Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

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.


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