Shining in Homer

A few years ago Bert and I were together in Oslo for much of the summer with our families. We spent a lot of time walking around a beautiful lake at the top of the hill where we lived. (Thanks to Liv Duesund, our gracious host.) When we weren’t doing that, Bert and I spent a lot of time talking about Homer.

The notes we wrote were eventually published in a Norwegian Journal of Sports Science under the title “Notes on Embodiment in Homer”. They are not widely available there, so I thought I might put up a short excerpt here. The idea for the excerpt was to try to find the phenomenology behind all the different ways in which the metaphor of shining works in Homer. We came up with three. Can anyone find more? Or further examples of the phenomena we’ve got?

June 10, 2006

Three kinds of shining in Homer

1. The light that characterizes the phenomenology of startling, unexpected shifts in the mood or situation. This is paradigmatically associated with the light of Zeus’s lightening bolt. Like lightening, you notice it when it happens – it calls attention to itself. And also, it’s necessarily momentary, since it marks a transition from one mood or situation to another. Example: Il. 17.180. “Zeus…tears away his triumph all in a lightening flash.” See also Aphrodite and the chin strap, Il. 3.435. Notice that Zeus’s lightening bolt is never associated with storms, since these are the domain of Poseidon, but rather comes strictly out of the blue.
2. The blazing power of shining heroes and gods when they’re at their best, for example fighting “brilliantly.” When somebody is manifesting their excellence at something, we say in English, they really ‘shine.’ One notices, or can notice, this kind of radiance, as when we say the bride was radiant on her wedding day. But the radiance can also just change your relation to the person, your way of treating them or responding to them, and indeed your way of understanding yourself and the whole situation, without your noticing the radiance itself. So one can either look at the radiant being as radiant (Marylin Monroe, Aphrodite as golden, shining Hektor) or see the situation in the light of their radiance. Manifesting excellence happens suddenly too, like the lightening bolt, but like a fire it endures, lingers, and is only gradually extinguished – phusis. Example: Il. 15.623. “Hector shining all about with fire leapt among the throng…” When one notices a shining hero or god it is like seeing flow from the outside; the shining person is acting in flow, and you experience his flow as a shining. If it draws you to get in sync with it, as it usually does, then one transitions to the third form of light.
3. The light that attunes people to each other and to their shared situation when they’re in flow together. This light must not be noticed or it will disrupt the flow. Examples: Il. 15.667ff, in which Athene shines light upon both sides of the army and in this light they see the situation – Hector, etc. – clearly. Here Homer says that Athene has shined the light, but none of the characters see it, they only see the things it illuminates. See also Od. 19.40ff, in which Telemachus interrupts the flow of the situation because he notices the light of the working gods and Odysseus warns that one must not pay attention to it. A particular version of this can also be found in the case of mood. For example, Aphrodite shines on Helen and Paris so that the erotic aspect of the situation shine, and one is drawn to respond to them. Il. 3.395.

These three categories of shining highlight Homer’s sensitivity to phenomena of embodiment that have been covered up since Plato, and have been replaced in our Enlightenment era by Descartes and Kant’s emphasis on will and agency. They characterize Homer’s glorification of our kind of being as existing along a spectrum of kinds and degrees of bodily receptivity – from the lack of receptivity given to one in sleep to the receptivity to particular affordances like tasty food, to the full in-sync receptivity of embedded-ness in the shared situation with others – all of which Kant would have denigrated as heteronomous determinations of the will. In Kant’s account of the enlightenment man becomes the source of all light and intelligibility and his freely chosen actions are the paradigmatic exercise of his autonomous will. By contrast, Homer characterizes man as responsive to a light given to him from outside by the shining of the gods and heroes.

About Sean D. Kelly

Sean Dorrance Kelly is the Teresa G. and Ferdinand F. Martignetti Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University. He is also Faculty Dean at Dunster House, one of the twelve undergraduate Houses at Harvard. He served for six years as chair of Harvard's Department of Philosophy. Kelly earned an Sc.B. in Mathematics and Computer Science and an M.S. in Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences from Brown University in 1989. After three years as a Ph.D. student in Logic and Methodology of Science, he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of California at Berkeley in 1998. Before arriving at Harvard in 2006, Kelly taught at Stanford and Princeton, and he was a Visiting Professor at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. Sean Kelly's work focuses on various aspects of the philosophical, phenomenological, and cognitive neuroscientific nature of human experience. He is a world authority on 20th century European Philosophy, specializing in the work of Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. He has also done influential work in philosophy of mind and philosophy of perception. Kelly has published articles in numerous journals and anthologies and he has received fellowships or awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEH, the NSF and the James S. McDonnell Foundation, among others. Fun fact: He appeared on The Colbert Show in 2011 to talk about All Things Shining. Sean Kelly lives at Dunster House with his wife, the Harvard Philosopher Cheryl Kelly Chen, and their two boys, Benjamin and Nathaniel.
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2 Responses to Shining in Homer

  1. Dean Rose says:

    Another example of a hero shining is when Odysseus relates to the Phaeacian Queen Arete that

    …”she (Calypso) never won the heart inside me, never” (Odyssey Book 7, line 297)

    Odysseus, enjoying some kind of quasi-immortality and other benefits of the goddess Calypso on the island of Ogygia (back in Book 5) still longs for his own mortal place and time. Indeed, even after being cautioned by Calypso on the pains he would endure upon leaving Ogygia, his response is

    “add this to the total – bring the trial on!” (Odyssey Book 5, line 248)

    Even though Zeus has decreed that the exile must return:

    “So his destiny ordains. He shall see his loved ones, reach his high roofed house, his native land at last” (Odyssey Book 5, line 45)

    It seems to me that Odysseus is drawing upon his own inner spirit, perhaps inspired by the immortals within the flow of some kind of destiny, yet still reflecting a mortal decision of his own. I suppose I wonder if the “blazing power of shining heroes and gods” as your second kind of Homeric shining is too broad, and if a distinction between what lights up mortal versus immortal space isn’t warranted.

  2. Pingback: “All Things Shining” « Log24

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