Thinking Out Loud about The Iliad, Part 4

The will of Zeus is unknowable until he reveals it. In Book XV he declares—apparently for the first time—that Patroclus will die (and it seems to be the first time that the death of Sarpedon is mentioned). The narrator, however, has already foreshadowed this tragedy when Achilles asked Patroclus to go to the warfront (“this was the beginning of his doom” or similar wording). We are unable to ascertain the overarching purpose of Zeus in history, perhaps because Homer only gives us part of the whole story of the gods. We know that in The Iliad the overarching purpose of the story is to give glory to Achilles, though it is difficult to understand why, since Zeus loves Troy.

The Iliad seems to attempt a theodicy, reconciling the reader to the gods. It seems to be an explanation of why evil and strife exist in the world. The world of the gods mirrors the world of men with its strife and struggles, and humans get caught in the battle between the gods. In the end, even the gods can’t override fate, not even Zeus. Had Homer provided an easy explanation to strife and problems in the world, the Greek reader might have dismissed the work as incompatible with reality.

Surely, Zeus seems to be the supreme ruler because he has greater strength than Hades and Poseidon, but he also must be greater in other senses (i.e., it cannot be only sheer strength that gives him the right to rule). The problem that Plato had with Homer’s view of the gods was that the gods did not correlate with the good. Furthermore, Plato believed that the gods as presented in Homer’s works corrupted the youth because they did not present good models for them to follow: if all the youth strived to be like the gods, this would hurt Plato’s ideal republic. Even so, Homer does present characters in The Iliad that are somehow attempting to be like the gods. Of course, this does not mean that they wanted to be like the gods in every way, but just that tried to attain some divine excellence.

Glaucon and Sarpedon state that since life is short, they should make the most of it and die with glory. Achilles seems to have a nihilistic view, stating that since everyone dies—regardless of whether he fought bravely—then it is better to avoid dying. Although Achilles seems to have this view, he does not act upon this belief. Apparently, his mother told him that he had two fates (whether this is true, we don’t know, but if it is, he is the only one who has two fates ascribed to him): one is to remain, fight, and die early with glory; the other is to return home and live a long and quiet life with no glory. From the beginning of the book, Achilles toys with the idea of going home, but in every speech he pushes back the voyage home to a later date. By the time of the death of Patroclus, Achilles has no choice but to stay and fight. When Patroclus dies, the reader cannot help but tip his sentiments towards Achilles. The reader easily feels with Achilles his devastation because the reader has also become attached to the dead man. But in the latter third of the story, Achilles again loses that privileged position with the reader because of the warrior’s uncontrolled, frenzied thirst for revenge and destruction. The Iliad’s main theme concerns anger and its destructiveness, as is seen in the opening word “mene,” and in the closing scene, showing the result of anger and strife.

When Agamemnon overstepped his boundary in insisting on his own glory, he states that he did this by “divine madness” (ate) and recognized it (Book IX). He admitted his error and tried to make amends. Achilles should have also recognized this “divine madness” in his own life, but because he kept insisting upon his right and his own glory, he destroyed himself and his people. Achilles never admits his wrongdoing like Agamemnon does.

Incidentally, The Iliad is full of gory descriptions of the battle. These are not meant to fill a lust for violence like modern movies do. Rather, they are meant to show the reality of the battle, but they are humanized in several ways. First, no soldier dies without at least being named, and many with a brief or long description of their lives. Bodies belong to families or friends who weep for them. Second, most of the similes (those of flowers or animals) appear in the battle scenes to soften the blow of the deaths, to give relief to the reader.

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