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In Defense of Joyful Solemnity

In a recent review of a new translation of Homer's Iliad, the reviewer makes the perceptive observation that the translation is readable because it is faithful to the way that we think, but for that reason not an accurate reflection of the way that Homer himself thought. This is instructive.

Instead of trying to understand those who have gone before by making a part of our minds momentarily like theirs, we make theirs like ours. Whereas Homer believed in dignity, magnanimity, majesty, sobriety, formality, and joyful solemnity, we moderns believe in informality, comfort, equality, and hilarity. We are embarrassed by the old attitudes and cannot conceive of anyone seriously having them. Whether we are simply incapable of holding such values, or believe that no one should, we mock them or pretend that no one else ever really held them either.

Some of us think that we ought to change. Some of us think that the principles of submission, respect, filial piety, friendship, leadership, and honor are meaningless without genuine behavioral expression. Some think that a man need not call his friend by his Christian name in order to show affection, that to call his elder by his (or worse, her) Christian name is dishonoring, that his children (while they are children) are not a man's friends and do not wish to be treated as such, for they love him far too much. Some of us think that Paul meant more than "just an attitude" when he said to honor the emperor, and to obey one's parents, and that Peter's commendation of Sarah for calling Abraham "lord" was not intended to be fodder for jokes but rather to call attention to an example to be followed.

A few of us think that the welcoming phrase "make yourself at home--we don't stand on formality around here!" is a pitiable, though innocent, admission of our lack of social grace and absence of understanding about what really makes a guest feel comfortable and welcome.

Fewer yet (though we exist, and though we may have a poor grasp of it ourselves) believe that the presence of certain patterns of life -- traditions, customs, and rituals -- is not only unavoidable, but a great benefit to our individual, family, and community existence. They introduce order where none tends naturally to exist or to survive, if it does exist. They counteract entropy. They give us parts to play on our stage, so that we may spend less time trying to discover what to do next and more time enjoying participating in the play.

WJC


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