Literature"

Report of a Lecture by Eli Siegel

It was one of the most moving experiences of my life to hear Eli Siegel’s lecture, “From Greek Literature” given January 16, 1976.  As his text, Mr. Siegel used a book published in 1893, edited by William Hyde Appleton, Professor of Greek at Swarthmore College:  Greek Poets In English Verse By Various Translators.  The discussion, he said, would be from a new point of view, to see “whether Homer and Aeschylus go along with the Aesthetic Realism way of seeing the emotions of anger and contempt.”  And throughout the lecture Mr. Siegel related these two human emotions to the metaphysical opposites of rest and motion.

The Appleton book, he said, “gives us a chance to see the relation of emotion to strict reality.”  For example, in his introduction, Professor Appleton says this about the artistic heritage we have received from the Greeks:  “The great lines of poetical development were in the Epic, Lyric, and the Drama.”

These forms, Mr. Siegel showed, are always a relation of rest and motion.  The epic, he said, “is concerned with the motion aspect of reality”--like the narrative, ballad, short story and novel, it tells a story, describes action; while the lyric and essay “are in the field of rest”.  Drama, he explained, is both--it is “concerned with the clash of attitudes and activities; it is two lyrics that conflict.”  Rest and motion are metaphysical opposites because, said Mr. Siegel, they are in everything that exists.  They are in us--in our emotions.  For instance, anger, he explained, is more in motion; contempt is more at rest.

Homer’s epic, the Iliad, written 3,000 years ago, which has been seen, Mr. Siegel said, as the “first great poem in the western world," is largely about these emotions--anger and contempt.  It tells of the Trojan War, which Mr. Siegel described very concisely:
The Greek world comes together to punish Troy because Paris wrongly got the affections of Helen.

Professor Appleton writes that in the Iliad, Homer acquaints us with the “great heroes Achilles, Ulysses and Hector” and “states as his theme the wrath of Achilles and its disastrous results.”

Throughout history anger has often had disastrous results.  People have not understood this troubling emotion.  Aesthetic Realism explains and Mr. Siegel was showing magnificently in this lecture that our emotions have a structure and a logic.  Anger, he explained, “is motion towards the enemy, while fear is motion the other way.”  The human ego, I learned from Aesthetic Realism, is always looking to change the confusing, tumultuous motions of anger and fear into the repose of contempt.

“Contempt is...still and exulting," said Mr. Siegel, "so if you can get anger and fear [to change] into contempt it's a great victory." 

As he looked primarily at Homer's Iliad and the play The Libation Bearers of Aeschylus, Eli Siegel was explaining what philosophers for centuries have tried to understand about the nature of reality and man’s relation to it.  Said Mr. Siegel:
I’m talking about the world which has never been anything but a oneness of rest and motion, all literature is too.  It was this kind of thought that years ago in 1922 or so made for Aesthetic Realism.

I was moved as Mr. Siegel then described, with such particularity, the anger within the Greek and Trojan warriors of Homer’s Iliad.  Achilles, the greatest of the Greek warriors, is central.  The epic begins with him being angry at Agamemnon, the King and head of the Greek army, for taking from him the Trojan girl Briseis, who he had won as a prize in battle.  Later Achilles is angry with Hector, the chief Trojan warrior for killing his closest friend, Patroclus.  About Achilles Mr. Siegel explained:
There’s a constant feeling there’s some evil in him, he’s too pleased with himself.  He does humiliate Hector, [he kills him and] drags him around the walls of Troy, which is not proper activity for a hero.  Achilles represents ferocity and the desire to like oneself in a false way; that is something in people.

Hector, who Mr. Siegel described as “belligerently naive... doesn’t have that cunning anger Achilles has.  His anger isn’t as personal....Achilles is angry in a frightening way.”   The anger of Achilles, so famous in world literature, says something, Mr. Siegel was showing, about ourselves.  He explained:
Anger can be one of the ugliest things in the world.  Everyone should say “I’ve had much more ugly anger in my life than I know.”  If you don’t you are foolish.  It’s so easy to have anger...When people are not honest about their anger it is one of the most  unfortunate things.

Before I met Aesthetic Realism, I was a “well-mannered” person who often threw tantrums to get my way.  Early in Aesthetic Realism consultations I was asked: “You seem such a polite person, are you angrier than you appear?  Do you get in the midst of fights often?”  I said I did, and my consultants explained so kindly “You think you’re going to solve things by being angry but there’s another side of you that says you have to solve things by understanding them.” 

"The purpose of Aesthetic Realism consultations," Mr. Siegel said in this lecture, "is the encouraging of an emotion that makes one stronger and the discouraging of an emotion that makes one weaker."  For example, he said, the Greek King, Agamemnon might be told in a consultation:

"Agamemnon, that is not the way to be angry.  Likely the chieftains are critical of you, your daughter is.  It isn’t just Achilles.  You don’t know Agamemnon, yet how to be angry, hardly anyone does." 
[Added Mr. Siegel,] 
“So we have emotions that can be criticized in Greek literature.”

Before looking at passages from the Iliad, Mr. Siegel turned to Aeschylus, the great playwright who lived hundreds of years after Homer, and often wrote about the heroes of Homer's epic.  His greatest work, The Oresteia, is a trilogy about Agamemnon and his family--and there is anger all the way through--the kind of anger that can make for tragedy even today.  In the first play, Agamemnon returns home after the Trojan War and is killed by his wife Clytemnestra.  Ten years earlier, to get the winds to blow so the Greek army could get to Troy, Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter, Iphigenia to the Gods.  “What kind of woman Clytemnestra was is being studied”, Mr. Siegel said, and he asked: “How much was [she] outraged by the fact Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter?”

In his second play, “The Libation Bearers,” Aeschylus tells of how Orestes, son of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon, comes to avenge his father’s death.  First he kills Aegisthus, Clytemnestra’s lover.  Mr. Siegel read this famous scene from the play, which shows anger between a mother and son.  When Clytemnestra sees her son is going to kill her, she says:
Let's see if we are conquered or can conquer,
  For to that point of evil am I come.

Orestes tells her if she loved Aegisthus, she'll now be with him in death.  And she replies:
Hold, boy!  Respect this breast of mine, my son
Whence thou full oft, asleep, with toothless gums,
Hast sucked the milk that sweetly fed thy life.

"This," commented Mr. Siegel, “is a high point in Greek tragedy. ...A mother," he continued, "can cause life, replenish life, but also be so angry she can want to extinguish life.  Mothers are ethically versatile."

Next in our study of Greek literature, Mr. Siegel read from Appleton's Table of Contents and commented about various Greek writers and how their work stands for the world as rest and motion.  There was the poet Hesiod who, he said, also wrote epics, although they were “mainly about agriculture.”  Pindar, he said, “wrote odes whenever there was an Olympic game. They are very swift.”  Sappho “is seen as the greatest lyric writer.”  Her Ode To a Loved One, Mr. Siegel said “is a lyric with a quiet name.”  “The most famous Greek lyric” he said, is The Epitaph For Dead Spartans, by Simonides.  Here it is, translated by Eli Siegel, from his book of poems Hail American Development:
O stranger, tell the Lacedaemonians
That we lie here, true to their laws.

Mr. Siegel then read and discussed the first selection in Appleton’s book, titled “The Quarrel of Achilles and Agamemnon” from the beginning of the Iliad.  Homer spoke in unrhymed hexameters--a line of six poetic feet and Mr. Siegel pointed out it has been difficult to translate that music into English.  Appleton uses Alexander Pope’s translation, in heroic couplets--rhymed lines in iambic pentameter (a different rhythm from Homers’).  It begins:
Achilles’ wrath, to Greece the direful spring
Of woes unnumbered, heavenly goddess sing!

“Pope must have worked very hard on this beginning couplet”, commented Mr. Siegel, and he gave a free verse translation to which he added a lovely line expressing what I think Homer himself felt:
Please heavenly goddess, Sing about Achilles’ wrath
Which brought to Greece woes one can’t number. 
And in listening to you, I might get the idea 
     .of singing myself.

The quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles begins when Agamemnon takes for himself the girl Achilles was given as a prize.  Insulted and furious, Achilles says to Agamemnon, head of the house of Atrides:
But know, proud monarch, I’m thy slave no more:
My fleet shall waft me to Thessalius shore
Left by Achilles on the Trojan plain,
What spoils, what conquests, shall Atrides gain?

“Achilles can talk a fierce couplet,” said Mr. Siegel, "and you do feel [he] does have a great deal of contempt for Agamemnon.” 

Earlier in the class Mr. Siegel had said: “The emotions are raw and great in Homer and he put them into hexameter.”  Homer, he explained, was able to “express anger most clearly and with much symmetry.”  I was moved by how beautifully Homer expresses emotions that are not beautiful, such as the fury of Achilles.  We feel anger put with symmetry in this next passage from Pope’s translation.  “This," Mr. Siegel said, "is Pope when melodious.”  "Achilles," he explained is going back and forth between anger and contempt because “when we are angry, we can have contempt for our anger, and we can also have contempt for where we get soft.”
Achilles heard, with grief and rage oppressed; 
His heart swelled high and labored in his breast.
Distracting thoughts by turns his bosom ruled,
Now fired by wrath, and now by reason cooled:
That prompts his hand to draw the deadly sword,
Force through the Greeks, and pierce their haughty lord
This whispers soft his vengeance to control,
And calm the rising tempest of his soul.

Commented Mr. Siegel, “Anger always has been seen as hot.  Contempt is so very cool it makes the arctic look hot...Achilles, can be like anyone else...He wants to satisfy his anger.”

In a section Appleton titles “The Death of Hector”, translated by William Cullen Bryant, Achilles avenges the death of his friend Patroclus by--with the active assistance from the Goddess Minerva--mortally wounding Hector with his spear.  "She should have kept out of it," Mr. Siegel commented.  Then, Achilles tells Hector he was a fool for not thinking that the Greek ships that carried Patroclus also carried:
A mightier one than he, who should come forth,
The avenger of his blood, to take thy life
Foul dogs and birds of prey shall tear thy flesh;

“There is anger, contempt, and competition here” said Mr. Siegel.  And, he concluded this great lecture saying simply: “We have found some things in Greek literature”.

In the discussion following, Class Chairman Ellen Reiss explained that this lecture shows that “The self cannot be understood without poetry.”  And she said:
The way Achilles had contempt and anger was a mess but Homer gave form to it...the  Iliad is immortal literature...it is one of the great works of the world and Mr. Siegel  has that greatness.  In Mr. Siegel you do have this greatness become close to you in  your everyday life.

This describes what I and every person felt hearing this lecture.  As Eli Siegel showed the beauty of Homer and Aeschylus he enabled the kind and urgent message from Greek literature to speak to us across the centuries.

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(c) by Donita Ellison. For permission to reprint please contact me by email:  DonitaEllison@msn.com.