I had intended to return to Augustine’s “Steps to Wisdom” after the Christmas break, but a beautiful moment happened in one of my classes this week that I wanted to share before I go back to that series.
In my 7th grade Omnibus class, in which we study the ancients and read their literature, I started our first class after the break by reading some excerpts from this beautifully penned article by classical educator Kate Deddens.
In it, Deddens analyzes a passage from Homer’s Iliad and helps us think about the hero Achilles and what his pre-Incarnation heroism means to post-Incarnation readers. Just before the break, my students had finished a writing assignment examining the actions of Achilles, and I thought Deddens’ article clearly articulated an important concept that I wanted my students to understand as we encounter our current text, The Odyssey–that the ancient world aches for a hero, one who can conquer chaos and darkness and bring order, peace, and restoration to mankind; from a post-Incarnation perspective, we can see clearly that the ancient world, without knowing it, was longing, deeply, for Christ.
Deddens argues quite rightly that Achilles is a prime embodiment of this longing:
“Achilles as the Ideal Man can also be seen as the expression of the universal wish for such a worthy one to come into the world, a savior who can make it possible for mankind to rise again to the glory for which it was created. In this sense Achilles heralds the need and desire for Christ in a fallen, hopeless world. Like Christ, as the ideal, representative man worthy to bear the shield, Achilles gives all for the redeemed honor and glory of mankind: for, if one man can achieve it, then the rest may bask in his light. Like Christ, through Achilles, the people are given a shepherd who instills hope that the battle may be won. Like Christ, Achilles is a shining sun, a guiding light in a fragile world filled with so much beauty yet so much cruel loss.”
As satisfying as this heroism sounds, when my students read of Achilles in Rosemary Sutcliffe’s lovely retelling of the Trojan War stories, Black Ships Before Troy, they intuit that they cannot truly admire a hero who is so deeply concerned with his own glory and honor. Deddens’ thoughts here are also helpful:
“Achilles sacrificed himself for glory, as did Christ. The glaring distinction between them, however, is that Achilles strove for his own glory, while Christ gave his life to restore glory for us all. The greatest of ancient heroes is therefore only the flimsiest, fleeting shadow of Christ, and ultimately that shadow is profoundly insufficient.”
And then came the moment that made my classical educator’s heart soar, as it does when my students make poignant, harmonious connections between texts. When I had finished reading and explaining these ideas to my students, one of them was reminded of a piece we had read together in class on the very first day of this school year, when I was orienting my students to our purposes in studying the ancients. We had read excerpts from St. Basil’s “Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature,” and my student was referencing the part of that address in which St. Basil says that part of the use of being “conversant with poets, with historians, with orators” of ancient Greece is that they show us “the truth as it were in shadows and in mirrors.” He says that “if we would preserve indelible the idea of the true virtue, [we must] become first initiated in the pagan lore, then at length give special heed to the sacred and divine teachings, even as we first accustom ourselves to the sun’s reflection in the water, and then become able to turn our eyes upon the very sun itself.”
And of course, my student was exactly right in bringing up this passage, because St. Basil’s point is that the ancient texts are a kind of pagan preamble to the Gospel. Understanding the deep longings of the pre-Incarnation world for a savior prepares us to have a deep, profound understanding of the significance of the Incarnation.
My Omnibus class will circle back to this idea again as we read through The Odyssey. One of the quotes I like to use to prompt discussion at the end of reading about the hero Odysseus is from John Piper’s Don’t Waste Your Life:
“All heroes are shadows of Christ. We love to admire their excellence. How much more will we be satisfied by the one Person who conceived all excellence and embodies all skill, all talent, all strength and brilliance and savvy and goodness…God loves us by liberating us from the bondage of self so that we can enjoy knowing and admiring him forever.”
Left to our own devices we are, like the ancient heroes, enslaved to the pursuit of our own glory. How deeply liberating indeed to see the Gospel follow on the heels of these stories, and to know that there is a Hero who replaces our self-striving with striving after Him and who perfectly fulfills the longing for restoration that these stories project.
Aubry Myers is the Director of Classical Education at Granite Classical Tutorials.