A Comic Vision of
Great Constancy
Stories about Unlocking the Wisdom of Everyman
A Reading of “The Knight’s Tale”
and A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Correction

I’ve put Claude Lorrain’s painting on the cover of A Comic Vision of Self-Government mainly because it’s beautiful. I hoped it would arrest a reader’s attention as it did mine. I originally found it online with the title “The Return of Odysseus.” After the hardcover book had already been printed, I discovered that the Louvre Museum, which owns the painting, uses “Odysseus Returns Chryseis to her Father” as the title, an incident which appears in Book One of The Illiad. The story I tell about the painting in the first paragraph of the Epilogue is referring to an incident in The Odyssey. I acknowledge the error in the hardcover books here.

Lorrain painted many pictures that employed much the same composition; the titles (referring to incidents from classical myths) provided the difference. Once I learned what the Louvre was calling it, I wondered why it came to be called “The Return of Odysseus” as it is in online sites, and I propose the following observations. “The Return of Odysseus” is more general. It could refer to the incident in The Illiad—when Odysseus, as the ambassador of the Greeks, returns Chryseis back to her father after she had been awarded to Agamemnon as a trophy of war—as well as the incident in The Odyssey—when Odysseus returns to Ithaca after an absence of twenty years. Since the whole narrative of The Odyssey has been pushing toward the return of Odysseus to his home, this incident is probably more well known than the one early on in The Illiad. The internet title allows the public to identify with what’s comfortable and familiar.

Though the situations are quite different and they take place at different stages in Odysseus’s life, the painting captures (for both narratives) the return of a moral order to a kingdom rocked by its absence. In The Illiad the gods have decreed that Chryseis must be returned to her father, and in The Odyssey the gods have decreed that Odysseus himself must be returned to his wife and son on Ithaca. These actions end the disorder. In line with what the incidents have in common, Claude Lorrain has painted the goal of good government which is why it serves as a window on the theme of my book. Immediately we recognize a vision of civil peace. The sea is calm and expansive; like the harbor, it invites opportunities for commerce and the enrichment of the town. The people gather at the place where sea-paths and land-paths meet. From the shapes of the buildings, the waterfront, and from the ease of the people we sense the presence of wisdom. 

If you look for Odysseus in the painting, however, you won’t find him. The title has given us a purpose for looking at the picture, but at the same time it frustrates that purpose. Nevertheless, our original impression of a great peace settling over the sea, the sky, and the people in the foreground of the town still holds. In the space where we set out to see Odysseus we’re struck instead with the light, which infuses the buildings (especially the columns), the trees, the people, and the animals with a blessed, unstrained uprightness. The orderliness and firmness of these things is softened by the light even as it acts to reveal them, and we realize that this is what we have been seeking. Furthermore, we’re not alone. We’re looking through the eyes of Claude Lorrain at something that matters a great deal to us. He has acted to realize the light and all that it reveals, and so can we. For me, the painting and the title serve as a kind of parable. Without the title we wouldn’t look for Odysseus in the picture; similarly, without the possibility that a moral order exists in the world, we wouldn’t go looking for it.

Back to Blog