Marxist Imagination

Transcending English empiricism, neither Disraeli nor Newman was afraid of ideas; they understood the power of the imagination, and its role in history, and so, in an inferior sense, did Marx. Despite Marx’s formal adherence to Utilitarian concepts and arguments of proof, despite his belligerent determination to be scientific, his influence has been that of a man of imagination—an imagination begrimed and fettered, true, but still participating in the world of ideas, superior to the tyranny of particular facts. “To consider whether Marx was ‘right’ or ‘wrong’; to dredge Volumes I and III of Capital for inconsistencies or logical flaws, to ‘refute’ the Marxian system is, in the last resort, sheer waste of time,” says Professor Alexander Gray; “for when we consort with Marx we are no longer in the world of reason or logic. He saw visions—clear visions of the passing of all things, much more nebulous visions of how all things may be made new. And his visions, or some of them, awoke a responsive chord in the hearts of many men.” Though assertedly a materialist, in truth Marx was an idealist, indoctrinated by Hegel; and this aspect of his character, which he endeavored to strip from himself as if it were Nessus’ shirt, accounts nevertheless for his victory over Utilitarians whose method he imitated. He dealt, however mistakenly, with ends; the Liberals, with means and particulars; and the mass of men being governed by imagination more than reason, in such a struggle the odds favor the visionary (The Conservative Mind 263)

Thinking Out Loud about The Iliad, Part 2

In The Iliad, the gods are unfathomable: an element of mystery exists in their doings. Diomedes finds out that no one really can be sure who is or is not a god. The lines between gods and humans are blurred. Generally, the gods are recognized by an aesthetic element (splendor), which they can choose to reveal or to hide at any given moment to any given person. Men are as the gods insofar as they display one or more characteristics of the gods. A person does not need to display every divine quality to be called god-like. So Paris can be called god-like because of his physical beauty, even though he is a great coward. Incidentally, in The Republic, Plato critiques Homer for attributing evil to the gods. Would Zeus fit the model of the philosopher king? Are the attributes of the gods worth emulating?

Fate is a factor separate from the gods, seemingly, the allotted time that each being has upon the earth (which no one knows or understands, including the gods). Some believe Fate to be a pre-Olympian god, a more primitive being that is not as complex or sophisticated as the Olympian gods.

Man’s actions in Homer can be ascribed to three possible sources, though these overlap and are blurred:

  • Fate
  • Intervention of the gods
  • Man’s choices/mistakes

An example of this blurring of lines can be the instance when Athena makes a young arrow shooter break the truce after Menelaus’ duel with Paris. Athena chooses this young man because he’s the best archer, but he is also young and foolish, so very possibly he could have acted in the same way without Athena’s enticing. Another example can be taken from the tension between Helen’s action and the gods’ intervention in her life to make her follow Paris to Troy. Is she to blame? Or are the gods to blame?

At times, the wills of the gods—including Fate—clash. Zeus seems to fight against fate with his own son, Sarpedon. It’s difficult to determine whether Zeus actually has power over fate, or whether he just seems to have it. In the end, Zeus gives in to fate and lets Sarpedon die, though not without shedding tears of blood. When the gods intervene in the world of men at times they can receive pain, for example, when a loved human dies or when the gods are physically wounded—like Venus and Ares who are attacked by Diomedes. Even pain does not seem to stop the gods from meddling with the human world.

Humility has no place in Ancient Greece. Pride is fitting, but it should not come out of proportion. Agamemnon overstepped his boundary of pride with Achilles (Book I) and recognizes it (Book IX). This was not humility but recognition. Achilles (and all Greece) recognized his own strength and value, and he felt that everyone should value him, as was his due. In Homer’s culture, honor and recognition seem inseparably tied to material things (plunder, gifts, etc.). When Achilles did not get what he believed was his due—and it was his due—he became angry.

Agamemnon tries to rally the troops to battle by insisting that they should go home. One can find a theme of arousing men to fight by words all throughout The Iliad. Hector has to arouse Paris to fight against Menelaus before the duel because Paris is a coward. Before each difficult battle, either a warrior or a god gives a speech that stirs men to courage and to fight.

Thinking Out Loud about The Iliad, Part 1

The Iliad, Chapters 1-8

Concerning the involvement of the gods in the life of men, why do the gods care so much about humans? The Iliad is just as much a story about the gods as it is about men. Is it a mere entertainment to them, each having a pet favorite human or a way to assert their power among other gods? Zeus seems to be entertained by humans, though he is bound to Thetis to intervene, and he pities those who pray to him. Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite have personal interests in the fight, and seem to be driven more by selfishness and pride than anything else. If men did not exist, would the gods have other things to do? It seems that the times that the gods are in Olympus unaware of what is happening in the world below are few.

Perhaps Homer is merely pointing out one instance in the lives of human beings wherein the gods were very involved, as in the case of Job in the Bible. One difference with Job’s account would be that the gods here are fighting for their own selfish gain rather than to prove a man. Another difference is that Job is largely unaware of what is taking place in heaven above, while the Trojans and Argives perceive the involvement of the gods more frequently.

Concerning humanity and deity, what makes a man god-like? Particularly the kings (Agamemnon, Priam) and princes (Hector, Diomedes) are described at times as “like a god.” Is it mere physical beauty or courage or strength? Is it something that is merely apparent to the eyes (i.e., the person looks like a god)? Ares and other gods describe Diomedes’s actions as “almost supernatural” (Book V) because he fights against the gods and wounds Aphrodite and Ares. These questions seem particularly difficult when thinking of Paris, who is described as “magnificent as a god” and “brave” (Book III, 129-130), but yet in the middle of the battle with Menelaus disappears from combat to appear in a bedroom with Helen. At this time, Helen calls him a coward, and Hector chides him for not going out to fight with Trojan men who are dying. If Paris is a coward, in what way is he “magnificent as a god”? Does he receive this description merely because he is handsome and strong? Finally, are men described as “god-like” whey they are actually descendents of a god, for example, as in the case of Achilles or Aeneas? It seems evident that this, at times, is the case.

It also may be asked what the difference between a god and a man is. Apollo’s words to Diomedes indicate a divide: “we are not of the same breed, we will never be, the deathless gods and the men who walk the earth” (Book V, 178-179). Nonetheless, the lines seem blurred when we note that Zeus sleeps, just like Agamemnon does, and that Ares bleeds, just like Aeneas. Both gods and men eat and drink, both get angry and pity, and though the gods have immortality, they are able to rescue men from dying (e.g., Paris being rescued by Aphodite). Is the difference one of power? Or is it ruling over more men, as Nestor points out, makes Agamemnon powerful (86)? For a difference of power exists even among the gods, as well as a difference of ruling over many or few. In addition, the gods have the gods have limitations, but why is this so? Is it to make them more “realistic”? If Zeus can devour other gods, their immortality, then, would be conditional, and they would be more like men. So the lines dividing gods and men seem to be blurry at times.

Thinking Out Loud about Greek Classics

I’m reading through some of the Greek classics, and I would like to put my thoughts out here, so that perhaps some of you might join me in a discussion à la St. John’s College.

The reading list is the following:

  • Homer, The Iliad
  • Homer, The Odyssey
  • Aeschylus, Oresteia
  • Sophocles, Philoctetes
  • Sophocles, Antigone
  • Sophocles, Oedipus the King
  • Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus
  • Virgil, The Aeneid

I’m already reading the last part of The Odyssey, so I have come to a preliminary answer to some of the questions I pose in these. Since you may have not thought about some of these things, I leave my “old” questions for your insights.

I have discovered that the Robert Fagels translations are very good to give one a feel for an overall picture and poetic feel of the work, so numbers refer to page numbers of his translations.

So now, on to The Iliad!