Paradox isn’t the problem we take it for. Our want, or at least mine until the past few years of academic dithering, is to think of paradox as a sort of unsolvable dialectic—a riddle that results from a series of definitions that don’t quite fit. However, as the philosopher John Milbank suggests, paradox is a kind of aesthetic (and, necessarily, metaphysical) drama. This is a drama that occurs most obviously because things appear to be at odds with each other when in actuality they are not. Consider the following scene Milbank illustrates: You are driving through thick fog, and all at once, there is the feeling of not knowing what lies ahead because of the fog and the bends of the road however, there is the experience of knowing deeper: that which emerges from the fog is clearer and more defined because that to which it is relative is hidden by the fog and shifting with your moving perspective.1
In other words, things we normally regard as at odds with each other actually maintain their integrity while working together to define each other. The fog is as obscuring as it is illuminating, and the road is as misleading as it is the guiding path. The network of beings and objects is at once composed of particulates and is an organism of Being. What do we do once we consider this? To say the same thing less coyly: How are we to deal with paradox?
Emily Wilson is deeply aware of paradox. Whether it is her translation of Odyssey, or her biographies on Seneca and Socratres, Wilson gives us pragmatic insights as to how to deal with paradox as well as how we become biased of (become opposed to) certain dichotomies when we have no grounds to. Her language better equips us to understand who we are and how we got here.
Wilson’s work is itself a navigation of paradoxes. As a classicist and translator, her work is firmly rooted in the ancient past yet strives to give us new insights as to what we mean when we say “this happened.” Consider Wilson’s own words on the death of Socrates:
The relative lack of interest in Socrates’ death in the past generation or so may be a symptom of our increasing discomfort with death in general. We no longer look for models of the ideal death. We hope, ideally, not to have to die at all. Failing that, we would rather not think about it. Our society may also be increasingly suspicious of ideology in general, as well as of many of the ‘-isms’ with which the dying Socrates has been associated—including rationalism, liberalism, individualism and secularism.
This is all the more reason to turn back to the tradition and think again about why the death of Socrates has mattered in the past, and what meanings it might still hold for us today.2
Our hope not to die is inherently tied to the question of finding an ideal death, which is itself an ironic way of asking “How may I live a good life?”
To continue eating my tail, it’s worth noting too that questions about how people die and live are anthropological: they are questions about the nature of humans. Our fear to ask these questions, as Wilson points out, are perhaps rooted in our growing inability to subscribe to certain identities. The skepticism of historical investigation, and the Socratic method, are one way to deal with (and find) paradox, and ones that will hopefully transform us into agents capable of confronting the moral questions of technology and the control of knowledge with wisdom forged from lived experiences. 3
Wilson’s research on Seneca further highlights this. As a philosopher-dramatist-statesman, Seneca not only took a great many gifts from Caligula and Nero in return for maintaining their public perception and furthering the imperial goals of the empire, but he also went through great lengths to make sure he died a dramatic death (multiple suicide attempts that he banned his wife from witnessing for fear that her emotions would be too troublesome) that would make him seem a moral hero in the style of Socrates or Cato Minor.4
Yet Seneca, like Socrates, is also a guide to the future:
Seneca’s work is brilliantly articulate about the psychological pressures created by consumerism. “Being poor is not having too little,” he declares: “it is wanting more” (Epistle 2). One of his great themes is the way that people surrounded by an excess of material wealth, and in a culture characterized by competition for status, may become obsessed with striving for unreal or actually damaging “goods” (like new clothes or furniture or houses, elaborate food, thrilling and violent entertainment, or titles, promotions, social power, and the admiration of others), which provide no real happiness or satisfaction. And yet our desires for these unsatisfying things remain, as Seneca also recognized, almost impossible to eliminate; and Seneca constantly suggests that complete withdrawal from the social world is not the solution to the problem. As both a Stoic and a pragmatist, he constantly sought to be engaged in the world without losing integrity. He was deeply aware of how difficult this quest is. This is one of many reasons why his work and life story remain so relevant for us.5
Of course Seneca is talking about moral poverty more than anything else. But the fact remains that Wilson has caught on to a key way in which societies are concerned with totalizing the world around them the way Rome (and America) is as a vehicle to provide their citizens with status anxiety. We need not live lives of virtue, just get the right couch. Or, to paraphrase Naomi Klein: Don’t worry if your Nikes being produced by child labour in the Philippines means you shouldn’t buy them, Just Do It. Yet, as in Seneca’s life, it all remains nearly impossible to get away from if we are to (and should) accept that to completely withdraw from the world is not an apt answer to the problems we face. We must risk being bad if we are to be good.
Another paradox in Wilson’s work is that it largely is wrapped up in the analysis of texts written by what are generally considered white men. Most notably, her translation of Homer’s Odyssey is a direct examination of the cultural roles women have played both in the text and in the hands of various translators. Here is Wilson’s rendering of Calypso’s little speech to Odysseus:
son of Laertes, blessed by Zeus—your plans
are always changing. Do you really want
to go back to that home you love so much?
Well then, good-bye! But if you understood
how glutted you will be with suffering
before you reach your home, you would stay here
with me and be immortal—though you might
still wish to see that wife you always pine for.
And anyway, I know my body is
better than hers is. I am taller too.
Mortals can never rival the immortals
Compare that to Robert Fagles’ rendering:
royal son of Laertes, Odysseus, man of exploits,
still eager to leave at once and hurry back
to your own home, your beloved native land?
Good luck to you, even so. Farewell!
But if you only knew, down deep, what pains
are fated to fill your cup before you reach that shore,
you’d stay right here, preside in our house with me
and be immortal. Much as you long to see your wife,
the one you pine for all your days . . . and yet
I just might claim to be nothing less than she,
neither in face nor figure. Hardly right, is it,
for mortal woman to rival immortal goddess?
How, in build? in beauty?”7
And Richard Lattimore:
“Son of Laertes and seed of Zeus, resourceful Odysseus,
are you still all so eager to go on back to your own house
and the land of your fathers? I wish you well, however you do it,
but if you only knew in your own heart how many hardships
you were fated to undergo before getting back to your country,
you would stay here with me and be the lord of this household
and be an immortal, for all your longing once more to look on
that wife for whom you are pining all your days here. And yet
I think that I can claim that I am not her inferior
either in build or stature, since it is not likely that mortal
women can challenge the goddesses for build and beauty.”8
And finally George Dimock’s rendering of A.T. Murray’s prose translation:
“Son of Laertes, sprung from Zeus, Odysseus of many devices, must you, just like that, go home to your own native land forthwith? Yet, even so, may you fare well. If, however, in your heart you knew all the measure of woe it is your fate to fulfill before you come to your native land, you would remain here and keep this house with me, and would be immortal, for all your desire to see your wife for whom you long day in and day out. Surely not inferior to her do I declare myself to be, either in form or in stature, since in no way is it reasonable that mortal women should vie with immortals in form or looks.”9
With language (musical though it is) to the point, Wilson’s translation gives Calypso more agency: Calypso understands the wishy-washy nature of Odysseus and sends him away curtly and confidently while reminding him what he’s leaving. Fagels’ translation is the most like Wilson in terms of agency, although the passivity that closes out the monologue is dissatisfying—and Fagles impulse to reference, among other spots in New Testament, John 18:1110 is problematic because it places Odysseus hierarchically at a level beyond that of Calypso, further blunting her agency. Lattimore’s rendering is the oldest and it shows: The lines feel stiff, and the language wobbles in its levels in a way that doesn’t satisfy the beauty of the speaker or the scene, and like Fagels, this Calypso is rather passive, and perhaps more so, as she seems to project no annoyance at Laertes son, the seed of Zeus, nor make claim on her superiority. Dimock and Murray have clunky prose, with too many conjunctions and clauses to feel the nymph’s power, and then suddenly the last sentence becomes more confident but maintains the translation-feel that reminds us we’re reading an old text.
Wilson has taken up the job of navigating an old text, but her navigation does not surrender the text to the contemporary. Rather, much like David Bentley Hart’s recent translation of the New Testament, Wilson has crafted a text that gives the readers access to the source material in a way that was not possible until now. Her insights are at once positional and critical, and the language is both given from the past and reshaped by the present.
The liberal arts are deeply paradoxical. They are not and do not guarantee food, shelter, cars, jobs, or (thankfully) money, and reading Homer, Plato, and Seneca are activities of privilege that likely won’t enable you to profit socially let alone enable you to maximize your bosses’ capital holdings in the efficiency that our world of technocratic-serfdom demands. Indeed, because of their radical subjectivity they are, more or less, useless by most measures.11 And yet encountering these authors through a critical lens will make our lives better. Wilson’s insights show us how complicated the past was, how heroes are humans and often scoundrels (Odysseus does kill and cheat and lie his way home), and how in recognizing these complications we come to better know who we are as people. This is the other side of the paradox: we need the liberal arts, Odysseus, Seneca and Socrates, to gain the freedom to explore ourselves, and through this freedom of discovery value is returned in a way that moves past utilitarian or economic boundaries. Through the process of this paradox, we see ourselves, and are reminded the past is often the way forward.12
- Žižek Slavoj, Milbank, J., & Davis, C. (2011). The Double Glory of Paradox Versus Dialectic: On Not Quiet Agreeing with Slavoj Žižek. In The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic?. MIT Press.
- Wilson, E. R. (2007). The Death of Socrates: Hero, Villain, Chatterbox, Saint. 19. Harvard University Press.
- Ibid. 36.
- Wilson, E. (2014). Greatest Empire: A life of Seneca. 210. Oxford University Press US.
- Ibid. 21.
- Homer. (2018). The Odyssey. (E. Wilson, Trans.). 186-7. Book 5, Lines 202-14. W.W. Norton and Co. Inc.
- Homer. (1997). The Odyssey. (R. Fagles. Trans.) Book 5. Lines 223-6. Penguin Classics.
- Homer. (1967) The Odyssey of Homer. (R. Lattimore. Trans) Book 5, Lines 203-13. Harper & Row.
- Homer. (1995). Homer: The Odyssey: Books 1-12. (A.T. Murray, Trans. Edited by G. Dimock). Book 5. 197. Harvard University Press.
- ““Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword back into its sheath. Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?””. NRSV.
- I’m indebted to, among other sources:
Nishitani, K. (1982).What is Religion? Religion and Nothingness. University of California Press., Hauerwas, S. (2015). How to Write a Philosophical Sentence.The Work of Theology. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Bloom, H. (1995) The Western Canon… Penguin. and Wilson, E.R.. (2007) esp. 179.:”But in comparison with later uses of the death of Socrates – in, for example, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty – the philosophes were not primarily interested in using this event to prompt political change. The life of the mind, as practiced in the coffee shop, salon or Athenian prison, is represented as an alternative to the active life of politics. The point is clearly illustrated by Dr Johnson, who imagined the following thought experiment: ‘Were Socrates and Charles the Twelfth of Sweden both present in any company, and Socrates to say, “Follow me and hear a lecture on philosophy”; and Charles, laying his hand on his sword, to say, “Follow me, and dethrone the Czar”; a man would be ashamed to follow Socrates. Sir, the impression is universal; yet it is strange.’ Johnson, like many of his contemporaries, sees the philosophy of Socrates as unquestionably admirable, but also entirely useless.”
- Wolfe, J. (2014). Heidegger and Theology.198. Bloomsbury Publishing.
is the College for Women Class of 1963 Term Professor in the Humanities, professor of Classical Studies, and graduate chair of the Program in Comparative Literature & Literary Theory at the University of Pennsylvania. Wilson attended Oxford University (Balliol College B.A. and Corpus Christi College M.Phil.) and Yale University (Ph.D.). In 2006, she was named a Fellow of the American Academy in Rome in Renaissance & Early Modern scholarship. In 2019 she was named a MacArthur Fellow, and in 2020 she was named a Guggenheim Fellow. She lives in Philadelphia with her three daughters, three cats, and dog. Follow Professor Wilson on Twitter @EmilyRCWilson. Professor Wilson frequently tweets about the Odyssey, translation, and her pets.
is the 2021/22 Heritage Chair Fellow in Poetry at Geoge Mason’s MFA program and the poetry editor for phoebe.