Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Friday, January 23, 2009

HOMER: The Iliad (Books 5-8)

One of the difficulties for the modern reader of The Iliad is the often contradictory relationship between the immortal gods and mortal men. Sometimes the gods and goddesses seem like some sort of shadowy spiritual beings that just happen to have their permanent residence on Mount Olympus. But they can also travel anywhere they please. They can go to Troy, for example. What’s astonishing to the modern reader is the fact that even though these gods are immortal they can still be hurt and feel pain. Even more astonishing is that they can be injured by the ordinary weapons that mortal men use in combat; weapons such as a spear or a sword. Not only is this possible, in Book 5 of the story Athena even encourages it: “Fear not, Diomed, to do battle with the Trojans for I have set in your heart the spirit of your knightly father Tydeus. Moreover, I have withdrawn the veil from your eyes that you may know gods and men apart. If then any other god comes here and offers you battle, do not fight him; but should Zeus’s daughter Venus come, strike her with your spear and wound her.”

After establishing the battle as seen in the eyes of the gods Homer then turns his attention back to the affairs of men. Like a master composer and conductor of a great symphony Homer has full control over his poem. In Book 6 he draws the reader’s attention back to normal human concerns. This book features Hector not as a warrior but as a loving husband and a proud father. Andromache tells him about her fears that he’ll be killed and Troy will fall to the Greeks. Then she’ll become the prize of some Greek leader and be led away in captivity. Hector’s response is a famous piece of Western literature: “Wife, I too have thought upon all this. But with what face should I look upon the Trojans, men or women, if I shirked battle like a coward? I cannot do so; I know nothing but to fight bravely in the front lines of the Trojans…Well do I know that the day will surely come when mighty Troy shall be destroyed…the day shall come on which some one of the Greeks shall rob you forever of your freedom and bear you weeping away…May I lie dead in my grave before I hear you cry as they carry you off into bondage…war is man’s work, and it’s my work above all those who have been born in Troy.”

Hector seems to realize that he’s fighting for a lost cause. The Trojans can’t hold the Greeks back forever. But he has to fight anyway because he doesn’t have a choice. The reader wonders why they don’t just give Helen back and then the Greeks will go away. Like many simple solutions this one’s just too simplistic. Will the Greeks really go away, just like that, after fighting for nine grueling years? Probably not, but at least it seems worth a try. And the Trojan Antenor makes such a proposal in Book 7: “Let us give up Argive Helen and her wealth to the sons of Atreus.” Here’s the response of Paris: “Antenor, your words are not to my liking…I will not give up the woman; but the wealth that I brought home with her from Argos I will restore, and will add yet further of my own.” So much for that idea.

The modern American reader may think this is nuts. The whole city of Troy is in danger of falling. All they have to do is give up Helen and maybe give some tribute to get the Greeks to call off the siege and leave. But is it really so crazy for the Trojans to react the way they do. Here’s an analogy for Americans: would we be willing to sacrifice, say, Hawaii or Alaska to save the other 49 states? Maybe we would, under certain circumstances. But maybe we wouldn’t. How far can we swallow our pride and still remain “American”? How much can Troy give up and still be called “Trojan”? This same situation was addressed by the Greek historian Thucydides. For this real-life incident read “The Melian Dialogue” in The Peloponnesian War.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

HOMER: The Iliad (Books 1-4)

The Iliad is the oldest book in the entire set of the Great Books of the Western World. The set is numbered in chronological order so the brave reader who wants to embark on a reading of the great works of western civilization will begin with The Iliad. When the reader opens the book the first question is: what kind of book is this? It only takes a few lines to find out. The book begins: “Sing, O Goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus that brought countless ills upon the Greeks. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Zeus fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men, and great Achilles, first fell out with one another.”

So – it’s a war book. That’s not surprising. Most of the oldest tales in any culture begin with some primitive state where violence and war a part of the natural landscape. Before there were poets and historians there were warriors. The Iliad reflects this transition from a warrior society to a settled community where poetry and history and philosophy are possible. Of course there’s certainly poetry and history and philosophy in The Iliad too. But it’s not the kind you’ll find in a book. These characters are participating in a kind of living poem. Their actions and deeds will be told and retold to countless generations in great poetic detail. History in The Iliad is a living history. The only history these characters know is the story of their ancestors and what brave fighters were their fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers. And their philosophy is crude but it’s also direct and goes straight to the point. Agamemnon relates his own personal philosophy to Achilles in these terms: “Achilles you may be valiant but you shall not outwit me. You shall not overreach and you shall not persuade me. Are you to keep your own prize while I sit tamely and give up my girl-prize at your bidding? Let the Greeks find me another prize in fair exchange to my liking or I will come and take yours or that of Ajax or Ulysses…”

This was back in the days when men were blunt. And Achilles had a blunt response: he reached for his sword and got ready to conk Agamemnon on the head. Only Athena’s intervention prevented a bloody end to the dispute. Apparently back in those days brute force was the preferred method of conflict resolution. Living in pre-historic times left little room for reflection and sensitivity. Military power was the overarching value that trumped the humanistic pursuits. When Hector chides Paris for paying too much attention to women and not enough attention to war, Paris replies: “Hector, your rebuke is just. You are hard as an ax…Still, don’t taunt me about the gifts that golden Venus has given me; they’re precious; men shouldn’t disdain them because the gods have given them to whoever they want, and no one can get these gifts by asking for them. They are freely given by the gods.” This point of view is its own kind of philosophy. This philosophy has most recently been given expression in more modern terms: “Make love, not war.” Paris would have been more appreciated in 1968 America than 1200 B.C. Troy.

The modern reader must come to terms with a value system that’s almost alien to western readers. This story is so old and so far removed from our own values that we can’t fully appreciate the tension between Achilles and Agamemnon. That’s because we don’t fully comprehend what’s at stake here. The Iliad is in fact a war story. But it’s a war story in the same way that David and Goliath is a war story. War just serves as a backdrop for something much deeper: the courage of David unites the Hebrews; the anger of Achilles drives the Greeks apart. Over time these stories became famous. These days we call it western civilization.