Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

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.


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