Role Models and Poetry

Societies, as much as individuals, need role models. For good and for ill, our cultural tradition has been influenced by the figures of Achilles and Odysseus, placed at the center of our moral imagination by Homer almost three millennia ago. The shaping power of the tradition is clearest where there has been no direct influence, as when Machiavelli talks of "the Lion and the Fox" or when popular art divides its heroes into the quiet strongman and the wise-cracking Trickster. One reason for the immense staying power of action movies over the last decades is their unwavering loyalty to the mythological symbols that still rule our imagination.

"There were many brave men before Agamemnon," the poet Horace reminded us, and there were heroes before Achilles and Odysseus. These were symbols of courage and strength and survival that shaped the imagination of the high cultures of the Near East, where mankind first developed urban life, irrigation, pottery wheels, smelting, bureaucracy, and many other inventions, large and small, that still structure the routine of our daily lives. Noah Kramer wrote about some of these inventions in his History Begins in Sumer. While in the strict sense, history did not begin in Sumer—it began in Greece, the home of science, tragedy, and democracy—the many discoveries that did begin in the Fourth and Third Millennium world of Mesopotamia still affect our lives in ways...

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