Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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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 Moreover, I have withdrawn the veil from your eyes that you may know gods and men apart.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.


Blogger Unknown said...

Ron: "Here’s an analogy for Americans: would we be willing to sacrifice, say, Hawaii or Alaska to save the other 49 states? [...] How far can we swallow our pride and still remain 'American'? How much can Troy give up and still be called 'Trojan'?"

What if Greece, Italy and Egypt laid siege to New York City, demanding the return of their historic treasures and the remains of the bodies of their ancestors? What if the city said, "No!" and Greece, Italy and Egypt prepared to attack it and take everything in NYC in retribution? Would the USA be morally correct in supporting NYC?

1/27/2009 10:17 AM  

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