Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

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.


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