Thursday, December 11, 2008

Life Lessons from Literature

The epic poems and plays that we read in class this semester have reinforced a belief that I have had since childhood: There is something to be learned from every person we meet and every situation we encounter. The prophet Nephi likened the scriptures to his people for their profit and learning (Book of Mormon 46); I apply the same technique to fictional characters in movies, books, and plays. The characters we have followed in our readings may have lived thousands of years ago in far away places, yet their adventures and struggles can entertain us and teach us valuable lessons.
Regardless of how sophisticated modern men think they are, the modern world is still teaming with human beings full of weaknesses and human tendencies that plagued medieval and ancient people centuries ago. Differences in values and culture are variables that distract the casual reader from learning from the past in the same way they distract the casual observer of the modern world from learning from the life that surrounds him. With a little effort, we can increase our wisdom by learning from their successes and failures instead of insisting on making similar mistakes ourselves. The themes in our readings this semester that resonated with me fell into the categories of advice, questions to ponder, and moral lessons.
The Iliad contains an example of a moral lesson. Achilles was a unique character in this work because he had two fates, he knew them both, and he consciously chose the one he preferred. His mother told him that he could choose to remain at the ships and die at a ripe old age without kleos, or he could lay siege to Troy, die young, and gain immortality on the lips of men. (Homer, Iliad 267) While a modern reader wouldn’t necessarily be faced with choosing between the same specific fates, he often faces the moral dilemma on whether to choose a safe, long, ordinary life or risk it for excitement, fame, wealth or passion. We learn from Achilles that the choices we make in our life are important, and through our choices we have the ability to decide our fate.
The Odyssey teaches us about the transition from child to man through the example of Odysseus’ son Telemachus. Early in the work, Telemachus realizes that he must take on the responsibilities of head of the household before the suitors squander his inheritance. He follows the counsel of the gods and his elders, learns that his father is alive, and returns home in time to be reunited with his father. As father and son prepare to take their revenge, Telemachus makes a critical error by leaving the door ajar where the arms were stored. Instead of acting childish and blaming a servant for the misdeed, he accepted responsibility for his act in the presence of his father. Modern teenagers should be able to see some connection to Telemachus. They stand in the gulf between childhood and adulthood, wanting to be treated as an adult while continuing to behave as a child. I have often told my teenagers that I would treat them as an adult only when they chose to act like an adult. Now I can look to Odysseus to back me up, because from the moment Telemachus accepted responsibility for his misdeed, Odysseus treated him as a grown man and his equal.
Great literature has the ability to pose timeless questions for the reader to ponder. One of the many themes in The Odyssey concerns the nature of nobility. A question arises as the story unfolds: Is nobility something in the blood or is it taught? This type of question is more familiar to the modern reader as the familiar “Nature or Nurture” Argument. Lord Aegyptius, the swineherd Eumaeus, the suitors and Telemachus were all born into nobility, yet all did not act the part. Lora Aegyptius was lax in training his son Eurynomus the ways of nobility. Eurynomus was among the group of suitors abusing the hospitality of Odysseus’ estate. Unlike Eurynomus, most of the suitors did not have fathers around to mold their noble character because they were off fighting at Troy. Telemachus’ father was at Troy, but he had the benefit of a father figure in the swineherd Eumaeus to teach him proper noble behavior. Both Telemachus and Eumaeus acted as nobility should; the suitors, including Eurynomus, did not act nobly yet all had noble blood. It is true that modern readers don’t concern themselves much with nobility, but The Odyssey’s argument favoring nurture over nature can be applied to understanding the influence of fathers on sons in a society with an increasing number of single mothers raising boys alone.
Most of the lessons I take with me from reading these works falls under the category of advice. The Odyssey, Inferno and The Aeneid all raise caution toward seductive women and The Aeneid cautions not to let passions deter you from greater aims. I think this applies to young men as they prepare to serve missions. Oedipus the King and King Lear warn readers of the danger in making hasty judgment. This advice applies not only to kings, but to anyone in a position of responsibility and leadership. Vanity is a theme addressed in King Lear as he asks his daughters to express verbally how much they love him in order to help him decide on how to divide up his kingdom between them. We learn that you should beware of people who tell you what you want to hear. This is particularly useful advice during an election year in the modern world. And we learn from Oedipus and Dido not to be hasty to vow publically that you will act in a particular way; it might cost you your sight or your life. Now that I have taken the opportunity to read these classic works of literature, I can see why people love them enough to read them again. They can be tough to get into at first, but they are well worth the effort. I found it easy to glean modern day application from the characters and I enjoyed the rich imagery woven by each well-crafted line. And like the scriptures, I anticipate that every new reading will increase my perspective and enlarge my understanding of humanity and of myself.

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