Questions of Morality, Warriorship, and Courage: A Veterinary Student’s Love for the Iliad

by Ruby Laufer

Our whole lives we are asked what we want to be when we grow up. And my answer was always the same: a veterinarian. And yet I’ve spent almost ten years of my life drawn to study Ancient Greek literature alongside microbiology, biochemistry, virology, and any other -ology you can think of. 

In the STEM field, I’m constantly being asked what Classics is, and in a slightly condescending undertone: why would anyone bother studying it? It hasn’t been easy to piece together an answer. But as I’ve gotten older, I realize that the decision to be a veterinarian defines what I want to do, not who I want to be. And who I want to be is a more challenging, difficult, and ultimately more interesting question. But it’s also very hard to figure out—if you can ever even figure it out at all. 

A lot of our lives are devoted to what we want to be, but very little to who. We tend to treat questions of morality and self-reflection with vagueness—we say “I want to be Good. I want to be Kind.” But we rarely take the time to figure out what that means. And it will mean something different to each person—my definition of kind and good is different from my friend’s or my parent’s. But that doesn’t mean we’re without guidance. People have been wrestling with the question of Good and Kind and Right for thousands of years. And luckily for us, they left traces of their own struggle with human nature in great works of art, in literature, in essays—in the humanities. 

For myself, the older I became, the more I was driven (or haunted) by the idea of courage. How can I live my life courageously? What does it mean to be brave? What is the difference between courage and dauntlessness? I turned to Classical literature for answers, and specifically, the Iliad. The attributes and values of the warriors of the Iliad resonated with my search of courage, and I spent a year writing a thesis to create a Homeric model of warriorship. Through it, I was able to define for myself what I believed courage was—the ability to stand your ground, often invoked in the Iliad with the use of the verbs μένω, meaning to stay, wait, or remain in place, and ἵστημι, meaning to make yourself stand. 

I love vet school, and my passion to be a wildlife veterinarian drives me every day. But it isn’t enough to define who I am. And through my study of Classics, I have been able to dig a little deeper at the question of who I want to be (courageous, dauntlessness, empathetic, yielding), and how that looks to me. I have loved the Iliad and the study of warriorship because there is something in that text that is fundamental to who I want to be as a person. But that particular text—the Iliad—resonates in that particular way for me alone. For someone else, their teachers could be Shakespeare, or Dostoyevsky, or Tolstoy. The point is to find out for yourself what resonates with who you want to be, and to keep digging at it. And to think for yourself—not plug into Google what courage means, but to figure out what you think it means by looking at people and actions and stories that you believe are courageous. 

I’m not necessarily saying that as a vet I will refer to the Iliad to uncover my diagnosis for a case—though my friends have joked about me reading it to patients. Instead, I believe that my veterinary career and my passion for Classics are two sides of the same equation—the left brain and the right brain, if you will. My future work as a wildlife vet is what I want to wake up every day to do, the mark I want to make on the world. And my study of warriorship based on Classical texts helps me understand my values and my emotions, and prompts me to reflect on my own actions. It helps me wrestle with the deeper questions of humanity, human emotion, and gives me tools to guide my responses to the challenges I face in life. Through that, I become a more well-rounded and capable person and doctor.

So, even though I have dedicated myself to the medical field, I will continue to read Aeschylus, Euripides, and Homer. And I will continue to ask myself how I can be courageous, dauntless, empathetic, yielding, and open. Because I intend to meet the challenges of my life as a Homeric warrior would; I intend to be brave.

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