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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Tuesday, April 24, 2018


I'd been meaning to re-read Homer's ILIAD for some time, and it happened that I had the chance to do so following my re-reading of Shakespeare's TROILUS AND CRESSIDA, discussed here.

My first thought is that although I contrasted Homer's original account of the Achilles-Hector duel with Shakespeare's ironic rewriting of the event, the prose account I excerpted doesn't allude to one important aspect of the fight: that Hector loses in large part because Zeus wants Achilles to win. The two warriors exchange blows and fail to inflict telling wounds. According to translator Richard Lattimore, Hector, wearing the armor of Achilles stolen from Patroklus, charges the Greek warrior. Achilles, who knows the armor well, hits a weak point and wounds Hector. The Trojan pleads to have his body ransomed, but Achilles mercilessly kills him. Later the Greek degrades Hector's body for several days before the Trojan king Priam succeeds in ransoming the corpse from Achilles.

Throughout the conflict, the gods perform many tricks to keep the Greeks on the defensive, and even to keep any other Greek hero from performing Achilles' destined deed of slaying Hector. (At one point, it looks like the Greek Ajax might be able to take Hector, but since this would ruin the story, the gods intervene to save Hector's life.)

Now, from one standpoint the idea of the Greek deities rigging the fight might seem to be no different than Shakespeare's revision, in which Hector is caught without armor and slain by Achilles' troop of warriors. But there's a world of difference between an inequity between men-- which is what Shakespeare presents-- and one between men and gods. There's nothing equitable about the way the gods treat mortals, but to an archaic Greek, this would just be the nature of things. By the very nature of the gods, they send mortals both good and bad fortune, and when it's the latter, mortals can only face their fate with as much courage as possible. Hector's evil fate, of course, mirrors the prophecies of Achilles' own impending downfall, not seen in Homer's epic but repeatedly referenced through prophetic allusions.

Prior to the discovery of other, older heroic epics, the ILIAD seemed to be the oldest extant version of a legendary battle between destined opponents. Myth-fragments referenced battles that took place long before the Trojan War, not less Zeus' combat with Typhon, and indeed the ILIAD references most of the most famous Greek heroes of olden days: Heracles, Jason, Bellerophon. But these fragments were not archaic art at its best, and Homer's epic is, with the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the first flowerings of narrative art that is not purely religious in nature.

While discussing the book with friends, I was amazed that they had no real regard for the greatness of either Achilles' deed or those of other warriors, such as Ajax and Diomedes. Over and over, they insisted on reading the inequitable actions of the Greek gods as being no more than metaphors for human propaganda, of the tendency of human leaders to con young people into giving their lives in the name of glory. But this overlooks the fact that war is, as often as not, a response to the inequities of fate. Fate often gives one tribe riches and another impoverishment. and to the extent that the second tribe loves life as much as the first, the impoverished ones are thus more likely to risk their lives for gain and for glory-- which can be, but are not always, interdependent. I'm not saying here that human beings don't go to war for bad reasons; obviously they do. But the idea that war is always wrong-- or even always avoidable-- is one of the key mistakes of the Neopuritan liberal.

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