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Hounds and Civilization

Remember when, last week, Rod was talking about the tear-jerking tale of Odysseus’s dog Argos? It’s a more important scene than readers might suspect.

Eumaeus the swineherd comments that when Odysseus was still at home Argos was a great hunting dog: “No quarry he chased in the deepest, darkest woods / could slip this hound.” A hunting dog is a perfect illustration of one of the most powerful recurrent themes in the Homeric poems: civilization as the disciplining of nature. You get a good hound by taking a creature with natural gifts and then training him to serve your purposes, bringing out that natural gift, honing and strengthening it.

On the great shield of Achilles from the Iliad, Hephaestus illustrates this again and again: we see farmers in their fields of grain, vineyards laden with ripe grapes, herds of cattle, dancers and acrobats — in each case depicting cultivation of some kind, the human improvement and transformation of what is given to us. This is for Homer the very definition of civilization, which is why when Odysseus comes across the Cyclops (Book IX) he is appalled by the fact that they neither sow nor reap, but just grab whatever grows from the ground. This fits perfectly with the fact that they have “no muster and no meeting” — no social organization, no polis — but rather each Cyclops is a law unto himself and a tyrant to his family. A Cyclops is for these very reasons uncivilized and inhuman.

Which brings us back to Argos. Here is a great hunting dog — in his own way a triumph of civilization, the product of careful breeding and thoughtful training — who is left to die miserably by the suitors who now run the house of Odysseus. They have no need for a great hound, because they don’t hunt, just as they don’t farm or even make music: they don’t produce but rather only consume. They eat Odysseus out of house and home, and never think to train or cultivate or make anything at all. They even despise storytelling — they can’t bear to listen to the “beggar” who charms everyone else with his compelling anecdotes — and they pay no attention to the bard, the singer of tales, who graces the house with the sound of his harp. They are, therefore, as uncivilized as any Cyclops; for Homer, they are not in any meaningful sense human. They deserve only death. And they get it.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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