Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, February 01, 2010

HOMER: Iliad – The Roots of War

The earliest classic text of Western civilization begins like this: Anger is now your song, immortal one, Achilles’ anger, doomed and ruinous, that caused the Greeks loss on bitter loss and crowded many brave souls into hell…What a way to start a civilization, with anger and war. But somehow this seems natural and universal. One of the earliest classic texts of Hinduism is the Bhagavad-Gita. And what is its subject? War. Anger is a basic human emotion and war is a common human activity that runs throughout history, pre-history included. The Iliad takes place right at that bridge between pre-history and history; the time when oral traditions began to be preserved in written form.

So where should we begin? Begin the story when two men first contending broke with one another: Lord Marshall Agamemnon and Prince Achilles. Who brought this quarrel on? Apollo. Agamemnon angered him, so Apollo brought a plague down on the Greek army… At the dawn of history the gods were intimately involved in human affairs. Plagues had causes. And in the ancient world those causes were the gods. The thought process runs along these lines: we must deserve this; we must have done something wrong. We need to placate the gods. And so it was in the Iliad: A priest of Apollo’s named Khryses came down to the ships with gifts to ransom his daughter… But Agamemnon would not ransom her. It went against his desire, and brutally he ordered Khryses away: “Don’t let me find you here by the long ships old man; if I do, the staff and the ribbons of the god Apollo won’t help you. Give up the girl? I swear she will grow old at my home in Argos, far from her country, working on my loom and visiting my bed. Leave me in peace and go away in safety while you still can.” This is not the way to treat a priest of Apollo. Apollo is the god of healing. But he is also a god who can bring death and destruction; by bringing on a plague, for example. And Apollo is not happy about the way Agamemnon has treated his priest Khryses: Now when Apollo heard this he walked with storm in his heart from Mt. Olympos…Pack animals were his first targets, and dogs, but soldiers too soon felt the pain of the plague, and funeral pyres burned for nine days and nights. This is the background for the dispute between Agamemnon and Achilles.

Achilles wants to give the girl back so Apollo will take away the plague. Agamemnon says he’ll give the girl back because he wants to save the army. But he wants a replacement prize. He’s the leader of the entire army and it wouldn’t look right for other soldiers to have girl-prizes and the leader to have nothing. Since there are no more girl-prizes as booty he’ll have to take one from another soldier. And since Achilles is the one threatening his role as commander, Agamemnon decides to take Achilles’ girl-prize as a lesson to others. Of course this infuriates Achilles. The rest of the Iliad shows the results of Achilles anger and how it nearly destroys the Greek army. This is a miniature lesson about the roots of war: two sides want the same prize and both sides think they deserve it. Push comes to shove and the next thing you know fists (or swords, or bombs) are flying. They’re willing to fight to maintain their honor. At the dawn of civilization Homer shows us that nations behave just like people. To fight is crazy, but to back down shows weakness. That’s Homer’s lesson in both human psychology and international politics.


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