Homer in Greek Education

Written by Jason Rheins on July 1, 2021

Homer and Hesiod were constants in Greece, and every iota of educational value was eked out of them—even as they were criticized.

These passages indicate both the centrality of Homer (and other poets) and the many arguments aimed against his work: that it was morally corrupting, that it was theologically confused, that there was so much to learn from it that it merited committed memorization and study, and so on.

These criticisms represent a sort of early instance of reform proposals for "the canon", and, more interestingly, they indicate a culture pushing to take more conscious, intentional command of its educational materials.

Heraclitus fragment 42 DK

In the Late 6th c. BCE, the enigmatic philosopher, Heraclitus, claimed that

“Homer deserved to be banished from the contests and whipped, and Archilochus deserved to be too.”

Here, Heraclitus is making the bold claim that the name associated with Greece’s preeminent and most culturally central literature should be removed from presentation or “cancelled” as we might say today. The poems of “Homer” (and other epic and lyric poets) were central to Greek culture and education, serving as a universal “reader” (even if practiced orally) for the Greek student. Because of this, and because the Greeks expected their educational material to be morally edifying, a critique of Homerica as immoral and unsuitable was shocking and potentially revolutionary.

The contests in question were poetic performance competitions, some of which were recitations and/or expositions of Homer. Besides Homer, Heraclitus says other poets like Archilochus—a brilliant lyric poet of the early 7th c., highly controversial for perceived immoralism—deserved to be whipped.

This is an important and early—but by no means the earliest—salvo in a conflict between philosophers and poets, or what Plato famously dubbed “The Ancient Quarrel”. The quarrel was not quite ancient in Heraclitus’ time, but it was at least a generation or two old. Other philosophers would follow the lead of Xenophanes and Heraclitus in criticizing Homer in the sharpest terms and even suggesting his removal from Greek education.

And yet, Homer never budged from his centrality.

Xenophanes DK B10

“Since all from the beginning have learned from Homer.”

This text speaks directly to the centrality of Homer in Greek culture as early as the mid 6th c. BCE. Xenophanes is a mid-late 6th century BCE poet and philosopher. He is also a relentless critic of Homer and Hesiod, especially in regard to their depiction of the gods. Xenophanes believes that the immoral and anthropomorphic depiction of the gods—and the many tales of monsters and the like—are utterly baseless and bad for their listeners.

However, he believes that all of Greece has absorbed its worldview (including the nature of the gods) from Homer. Thus Homer is responsible for the mistaken views of the Greeks and his enduring popularity and centrality stands in the way of their reformation.

Xenophanes DK B11

"Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods /
All such things as are faults and blameworthy for men /
robbing, and cuckolding, and deceiving each other."

Xenophanes, poet and philosopher, was occasionally known in antiquity as the “Homērapatēs”—trampler of Homer (DL 9.18)—for his harsh criticism of Homer. As seen here, Xenophanes particularly criticized Homer and Hesiod for their depictions of the gods.

Xenophanes has two main criticisms of the poetic depictions of the gods which have shaped the minds of all Greeks. First, he rejects their anthropomorphism. Second—what we see here—he criticizes the immorality of their depiction. Xenophanes does not criticize the gods’ treatment of human beings, but rather their treatment of one another. The way the gods of Homer and Hesiod treat each other is the way the most blameworthy human beings treat each other.

If that is so then the gods are no better than us, but they ought to be, and the gods are a poor example for us and for anyone hearing these poems.

Xenophon Symposium 3.5-6

In his comic dialogue, Symposium (drinking party), Xenophon imagines Socrates and company each naming their chief accomplishment, i.e. the intellectual, professional, or moral distinction of which they are most proud. Niceratus gives as his the memorization of the two great Homeric epics, Iliad and Odyssey. This would have been considered a significant cultural distinction, not unlike the ability to quote extensively from Shakespeare or the Bible at will. Niceratus did so at his father’s prompting, showing the great store set by the study of Homer in Greek education. Furthermore, this was not in preparation for a poetic profession, but a general education, for Niceratus is not a rhapsode, one of the professional reciters and interpreters mentioned by Antisthenes.

The value of the memorization of Homer, and his educational value more broadly is doubted and even satirized here. Antisthenes, Socrates’ cynical disciple, questions Niceratus’ distinction by pointing out that rhapsodes memorize all of Homer too, and that they are the greatest of fools. Socrates, ironically points out, though, that their foolishness is due to the fact that they memorize Homer but do not understand him.

In fact, part of the rhapsodes’ art was the ability to explain Homer and other poets to their audiences, so they more than anyone would claim to understand Homer. The implication, then, is probably that knowing Homer—a staple of Greek education—actually does not really teach the student much, if anything, about the world. At the same time, Socrates’ final comment suggests that teachers could earn impressive sums by teaching the interpretation of Homer, showing that considerable educational interest existed in this too.

Xenophon Symposium 4.6-8

In this text, Niceratus defends the value of his accomplishment, the memorization of Homer, by claiming that, as Homer has touched on nearly every subject, he has valuable information on a variety of subjects with which to benefit his associates.

The cynical Anthisthenes immediately challenges the idea that Homer has taught Niceratus household management, statesmanship, or generalship, asking whether it has also taught him how to reign as a king. Niceratus improbably claims that it has, and charioteering too, since characters in the poems do advise one another on chariot driving. The only convincing case of information conveyed by Homer is advice about using onions to garnish food and wine, a point conceded along with the joke that this will convince one’s wife one wasn’t seeking a kiss from anyone else.

The ability of Homer to teach these arts is not taken seriously here, but it is not interrogated and systematically refuted as it is in Plato’s Ion (below). Still, it is a good example of the role of Homer in education and a particular criticism of that role—not the criticism of Homer for immoralism or poor depiction of the gods—but of failing to be a sufficiently useful topic of study, especially as the centerpiece of musikē.

Plato Ion 531a1-d2

In Plato’s Ion, Socrates challenges the claims to knowledge of Ion the rhapsode. Rhapsodes were professional performers and interpreters of poetry, and Ion is a championship-winning Homer specialist. It turns out that the knowledge of Homer or the ability to speak well upon what is in Homer does not give one a real expertise in the matters Homer discusses, and this is an argument building to that conclusion. Similar to arguments in Plato’s Gorgias that orators do not speak better about X (say, medicince) than experts in X (doctors), a seer will speak better about what multiple poets say about soothsaying.

The relevance of such arguments to Greek education is considerable because Homer and other poets were an essential and central component of education—musikē. If poets do not actually describe the world well or as well as real experts in various subjects, then the value of their poetry is at most for the student’s moral upbringing, not practical training or utilitarian instruction.

Jason Rheins

Dr. Jason G. Rheins is a scholar of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. In 2003 he received his BA with honors in Philosophy and Classical Studies from Stanford University. In 2010 he earned his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania. He has taught or held professorships at the University of Pennsylvania, Swarthmore College, UNC Chapel Hill, St. John’s University, and Loyola University Chicago. He has published articles and book chapters on the history of philosophy, the philosophy of science, and metaphysics. He is currently completing a monograph on Plato’s theology.