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Saturday, September 21, 2013

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.


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