Homer and the homeless

By Gwen Compton-Engle

As an adviser and professor, I’m often urging my students to discover what they love and to find a way to spend their lives doing it. Like most faculty members, I fell deeply in love with my subject area and have devoted my professional life to sharing that passion with students. But like many of our students, I had my doubts along the way. I hope my experience can prompt reflection about the special value of Jesuit education.

In college, I fell head over heels for the elegant logic of Latin, the beautiful complexity of the ancient Greek verb system, and the power of ancient literature to grapple with primal questions of what it means to be human. But when I attended graduate school, I had a bit of a crisis about my life’s direction. I was spending many hours in the library learning about fairly obscure information, and I started to feel guilty about it, like maybe I should be saving the planet instead. Did the world really need one more classics professor? So I volunteered at a local soup kitchen to assuage my guilt. I usually worked the food-preparation shift and then went home; but for a couple of weeks one summer, the next shift was short staffed, so I stayed to help serve the meal.

The first week’s epiphany came in the serving line, when a toothless old man, emitting the distinctive odor of chronic poverty, proclaimed to me in a proud, challenging voice, “I’m Nestor. What’s your name?” I mumbled my name, and he moved on; but what I really wanted to tell him was there was another Nestor, one from the age of heroes, one whose honey-sweet voice was respected by all the Greeks and whose generation surpassed that of Achilles. The vision of this poverty-stricken Nestor continues to haunt me as a symbol of the chasm between mythic ideals of what a person can be and the sordid reality of so many peoples’ lives. At the time, it seemed only to confirm my fears that my chosen field was out of touch with reality.

The next week brought epiphany No. 2, this time in the dining area. With my tray of food, I nervously approached a table of homeless men, sat down, and was stunned to hear they were discussing the Iliad. (I’m not making this up.) They were in a heated discussion about Hector and Achilles. This was 10 years before Brad Pitt starred in the movie Troy, so they were talking about the real thing, the great epic poem composed almost 3,000 years ago.

There are many possible ways to interpret that moment. For me, it served as a counterbalance to my encounter with Nestor, a sign the academic subject I loved might not be as far removed from the real world as I’d feared. I realized I’d underestimated the homeless and Homer. To imagine that these human beings and this masterpiece of the humanistic tradition would have nothing to say to each other was to deny the common humanity in each. I realized anew, in that moment, great literature really matters – that artful words, crafted into masterful narratives, can reach across even millennia and grab us by the collar of our common humanity and shake us.

The Iliad, after all, begins with the anger of Achilles at a system he views as profoundly unjust. Perhaps the men at my table could relate. It lays bare its heroes’ terrible, almost insurmountable, grief at mortality and the devastating costs of violence. Perhaps we, as human beings, can relate. The epic assumes the primary validation of our brief, mortal existence comes through honorable death on the battlefield. That one, perhaps, we can all debate.

I’m proud to work at a Jesuit university because Jesuit education, at its best, honors Homer and the homeless. Jesuit education insists working toward social justice is a moral imperative and our response to the world’s problems can’t be divorced from the rigorous intellectual engagement required to understand our world.

Gwen Compton-Engle is associate professor of classics in the Department of Classical and Modern Languages and Cultures.

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