Cornell University Press

Joel Christensen on the Psychology of the Epics

Return to Home

We asked author Joel Christensen three questions about his new book, The Many-Minded Man, and his research on Homeric ideology.

1. What’s your favorite anecdote from your research for this book?

I can’t think of one single anecdote for researching this book because so many of the moments were similar: a nearly constant sense of excitement as I read through modern studies in psychology and heard echoes of the way people responded to challenges and suffering in the Odyssey. Perhaps the most exciting part of this was watching other people react. When I first started thinking about how characters in the epic might be thought of as suffering from something like learned helplessness—a declining willingness to act conditioned by repeated failure—I shared the notion with students. Their immediate recognition of the concept and its ability to help them understand the strange behavior of Odysseus and his son encouraged me to keep going.

2. What do you wish you had known when you started writing your book, that you know now?

Apart from using a bibliography manager to make everybody’s lives easier in the editing process, I wish I had started with the confidence to read broadly in other disciplines that I developed during the writing of the book. At the beginning, if I encountered an idea I found useful, I spent months tracing the concept through many different papers and books. By the end, I did not sacrifice this depth of research, but I was far more willing to go between ideas and return to confirm and build up more complex dialogue.

3. How do you wish you could change your field of study?

I wish my field were more outward looking, that we were encouraged to work beyond the confines of philology as a matter of practice and habit instead of something we do later in our careers. To my taste, we spend too much of our energy in the classroom and publication not talking about the ‘big’ topics, the most pressing issues of life, such as how we know who we are, how the stories we tell each other shape us, and how literature and culture can effect bad and good in the world at the same time.

Featured photo: Acropolis in Athens, Greece. Credit: Alex Azabache.


Joel P. Christensen is Associate Professor and Chair of Classical Studies at Brandeis University. He is coauthor of A Beginner’s Guide to Homer and Homer’s Thebes. Follow him on Twitter @sentantiq.

Book Finder