Homer for the Civilian

The source of this essay is an essay and an ensuing conversation in 2009, on the theme of what Homer may mean in one’s life, and whether an application to one’s life involves an abuse of the original text. I wrote in July 2016 on analogies in Homer and elsewhere in “Thinking & Feeling”; my last post here considered an apparent instance of abuse of the Hebrew Bible.

At the end of the Iliad, to retrieve the body of his son Hector from Hector’s killer, King Priam of Troy visits Achilles in his tent in the evening, in the camp of the hostile Greeks. The scene may recall two political enemies from the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan and Congressman Thomas O’Neill, Speaker of the House: these two were able to be on friendly terms “after 6 PM.”

Homer, Iliad,  Wordworth edition

Aleksandr Andreevich Ivanov, “King Priam begging Achilles for the Return of Hector’s Body,“ 1824 (Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)



The resemblance here between ancient and modern figures may be superficial. However, the Iliad is open to any interpretation that we find useful or satisfying. The epic is our common heritage. Coming down to us from the distant past, the poem shows how the world works. It offers guidance for living in this world. It can be taken as sacred scripture. Different sects may have different interpretations of the holy words. These interpretations may be at odds with what scholars may say about the original intent of the words. That is fine, as long as nobody claims divine right to impose a particular interpretation on other readers. Persuasion alone may be used for this purpose.

When Simone Weil wrote “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” the Nazis were developing violence as an industry. She began with the assertion,

The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away. In this work, at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relations with force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to. For those dreamers who considered that force, thanks to progress, would soon be a thing of the past, the Iliad could appear as an historical document; for others, whose powers of recognition are more acute and who perceive force, today as yesterday, at the very center of human history, the Iliad is the purest and loveliest of mirrors.

That is how Weil read the Iliad. I don’t know that Homer understood his creation in the same way. Homer does provide, as Weil says, a mirror in which we can see ourselves.

Simone Weil, The Iliad, or The Poem of Force

Or perhaps we do not see. To my mind, if Tip O’Neill can be friendly with Ronald Reagan, this is not a reflection of Priam’s ability to suppress a well-founded fear of Achilles, in order to beg for his son’s lifeless corpse. In the meeting of Priam and Achilles, there is an extreme asymmetry that is absent from a visit between leading representatives of rival American political parties. On his way to the Greek camp, Priam may not soil his garments out of fear; but “straight up stood the hair on his pliant limbs” (xxiv, 359) when he encountered a man who could have been a Greek sentinal. The figure turned out to be Hermes.

Priam can move Achilles to tears of pity for his own father. But Achilles is still in control. Priam cannot just hand over the ransom, take Hector’s body, and flee. On pain of death, he must sit and submit to Achilles’s hospitality: the roasted flesh of a white-fleeced sheep, followed by being put to bed outside Achilles’s door.

The scene does not suggest to me a meeting between American political rivals, though if one finds it useful to make the comparison, then by all means one should do so. I see a better reflection of Priam and Achilles in an encounter I observed on a television program. The role of Hermes was played by Desmond Tutu, who brought together, for the BBC, two persons in Northern Ireland: a woman and the man who had killed her husband. The killer, a Unionist, had trusted the intelligence he had seen, showing his victim to be an IRA agent. The widow denied it. At the end of the discussion, Bishop Tutu reminded the two parties of a plan to shake hands. The woman rose, walked over, and took the man’s hand, as Priam had kissed Achilles’s hands, “the terrible man-slaying hands that had slain his many sons” (xxiv, 478). The woman then fled screaming from the room.

A difference is that the man had expressed an apology. Achilles would never do this.

The Iliad of Homer, Lattimore translation

In high school and at college, between 1979 and 1984, I read the Iliad three times, in the Lattimore translation. In 2007, I read Chapman’s version. In August of 2009, I read the Loeb Classical Library version: the first twelve books in Murray’s original prose translation, and the remainder in Wyatt’s revision. Wyatt has removed the diction that Murray called “elevated” but “not stilted.” Much as I might like to see a distinction restored to English that is still found in cognate languages, I am afraid that it is stilted to use “thee” and “thou” for “you”; and it is stilted to say “ye twain” for “you two.” Wyatt’s revision is therefore an improvement on Murray’s original work. Reading its simple prose, I felt as if, in some ways, I had faced Homer for the first time.

Loeb volumes of the Iliad

Is any movie as violent as the Iliad ? Violent movies are not something I seek out. Perhaps I have missed a development in technology that allows moviegoers to see what Homer describes in Book v, lines 290–3, and of course at many other places:

Athene guided the spear upon his nose beside the eye, and it pierced through his white teeth. So the stubborn bronze shore off his tongue at its root, and the spear-point came out by the base of the chin.

In 1929, when Simone Weil turned 20, Luis Buñuel depicted a woman’s eyeball, as it was sliced open by a knife as calmly as a thin wisp of cloud sailed in front of a full moon. This was in Buñuel’s first film, Un Chien Andalou. At the last moment, as the knife approached the eye, the woman was actually replaced by some lower animal, already slaughtered.

Homer does not mention the incontinence that can be brought on by fear of deadly violence. Two movies that I know of do it: John Sayles’s Matewan, and the Brazilian movie called Four Days in September (whose title I can usually remember only as giving a number of days in one of the last four months of the year).

I do not know what cinematic violence gives us, besides the pleasure of strong emotion. For the observation that movies do give us this, I am endebted to the essay called “Tragic Pleasure,” by Joe Sachs, in The St. John’s Review (Volume xliii, number one [1995], pp. 21–38). As I understand Sachs’s argument, the purpose of real tragedy is not that of a horror flick. It is not to bring out emotion the way a laxative brings out excrement. It is not to purge us of emotions. It is not even to polish the emotions that we shall continue to have. After considering catharsis both as purgation and as purification, Sachs rejects these interpretations:

Aristotle’s use of the word catharsis is not a technical reference to purgation or purification but a beautiful metaphor for the peculiar tragic pleasure, the feeling of being washed or cleansed.

I confess to not being sure how being washed or cleansed is different from being purified. Should one think of using soap and water, rather than hand sanitizer?

St. John's Review XLIII, number one (1995)

In 2007 and 2009, my readings of the Iliad were done on the beach. I was far from the violence of man against man that had occupied the conscience of Simone Weil. But the beach lay within the land that Priam once ruled (καίνυμαι, xxiv, 546). I was on the Asian mainland opposite Lesbos. To the north was Mount Ida, where the Greeks cut trees for Patroclus’s funeral pyre (xxiii, 116–22):

Ever upward, downward, sideward, and aslant they went. But when they had come to the spurs of many-fountained Ida, at once they began to fell high-crested oaks with the long-edged bronze eagerly, and with a mighty crash the trees kept falling. Then the Achaeans split the trunks and bound them behind the mules, and these tore up the earth with their feet, straining toward the plain through the thick underbrush.

Trees still grow on Mount Ida, but they must be shadows of the primeval trees, which I imagine so great that not ten trees, such as trees are today, could match one of those old high-crested oaks. Men do not let trees grow great any more. As I read Homer, I am conscious of the violence that man does to nature.

Cunliffe, Lexicon of the Homeric Dialect

In 2009, under a smart thoughtful man, the U.S. government acted to increase domestic production of a destructive wasteful mode of transportation that people in well-designed cities could comfortably do without. A leader like then-President Obama is also a subject of greater forces. Agamemnon is likewise a subject. He is caught between maintaining the dignity of his office and keeping his best warrior happy enough to fight. It so happens that he chooses the former, jeopardizing the latter by taking Briseis from Achilles. The alternative choice could have meant alternative tragedy.

In a world subdued by man, what is the place of Homer’s gods? I read Homer for his answer to the question, “What is the nature of the universe?” A simple answer is that the universe may give you shame or glory. To influence your fate, you can engage in traditional pieties. This may or may not work. The gods can ignore you, as Athena ignores the prayers of her priestess, Theano, uttered at the request of Hecuba (Ἑκἀβη), wife of Priam (vi, 305–11):

“Lady Athene, that dost guard our city, fairest among goddesses, break now the spear of Diomedes, and grant furthermore that himself may fall headlong before the Scaean gates; to the end that we may now forthwith sacrifice to thee in thy temple twelve sleek heifers that have not felt the goad, if thou wilt take pity on Troy and the Trojans’ wives and their little children.” So spake she praying, but Pallas Athene denied the prayer.

Sarpedon is one of the best men in the Iliad. He is from Lycia, my favorite part of Turkey. He is Father Zeus’s own son. Zeus allows Patroclus to kill him (xvi, 482–6):

He fell as an oak falls, or a poplar, or a tall pine that among the mountains shipwrights fell with whetted axes to be a ship’s timber; so before his horses and chariot he lay outstretched, moaning aloud and clutching at the bloody dust.

I said that in 2009 I felt as if I had faced Homer for the first time. In 2007, Chapman’s verses had been grand, but difficult. Reading the Iliad as Elizabethan verse gives us distance from the poem. It may the sort of distance that Athenians of the classical age had from Homer’s Ionic Greek; but distance is perhaps not something to be cultivated.

Chapman's Homer's Iliad

It might however happen that distance prevents a misreading. The young person may otherwise find the theme of the Iliad childish. In a student skit at my college, Achilles was portrayed as a baby with a rattle and diapers. It is true that, when slighted, the man does go crying to his mother.

I wept when my father died. I wept in the presence of my mother and sister. This happened not when I learned of the death, but a week later. I was responding to the survivors who, however gently, had judged my father for having withdrawn from his family, his friends, and life in general. The critics had no conception of the kind of brooding thoughtfulness that could lead to withdrawal. I felt I could understand my father’s pensiveness; I felt that I shared it. I was overwhelmed by the futility of explaining it to simple-minded people, and by the unfairness of needing to explain it, or to defend it, after my father was dead. I gave up. I broke down in tears.

Did I break down like Achilles at the seashore, crying to Thetis? If I am going to make the case, I must emphasize our common experience of unfairness and futility. The Greeks had mounted a siege of Troy with the express purpose of righting the wrong of the theft of a woman. It was the height of unfairness for the general of the invading forces to confiscate the prize woman of one of his men, especially his best man. The only action that this man could take in response was—inaction.

While I was away at the beach reading Homer, my wife and I received a mass email to our department in Ankara, informing us that our building was being renovated, and our offices would be inaccessible. Back in Ankara, there was no point in visiting our department. Our papers had been put in bags and set aside. Our bookshelves had been emptied, by people who had no bookshelves of their own. It was a situation that could move one to tears, if one’s office-work were one’s life. Our department chair had not physically harmed us. But he and I and Ayşe and the rest of our department were supposed to be engaged in a common effort, towards a goal of education and research: a more benign goal than the sacking of Troy. By not warning us what would be happening to our offices when we could still take precautions, the chair caused me trouble—trouble that I could do nothing about but stay home. Could I say that I was in the situation of Achilles?

According to a military combat veteran, my experience as a civilian can be nothing like that of a warrior like Achilles, who faces death constantly. A fellow civilian suggested that my comparison of myself to Achilles had been facetious.

“Just as Achilles was the Greeks’ greatest warrior, so was I our department’s greatest mathematician”: to say this would be facetious. I was like Achilles only in suffering an injustice against which I was impotent. Are not we all like Achilles in this way sometimes? The husband of a cousin of my mother’s once described his rage when a county worker in rural New Hampshire needlessly trimmed a bush. There was Achillean anger—I say facetiously, though still perhaps annoyingly to one who has faced death on the battlefield. But an irascible person like that husband of the cousin might benefit from reading the Iliad, to consider whether his own situation really deserved his anger, when compared with the scene on the plains of Ilium.

Achilles may be thought childish for going off to cry to his mother; but if he is so, then we are all childish sometimes. As we live, situations arise in which we can sympathize with Achilles, instead of dismissing the man as an overgrown baby. I have suggested two such situations in my own life. It is the best I can do from my own tranquil position.

If you believe that the Old Testament predicts the advent of Jesus Christ that is described in the New Testament, a scholar of Hebrew can show you that your belief is ill-founded in the text itself. This may not matter, if you find value in your own interpretation of the Bible—rather, if your interpretation actually helps you to live better. In referring to the Iliad as a holy book, I had a similar idea with respect to Homer’s poem. If one finds oneself enraged about something, then thinking about Achilles might do (at least) two things: put one’s rage in perspective, and suggest that an intemperate response might be disastrous. It was thoughts like these that helped me deal with the thoughtlessness of our department chair.

Nobody alive is like Achilles; not me, not any soldier. I say this, while having to acknowledge that a soldier may be infinitely closer to Achilles than I am. Still, Achilles had a goddess for a mother, and he was allowed, or required, to know his fate. Oedipus, Lear and other tragic figures are larger than life: this is a feature of tragedy.

Do I condone too freely the misreading of old texts? As I understand Christian or at least Anglican doctrine, God could not send a savior directly to polytheists; first a particular people had to learn the basics of monotheism. Even the prophets of this people could not have full understanding of what was in store. Only after the coming of the savior could one go back and see that his coming was foretold or foreshadowed in scripture. I am not a believer myself; I just give my inferences about how some people approach scripture. Their approach does make some sense.

From the east pediment of the Temple of Aphaia on Aegina. Fallen warrior, Parian marble. Glyptothek, Munich (cover of St. John’s Review Volume XXXVI, Number 2 [spring 1985])

I quoted Simone Weil to the effect that the real hero of the Iliad is force itself. It may not matter much whether Homer consciously thought the same thing. One may be interested to know what Homer thought he was doing, just as one may be interested to know why ancient hunter-gatherers painted animals on the walls of caves. It is then good to pursue these interests. But if one finds the cave paintings beautiful, this beauty is not erased if it transpires that the original artists were aiming for something else.

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