Thoughts on the Iliad

A month ago I spoke of my intention to read the entire Iliad again. I haven’t yet begun, but am building toward it. Last night I read a couple of brief passages of Richmond Lattimore’s translation: the first, in Book VI, where the playboy Paris after his mid-day dalliance with Helen runs laughing through the streets of Troy to return to the battle and suddenly comes upon his brother Hektor who is standing alone deep in thought, having just had a tragic farewell scene with his wife and baby son—the juxtaposition a supreme example of Homer’s art; the second, the opening of Book XI at the beginning of the great day of battle that lasts until Book XIII:

Now Dawn rose from her bed, where she lay by haughty Tithonos,
to carry her light to men and to immortals. Zeus sent down in speed
to the fast ships of the Achaians the wearisome goddess
of Hate, holding in her hands the portent of battle.
She took her place on the huge-hollowed black ship of Odysseus,
which lay in the middle, so that she could cry out to both flanks,
either as far as the shelters of Telamonian Aias
or to those of Achilleus; since these had hauled their balanced ships up
at the ends, certain of their manhood and their hands’ strength.

It’s so great. As I think I’ve mentioned, I have not read the Iliad from beginning to end since I was 25 years old, because my experience then was so perfect that I felt no repeat could possibly equal it. But I think enough time has passed that I’m in for a great experience now.

Homer is incredibly intelligent. When Hektor in his farewell scene with Andromache in Book VI plays with his baby son and prays that the son may be pre-eminent in war, even more so that Hektor is, you realize the tragic trap the characters are caught in. Here was Hektor, facing his own death and the ruin of his loved ones, his wife facing widowhood and slavery, his city and people facing total destruction, because of war, and what does Hektor pray for? Does he pray, “Oh Gods, let my son live in a world where such terrible warfare is not needed, but men can live in peace and happiness”? No. He prays that his son grow up to be a great warrior too, just like him! Though war is what is bringing ruin on them all, Hektor cannot conceive of a human existence and ethos apart from war. This is Homer’s subtle and deeply intelligent way of criticizing the way of life that the Iliad is about. War is the thing that brings his heroes their highest glory, that makes them, in their finest moments, like gods; but war is the thing that brings them misery and destroys them. This is the tragic vision of the Iliad. And Homer is saying that this tragic way of life, notwithstanding its glory, is not ultimately a good way of life, though he never presents a fully worked-out alternative. I think Homer has the deepest understanding of life of any writer who ever lived—that is, short of the biblical Revelation which transcends tragedy.

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Mark A., a professor of philosophy and classics scholar, writes:

I agree with you completely. Homer’s presentation of Hektor’s prayer for his son is magnificent. Achilles is able to question the heroic code, to plunge temporarily and accidently into a sort of nihilism (as when, addressing the embassy in Book 9, he laments that whether one is brave or a coward one winds up with the same lot), so we know that Homer could think his way into and out of this worldview. His brilliance is in always doing this so subtly.
Sage McLaughlin writes:

I’m astonished. I had no idea you were re-reading the Iliad, and had not seen your earlier post on the subject. But about a month or six weeks ago, I completed a reading list that I have been putting together for myself, and first on the list was a re-reading of Homer’s epic. So I have been reading it where possible. Even more amazing is that I also have been reading Lattimore’s translation.

Again, astonishing.

LA replies:

Well, I don’t think it’s that surprising that we’re both reading the greatest work, and almost the most famous work (the most famous probably being Hamlet), of European literature in its best English translation. The Lattimore Iliad is, or used to be, very widely read. For example, pretty much all freshmen in Ivy League colleges read, or used to read, the Iliad. (Or maybe that was only Columbia with its famous required freshman courses in Humanities and Contemporary Civilization, since I think even Harvard gave up any kind of general freshman requirements decades ago, including general requirements in literature and philosophy. Now all Harvard students simply major in left-liberalism, which doesn’t require any particular courses. They just breathe the air in the Harvard campus and environs.)

December 8

David S. writes:

I hope you will continue to read Homer for the rest of your life. I have read a little nearly every day for the last few years. When I finish the Iliad I start on the Odyssey and then back to the Iliad and I always slow my pace as I come to the end of each book so as to draw out the pleasure of the reading.

I am now nearing the end of the Iliad and that wonderful meeting between Priam and Achilles. I hardly dare to start the chapter.

Book six of the Iliad is indeed magical. The passage where Hector’s great helmet terrifies his baby son and he, seeing this takes it off, is for me one of the finest passages in all Western literature. There is so much Homer has given us it is difficult to know how to start.

These books are a gift to us all and no one should deprive himself of their wonder.

As with the music of Mozart they are something added to the world for which we must always be thankful and which we must always fight to preserve and hand on to future generations.

LA replies:

It’s funny that you mention Mozart, as I was just thinking the other day that Homer and Mozart are the two greatest artists in European civilization.

Also, in thinking about the scene between Hektor and Andromache, it occurred to me that that is the only significant interchange between a man and woman in the entire poem.

Oh, no, it isn’t. There is the meeting between Helen and Paris, where she expresses contempt for him, but then goes to bed with him anyway.

Jim N. writes:

Homer does, briefly, present an alternative to the world of war. Hera (?) goes to Hephaestus to have a new set of armor made for Achilles. Hephaestus is crippled, and thus pretty gross and unmanly compared to Hector or Achilles, but lives happily and peacefully with his goddess wife. He decorates the shield of Achilles with a variety of illustrations of a happy, peaceful world, whereas convention would have dictated grotesque faces- other shields are described as showing Rout and Panic. It’s probably about as much of a critique as a warlike culture would tolerate.

If you’re really interested in the subject, read “Achilles in Vietnam” and “Odysseus in America” by Jonathan Shays, a VA psychiatrist who shows how the stories relate to the experiences of modern soldiers.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at December 02, 2011 09:45 AM | Send

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