Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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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.


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