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.

Thinking Out Loud about The Iliad, Part 3

The Iliad, Books 9-16

Zeus’ will seems unfathomable. Why does he cause so much trouble raising up Hector, granting victory to the Trojans, killing Patroclus, and then shifting the glory to the Acheans? Why does Zeus need to kill his own son, Sarpedon? It seems that the gods are just as baffled about Zeus’s will as men are. They do not seem to understand it, and they are constantly balking against it (Book XV). It seems, however, that it is precisely their attempts to subvert Zeus’s will that actually accomplishes it, much like Oedipus Rex’s efforts to avoid his fate led him to fulfill it.

Up to Book XV, one character toward which the reader is most sympathetic is Nestor. In Book XVI, Patroclus appears as a character that the reader comes to love as well as Nestor. In fact, up to this point in the story, it seems that the narrator has never addressed the characters directly, but he does this with Patroclus. This preferential treatment sets the character off as special, and the reader who until now has admired Hector and sided with the Trojans, may now easily turn his sympathies over to the Achaeans because of the death of Patroclus. That Apollo and Zeus strip Patroclus of his armor—leaving him vulnerable to Euphorbus and to Hector—also causes the reader to shift his sympathy towards Patroclus, the greathearted. It seems as though the story leads the reader to accept the will of Zeus, whereas in the beginning, the reader may have balked at it, just as the gods do.

Fate seems to be over everyone, including the gods. Achilles is said to have “two fates,” (265 [410]) but what does that mean? Book XVI refers to the “will of fate” (435 [707]), does this imply that fate is personal or is this just a personification? Some places refer to fate as a goddess, so perhaps it’s a personification here.

Concerning deity and what makes gods different from men, what makes Zeus as great as he is? He tells Poseidon in Book XV that he is greater and that he is the firstborn, too. Was he born greater than Poseidon? Was it acquired (i.e., did he become strong by some means)? If Poseidon and Hades are equals of Zeus, why don’t they rule (393-94)? Is it right for Zeus to be arrogant, as Poseidon declaims Zeus is (393) or is it his right because he is greater? Moreover, does Zeus act for his own interest or is he acting on the interest of men? Whose greater good is in view when it comes to Zeus’s will? Is there a greater good in view or does Zeus decree things based on capriciousness?

Two curiosity questions that I have left are the following: Who are “the gods beneath the ground that circle Cronus” (395)? And what does it mean that “the Furies always stand by the older brothers” (394)?

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!