On Homer’s Iliad Book II

As I proposed last time, Achilles performs the greatest act in the Iliad by not killing Agamemnon in Book I. He then takes himself out of the action for a while. We are not going to see him again till Book IX, when he receives the embassy of Phoenix, Ajax, and Odysseus (chosen by Nestor in lines 168–9).

Benches and bare tree on wet concrete wharf by the Bosphorus under a cloudy sky
Kireçburnu, Sarıyer, Istanbul
Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Achilles will then make a clear case against Agamemnon. As I noted in 2017, Achilles finds himself treated as ἀτίμητος μετανάστης. This could be just a term of abuse: “worthless vagabond.” It may also have a precise legal meaning: “alien having no rights.” Members of the community of Achaean warriors have a right to their property, and Achilles is one of those members. When you are making war because your brother’s woman was taken, you cannot be taking women from your own men. Absolute monarchy is unjust.

Treating women as property is also unjust. We may have to bracket this while reading the Iliad. It is not fully recognized today. Men in some countries may no longer own women, but they still take ownership of the concept of a woman. I think this is being done by the likes of Eddie Izzard, who has published a memoir of being, at 23, a man wearing make-up and a dress who felt free to change back to men’s clothes in a women’s loo. He thought he was the one being threatened when girls ten years younger tried to confront him. He had not asked the girls’ permission to use their space in the first place.

He may not have needed permission. A woman may say this, in a display of personal generosity. Anybody may say that Izzard himself was already really a she. This begs the question of what a woman is, and we cannot solve the problem by saying that feeling like a woman is actually being a woman. In “Imagination,” I reviewed the argument of Holly Lawford-Smith that somebody raised as a man is unlikely to know what it is like to be a woman; from novels and films, he will know mainly what men think being a woman is like. Also, who counts as a woman matters, because

Women historically have been oppressed as a caste, and this continues to have ramifications today … Women have sex-based political interests, e.g. in fighting against pregnancy and breastfeeding discrimination, and making sure that their states protect their human rights under CEDAW. As measures to improve women’s situation, some anti-discrimination, affirmative action, and other positive measures have been put in place, including e.g. sex-segregated bathrooms in workplaces, hiring quotas, and women’s networking and mentoring events. All of these measures are compromised when the social and legal understanding of who counts as a woman is changed, particularly when it is changed to include some males.

In “Homer for the Civilian,” I reviewed an argument from a military combat veteran that I cannot know what it is like to be Achilles, because I have lived a peaceful life. I suggested that I was free to take from Homer what I could. James Baldwin seems to say something like that for himself:

I brought to Shakespeare, Bach, Rembrandt, to the stones of Paris, to the cathedral at Chartres, and to the Empire State Building, a special attitude. These were not really my creations, they did not contain my history; I might search in them in vain forever for any reflection of myself. I was an interloper; this was not my heritage. At the same time I had no other heritage which I could possibly hope to use—I had certainly been unfitted for the jungle or the tribe. I would have to appropriate these white centuries, I would have to make them mine—I would have to accept my special attitude, my special place in this scheme—otherwise I would have no place in any scheme.

I found this quoted by Anika Prather in “The Water Truce,” one of some essays (there are three so far) invited by the Online Library of Liberty to explain why we ought to read the Ancients. Prather gives no more precise source than Baldwin himself; neither does Colm Tóibín in “The Last Witness,” appearing in the London Review of Books (Vol. 23 No. 18 · 20 September 2001) and The Guardian (Fri 14 Sep 2001 16.43 BST).

Searching further for the precise source, I found even more relevant words of Baldwin in “Why I Stopped Hating Shakespeare” (pdf):

… the people who produce the poet are not responsible to him: he is responsible to them.

That is why he is called a poet. And his responsibility, which is also his joy and his strength and his life, is to defeat all labels and complicate all battles by insisting on the human riddle, to bear witness, as long as breath is in him, to that mighty, unnameable, transfiguring force which lives in the soul of man, and to aspire to do his work so well that when the breath has left him, the people—all people!—who search in the rubble for a sign or a witness will be able to find him there.

I propose that we still have a responsibility to think about what we read: to think about whether Plato’s Republic, for example, is really a recommendation of founding a totalitarian state on mass exile, infanticide, and eugenics.

In “The Relevance of the Ancients,” another one of the essays at the Online Library of Library mentioned above, Aeon Skoble disputes the assertion that we can ignore the Ancients because “they’re misogynistic or racist and so on” or “the ancients lacked the scientific advances that have led to today.” On the contrary,

there is in fact enduring wisdom in so much of the classics. Plato’s grand analogy of the soul-as-city, Aristotle’s account of practical reason and its role in human virtue, Thucydides’ reflections on power—these are worth reading for their insight, not as mere historical curiosities.

… Literature too can be appreciated across time and place. A beautiful poem or a moving drama is something that speaks to the human condition in some way, or excites the imagination, or hits an emotional chord. The idea that there is an expiration date on a work’s ability to do this is ridiculous …

Perhaps few scholars today would argue that we know too little to appreciate the Ancients. However, it is not a given that Homer is addressing us, who come almost three millenia later. It still seems worthwhile to listen as we can.

I propose to read Homer, not because he is somehow good for us, but because he is a pleasure. Americans are said to be obsessed with eating “healthy” food, although they are not actually that healthy. For what is now a fourth time on this blog, I am going to recall what I have always appreciated, since English teacher Paul Piazza told it to our class in tenth grade: that we took the class in order to find reading we liked.

The notion of justice in Book IX of the Iliad is at least alluded to in Book I. Achaeans such as Achilles have no personal grievance against Troy. If Agamemnon is going to lead them, he must give them a reason to fight. It dishonors them to take their prizes. When booty is distributed, Agamemnon always gets the best share anyway. If he has to give up some of his share now, that is his problem.

That was Book I. In Book II, with Achilles out of the picture, we see more of what kind of person his rival is. Zeus sends him a dream in which Nestor says the Achaeans will win. Agamemnon wakes up and calls

  • a council of elders or princes (βουλὴ γερόντων line 53),
  • an assembly of the long-haired Achaeans.

Agamemnon tells the dream truly to the council, and then tells his plan:

  • he will tell the masses to flee in their ships;
  • the princes should hold them back.

An unfavorable reading of this is that Agamemnon finds it beneath him to beg men to fight for him; he prefers that it be done by other men (the princes). A favorable reading is that Agamemnon wants to make sure that he is not an autocrat, but that the Achaeans fight of their own free will.

In any case, I am still on Team Achilles, even though its principal will immolate a dozen Trojan men on the pyre of Patroclus in Book XXIII. Allan Bloom may be alluding to this burning in the Preface (page xxviii) to his translation of Plato’s Republic:

It is well that the student should know that for Plato morality is composed of two elements, one of which lends a certain splendor to it which is lacking in, say, Kantian morality. And it may also be the case that these two elements are not always wholly in harmony. The good or the just need not always be beautiful or noble, for example, punishment; and the beautiful or noble need not always be good or just, for example, Achilles’ wrath.

Those last words are ambiguous. They could mean either of the following.

  • Achilles’s wrath is not always good or just (though it may be, sometimes).
  • Achilles’s wrath is an example of something beautiful or noble that is not (ever) good or just.

I agree with the former, because of those twelve Trojan martyrs, or simply because of Achilles’s would-be mutilation of the body of Patroclus’s slayer, Hector. The mutilation fails, thanks to the gods, but not for lack of Achilles’s trying. Socrates justly condemns such trying in Republic Book V (469d–e), in the discussion about warfare with Glaucon that comes after the first and second waves (that women shall serve alongside men as guardians and be bred with men like animals) and before the third wave (that philosophers shall rule):

“And don’t you think it illiberal and greedy to plunder a corpse, and is it not the mark of a womanish and petty spirit to deem the body of the dead an enemy when the real foeman has flown away and left behind only the instrument with which he fought? [469e] Do you see any difference between such conduct and that of the dogs who snarl at the stones that hit them but don’t touch the thrower?”

“Not the slightest.”

“We must abandon, then, the plundering of corpses and the refusal to permit their burial.”

“By heaven, we certainly must,” he said.

Bloom then seems right to say, in the Interpretive Essay (page 354) accompanying his Republic translation,

Socrates brings Achilles to the foreground in order to analyze his character and ultimately to do away with him as the model for the young.

Indeed, Achilles should not be anybody’s sole model. But then Bloom continues, as I quoted in “Badio, Bloom, Ryle, Shorey,” and he concludes as follows.

Socrates is engaging in a contest with Homer for the title of teacher of the Greeks—or of mankind. One of his principal goals is to put himself in the place of Achilles as the authentic representation of the best human type.

If Bloom is correct, then I think Socrates has to fail the contest, since we can hardly learn anything of value from him unless we have already learnt the kind of self-control that Achilles exhibits in Book I of the Iliad. Bloom would seem to overlook this self-control, as when saying for example (page 355),

Spiritedness … is very much connected with the defense of one’s own. This is particularly true in the case of Achilles whose anger is aroused by Agamemnon’s taking away his prize of war, the maid Briseis …

Yes, Achilles’s anger is so aroused; but it is also held in check by Achilles himself, or by his better part, if we may read Athena as a symbol of this. Achilles appears capable of moderation, as Socrates describes it, along with the other virtues (wisdom, courage, and justice), in Book IV (430e–1a), here in Bloom’s own translation:

… concerning the soul, in the same human being there is something better and something worse. The phrase ‘stronger than himself’ is used when that which is better by nature is master over that which is worse. At least it’s praise. And when, from bad training or some association, the smaller and better part is mastered by the inferior multitude, then this, as though it were a reproach, is blamed and the man in this condition is called weaker than himself and licentious.

It is true that Socrates has been talking about mastering not anger, but desires:

Moderation is surely a certain kind of order and mastery of certain kinds of pleasures and desires, as men say when they use—I don’t know in what way—the phrase ‘stronger than himself.’

According to Bloom (page 356),

Though Socrates does not say so explicitly, it is clear that anger is the main cause of disobedience to rulers, and that Achilles is the very model of the disobedient subject. His anger, closely allied with his self-respect, makes him an unreliable subject of rulers. Socrates charges Achilles with love of money, of being mercenary. Superficially this is unfair … But in a deeper sense, it is just to accuse Achilles of attaching undue significance to property, for he does destroy his friends and countrymen because his possessions have been taken from him by the ruler.

Bloom may be right, although I have tried to make the case that Achilles’s concern is not with property as such, but with the law governing its distribution. Also, obedience as such is presumably not a virtue, since it is possible for a command to be unjust. Moderation is the obedience of the worse to the better. In any case, had Achilles not been able master his anger in Book I, he might have wrought worse destruction on his friends and countrymen by killing their leader and igniting a civil war.

Mastery of anger was on display in various episodes of Star Trek (the original series) and was discussed at the end of “Spectre of the Gun,” in a clip preserved on YouTube:

Captain. May I ask a question? You needn’t answer if it seems too personal.
I’m sure I’ll be able to give you an answer, Mister Spock.
This afternoon, you wanted to kill, didn’t you?
But he didn’t kill, Mister Spock.
But he wanted to, Doctor.
Is that the way it seemed to you, Mister Spock?
Yes, Captain.
Mister Spock, you’re absolutely right. That’s exactly the way it was.
Mankind, ready to kill.
That’s the way it was in 1881.
I wonder how humanity managed to survive.
We overcame our instinct for violence.

One can watch the earlier scene where Kirk actually wants to kill. See also such episodes as

I came upon an essay describing Kirk’s change of heart with the Gorn as self-transcendence (the term being attributed to Bernard Lonergan).

Let us return to Book II of the Iliad. We looked briefly at the beginning, where Agamemnon has a dream. Both Zeus and Agamemnon run short on sleep then:

  • Zeus stays up late, thinking how to honor Achilles by laying low the other Achaeans.
  • Agamemnon gets up early, because Nestor tells him in the dream that he should.

Why is the dream the best way to work Zeus’s will? We are told it is a false dream. Possibly, with no dream, the mass of Achaeans will not want to fight, seeing as how Achilles is not fighting. If the Achaeans then go home, Achilles cannot win glory by saving them.

When the men hear Agamemnon telling them to flee, they obey him. The princes don’t seem to try to stop them, till Hera sends Athena to rouse Odysseus, who then runs around telling

  • leaders to restrain their men,
  • men to respect their betters.

Funny thing is, it would seem the men are already doing this, if their ultimate leader is Agamemnon.

The men are brought back together. Thersites apes Achilles by condemning Agamemnon’s greed. He calls the Achaeans a bunch of girls. Odysseus beats him, and everybody laughs.

Thersites reminds some of us of an academic in Turkey who loves to criticize the powerful, in what he thinks is a witty way, although he makes a fool of himself.

Odysseus recalls a scene at Aulis on the way to Troy, when a snake devoured eight sparrow chicks and their mother, but was then turned to stone. Calchas took this as a metaphor for the coming war, which the Achaeans would therefore win in the tenth year; and they are in the tenth year now. It sounds like an outlandish prediction; but perhaps we should liken Calchas’s prophecy to Homer’s own metaphors. If we can recognize metaphors at all, perhaps it is natural to think they can reflect what is going to be, and not only what is.

One Homeric metaphor is double (lines 87–94):

  • When Agamemnon first calls them to assemble, the Achaeans come out like bees.
  • Bees form clusters like grapes.

Lattimore’s translation brings this out:

Like the swarms of clustering bees that issue forever
in fresh bursts from the hollow in the stone, and hang like
bunched grapes as they hover beneath the flowers in springtime
fluttering in swarms together this way and that way,
so the many nations of men from the ships and the shelters
along the front of the deep sea beach marched in order
by companies to the assembly, and Rumor walked blazing among them,
Zeus’ messenger, to hasten them along. Thus they were assembled.

However, “hang like bunched grapes” is based on a single Greek word, the adverb βοτρυδόν, derived from ὁ βότρυς -υος, a bunch of grapes:

ἠΰτε ἔθνεα εἶσι μελισσάων ἁδινάων
πέτρης ἐκ γλαφυρῆς αἰεὶ νέον ἐρχομενάων,
βοτρυδὸν δὲ πέτονται ἐπ᾽ ἄνθεσιν εἰαρινοῖσιν:
αἳ μέν τ᾽ ἔνθα ἅλις πεποτήαται, αἳ δέ τε ἔνθα:
ὣς τῶν ἔθνεα πολλὰ νεῶν ἄπο καὶ κλισιάων
ἠϊόνος προπάροιθε βαθείης ἐστιχόωντο
ἰλαδὸν εἰς ἀγορήν: μετὰ δέ σφισιν ὄσσα δεδήει
ὀτρύνουσ᾽ ἰέναι Διὸς ἄγγελος: οἳ δ᾽ ἀγέροντο.

Perhaps the grape metaphor is no more striking in Greek than in Murray’s prose:

Even as the tribes of thronging bees go forth from some hollow rock, ever coming on afresh, and in clusters over the flowers of spring fly in throngs, some here, some there; [90] even so from the ships and huts before the low sea-beach marched forth in companies their many tribes to the place of gathering. And in their midst blazed forth Rumour, messenger of Zeus, urging them to go; and they were gathered.

I summarized more of Book II in 2017. I mentioned how, after Agamemnon had sent the Achaeans off to get ready to fight by having a good meal, and he himself had called again a council of elders, Menelaus came unbidden. I did not recognize and write about the ambiguity here till 2020, in “Automatia.” Maybe Menelaus is such a loyal and sensitive brother that Agamemnon need not actually tell him when he is wanted; or maybe Menelaus comes, even when he is not wanted.


  1. Posted December 4, 2022 at 9:54 pm | Permalink | Reply

    no mention of Priam

    • Posted December 4, 2022 at 9:56 pm | Permalink | Reply

      no mention of Priam or Hector

      • Posted December 5, 2022 at 3:37 am | Permalink

        Thanks, Bill, for reading enough to know that I did not talk about the Trojans. On the other hand, did you not note in the final paragraph, “I summarized more of Book II in 2017”? I do wonder if any of the Trojan allies reached the city by sailing past the place in my photograph

      • Posted December 5, 2022 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

        So what does the meeting at the end of Priam and Achilles mean to you? Does it get second place to Achilles restraint?

7 Trackbacks

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