The Homer We Want

Everything is more beautiful because we’re doomed. You will never be lovelier than you are now. We will never be here again. — Homer

I know my Homer, and I like to think that I can spot him when I see him. But when I opened a gift from my father and found this quotation inscribed inside, my confidence wavered. One Google search followed another, and so began my katabasis into the beguiling world of Homeric misquotations.

Homeric misquotation has a long history, as does its study. Accusations of misquotation of Homer’s epics date back at least to the sixth century BCE. Plato and Aeschines made liberal use of the Homeric texts, and Alexandrian critics censured the misquotations of others while surely engaging in the same themselves. But it is often difficult to prove that a line attributed to Homer is not genuine. This has become an even more vexed enterprise recently, with the rise of the theory of Homeric multiformity, which holds that lines that differ from the traditional text are not necessarily any less genuine, despite their difference. For adherents of this theory, authentic Homeric poetry is to be found in quotations, but also in apparent misquotations.

Some cases, however, are clearer than others. The quote my father lovingly wrote out, for instance, dates back all of fourteen years, to Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy. (Nice try, Dad.)

Though it postdates Homer by more than two and a half millennia, this has become one of the most popular Homeric quotations of the decade. It is attributed to Homer in every internet quotation repository, from AZ Quotes to Quotissimo, and frequently ranks among Homer’s best quotations. I Googled “Iliad quotes,” and it was the first result I saw.

Homer’s influence on later literature is well known, but the literary influence of Homeric counterfeits is a story that remains to be told. This counterfeit has proven particularly productive for new fiction of the young adult and, ahem, adult varieties. It appears in Lizzy Ford’s Omega, Jenny Valentine’s Fire Colour One, and Sam Millar’s The Bespoke Hitman. In Her Secret Rose, it is quoted as W. B. Yeats’s “favorite lines from Homer,” and in Merlin’s Son it is attributed to Achilles by Meteor, son of Merlin and Princess Accolade. (Other characters include Diotima, Héloïse, and Darwin.) In Beneath Wandering Stars, unlikely friends (and future lovers?) Gabi and Seth cozy up together when Seth reads out a passage from the Iliad:

Seth puts on his sunglasses, takes off his backpack, and pulls out the Iliad, stretching along the wall like a lizard. ‘Listen to this: “Everything is more beautiful because we’re doomed. You will never be lovelier than you are now. We will never be here again.”’Pinpricks dance along my skin as I join Seth on the wall. These lines really do encapsulate this entire morning.

In Cass Alexander’s Working for It, Brad Pitt’s existential reflection serves as a kind of Horatian injunction to seize more than just the day:

She reads it silently then looks at me. I hold her gaze for only a second before she looks down again and reads the quote aloud.‘Any moment might be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we’re doomed. You will never be lovelier than you are now. We will never be here again.’Serendipity, indeed.She smiles and moves back to her seat, inches away from me.‘Homer?’I nod.‘I’m not surprised you chose something from the Iliad. That what it’s from, right?’Of course, she knows where it’s from. Her intellect is staggering, when she chooses to use it. I nod again.

Half a page later: “Her hands quickly go to my hair and she pulls. Hard.”

Of Homeric quotations in popular circulation, roughly a third can be classified as not Homer, the wrong Homer, or Homerically-based but, really, not Homer. These quotations often resonate with Homeric themes, but their sentimentality, evocation of Christian morality, or even their very quotability give them away. (For all Homer’s poetic virtues, brevity is — let’s be honest — not the soul of his wit.)

Not Homer

The difficulty is not so great to die for a friend, as to find a friend worth dying for.

This attractively chiastic aphorism is frequently attributed to Homer and has been ranked among Homer’s twelve- and ten-best quotes. It is included in such anthologies as Everlasting Wisdom, Life Lessons of Wisdom & Motivation, 3,000 Astounding Quotes, Time, Times and a Dividing of Time, Cracking into Super Brains with 6,000 Supreme Quotes, and Warrior Daytimer. You can get it on a poster, send it as an e-card, or buy it for a friend, printed on a hoodie or engraved on wood.

The quotation evokes Achilles’ relationship with Patroclus and might plausibly have come from Achilles’ mouth, if Achilles had been a Romantic era aristocrat with a significantly milder disposition. The actual origin of this apothegm, however, is Introduction to the Art of Thinking (1761) by Henry Home of Kames. One ‘r’ and a world away from Homer.

It behooves a father to be blameless if he expects his child to be.

This axiom ticks several Homeric boxes: it sounds archaic, it measures children by their fathers, and it features one of Homer’s favorite adjectives, blameless. One might imagine it being spoken by Nestor or Priam or even Odysseus. But, again, its pithiness betrays its inauthenticity. It is attributed to Homer by all the usual suspects, but also by this book about astrology, this non-profit, these anthologies of inspirational quotations, and these three books on parenting. The Homeric attribution has even been extended to Homer Simpson, who makes no pretense about what he expects from him children: “Kids, you tried your best, and you failed miserably. The lesson is: never try.”

The axiom is ancient, but no Homer is responsible. Instead, it originates with Plautus’ Pseudolous, where, in Paul Nixon’s (1932) translation, Callipho says, “It behooves a father to be blameless, if he expects his son to be more blameless than he was himself.”

I know not what the future holds, but I know who holds the future.

Attributed to Homer here, here, here, here, here, and here, this first appeared in “Known Only to Him,” written and recorded by Stuart Hamblen in 1952 and recorded by Elvis eight years later. The line was often excerpted and quickly became anonymized. By January 1960, Martin Luther King Jr. ascribed it to “somebody” and by 1979 it was credited to an “old divine.” In the confusion, it has since been attributed not only to Homer, but also to Martin Luther King Jr., Oprah Winfrey, Ralph Abernathy, and Tim Tebow, in apparently the same process by which The Office’s Michael Scott quotes himself quoting Wayne Gretzky’s “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

Give me a place to stand and I will move the earth.

Despite its vague reminiscence of Homeric boasting, this is the famous dictum of Archimedes, not Homer, notwithstanding many citations to the contrary. The Archimedean saying is first securely attested in Pappus of Alexandria’s Synagōgē: δός μοι, φησί, ποῦ στῶ, καὶ κινῶ τὴν γῆν (8.1060).

The journey is the thing.

How would Homer even have said this, and why? It is attributed to Homer here, here, here, here, here, here and here, and it makes the cut of Homer’s top-twenty list. It smacks of twentieth-century mindfulness movements, and the first attestation of the phrase that I can find is Ivan Kane’s “The Journey Is the Thing,” in the September 1978 issue of Michigan Alumnus, when the idea that the journey is the destination! was not yet quite so cliché. In the world of the Odyssey, the journey is the thing, sure— the thing that’s ruining everybody’s lives.

Wrong Homer

I didn’t lie! I just created fiction with my mouth!

Odysseus, is that you? Quotesss, Quotefancy, and Quotissimo seem to think so. Though he once played Odysseus on television, the source of this bit of sophistry is Homeric in the idiotic, not the Iliadic, kind of way. Interestingly, the original line (“I was writing fiction with my mouth!”) has been modified, perhaps to make it sound more believably bardic.

Not not Homer, but … not Homer

Out of sight, out of mind.

In addition to various internet quotation repositories, several idiom dictionaries claim that this phrase originates with Homer. The Macmillan Book of Proverbs, Maxims, and Famous Phrases (1948), for example, writes that this phrase “has been proverbial since Homer’s time,” an assertion that is reiterated by A New Dictionary of Eponyms and Gabay’s Copywriters’ Compendium and is repeated verbatim by The Dictionary of Clichés, The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, and Two is a Company: Dictionary of Pair Idioms.

It is hard for me to think of an idiom that is more obviously not Homeric. In a world where people can be forgotten when they’re away, the plots of the Iliad and the Odyssey fall to pieces. Odyssey: opening scene. Athena sees Odysseus, stranded on Calypso’s island.

Athena: Father, my heart is torn for Odysseus, miserable man,who suffers on a sea-girt island, far from his friends.Don’t you remember Odysseus — all his sacrifices to you?

Zeus: No.

The End

So why is Homer credited as the originator of the phrase? Because in 1869 Reverend Lovelace Bigge-Wither published his Nearly Literal Translation of Homer’s Odyssey, which renders 1.242 (oíkhet’ áïstos ápustos) as “He’s gone out-of-sight — out-of-mind!” The inadequacy of this translation is pointed up by what follows: “and-to-me hath left | Woes only-and-tears: nor only him I weep for | Now.” Odysseus may be “nameless and unknown,” as Wilson translates, but he is anything but out of Telemachus’s mind.

There is the heat of Love, the pulsing rush of Longing, the lover’s whisper, irresistible — magic to make the sanest man go mad.

The internet loves this quote. It’s on all the quotation repositories, it’s the inspiration for the title of an episode of Star Trek: Discovery (“Magic to Make the Sanest Man Go Mad”), and it has made its way into fiction too. In Myrna Brown’s A Season of Mists, Da uses it (without attribution!) in a letter to his lover, and in Martin Millar’s The Goddess of Buttercups and Daisies, a lovestruck Luxos quotes it to Aristophanes the playwright:

‘Did you even talk to her?’‘No,’ admitted Luxos. ‘But we shared some significant eye contact. I tell you,it’s the real thing.There is the heat of Love,the pulsing rush of Longing, the lover’s whisper,irresistible-magic to make the sanest man go mad.[’]‘I’ve never thought you were that sane, Luxos. And don’t quote Homer at me.’

Yes, okay, the quote is Homeric, but Fagles’ many translational liberties, combined with its decontextualization, make its authenticity awfully hard to recognize. In Iliad 14, Hera asks Aphrodite to lend her love and desire, ostensibly so that she can fix her parents’ sexless marriage. Aphrodite agrees and hands Hera the belt “wherein lies love and desire and flirtation, allurement that steals the mind even of the wise” (14.216-17). Homer’s love has no “heat,” his longing has no “pulsing rush,” his flirtation is neither “irresistible” nor “magic,” and its power isn’t restricted from women, as in Fagles’ version.

The charity that is a trifle to us can be precious to others.

Beyond internet databases, you can find this Homeric proverb quoted anywhere from nursing textbooks, holiday giving guides, books about hotel management, and spiritual handbooks, including Daily Bread For Your Mind and Soul, Becoming Fully Human: The Greatest Glory of God, A World Tour of Wisdom: Finding Inner Peace, Learning Through Living, and Bleedership: Biblical First-Aid for Leaders. This one has found its way to fiction too. In Sandy James’ Fringe Benefits, hot new teacher Nate Ryan gets his way with his boss, Dani Bradshaw, all thanks to his ability to quote Homer:

Nate took her hand, stroking her knuckles with his thumb. ‘I’d be really grateful, Dani. And it will only be temporary.’ His eyes shone with humor as the corners of his mouth rose with a lopsided smile. ‘“The charity that is a trifle to us can be precious to others.”’The man could fucking quote Homer. How could she ever turn him down?‘Fine. You can live in my basement.’

I wonder what’s going to happen in that basement.

As with Fagles’ pulsing rush of magical man-love, this proverb’s quotability is due more to the translator than the translatee. In Odyssey 6, Nausicaa instructs her attendants to look after Odysseus, “since foreigners and beggars are from Zeus, and even a small gift is welcome” (6.207-8). The original doesn’t have nearly the same axiomatic or Christian force as Rieu’s, which owes as much to the Biblical story of the widow’s mite as it does to Homer.

Two friends, two bodies with one soul inspired.

This is Pope’s rendition of a significantly less quotable Homeric original. When the Myrmidons enter battle in Iliad 16, Patroclus and Automedon lead the way: “Two men were armed in front of all: Patroclus and Automedon, having one intention — to wage war at the head of the Myrmidons” (16.218-20). Though Homer’s version speaks only to the bloodlust that the two men share, Pope’s translation has made Homer a poster boy for Aristotelian friendship. By 1910, Pope’s translation could be cited as Homer’s definition of friendship; in 1928 it was quoted as the ideal of friendship; and in 1971 it could be used to demonstrate that “Homer rated friendship very high.” To paraphrase Richard Bentley, it’s pretty poetry, Mr. Pope; but it isn’t Homer.

There is an old story, related in the scholia to Dionysius Thrax, of how we came to have our Iliad and Odyssey. In circulation for many years after the poet’s death, Homer’s grand epics had started to disintegrate. Damaged by earthquakes, fires, and floods, various scraps of Homer lay scattered across the Greek world. Seeking renown for himself and the restoration of Homer’s poems, Peisistratus, ruler of Athens, put out a call: Whosoever of you possesses verses of Homer, bring them to me, and you shall receive compensation to match your contribution. Entrepreneurial Greeks flocked to Athens, bringing verses of Homer, supplemented with several of their own, to make the most of the king’s offer. When Peisistratus had gathered all that he could, he invited seventy-two grammarians to arrange the collected fragments as each thought best. Having made their arrangements, each grammarian presented his work to a committee of his peers, and from seventy-two Homeric medleys they judged Aristarchus’s to be the best.

The story is fictitious (Aristarchus was born three hundred years after Peisistratus died); but, like these quotations, its spuriousness does not negate its resonance. As in the scholiast’s story, so with these popular quotations, the questionable attribution of verses to Homer is a win-win. In the story, Peisistratus gets prestige, Homer isn’t forgotten, seventy-two Hellenists get jobs, a lot of people make money for supporting the arts, and we all have epics to enjoy. Homer’s public image and the ideas erroneously ascribed to him benefit from their mutual association. Homer gets to sound like Shakespeare, and words of wisdom from Christian cowboys that might have faded from the obscurity of their source survive, feeding and feeding on Homer’s fame. Like Peisistratus and the seventy-two grammarians, when we look to Homer for a quotable phrase, we get the Homer we want, not the Homer we have. And maybe that’s the way it has always been.

This article is part of the Diacritical Remarks column

Bill Beck is a PhD candidate at the University of Pennsylvania. He explores origins of another sort @GreekEtymology, and you can find more of his writing here.

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I'm Faye Pearson and I own Q Nails and Spa. I love providing high-quality nail services to my clients and seeing their reactions when they see their new nails. I take pride in my work and always aim to give my clients the best possible service. I opened Q Nails and Spa because I wanted to create a relaxing environment where people could come to escape the stresses of daily life. I believe that a little bit of pampering can go a long way, and I'm happy to be able to offer that to my clients.

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