Teaching Our Children to Be Like Penelope in a World Full of Cyclopes

In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus’ long-suffering wife, Penelope, is nearly always referred to with her epithet, “circumspect.”  Circumspect is a wonderful Latin derivative, literally meaning “to see around” but bears the implication of one who holds her cards close to her chest.  Penelope frequently appears in the story leaning against a pillar or at the top of a staircase, observing the activities of people around her.  She surveys her surroundings and takes full account. She understands much, says little, and continues to wait for her husband to return from his twenty-year absence. She is circumspect both literally in her view from the pillar in her home, and figuratively in her ability to comprehend the actions and motives of those around her.

During the most well-known part of the poem, Odysseus recounts his travels back to the Phaiakian king, Alkinoös, and his guests.  He tells them of various encounters with barbarians, sea monsters, an enchantress, a trip to the underworld, and even some zombie-ish cows (side note: one of the lessons in the Odyssey is not to eat things you’re not supposed to eat.  Just don’t.). One of the episodes he spends the most time recounting, however, is when he and his men land on an island inhabited by Cyclopes. Odysseus goes to extra lengths to tell his audience how utterly barbaric the Cyclopes are.  They don’t cultivate their land, they don’t meet together in assembly, they don’t live in community, and each man is a law unto himself. They don’t receive visitors, and do not travel. In fact, he points out to his audience (whose profession is shipbuilding), they wouldn’t even know how to build ships if they wanted to.

But what is it, one might ask, that Odysseus despises so much about the Cyclopes? He had encountered other barbarians on his adventures and they don’t seem to elicit the same visceral reaction that the Cyclopes do. But then the reader remembers who it is that Odysseus has left waiting for him for twenty years at home in sunny Ithaka:  his wife, Penelope.  Penelope, the circumspect one who sees all and understands – juxtaposed with the Cyclopes, with just one eye, and are by nature myopic.  Limited by their single eye, they have no perspective, no long view, understand nothing that goes on around them, and seem to be an abomination of everything Odysseus holds dear. 

So what does this all mean, in terms of teaching our kids to be more like Penelope and less like Cyclopes? I believe this is what a good education does for us.  We have to do the hard work of understanding all of the elements of a great story, for example, and we have to see it again and again in order to be able to recognize it in its various shapes and hues.  But then when we encounter it outside of the classroom, which is really how great stories are meant to be encountered, then we have the ability to see the transcendent truth about it and not be bogged down by the particular. It’s the same thing with anything else we learn:  we must learn the elements of language to create poetry, the theory of colors to make beautiful pieces of art, and practice the etudes and scales before playing a concerto.  This is the heart of classical education: to see the importance of the all of the pieces but understanding at the same time that the whole is so much more than the sum of the parts. And yet we value the whole more when we have a better understanding of the parts. Seeing only the parts will lead eventually lead us to myopathy, which in the case of the Cyclopes, ends in blindness. But a unified vision of a whole gives us a perspective and ability to see that helps cultivate wisdom and understanding.


In His service and for His glory,

Rachel Greb

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