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

Homecoming and Why It Matters

Part One: Does Not Wisdom Call Out?

Enough with Critical Theory run amuck! Let’s have something like a spirit week, a homecoming for the home team, for the Best of the West. Though the players play for the West, they come from all over the world, and they play for people of all colors, races, religions, ages, genders, sizes, and abilities. No wonder there’s homecoming in high school. It’s a notion with deep roots in our culture, and its true meaning has little to do with tribal, parochial loyalties. This homecoming celebrates the play of human beings in the world.

Homecoming is a big part of playing: it’s home base, a goal, and pay-dirt; it’s boisterous, joyful, embracing, and popular. From wide experience, careful study, and those awful moments when they fumble and let down the team, though, our all stars understand that homecoming also addresses the experience everyone has from time to time of alienation, of being cast out in a cold, pointless universe which tends toward entropy. Science makes a strong argument for this vision of things as the final say on how the real world works, but my books on a comic vision propose, as Solomon did, that Wisdom is “from everlasting” and still lives among us as a potent life saving power:

Does not wisdom call out?
Does not understanding raise her voice?
At the highest point along the way,
where the paths meet, she takes her stand;
beside the gate leading into the city,
at the entrance, she cries aloud:
“To you, O people, I call out;
I raise my voice to all mankind.”

Wisdom calls out when and where we need her the most. She calls us home to the city where she lives.

The essays of my second book, A Comic Vision of Self-Government, maintain that Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, and Paul Johnson have heard wisdom’s call and that their political ideas can be better understood and appreciated when we see that they have been shaped and can be illuminated by the stories that make up our canon of wisdom literature. That literature is firmly grounded in homecoming, the ingredient that’s missing in our civic life.

Part Two: The Presence of a Moral Order

When read as a whole narrative, the theme of exile and return functions as a unifying structural device for both the Hebrew and the Christian Bible. The Odyssey, one of the earliest and still one of greatest works of Western literature, also is structured entirely around the theme of homecoming. For thousands of years people listening to or reading the story of Odysseus anticipated and celebrated the moment when he came home to his wife and son on the island of Ithaca after a twenty year absence.

Who is Odysseus? He’s a mythical king empowered by the gods to restore order in his kingdom after being away so long. While he was gone, ambitious opportunists, suitors of the beautiful queen, usurped his government and laid waste the nation’s wealth in pointless, extravagant feasting.

Where has he been? He has been at war in a world of objects, matter in motion as Marx would say.

How does he get home? Mortals and immortals help him. Initially, Odysseus thinks he can do it on his own, but his own pride gets in the way. His trials come to a climax when the lightning bolt of Zeus destroys his ship, and he loses all the outward trappings of his kingship as a naked man adrift on a vast ocean. By transforming the great Odysseus into a nobody, though, the gods have readied him for true power. Athene guides him to the Phaeacians, a race of people whose ships transcend time and space to move with the speed of thought. The Phaeacians bring him home—exhausted, secure, and sound asleep in a bed on the stern of their ship. Then, too, once a scar on his thigh proves his identity to her, his wife Penelope brings him home for a night of love to the bed he built with his own hands.

Why does his return matter? In his person Odysseus embodies the fact that a moral order exists, and this is the theme that A Comic Vision of Self-Government develops. On his return home the moral order undoes him, and after a kind of scourging he becomes its representative to his people. Even before this, though, Odysseus has one overriding purpose: he wants to return home. This is his chief characteristic, and it’s why the gods (and Homer) single him out for special attention. By returning to take up his duties as a husband, father, and guardian of his people, he fulfills the moral purpose that has driven him throughout his epic adventures.

Part Three: On Looking for a Moral Order

I’ve put Claude Lorrain’s painting on the cover of my book mainly because it’s beautiful. (You can view it on the Home Page.) 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.” Much later, I discovered that the Louvre Museum, which owns the painting, lists the title for it as “Odysseus Returns Chryseis to her Father,” referring to the incident in Book One of The Illiad when Odysseus, as ambassador of the Greeks, returns Chryseis to her father after she had been awarded to Agamemnon as a trophy of war. I wondered how the internet of things got it wrong. Maybe it’s marketing. The title used in online sites, “The Return of Odysseus,” directs the viewer to the fulfillment of Odysseus’s quest in The Odyssey when he returns to Ithaca, an incident which is more widely known than the one in The Illiad.

Lorrain painted many pictures that employed much the same composition; the titles, referring to incidents from classical myths, provided the difference. He was drawn, I believe, to the theme of a safe harbor just as I was. Though the situations in The Illiad and The Odyssey 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, Lorrain has painted the goal of good government which is why it serves as a window on the theme of the book. It’s 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.

Sometimes when my wife and I are watching TV, we notice that our Cavalier King Charles Spaniel is watching the objects moving on the screen. If she would look at the picture Claude Lorrain has painted, though, she would never go looking for Odysseus. She can’t. The title is nowhere in the picture. Only persons, capable of thought—and conscious of themselves and their own history, the history of their families, their nation, and their culture—would go looking for him in the painting. The meaning of Lorrain’s composition, the return of a moral order to the island kingdom, doesn’t exist in a world of objects; it comes to life in the interactions of conscious subjects. The life we live is something other than matter in motion.

Homer was a poet, not a political scientist, but for thousands of years The Odyssey has been preserved and translated all over the world so people could reflect on Odysseus’s pride, the school of hard knocks through which he learns self-government, and the comic conclusion made possible by the strictness of this school. A Comic Vision of Self-Government argues that Homer’s great poem and other timeless comic works still have that value, for the vexation they address is a constant in human life. In these stories the main character falls, as human beings have for millennia, into a world where it appears that he is just an object, buffeted about like the plaything of the gods, but he doesn’t give up. Instead of drowning in that unfriendly sea, he strives for air and light, the human world where he has a place, even in the hearts of others. These stories give us heart and intelligence of a great power; they teach us to recognize the voice of wisdom when it calls to us in the affairs of everyday life.

The ideas of Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Paul Johnson, and the examples of wisdom literature are all priceless records of human beings who have expressed what they found when they went looking for true government or, as so often happens, it went looking for them. The seers, poets, artists, and architects of the West are the Phaeacians who bring us home with the speed of thought. Along with much else in our culture that’s no longer taught in schools or colleges, people have forgotten Odysseus, just as ambitious men in Ithaca assumed he was dead in order to usurp his place as husband of Penelope and as king of the island. We need a homecoming; we need to turn once more to the models of good government that have been passed down from pre-history. I confess that, since I was an English teacher, I have a bias in favor of my subject as a vehicle for this project, for literature discovers the root of true government, which is self-government, in the everyday interactions of Everyman.

Part Four: The Dating Game

A reading of Paul Johnson’s Modern Times suggests a thought experiment that can be added to the argument. Suppose you are single and have gone online to meet that special someone. Let’s also suppose that you receive two responses to your profile.

With an assist from Freud, Marx, and 20th Century Frankfort School and French structuralists, the first responder writes, “People are not what they seem. Everyone is moved by concealed but essential patterns of the unconscious and of bourgeois structures. Because people have no freedom of inquiry and action, we depend on experts who understand the secret codes of the psyche for their mental health and on experts who understand the secret laws of class and production for their financial health. No worries, then. The machine of our meeting is working perfectly. And, since one virtual event necessarily causes another in the great onward marching of progress, this hook-up is on the right side of history.”

With an assist from Adam Smith, the second person writes, “I naturally desire, not only to be loved, but to be lovely—to be worthy of your love,” and adds with an assist from Christopher Marlowe, “Come live with me and be my love.”

Whether we like it or not, we are married in this life, for better or for worse, to a vision of what moves human beings. The first response paints a picture of social objectivity, matter in motion. The second invites us into the point of view of a subject and affirms the existence of an other’s as well as our own point of view. These are the sentiments and interactions that prompted Adam Smith’s theory of the impartial spectator, the one who guides and protects our civic life.

The two suitors represent two different ways of knowing the world, and so they present different worlds. A scientific vision has uncovered powerful physical and social forces, but it leaves out the fact that we are subjects—vital centers of perception, feeling, and judgment. Edmund Burke understood—concerning a similar conflict of visions in the realm of politics—that whether we marry the one or the other is a kind of choice. It’s not the expression of a narrow self interest, the kind of choice referred to in modern political battles. It’s a choice that more or less decides itself as self evident given the circumstances, even if it means sacrificing the chooser’s own life. A person who gives up his own life to save that of another represents a sort of proof that what moves a subject, as opposed to the earth or a bullet, can transcend the cause and effect relationships which are the subject of scientific study. Science (personified) studies matter in motion very well, but by failing to account for persons as subjects, it loses its footing when it studies them. Of course, Science has tried to do it anyway, but when we consider the industrial scale and world wide bloodshed of the 20th Century and the prospects for more in this century, a decent respect for our own species requires that we consider a separation from the claims that society and the persons of which it is composed can be reduced to a social science. Why not credit, as Burke did, that a transcendent standard for government exists which emerges over time in something like a process of natural selection and which emerges also in the give and take of a successful marriage. It’s a vision of society and married life which requires the courage and the patience of people willing to see that process through.

A vision is not a law; it needn’t be repealed. Our greatest poet reminds us that it’s but a cloud-capped tower which melts into air and leaves not a rack behind. Like everything else in the world, it melts when its time is up. Nor does it have to be replaced. At the end of the so-called material world, the cutting edge of science, the world of human persons still exists (with an assist from Gerald Manly Hopkins) as a freshness deep down things. It’s the presence of what science cannot fathom, a comic vision of a true homecoming, like a night of love that springs to life after a long absence.

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