Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Saturday, September 28, 2013

MONTESQUIEU: Principles of Government (1: Law)

After reading the Iliad we’ve seen what happens when law and order break down. Anger and war are the results. The reader comes away with the feeling that there must be a better way to live than this. Here’s where Montesquieu steps in and helps guide us toward a solution. Americans have 250 years of practical experience living better under laws shaped by the United States Constitution. James Madison knew it wouldn’t be easy to convince people that life would be better living under laws that constrain them. In Federalist #15 he wrote: “Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraint.” This isn’t a pessimistic view of mankind, just an honest appraisal of human nature. He goes on to ask in Federalist #51: “What is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” But government is necessary. Since we’re not angels, government is very necessary. The question then becomes: what kind of government?
Montesquieu begins his analysis of government by first examining the concept of law. In its simplest form laws are “the necessary relations arising from the nature of things.” Montesquieu believes that “all beings have their laws.” God, the material world, angels, beasts and men all have laws to guide and govern them. He agrees with Madison that “the dictates of reason and justice” are the backbone of law. In short, law guides all rational life. Montesquieu believes reason and justice guide the world. But Darwin believes natural selection is a better explanation. For Montesquieu the idea of natural selection is just “blind fatality.” He thinks this notion is absurd and says, “they who assert that a blind fatality produced the various effects we behold in this world talk very absurdly; for can anything be more unreasonable than to pretend that a blind fatality could be productive of intelligent beings?” Darwin says it’s perfectly reasonable for nature to produce intelligent beings because nature has its own laws.
Montesquieu agrees there are two kinds of laws: “intelligent beings may have laws of their own making, but they have some likewise which they never made.” The first kind (laws that we make ourselves) are Positive Laws. The second (laws we don’t make ourselves) are Natural Laws. A Positive Law is: thou shalt not kill. A Natural Law is: gravity. Montesquieu recognizes that man-made laws aren’t as perfect as the laws we find in nature. He acknowledges that “the intelligent world is far from being so well-governed as the physical.” That’s because people are fallible and make mistakes. In Sophocles’ story about Oedipus, for example, we read about a man who married a woman without knowing it was his own mother. That was an accident. But sometimes we do wrong because we’re “free agents.” We break the law even when we know it’s wrong. Cain killed his brother Abel. This was before the Ten Commandments but Cain still knew somehow that murder was wrong. So Montesquieu makes an important distinction between natural laws and man-made laws. Natural laws are impulses that we’re born with. We “naturally” want peace and safety, good food, and maybe a good sex partner. To achieve these goals we generally want to live in a society where we can interact freely with other people. Positive laws are the ones that guide us once we’re living in a free society. There are laws that apply between one society and another society; these Montesquieu calls the Law of Nations. There are laws which apply between a citizen and his government; these are Political Laws. And then there are laws that apply between one citizen and another citizen; these are our Civil Laws. We need laws because, as Madison said, we’re not angels. We need government then; but what kind? Next reading Montesquieu will give us three choices.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

HOMER: The Iliad (Book 24: The Will of Zeus)

When the last page of the Iliad is turned the reader comes to these closing lines: “So they performed the funeral rites of Hector, tamer of horses.” We would do well to go back and see how this whole sad story began: “Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians, hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished…” We’ve seen the anger of Peleus’ son Achilles. We’ve seen its devastation. We’ve seen many Greeks and Trojans hurled down to their final destiny in the house of Hades. But have we really seen the will of Zeus being done? What exactly was accomplished by all this brutality and tragedy on the beaches of Troy? A broader question comes to mind regarding the meaning of history. Is there a purpose and meaning behind history? Or is it all just random human activity playing itself out on the world stage? From the very beginning of the Iliad Homer ponders what “the will of Zeus” can be.
“Providence” is the term for the idea that there is, in fact, purpose and meaning in history. Merriam-Webster defines Providence as “God conceived as the power sustaining and guiding human destiny.” Homer believed that Zeus was the power sustaining and guiding human destiny because “the will of Zeus was accomplished…” Another great poet, Shakespeare, wasn’t so sure. In Shakespeare there’s no Zeus to thank if things go well and no Zeus to blame if things go badly. For example, in his play about Antony and Cleopatra one of the three powerful politicians in the Roman civil war was Pompey. Pompey says “If the great gods be just, they shall assist the deeds of justest men.” The key word here is IF. Pompey believes that the gods are good and will help good men. And most readers would agree that Pompey was a good man. But that didn’t prevent him from ending up as the victim of an assassin. No, for Shakespeare the burden is squarely on people to make wise decisions. The gods will not step in to intervene if we make foolish ones. In another scene of the play Cleopatra fled a great naval battle and Antony follows her with his ships. The critical battle is lost and the times look dark. Cleopatra consults the old veteran warrior Enobarbus for advice: “CLEOPATRA: What shall we do, Enobarbus? ENOBARBUS: Think, and die. CLEOPATRA: Is Antony or we in fault for this? ENOBARBUS: Antony only, that would make his will Lord of his reason. What though you fled from that great face of war, whose several ranges frighted each other? Why should he follow? The itch of his affection should not then have nick'd his captainship…” Whose fault is it that Antony and Cleopatra’s side lost? Not the gods. It wasn’t Poseidon or any other god who stepped in and helped the other side. It was Antony’s poor judgment that lost the battle.
Shakespeare was a great poet and student of human nature. But so was Homer. Homer’s view finds expression when Achilles says to the old Trojan king, Priam: “The gods have spun the thread of fate for wretched mortals: we live in sorrow, while they are free from care. Two urns stand in Zeus’ palace containing the experiences he grants mortals, one holds blessings, the other ills. Those who receive a mixture of the two meet with good and ill… But from the moment that the heavenly gods brought this wretched war upon you, all has turned to battle and slaughter. Endure, let your heart not grieve forever, Sorrowing for your son will achieve nothing, you’ll not bring him back to life, though life will bring you other sorrows.’ This is great poetry. Homer’s vision is simple. Zeus has two urns: one is good, the other one evil. If we get the good one: be thankful. If we get evil: endure, life will bring much sorrow. The will of Zeus is hard but there is divine purpose in the Iliad. It started with Achilles’ anger and ended with Hector’s death.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

HOMER: The Iliad (Book 22: Good Guys and Bad Guys)

In Book 22 of The Iliad Hector lies mortally wounded on the ground at Achilles’ feet. He worries about what will happen to his body afterward and says these dying words to Achilles: Then Hector of the gleaming helm replied, in a feeble voice: ‘At your feet I beg, by your parents, by your own life, don’t let the dogs devour my flesh by the hollow ships. Accept the ransom my royal father and mother will offer, stores of gold and bronze, and let them carry my body home, so the Trojans and their wives may grant me in death my portion of fire.’ Achilles says no. He’s absolutely ruthless and taunting about the way he will treat Hector’s body. Achilles is ruthless beyond the fierceness of a wild animal; he’s cruel in a way that only human ingenuity can be cruel. This is a soldier’s worst fear, to be defenseless and under the absolute power of a sadistic enemy. This fear causes war and is the source of the most primal human instinct to either kill or be killed.
Freud explores this theme more in-depth in “Civilization and Its Discontents.” Freud says “…their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object (note: in Achilles case, Briseis) but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him… to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him.” What Freud is trying to explain is exactly what Achilles is doing to Hector in Book 22 of The Iliad. Does this mean Achilles is a bad guy? Achilles would say no. I’m not a bad man at all. I’m just giving Hector what he deserves because he killed my friend Patroclus. So does that mean Hector is really the bad guy? No. Hector is arguably the best man in the whole story of the Iliad. Sarpedon (a good man) was killed by Patroclus (another good man) who was in turn killed by Hector (probably an even better man than Patroclus). By the time it gets around to Achilles things have gotten complicated. Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys in this story? In the Iliad there are no good guys and bad guys; only desperate men with different motivations and different backgrounds meeting on the field of battle. In another time and another place they may have been friends. But on the battlefield of Troy they’re mortal enemies.
One of the great underlying themes of the whole Great Books program is the question of how good people can survive in a tough world. Almost all the Great Books philosophers and writers and historians agree that it’s heroic to be good in a world that’s grown bad and corrupt. The only exception may be Friedrich Nietzsche. In “Thus Spake Zarathustra” he says, “Behold the good and the just! Whom do they hate most? The man who breaks their tables of values, the breaker, the lawbreaker…” Nietzsche believes the heroic man breaks down the values of the old society and creates his own values to build a newer and better and stronger world. But Nietzsche is an unusual case.
Most of the Great Books authors try to preserve at least some parts of society’s “tables of values.” Common values help us distinguish good men from bad men. For Nietzsche the terms good man and bad man have no real meaning. Only the strong man has real meaning. In that sense, Achilles is a sort of Nietzschean super-man. Homer doesn’t think so. In this scene of the death of Hector, Homer shows how Achilles goes beyond the bounds of human decency. He’s a man without mercy, without pity. Achilles has broken the basic values that are the common heritage of all human beings. For Homer the good guys take nourishment from a shared social table of values. Bad guys don’t.

HOMER: The Iliad (Book 20: Why War?)

Some people say war never solves anything. Other folks say war is the only realistic solution for many of our problems. Who’s right? And why are these views so far apart? The main theme of the Iliad is supposed to be anger; especially the anger of Achilles. But the whole backdrop takes place in the context of war. And there’s fighting on nearly every page. Homer implies that any poet or artist must take a clear stance on the question of war. His own view isn’t optimistic; but it’s not pessimistic either. Homer himself would probably say he’s realistic. There are some good things about life and some bad things. A few things can be really bad, like forest fires or floods or earthquakes. We learn to deal with them and when they come along we just do the best we can. It’s just part of being human. Is war one of those really bad things?
War seems to fall into a whole different category. Fires and floods and earthquakes are natural disasters. We have to deal with them only because we can’t control nature. But shouldn’t we be able to at least control human nature by now? With all these modern technological and scientific advances, why do we still have war? In fact, a good argument can be made that we’ve made no progress at all getting rid of war. We’ve only made things worse. War is more horrible now than ever before. Modern science and technology have made the weapons of war more terrible but the people using the weapons are still basically the same. In Book 20 when the Greeks are ready to attack the Trojans Achilles yells: “Noble Achaeans: don’t stand here waiting for the enemy, rouse yourselves for battle, and each pick out your foe. Strong I may be, but they are in such numbers it is hard even for me to fight them all. Not even Ares, immortal as he is, or Athene, could wrestle with the jaws of such a monster. But what a man can do with swift foot, and strong arms, I will attempt.” A key phrase here is “don’t stand here waiting for the enemy, rouse yourselves for battle.” How many times since Homer’s day have people gone to war simply because they were afraid what the people next door were doing? What are they up to? If we wait around until they’re stronger then we really have a problem. Better to attack them before they attack us.
Then how does the other side respond? Very much like Hector responded: “Hector was shouting to the Trojans, that he would advance and tackle Achilles: ‘Brave Trojans have no fear of this son of Peleus. I too could fight a war of words, even with the gods, yet it is harder to fight them with the spear, since they are mightier still. Achilles will not make good his boast. Part indeed he may fulfill, but a part he will leave undone. I will go out against him, though his hands blaze fire, yes, though his hands blaze fire and his fury is molten iron.” This is pretty much what still goes on today. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about ancient Troy or modern times. The concept is still the same. We talk diplomacy but words only go so far. As Hector says, “I too could fight a war of words, even with the gods.” Once all the talking is done things still seem to get settled with swords and spears; or in modern times with bullets and bombs. The evidence from Homer’s Iliad amounts to this: words are meaningless without weapons, and weapons are meaningless unless you know how to, and are willing to, use them.
This isn’t a very comforting message for those who just want to give peace a chance. It’s not that Homer likes war any more than we do. He just doesn’t see any way it can realistically be avoided. At least as long as men are the way they are. As long as there are men like Achilles there will be men like Hector to oppose them. Do things have to be this way? That’s a question for philosophy. Homer’s a poet and doesn’t ask why war exists; he just shows us what it’s like.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

HOMER: The Iliad (Book 16: The Battle of Life)

Zeus looked down in pity and said to Hera his wife and sister, "Alas that it should be the lot of Sarpedon whom I love so dearly to perish by the hand of Patroclus. I am of two minds whether to catch him up out of the fight and set him down safe and sound in the fertile land of Lycia, or to let him fall now by the hand of Patroclus." And Hera answered, "Zeus, what is this that you are saying? Would you snatch a mortal man, whose doom has long been fated, out of the jaws of death? Do as you will, but we shall not all of us gods be of your mind. I say further, and lay my saying to your heart, that if you send Sarpedon safely to his own home, some other of the gods will also want to escort his son out of battle. There are many sons of gods fighting round the city of Troy, and you will make every one jealous." –The Iliad, Book 16
So goes one of the many tragic scenes in the Iliad. Sarpedon is a good man. And he’s brave too. But as good and brave as he is, and as much as Zeus loves him, Sarpedon’s fate is to die in battle. Even Zeus cannot save him. This is the human condition. The broader question for Great Books: is life a battle? And the follow-up Great Books question: can you be more specific? Do you mean: is life a literal battle, as in a war against other countries? Sometimes it is. It’s curious that the Iliad is the oldest non-Bible work in the Great Books and it’s a story of war. “The Persian Wars” by Herodotus also follows up this theme of Greeks fighting “barbarians” (or foreigners, anyone who isn’t Greek). But the Great Books also show Greeks fighting Greeks in the “History of the Peloponnesian War” by Thucydides. So yes, sometimes life is literally a battle. We may be called upon to fight in a war; maybe even, like Sarpedon, to die in battle.
But most of us won’t die in battle. We won’t even fight in a war. That doesn’t mean life won’t be a struggle. We’re much more likely to find ourselves having small battles within society. The Great Books reading by Charles Darwin talks about “The Moral Sense of Man” and how ethical behavior helps us cope with life as a species. The main point is that cooperation between human beings helps us all survive in a social environment, such as a city. This close cooperation can, of course, lead to problems. Freud’s idea in “Civilization and Its Discontents” is that this kind of living in close contact forces us to suppress some of those same instincts that help Achilles and Agamemnon survive the war. When they get angry they can take it out on their enemies on the battlefield. But when we get angry in the store or at work we can’t just go out and kill someone. We may feel like it; but we don’t. Freud believes this is the root cause of many of our mental anxieties and physical ailments. No wonder. Think about being Othello and having an assistant like Iago constantly whispering in your ear. (See Othello by Shakespeare) Or think about working for a boss like Billy Budd’s master-at-arms. (See Billy Budd by Melville) With co-workers like that, no wonder we have so many anxieties and ailments.
Even if our social lives are going ok and our careers are doing fine, there’s still plenty of room left for battle. There’s always the battle of the sexes. Chaucer’s Wife of Bath had five husbands but she was only happy when she had one who could dish back as much of a fight as she gave him. Mark Antony had enough problems without Cleopatra. (See Antony and Cleopatra by Shakespeare) If they had been mere mortals, Zeus and Hera might have been Antony and Cleopatra; which brings up the relationship between the human and the divine. In the Iliad human beings can’t kill the gods; but they can hurt them. This isn’t true in the Bible. For Job, fighting God is not an option. He accepts his fate even if he doesn’t understand it. For Homer, even Zeus accepts fate. And even Zeus can’t save Sarpedon from his final battle of life.

Monday, September 16, 2013

HOMER: The Iliad (Book 9: Anger)

Is anger bad for me? That may sound like a dumb question. But sometimes it helps to try and answer dumb questions. For starters, what do we mean by “bad”? For example, modern medicine has proven that too much anger can be bad for our health. But that’s not very helpful. Too much of anything can be bad for our health. Aristotle bases his whole theory “On Happiness” around the basic principle that the middle way is the best way to be happy. Take anger: too little anger is cowardice; too much anger is foolishness. That’s the sort of thing Aristotle was driving at. In the Iliad Homer agrees with Aristotle. The main theme of the Iliad is the anger of Achilles. Achilles gets too angry. Not just a little too angry. Way too angry. Fury may be a better word. The fury of Achilles leads to the death of many a good Greek soldier. Aristotle asks: for what purpose? What good did anger do him? What good did it do anybody?
But there’s another side to the story. Too little anger would be just as bad as too much anger. Maybe there are some things we should get angry about. There are some things that if we don’t get angry then something is wrong with us. For example, in Euripides’ play “Iphigenia at Aulis” Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia so the Greeks can sail to Troy. Would it be normal for the mother (Clytemnestra) to say, “Gee, that’s too bad; I was kind of fond of Iphigenia, but that’s the way it goes I guess.” No. This is not an appropriate response for that particular situation. Again, that’s what Aristotle was driving at: what is the appropriate amount of anger to deal with the situation at hand? He would agree that Achilles has a right to be angry at the way Agamemnon treated him. The question is: how angry? Even Jesus got angry. In the Gospel of Mark he drives the moneychangers from the temple. In that situation Jesus’ anger was appropriate. He drove them out of the temple but he didn’t try to kill them. So the following statement seems to get the Great Books Seal of Approval: it’s ok to be angry at the right time, in the right place, for the right reason and to respond in the right way. Case closed, right?
Not so fast. The Great Books rarely come down squarely on just one side of any major question. The subject of anger is no exception. And as usual we do well to turn to Socrates. What would Socrates say? He would probably come out with something like, “you say that ‘it’s ok to be angry at the right time, in the right place, for the right reason and to respond in the right way.’ Who can argue with that? I certainly don’t disagree, so far as that goes. But if we think about it, isn’t it ok to do just about anything in the right time and the right place for the right reason and in the right way? Then here’s what we really seem to be asking: is this the right time for me to be angry? Is this an appropriate place? What things should I get angry about and how angry should I let myself become? Also, how should I respond when I do get angry? Goodness. We start with a simple question: is anger bad for me? But instead of a simple yes or no we open up a whole slew of new questions that seem harder to answer than the one we started with. Is this the purpose of philosophy; to lead us into more confusion? My friend, I think not. Is there not a much simpler answer to our original question: is anger bad for me? Philosophy says yes, anger is bad for me. Why? Anger leads us into confusion. The purpose of philosophy is to lead us out of confusion. In “The Apology” I once said that a bad man can never harm a good man. He can kill me, but he can’t harm me. What did I mean by that? I meant that a bad man can harm my body in many ways. But he can only harm my soul if I let him. When I become angry with him then I allow him to harm my soul. I believe Achilles did much more damage to himself than Agamemnon ever did. Homer is a good poet but he’s a bad philosopher. Aristotle is a good philosopher but even he gets things wrong sometimes. Anger is bad; that’s the simple answer.”

Saturday, September 14, 2013

HOMER: The Iliad (Book 8: Polytheism and Monotheism)

Quick quiz: which is an easier concept to grasp, polytheism or monotheism; one god or many gods? In the Iliad Book 8 we read that “Zeus called the gods in council on the topmost crest of Mount Olympus.” This is polytheism. In Exodus Book 3 we read that “Moses… led the flock to the backside of the desert, and came to the mountain of God, even to Horeb… (and the Lord said) I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” This is monotheism. The Hebrews faced many problems when they left Egypt; but knowing which god they should pray to was not one of them. There was only one God. If I’m a Hebrew, ‘The Lord” is the only God I answer to. The Greeks and Trojans, on the other hand, have many gods to answer to: Apollo, Athena, Aphrodite, the list goes on. If I’m a Greek I ask myself: which god should I pray to? Do I adopt one special god or just bypass all the minor gods and go straight to the biggest god, Zeus? You would think the best idea is to ask Zeus to protect me not only from the Trojans but also from the other gods. But it doesn’t seem to work that way. The Greek gods are jealous gods. Poseidon complains to Zeus that the Greeks don’t bother to ask his permission or protection before building a defensive wall on the beach. Why should Poseidon care? He cares because he’s the god of the sea. So the beach is his turf. Other gods are gods of other things. Every “thing” is some god’s turf. If you’re Greek, be careful. Be very careful.
This must have kept the Greeks in a constant state of anxiety. In fact, the Iliad starts off with Achilles calling a council of the Greeks. What they’re trying to find out is why are the gods so angry? Or, in this case, which god is angry? It turns out that the Greeks have offended Apollo. Of course you don’t want to offend any of the gods but you really don’t want to offend Apollo. He’s the god of health and has sent a plague upon the Greeks. And it also turns out that Apollo is supporting their enemies, the Trojans. That’s bad. But fortunately for the Greeks the goddess Athena is supporting them. And that’s good. Obviously polytheism can be a confusing business. Maybe that’s why war is a confusing business; because the gods are taking sides and fighting against one another. In that scenario men are just cannon fodder. We fight proxy wars that are really controlled and fought out by the gods on Mount Olympus. What seems like anarchy on earth must be going through some orderly conflict resolution process in heaven, right? Wrong. In the Iliad the gods and goddesses are not going through some orderly process of conflict resolution. They’re fighting amongst themselves much the way human beings fight it out on earth; except the gods are immortal. On earth soldiers kill each other and their spirits flutter away uneasily to the underworld and that’s that. It’s over and done with. On Mount Olympus things are different. Zeus calls a council of the immortal gods.
Then Zeus speaks and all the other gods listen. "Hear me," said he, "gods and goddesses, and let me may speak as I want to. Let none of you goddesses or gods try to cross me, but obey me every one of you that I may bring this war to an end… Try me and find out for yourselves. Hang a golden chain from heaven, and lay hold of it all of you, gods and goddesses together; then tug as hard as you can, you will not drag Zeus the supreme counselor from heaven down to earth. But if I wanted to pull you up by myself I could draw you all up with earth and sea into the bargain, then I could bind the chain around some pinnacle of Olympus and leave you all hanging in the air. That’s how far I am above all you other gods and men.” In other words: shut up, he explained. This is how business is done on Mount Olympus. Polytheism works because the gods obey Zeus. The Lord in Exodus doesn’t have this problem because there are no other gods. The ancient Greeks (poly-) and Hebrews (mono-) had very different visions of theism.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

HOMER: The Iliad (Book 6 / Helen and Andromache)

Of all the characters in the Iliad, the most complete person in the whole story may not be a Greek, but a Trojan. Hector and his wife Andromache are the most complete characters we meet in the Iliad. Homer uses these two characters to define the excellence of what a good man ought to be and what a good woman ought to be. Hector isn’t as strong as Achilles and he’s not as handsome as his brother Alexandros. Andromache isn’t as beautiful, nor is she as witty, as Helen is. But Hector and Andromache reveal what Homer believes are the best qualities for well-rounded human beings to possess. What are they?
Let’s compare Andromache with Helen and see what we find. Here’s what Helen says when she’s speaking (alone) to Hector: “I wish I had a good man for a lover… this one (Alexandros/Paris) his heart’s unsound, and always will be, and he will win what he deserves.” Helen is a shrewd judge of men. She sizes up Paris well; his heart really is unsound and it really will always be that way. Men usually get what they deserve. But she also seems to be sizing up Hector when she offhandedly wishes she had a “good man” for a lover. Her definition of a good man is not the same as Hector’s definition of a good man. What she really means is: I wish I had a good lover. She continues by asking Hector to “Come here and rest upon this couch with me, dear brother. You (Hektor) are the one afflicted most by harloltry in me and by his madness, our portion, of all misery, given by Zeus that we may live in song for men to come.” Helen isn’t really thinking of Hector as a “dear brother.” She’s thinking of him as a good man; which means as a good lover. And she’s perfectly open about the “harlotry in me” and the divine madness of erotic love. This is the kind of stuff they write songs about. She’s offering an invitation to a love affair “that we may live in song for men to come.” It’s like that Kenny Rogers’ song a few years back: Let’s go out in a blaze of glory! Helen would have done very well in 17th century or 18th century France. For French culture see Moliere’s play The Misanthrope or Diderot’s short story about Rameau’s Nephew. Helen would have thrived in those cultured environments.
Andromache doesn’t have the beauty or the ready tongue of Helen. But what she lacks in beauty and speech she makes up for in authenticity. She says what’s on her mind and she means what she says. Her need of Hector goes far deeper than a love affair. She tells him without any reservation: “Oh, my wild one, your bravery will be your undoing! No pity for our child, poor little one, or me in my sad lot; soon to be deprived of you… I have none but you, nor brother, Hektor; lover none but you! Do not bereave your child and widow me!” Hector isn’t just her lover. He is her whole life. This may sound a bit maudlin or insincere to modern ears. What is Andromache really after anyway? Is she just a clinging vine? Does she really need Hector to find fulfillment in her boring life? Doesn’t she have an inner life of her own? But in Homer’s world these kinds of questions are out of place, downright low-class. Hector is a noble classic hero. He’s a noble man and needs a noble woman. Andromache is that woman. In response to Helen, Hector says “No, Helen, offer me no rest; I know you are fond of me. I cannot rest.” Hector doesn’t need, nor does he want, the kind of “rest” that Helen has to offer. What he needs, and what he wants, is the kind of rest that only Andromache can give him. Here is Hector’s response to Andromache: “Lady, these many things beset my mind no less than yours.” Andromache understands Hector in a way that Helen does not. Andromache needs Hector. She’s openly honest about that. And the truth is that Hector needs Andromache in a way that he does not need Helen. All this neediness makes modern readers uncomfortable. But it brings to mind another old song: people who need people are the luckiest people in the world.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

HOMER: The Iliad (Book 3: The Trojans)

Book 1 of the Iliad throws us right into the middle of an argument in the middle of a war somewhere in the middle East. The modern reader is plunked into the middle of a culture that seems alien and yet also vaguely familiar. The Greeks are aggressive, possessive and argumentative. The aggression of the Greeks was supposedly triggered by the abduction of Helen from Sparta. The very idea that the Trojans would dare to make off with a Greek woman! And a Spartan queen at that! But in Book 3 we're finally introduced to the Trojans themselves. They don't seem like thieves. If anything, they seem more civilized than the Greeks. The Greeks invaded the coasts of Asia Minor supposedly to rescue an abducted queen. But in the process they've abducted quite a few women themselves. Agamemnon and Achilles are trading captured girl-prizes like pawns in a chess game. And it’s likely that Helen voluntarily ran off with Paris. Now Menelaos wants his wife back, regardless of who she would rather live with.
Those are the major players for the Greeks. What about the Trojans? Who are the major players for them? Above all, the Trojans have Hector as their military leader. We get our first glimpse of Hector as he reprimands his brother, Alexandros (Paris): "You bad-luck charm! Paris, the great lover, a gallant sight! You should have had no seed and dies unmarried. Would to god you had! Better than living this way in dishonor, in everyone's contempt. Now they can laugh, Greeks who thought you were a first-rate man, a champion going by looks; but you have no backbone, no staying power is in you." Paris is the one who has "stolen" Helen away from the Greeks. Whether he abducted her or whether it was her own idea isn't made clear by Homer. It sounds like she chose to run away with Paris. In any case, it doesn't matter to the Greeks. They hold Paris fully responsible. Whether Helen wanted to go with him is irrelevant. The important point is that Paris has insulted a Greek king by taking his wife. And the Greeks want revenge.
Our first glimpse of Paris is catching him slinking away from a one-on-one fight with Menelaos; and for good reason. Menelaos would have killed him. Paris isn't really a coward. But he's a lover, not a fighter. He responds to Hector's reprimand with honesty and even a certain amount of charm: "Ah, Hector, this harshness is no more than just... My own gifts are from pale-gold Aphrodite. Do not taunt me for them. Glorious things the gods bestow are not to be despised, being as the gods will: wishing will not bring them." Basically what Paris is saying is this: don't blame me. I was born this way. I'm handsome and women like my face and my personality. These are gifts from the gods. I didn't ask for them. But that's why Helen loves me instead of Menelaos. He doesn't have these gifts. He wasn't born with them and asking for them now would be pointless. Menelaos is an ugly and crude man. These things are "as the gods will."
What would be the modern response to this kind of talk? Paris is just being honest. He is, in fact, handsome. And he does, in fact, have a way with women. But he isn't bragging about his own personal powers. He attributes them to the gods or what the modern world might call just plain old good luck. This situation does lead to interesting questions though. Are we responsible for the way we are? Or are we pretty much born that way? This is a question that is just as important today as it was back then. The technology may have changed but modern folks still mull over the same problems the Greeks faced: who's in charge? How should we punish our enemies? What should be done with wayward wives or possessive husbands? And we ask the same questions the Trojans asked: what do I do with a brother who isn't living right? How do I use the gifts I've been given? These questions aren't just for ancient Greeks and Trojans.