Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Friday, February 27, 2009

HOMER: The Iliad (Books 21-24)

As The Iliad starts winding down we come full circle to where the story began: the anger of Achilles. In Book 21 Achilles has basically gone berserk over the death of Patroclus and starts slaughtering the Trojans right and left. In fact he kills so many Trojans that the river Scamander becomes polluted red with blood. And Homer says “he would have killed even more, if the river god hadn’t gotten angry and taken on human form…” Then the river says to Achilles “if Zeus has given you the power to destroy all the Trojans, at least drive them out of my stream and do your grim work on land. My clear waters are now filled with corpses and I can’t find any channel to pour myself into the sea for I am choked with the dead, and yet you go on killing mercilessly.”

At this point there’s no reasoning with Achilles. He’s out of control. When he finally comes upon Hector he has become inhuman with rage. Homer is exploring the idea of what it means to be a fully functioning human being. Before they begin fighting Hector offers a request to Achilles: if I kill you I will return your body to the Greeks; if you kill me you will return my body to my parents. Hector’s request isn’t the result of rage from the heat of battle. It’s one human being speaking to another human being to determine a basic level of human decency. Achilles will have no part of it. Instead, when he kills Hector he desecrates Hector’s body. Achilles has chosen to stand outside the circle of human affections and emotions. His rage has driven him to a state of mind that Aristotle once described as a place for “either a beast or a god” but not a human being.

It’s only after the funeral of Patroclus that Achilles comes back down to earth. It isn’t easy for him to do that. His goddess/mother Thetis says “My son, how long will you keep on grieving and moaning? You’re gnawing at your own heart and don’t think about food or sleeping with a woman; and yet…Death is already near.” In other words, act human. Finally Achilles is able to get over his anger and once again return to a calmer state of mind. But it’s too late. The damage is done and Achilles will soon be killed too. It was fated that if Achilles killed Hector then Achilles own death would soon follow. Achilles knew this but in his rage he didn’t care what happened to him as long as he got revenge. This is an old story. It’s the dilemma of the human condition and there are lots of people in prisons because they can’t control their anger. Lives have been ruined because of this lack of self control. One of the reasons this poem still resonates with readers is because they recognize these traits either within themselves or in other people they know. The anger of Achilles and the pride and arrogance of Agamemnon are still with us. They’re just acted out in different people this time.

Question: what is The Iliad about? Answer: it’s all about Achilles. Were the Greeks noble for trying to rescue Helen? Maybe. Were they just a bunch of pirates out for plunder? That’s possible. But the war is really just a sideshow. The main story’s all about Achilles. But in a larger sense it’s about us too. Achilles isn’t the only one who’s ever had to deal with anger. We all do. Agamemnon isn’t the only person who’s ever acted badly. We all have. Hector isn’t the only parent who’s ever had to defend his family. Parents still do it all the time. Priam isn’t the only father who’s lost a son. Life is hard sometimes and the poet in Homer shows readers just how hard it is to be fully human.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

HOMER: The Iliad (Books 17-20)

In The Odyssey many strange things happen. It’s a story filled with giants and drugged plants that make men forget about home. There are witches who change men into pigs. There’s a trip to the underworld. The Odyssey presents a fantastic world with fantastic adventures. The Iliad, on the other hand, is an earthy world. Homer tells the story of the Trojan War in a blunt style and doesn’t try to make it pretty. That’s why it’s something of a jolt in Book 17 when we come across an image of weeping horses: “The horses of Peleus stood out of the fight and wept when they heard that their driver had been killed by the hand of murderous Hector…Hot tears fell from their eyes as they mourned the loss of their charioteer and their noble manes drooped all wet from under the yoke-straps on either side of the yoke.” This scene could almost be read as comic, much like the old TV show Mr. Ed (which featured a talking horse). But Homer isn’t trying to be funny here. The context is serious. Patroclus is a brave young man and he’s been killed. It’s tragic when someone with so much promise is cut down in the prime of life. What makes this scene even more poignant is that these horses are immortal. And it’s plausible that immortal horses could possibly have the capacity to feel sorrow and express it through crying tears, just like humans. Homer underlines this theme by saying that when “Zeus saw them …and muttered to himself saying, ‘Poor things, why did we give you to King Peleus who is a mortal, while you yourselves are ageless and immortal? Was it that you might share the sorrows that befall mankind? For of all creatures that live and move upon the earth there is none so pitiable as he is…’” This is the kind of statement that turns literature into philosophy.

Question: Are human beings, of all the creatures on earth, really the ones most in need of pity? Why? Here’s why: human beings, of all the creatures on earth, are the only ones (so far as we know) aware of their own mortality. Every person lives with the knowledge that, for them, life won’t go on forever. Someday we’ll go the way of all creatures and return to the earth from which we came. Immortal creatures don’t face this awful prospect. Ignorant creatures aren’t aware of this awful prospect. Only mankind has this unique outlook on the nature of the universe: I will some day cease to be. If we think about it long enough this outlook gives a different perspective on all other things as well. Take anger, for example. Since the start of The Iliad the reader has been well aware of the effects of the anger of Achilles. In fact, the whole book begins with this line: “Sing, O Goddess, the anger of Achilles son of Peleus that brought countless ills upon the Greeks.” Achilles may have every right to be angry. He may be justified in staying angry even if his allies are dying as a result. But in the end it won’t matter one way or another. Achilles and all the rest – both Greeks and Trojans – will one day pass out of this world and become something entirely different. It may be that they’ll dissolve into the earth and their atoms will be used to take on new material forms – as described in Lucretius’ philosophical poem On the Nature of Things. Or it may be that they’ll take on new forms of life and become immortal – as described in the Gospels. We just don’t know.

Great works of philosophy grapple with questions like these. Great works of literature do the same. They just use different language. Homer may not have all the answers but at least he asks the right questions. He’s not a bad philosopher but he’s a great poet.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

HOMER: The Iliad (Books 13-16)

The second half of The Iliad gets down to some serious fighting between the two armies. By now the reader has to ponder whether this is really a war between men for the sake of Helen or if it’s really a showdown between the gods for the sake of their own pride. In Book 13 we find out that “Poseidon pitied the Greeks who were being overcome by the Trojans and he was furiously angry with Zeus.” But on the other hand “Zeus was minded to give victory to the Trojans and to Hector so as to do honor to fleet Achilles.” What makes this situation tense is the fact that Poseidon and Zeus are not only gods, they’re also brothers: “Both of them were of the same race and country but Zeus was elder born and knew more.” They’re squabbling like a couple of teenage brothers but they have the power of immortal gods. This can’t be good for men. When the Greek gods start squabbling the men tend to suffer. When Poseidon and Zeus argue, men get killed: “Thus then did these two devise a knot of war and battle that none could unloose or break and set both sides tugging at it, to the failing of men’s knees beneath them.”

Not only is Zeus fighting with his brother, he’s also married to his sister – Hera. Incest didn’t seem to be a big problem with the Greek gods. The marriage doesn’t seem to be particularly fulfilling, at least to Hera. In Book 14 we find that she “turned her eyes to Zeus as he sat on the topmost crests of many-fountained Ida and loathed him.” Hera may loathe him but Zeus is still king of all the gods who dwell on Olympus. She has to live with him and because the gods are immortal she has to live with him forever. But Hera’s no dummy. She didn’t get to be queen for nothing. Zeus may be more powerful than all the other gods put together but Hera knows how to use a different kind of power – the power of sex. Zeus seems to be particularly vulnerable to sexual temptation and Hera knows it. So she dresses up in a sexy outfit to go visit him on Mt. Ida where Zeus could “set his eyes upon her. As soon as he did so he became inflamed with the same passionate desire for her that he had felt when they had first enjoyed each other’s embraces and slept with one another without their dear parents knowing anything about it.” Zeus is so turned on by Hera that he woos her by telling her that “Never yet have I been so overpowered by passion neither for goddess nor mortal woman as I am at the moment for you – not even when I was in love with…” Then he starts reeling off the names of many women he’s slept with before. Some are other goddesses and some are mortal women. It doesn’t seem to occur to Zeus that Hera might not want to hear about all that before they go to bed. His philandering is one of the reasons she loathes him.

What is the reader to make of all this? What kind of gods are these anyway? They seem more like cartoon characters. And yet this is the divine backdrop of a tough war. Homer is clear that war’s a brutal business. But what’s his personal opinion about war? It could be that war is essentially senseless – the result of the mere whims of gods who have no better morals than human beings, and even worse than some mortals. Homer might be saying that war’s the result of some inborn human instinct to kill. Both Greek and Trojan warriors taunt their enemies, even when there’s no need for it. Or is Homer saying that sexuality and aggression are interrelated and this relationship leads to large-scale conflict? Paris steals Menelaus’ wife; the Greeks come after Helen; Agamemnon takes Briseis away from Achilles; Hera seduces Zeus. The Iliad is not a story for the kids.

HOMER: The Iliad (Books 9-12)

Everyone I know has had some moment in early childhood when they said: “No, that’s mine. You can’t have it.” Mature people have more graceful ways of establishing ownership. What happens when that personal ownership is violated? In modern America if it’s serious enough you can call the police and go to court. In Homer’s world it was a personal matter. Back in Book 1 King Agamemnon had his prize-girl taken away from him and he didn’t think it was right for everyone to have a prize except for the king. So he took a prize-girl away from Achilles. Agamemnon acted out of anger and pride; Achilles responds out of anger and pride by withdrawing from any further fighting. At this point most readers respond better to Achilles than they do to Agamemnon. We all know how it feels when something that’s rightly ours is taken away unfairly. We think Achilles has been cheated and Agamemnon is acting like a cry-baby. But how far would we push that feeling of being cheated? How much would we make others suffer because our own pride was hurt? What if the other guy (Agamemnon) apologizes?

That’s the dilemma posed in Book 9. The wise counselor Nestor tells Agamemnon he was wrong. Agamemnon responds like a mature man and says “Sir, you have reproved my folly justly. I was wrong. I own it…I was blinded with passion and yielded to my worser mind; therefore I will make amends and will give him great gifts by way of atonement.” He knows he has acted badly and admits it. What about Achilles? Some Greek envoys come to tell him that Agamemnon is not only sorry for the way he acted but will go to great lengths to make it up to Achilles. How does Achilles respond? He responds like this: “I will say what I mean. I will be appeased neither by Agamemnon son of Atreus nor by any other of the Greeks…Are the sons of Atreus the only men in the world who love their wives? Any man of common right feeling will love and cherish her who is his own, as I this woman, with my whole heart, though she was but a fruitling of my spear. Agamemnon has taken her from me; he has played me false; I know him…I will take no counsel with him and will undertake nothing in common with him. He has wronged me and deceived me enough…let him go his own way for Zeus has robbed him of his reason. I loathe his presents and don’t care one straw for him either.” Achilles will not change his mind no matter what Agamemnon does. Now who’s acting like a cry-baby?

Using terms like cry-baby diminishes the story. Agamemnon is a king; so is Achilles. Homer seems to be asking an obvious question: then why don’t they act like kings? The Greeks are in their ninth year of fighting a war. They need to be unified if they’re ever going to defeat the Trojans. All this infighting is counterproductive and can only hurt the Greek cause. Agamemnon has made a poor command decision affecting his best officer. Achilles has committed insubordination to a superior officer. What kind of message does that send to the troops in the field? What kind of message does it send to people reading the poem today? The problem posed by Agamemnon vs. Achilles is a universal problem. Strong-willed people almost always vie for leadership positions. And leadership positions are rare. So the modern reader must focus on what leadership means. Does leadership mean achieving the goal set out by your organization or country? Does leadership mean taking care of the people under your charge? The Greeks were under no starry-eyed illusions about the universal need to grasp for power. The historian Thucydides wrote: “We believe that Heaven, and we know that men, by a natural law always rule where they are stronger. We did not make that law nor were we the first to act on it; we found it existing, and it will exist long after we’re gone…”