Sight

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Last seminar we discussed the significance of sight and beauty in relation to God – his glory is reflected in the beauty of all things, even to the point of beauty being mirrored in every smallest atom, and only the perceptive person is able to see this. This outward beauty is seen by some merely as an external attribute that causes in them bodily desire, lust, and other wrongful fancies. Sight is the sense that allows someone to appreciate beauty, and if misused, it can easily be “a path leading to error”. In Zulaikha’s case, her sense of sight led to two errors: her inappropriate desire for Yusuf’s beauty, and her idol that she had worshipped all her life.

The “jewel of [her] sight” was Yusuf, but she only saw and desired for his physical beauty because she only saw beauty to be an external attribute without further importance; she did not realize or care for the God of whose beauty Yusuf is a manifestation of. Instead, her internal and spiritual sight was set on her idol. The significance of this idol can be linked back to a previous scene in which the idol is seen hidden behind a curtain as Zulaikha had attempted to seduce Yusuf. There, Zulaikha was aware of her act being immoral, yet believed that as long as a curtain hid her from her idol, it would not know of her “impious deed” and she would be safe. We can see from here that she understands sight to be simply physical, and this signifies her lack of belief in the all-seeing, true God. Furthermore, her idol is physically beautiful to the extreme – “it is made of gold and has eyes of pearl”. This emphasizes the point that she believes beauty to be all about what is external, as she is unable to worship or deem worthy anything that is physically unaesthetic to her even though the true God made every atom reflect His beauty; therefore, she has not yet reached the state of the perceptive person who can see not only every being, but every thing, on Earth to be equally beautiful and worthy. Her smashing of the idol later on is not only metaphorical of her breaking her incorrect faith in order to take up the religion of the right God, but it is also representative of her renouncing her belief that external physical beauty, such as that of her idol, is what determines worth. In other words, she had opened up her eyes and is now able to see beauty the right way and as more than just physicality, which is why God gives her back her sight to see Yusuf.

What are God's values?

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“‘Then let him lie with you tonight in return for the mandrakes of your son.’… And God heard Leah and she conceived and bore Jacob a fifth son.” (p.160) This scene shocked me, as I expected God to not fulfil Leah’s wishes since Leah lay with Jacob not because of her love for or even loyalty to him but because of her bitter rivalry with Rachel, which I thought was of impure intention. However, God seemed to ignore the animosity between the sisters that led to Jacob bearing so many sons, and this makes me question if His own intention is merely to achieve his main goal of getting humans to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (p.5) as well as fulfil his promise to Abraham of spreading his seed to all the lands. Is biological reproduction the only important objective, and the means to it, no matter how corrupt, insignificant?

Furthermore, this brings me back to a point we discussed last seminar regarding the incestuous relationship between Lot and his daughters. That was clearly an act of wrongdoing in God’s eyes; however, Jacob lying with his cousins seems not only to be tolerated, but also encouraged by God as Jacob bears multiple sons by both Rachel and Leah. How far does the term ‘incest’ reach within familial relations? Did He allow Jacob to bear children with his cousins because this was not considered incestuous and was thus perfectly moral, because he ignored it in favour of general biological reproduction of humans, or because he ignored it in favour of keeping his promise to spread Abraham’s seeds (in contrast to Lot, whose seeds were not as privileged)?

we get the whole show, with commentary

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Unlike in epic narratives such as Ramayana and The Odyssey, this historical narrative does not base its tale on a central main hero. Sure, what we have read so far does revolve mostly around Croesus, but we also read about the stories of Peisistratos, Cyaxares and Asyages, and so many others. Herodotus records many battles in his writing, but he makes sure to keep a neutral stance so that no side is depicted as being more heroic than its opposition.

“For a time, both claimed to have won; the Argives said that more of their men had survived, and the Spartans pointed out that these men had fled, while their own man had remained and stripped the corpses of the Argive dead” (1.82.6)

“Although many fell on both sides in this fighting, the Spartans were ultimately victorious.” (1.82.7)

In other ancient historical texts the winners of battles were typically the ones who would document the events, and thus the victorious side would be portrayed as undefeated throughout. However, Herodotus chooses to take a neutral stance; he takes care to document the biases of both sides, and records the truth that many lives were lost in both armies and not just the vanquished side.

However, despite his unbiased accounts of battles his writing is not completely lacking in opinion.

“they then, in order to help him return to power, contrived the silliest scheme I’ve ever heard of” (1.60.3)

We can hear his amused and slightly exasperated tone here, which tells us his views on this particular scheme. Herodotus chooses his role as a narrator carefully – he shows the two sides to every coin when it comes to writing about events with conflicting accounts, and makes sure to not depict any exaggerated heroism, but at the same time he keeps his writing from being too bland by injecting his own opinions when he feels strongly about something. This may influence slight bias but it does not obstruct the audience’s perception of the full account of events.

2 paragraphs

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Odysseus’ initial disguise as the “Man of Strife” when he first reunites with Laertes is an externalization of his guarded attitude toward his father. Homer paints him as a cautious man, and this is evident in his decision to “test the old man first, reproach him with words that cut him to the core”. This is perhaps due to his experience with the suitors and servant women, which proved him wise to be apprehensive of even those close to him. However, even in disguise Odysseus attempts a discreet play on words to test his father:

“I come from Roamer-Town, my home’s a famous place,
my father’s Unsparing, son of old King Pain,
and my name’s Man of Strife…”

Odysseys hides subtle lexical hints within these lines, such as the parallel between “son of old King Pain” and the meaning of his name Odysseus, the Son of Pain, to prod his father to recognize him.

True to the scene mentioned above, Odysseus is usually the master of deceit, but following his test of Laertes, there is the slight irony in him shedding his layers of disguise to bare his identity in order to gain back his father’s love and trust. Similar to Laertes’ test for Odysseus’ identity, Penelope had previously tested Odysseus, and this test by Laertes indicates the depth of their relationship – one that reveals how Odysseus, despite being a battle-scarred warrior who has ruthlessly slaughtered men, has people dear to his heart with whom he has built a relationship substantial enough to provide “a sign, some proof” of. The closeness of Laertes and Odysseus’ relationship can also be seen from the distinction between Laertes’ request for proof and the quick acceptance of Odysseus’ identity by Telemachus, who, though is Odysseus’ son, Odysseus has not built a solid relationship with, in contrast to Laertes. Their father-son relationship is unveiled further through the two pieces of evidence Odysseus responds to Laertes with: “the wound [Odysseus] took from the boar’s white tusk on Mount Parnassus”, and “the trees [Laertes] gave [Odysseus] years ago”.

Epics vs Songs

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I feel that the functions of poetry of The Book of Songs differ from that of the other two books we’ve read, in that though both reflect their respective societies, epics such as the Ramayana and The Odyssey were woven to tell a tale that can be deeply ingrained into a culture’s history as a dramatic representative of that civilization, whereas The Book of Songs draws out a culture’s history by expressing it from the varying viewpoints of many walks of life without attempting to be the epic of that particular civilization.

I agree with Yonatan that “the power of epics stems from the idea that they may speak from one voice, but in such a way that it can leave a moral impression on whoever it is being read by.” Both the Ramayana and The Odyssey may be spoken from one voice, but are in a way reflective of the voices of the common people and "all aspects of life outside the heroic ethos", as they take in the most significant aspects of the society they were written in, encompassing the entire society's strongest (religious) beliefs and values, and pass these on through captivating oral poetry to transcend generation after generation, stamped into history. Though the Ramyana and The Odyssey are both great texts as that they are relatable to us modern readers to an extent, they still remain first and foremost the representative work of the great ancient civilization they were created in.

The Book of Songs, on the other hand, depicts every aspect of ancient Chinese society that is spoken from many voices for many voices, to give a more truthful reflection of not only that particular society but the "original core of humanity that we all still have within us." (xv) It being a collection of poetry (mostly) devoid of subject names makes it more relatable to a reader who is societies and decades away from when the poems were written, in contrast to how narrative epics have a hero and other structured characters that remain detached from the audience. This, along with how each poem relates to a specific issue regarding human nature, allows it to be the great text that is immortal and inexhaustible in its interpretations, and is reflective in both a personal and societal sense.

Antinous

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Antinous is a character worth studying, as he seem to be a representation of the “inner hearts” of the upperclassmen in society, i.e. the other suitors. He is unaware of himself as a parasite, although ironically sees the other suitors as “swarming crowds consuming [Eumaeus’s] master’s bounty” (17.415-6). When Athena prompts Odysseus to“gather crusts from all the suitors, test them, so we can tell the innocent from the guilty” (17.397-8) the rest of the suitors “all give [Odysseus] his fill of food but [Antinous] gives him a footstool hurled at his right shoulder” (17.597-8). Antinous again ironically accuses Odysseus of “making free with the next man’s goods” (17.498) even as he himself “[lounges] at the next man’s board”(17.504). The other suitors’ treatment toward Odysseus emphasizes the significance of xenia in ancient Greek culture, as they were aware that Odysseus was another guest in the palace and thus they did not dare to treat him unkindly; however, Antinous depicts their “inner hearts” and reveals their hidden resentment toward Odysseus as a beggar. Nevertheless, we see that after Odysseus defeated Irus, “Antinous laid before him a generous goat sausage” (18.137) without a spiteful word. It is interesting how his attitude toward Odysseus takes a turn for the better after Odysseus proves his physical strength through violence, as if suggesting that social statuses amongst men can be achieved through brute force in that society.

3 Qs

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1. Ravana vowed to avenge Surpanakha by killing Rama. What are the conflicting takes on dharma and justice in this situation?

2. How is the view on dharma from both Rama and Vali's positions implemented in their respective arguments, and how/why did it ultimately favour Rama's assertion?

3. Rama claims that he rescued Sita with the sole reason of saving face; how does his argument, bearing in mind his belief that Ravana had touched Sita, pertain to the notion of dharma as an incentive to do right?

Rama: wise or wicked?

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Both Rama and Vali can be considered accurate in their arguments of Rama’s adherence to dharma, as they have each presented, yet both have their faults. Vali’s faults were rightfully pointed out by Rama, and Rama believed that he “acted on the basis of dharma” that “the one who metes out the punishment [has] […] done their duty”. However, it was not considered that Sugriva was the one Vali had wronged, and thus perhaps it should be Sugriva’s duty to mete out Vali’s punishment instead of Rama’s. Let us now assume that it was appropriate for Rama to punish Vali for violating dharma in general. This then raises questions of whether Rama was right to punish Vali in a “wicked and unethical” manner of a “deceitful arrow” instead of confronting Vali fairly. If Rama, who is supposedly “compassionate… devoted to the welfare of all beings”, had first reasoned with Vali the values of dharma, perhaps Vali would have felt the same repentance and turned over a new leaf before Rama had to resort to murdering him.

To touch on the subject of dharma, dharma is an uncertain concept that varies between individuals and situations, not a strict, clear-cut set of conducts. “You have transgressed the bounds of dharma. Your conduct is inappropriate because you are ruled entirely by pleasure. You are not fit to be a king!” Does this line, spoken by Rama, imply that Vali would be fit to be a common folk instead? It suggests that the dharma for a king is different, somehow stricter to uphold, that that of a common folk. It is wrong for common folk to be ruled entirely by pleasure, but the sanction of such a sin is harsher for a king. If Vali had been a typical monkey who infringed the same dharma, would Rama have made his punishment as severe, and if not, would that be just?

Rama's Decision

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In the first chapter Rama is described as one who “is aware of his duties”, “virtuous”, and “upholds dharma”, and this can be seen proved right in his decision to honour his father’s wishes, thus upholding the dharma of his duty as son: “service to one’s father and obedience to his wishes”. I believe that in his position he made the right decision, as he is altruistic at heart, “free of envy”, and “would gladly have given [his] brother everything [himself].” He did not question Dasaratha or Kaikeyi’s motives, as it goes against his duty as son to counter his elders. However, I disagree with his decision to leave Kausalya behind, as she pointed out that there is dharma in staying to care for her as well. The two orders given by his parents are conflicting in dharma, and he could have chosen to compromise by allowing her to leave with him as his father had other wives for company, but instead he chose to prioritise his father’s happiness over his mother’s. Having said that, perhaps his decision to leave Kausalya for Dasaratha’s sake is culturally correct in that society, since it was expected for wives to be foremost loyal to their husbands; therefore, Rama was still adhering to dharma.