The Logic of Wrath

When one becomes angry, what is it that one wants at an essential level? One wants to break or to hurt something. Generally, especially if one is prone to “lashing out,” the nearest thing to hurt, is one’s self. Is then the fundamental drive of anger to bring about a pain which has a clarifying and dissipating effect on anger? For if one, for instance, punches a wall while angry, is not one generally met with a feeling of personal pain which leads one to a reflection on the power of pain to affect one’s mind and actions, and often with a feeling of shame at “losing control”? What, then, is the reason or teleology (purpose) of anger? Is the point to act quickly, and without thought, or is it to learn more about one’s self and steel one’s self against that which upsets one? Essentially, does anger exist to give one the power to harm what one does not like or to understand what one does not like in a rational manner so as no longer to be subject to anger?

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Consider it, if one generally simply causes one’s self additional pain and effort while angry, obviously the point of anger is not to be angry. Even the physical or temporal end of anger is clearly not the same as its purpose. Say one punches a wall, or says something “out of left field” and cruel to a friend, or sits and stews in anger after striking out in baseball game and refuses to say “good game” to anyone for several minutes at a time. What, exactly, do these actions accomplish beyond straining or breaking some relationship or another without one’s reason signing off on the action? Nothing beyond offering one the opportunity to “let the anger pass.” Therefore, the point of the anger is not the anger itself, but what came before and what comes after.

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In recent articles, we have been considering the value of mistakes. And this is what anger has to offer in the way of teleology: that which makes one angry, a look, word, action, or situation that causes one to lose control and act out of spite or in anger tells one very valuable knowledge: what causes one to lose control. One may then dispel one’s anger in any manner of healthy and unhealthy ways and then after, one must deal with first the consequences of one’s anger–what one did while “out-of-control”, and if these happen to be very minor, then one can get to the business of reflecting on why the anger occurred in the first place. The teleology or purpose of one’s anger then is to (1) figure out what caused one’s anger, and (2) reflect on why that event or action caused such a strong reaction. Perhaps one has been on edge lately, or a problem has finally escalated to high a level, or perhaps something much more deeply seated. In any case, after one has been angry, one then has the opportunity to examine one’s self, and in so doing one may realize a fundamental fact about one’s self and how one, and likely others, operate.

 

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At an effective level, one can then “correct” the mistake by either removing one’s self in the future from the company of such an individual or from being in whatever situation caused the anger. Such solutions are superficial, however, because how can one predict, really, when one will be upset by a word, action, or event unless one goes through the trouble of really understanding why the stimulus creates the reaction it does? In order truly to learn, then, one must look to the reason that “one’s goat was got”. Is one perhaps trying to force a situation or person to bend to one’s will? Is one failing to recognize a basic fact of human existence? Is one failing to make a personal choice and projecting it onto everybody one meets? The reasons, like the heads of a hydra, are countless, but the situation of being angry is universal and therefore an opportunity, when correctly perceived, to understand one’s self and therefore humanity. For as the Chandogya Upanishad  says:

“As by knowing one tool of iron, dear one,
We come to know all things made out of iron:
That they differ only in name and form,
While the stuff of which all are made is iron–
So through that spiritual wisdom, dear one,
We come to know that all of life is one.”
(Chandogya Upanishad, 1.6: Easwaran tr. 2nd ed. 2012)

Know the reason for one’s anger, and know better one’s self. Know better one’s self and know better humanity.

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On the Difficulty of Originalism in Homeric Interpretation

I was recently present in a seminar-style gathering over the proem of the epic poem, Homer’s Iliad. As most of you know, I teach the text in my own seminar style classes to adults and students at least once a year, and even so, being a participant in a seminar, I was still brimming with questions and was equally reflective about the questions asked by the other students present. At one point it was asked whether the “muse”–who is actually not addressed as muse, but as thea, goddess, who is invoked in the first line “Sing, goddess, the wrath of Peleus’ son, Achilleus” was a stand-in, like the name Homer, for the objective creative influence of the Mycenaeans alive during the last centuries of the Bronze Age (of course there was no Greece yet, and Greece itself comes from a Latin word graeci for a small segment of the Hellenic population). But the real lynchpin of the discussion, beyond the function of the muse and the question of Homer’s authorship, became, and indeed was strongly insisted upon by the leader, whether the ancient Mycenaeans perceived this text, then a song, as historical truth or simply as literary truth.

Now, the initial answer to this answer, attempting an amelioration, suggested that literary and historical truth are one and the same ontologically, truth being represented in narrative form always, so long as it is expressed by words. And then citing Aristotle, it was mentioned that in fact literary truth can be “more true” than historical truth because of its capacity to convey what “ought” to happen rather than what “did” happen:

“From what we have said it will be seen that the poet’s function is to describe, not the thing that has happened, but a kind of thing that might happen, i.e. what is possible as being probable or necessary. The distinction between historian and poet is not in the one writing prose and the other verse—you might put the work of Herodotus into verse, and it would still be a species of history; it consists really in this, that the one describes the thing that has been, and the other a kind of thing that might be. Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars.” (Aristotle, Poetics 9, 1451a37-1451b8, Barnes tr.)

So immediately we perceive by the help of Aristotle that poetry, better than history, conveys truth in an objective or universal way. This line of reasoning, however, did not sway the trenchant leader. He was adamant that Homer must have been received literally and as fact by his audience, regardless of the many, many interpretations of him still extent in scholia, and popularized by Plato and Aristotle. It was essentially the perspective of the leader that the listeners to Homer would have accepted the divine truth of what he said without use of the interpretive faculty at all. Now, regardless of the wealth of perspectives listed above being direct proof against this, there is another problem with this perspective which I call the “originalist” bias. When one makes an attempt to read a text in “the way that it was first received”, one is, ideally, attempting to remove one’s contemporary prejudices and opinions from one’s reading and to remove barriers to understanding which might otherwise hinder one’s understanding. This is at first glance a noble undertaking. There is a problem with this method, however.

For one, in so attempting to understand a text as a body of people one does not have direct experience of, nor knowledge of the language of, one substitutes one interpretive, or fictive framework, with another. One assumes, rather than deduces, that a people must have received a text or story in a certain way. Now, it is possible that a people, in general, did accept a text as true. But in the same breath, it is equally true that people of differing perspectives and levels of intellect would have been just as capable of interpreting the text, rather than simply accepting it. Two examples of post-Homeric thinkers, then:

Plato:

“When we hear persons saying that the tragedians, and Homer, who is at their head, know all the arts and all things human, virtue as well as vice, and divine things too, for that the good poet cannot compose well unless he knows his subject, and that he who has not this knowledge can never be a poet, we ought to consider whether here also there may not be an illusion. Perhaps they may have come across imitators and been deceived by them; they may not have remembered when they saw their works that these were but imitations Plato’s theory of the Forms from the truth, and could easily be made without any knowledge of the truth, because they are appearances only and not realities?” (Plato Republic 598e, Book X, Cooper tr.).

Now, of course, Plato and Aristotle came a little after Homer, but they, still, would be far more his “audience” than we, sharing his language, locale, and largely his values as well. Is it then possible to maintain an “originalist” perspective that Homer’s audience must have unthinkingly accepted his word as “historical truth” without discernment? Certainly not, given the facts.

Nota Bene: In the original draft of this piece, Heraclitus the first century grammarian, was mistaken for the 6th century Pre-Socratic philosopher. He, writing in the first century CE, wrote this:

“From the very earliest infancy young children are nursed in their learning by Homer, and swaddled in his verses we water our souls with them as though they were nourishing milk. He stands beside each of us as we start out and gradually grow into men, he blossoms as we do, and until old age we never grow tired of him, for as soon as we set him aside we thirst for him again; it may be said that the same limit is set to both Homer and life.”(Heraclitus, Homeric Problems 1.5-7)

 

 

Conversations with Students X: The Sacking of Troy and Beginning of an Odyssey

In transitioning from Homer’s Iliad, his story of war, high emotion, and the toll that such emotion takes on mortal lives, to the far-blown fame and person of Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey, we first took a moment to look at the summaries that still remain of “The Epic Cycle”, and then we moved forward through the first book of Homer’s Odyssey (Lattimore’s translation). Thus begins our second seminar series.

We discussed all that happened between the Iliad and Odyssey, with the sage help of Proclus who preserved summaries of the six lost epics of the Epic Cycle (found here or here) These lost epics: The Cypria by Stasinus of Cyprus (staged as immediately preceding Homer’s Iliad), The Aethiopis of Artinus of Miletus immediately afterward, The Little Iliad of Lesches of Mitylene, The Sacking of Troy also by Arctinus of Miletus, The Returns of Agias of Trozen, and eventually, after Homer’s OdysseyThe Telegony comprise the story called “The Epic Cycle”. Together they form the events which lead up to the Trojan War, the Trojan War, and the after-math of the war for the Achaians. Traditionally, they would have filled in many, many gaps left by the Iliad and Odyssey as a pair, but sadly, over time, and lack of reproduction, each of the other six epics was lost to time. This was not, however, the deepest tragedy, says Aristotle in his praise of Homer’s unity of plot and criticism of The Cypria and The Little Iliad in his Poetics (1459a-b)

“So in this respect, too, compared with all other poets Homer may seem, as we have already said, divinely inspired, in that even with the Trojan war, which has a beginning and an end, he did not endeavor to dramatize it as a whole, since it would have been either too long to be taken in all at once or, if he had moderated the length, he would have complicated it by the variety of incident. As it is, he takes one part of the story only and uses many incidents from other parts, such as the Catalogue of Ships and other incidents with which he diversifies his poetry. The others, on the contrary, all write about a single hero or about a single period or about a single action with a great many parts, the authors, [1459b] [1] for example, of the Cypria and the Little Iliad. The result is that out of an Iliad or an Odyssey only one tragedy can be made, or two at most, whereas several have been made out of the Cypria, and out of the Little Iliad more than eight, e.g. The Award of Arms, Philoctetes, Neoptolemus, Eurypylus, The Begging, The Laconian Women, The Sack of Troy, and Sailing of the Fleet, and Sinon, too, and The Trojan Women.”

For though we have lost the other six epics, apparently they were not of the same caliber as are the two epics we have remaining to us. So, confident that two masterpieces will do and summaries filling in our knowledge where it is lacking will suffice, let us move forward to consider the fates of several heroes we knew well during the interim between Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

The students were shocked by the men who died during and after the war, and some felt emotion even for the basest Achaians. Achilleus, Paris, both the Aiantes, Antilochos, Priam, Astyanax, Deiphobos (many Trojans during the sacking, of course), Phoinix, Thersites, and even Agamemnon, but the deaths which are most shocking are each of the Aiantes, Agamemnon, and some students even showed sadness for poor hunched-backed Thersites. So we know, Achilleus died either by the hand of Paris and Apollo or Apollo alone. Not a surprise to the students given the several prophecies of Achilleus’ death the Iliad. That Paris should get the winning shot was a true moment of humility for all students, though the fact that Apollo helped him along helped to alleviate the sort of “Evil David vs. Good Goliath” effect.

Aias the Greater’s death was more of a disappointment to the students. During the Iliad, he was a brave and supreme hero. He went on the Embassy to Achilleus, was clear in his purpose, and twice almost killed Hektor. He, unlike Achilleus, Menelaos, Eurypylos, Machaon, Agamemnon, and Odysseus, was one of the few major champions who remained uninjured throughout the fighting. He was glorious and bold, and the fact that through his pride and folly that he took his own life in suicide was a bitter disappointment to the students. Naturally, they learned that it was because according to his code, he was disgraced, and by his code he died: he lost the speech-contest to Odysseus for the “arms of Achilleus” and proceeded to attempt to kill Odysseus, Menelaos, and Agamemnon, but he was thwarted by Athene “mazing” his vision so that he only killed cattle. Feeling disgraced and abandoned by the gods, Aias felt that his final dignity would be to deny his former friends the glory of ending his life, and thus was the fate of Aias the Greater.*

Aias the Lesser met with considerably less pity. In an attempt at raping the cursed prophetess daughter of Kassandra in the temple of Athene, Lokrian Aias defamed and damaged an image of Athene therefore earning her ire for himself and the rest of the Achaians. The students did not care for how quickly Athene turned on the Achaians, but in matters of sacrifice and honor to the gods, the students have learned that the gods come first to the gods. Aias, then, when accosted by a great storm sent by Athene is nearly drowned with his ship and men, but after Poseidon saved him, Aias lost his mind, and recklessly declared his supremacy to the gods. Poseidon then used his trident to break the rock onto which Aias was clinging and send him to a watery doom. The students almost universally said, “that was so stupid.”

Agamemnon will later receive an article essentially all his own, but for now it is enough to mention that the students remembered his betraying of Klytaimnestra by deceiving her into sending Iphigeneia to be sacrificed at Aulis under the pretence of marriage to Achilleus. Many students said that this was justice, but further conversation will be reserved until later.

Moving from the time between and the many, many questions which we will return to (like do the students feel OK with the fact that Troy was taken by cunning, not strength), we then considered the importance and difference between the proems (first few lines) of each of the poems and how their themes, tones, and manners of presentation may be different.

Homer’s Iliad (1.1-1.7)

SING, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
since that time when first there stood in division of conflict
Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus.

Homer’s Odyssey (1.1-1.10)

Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven
far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.
Many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of,
many the pains he suffered in his spirit on the wide sea,
struggling for his own life and the homecoming of his companions.
Even so he could not save his companions, hard though
he strove to; they were destroyed by their own wild recklessness,
fools, who devoured the oxen of Helios, the Sun God,
and he took away the day of their homecoming. From some point
here, goddess, daughter of Zeus, speak, and begin our story.

We immediately notice some distinct differences between the two proems. The Iliad sings of the emotion of a semi-divine man and his feud with a “leader of men” and the many men on their side of battle who will die because of this. The Iliad is also sung (aeide). The Odyssey is the telling (ennepe) of the many struggles of a suffering man who fails to save his companions due to their own recklessness. The distinction between the Iliad being sung and the Odyssey told (though of course both would be sung in dactylic hexameter by rhapsodes) is one the students made a strong attempt at. Emotion, they say, is a higher theme, or at the least, song is more appropriate to conveying of emotion–it is more emotional the students say, and “gut-wrenching” does seem a word more aptly ascribed to painful dirges. (Viz. (or rather Aud.) Adele’s Hello).

Another important difference is that the focus of the book will shift from the interplay between the will of the gods and man to how man inevitably adds to his own suffering and destruction. In fact, this theme of wild “recklessness” (atasthalia) is repeated in the words of no smaller a figure than Zeus, king of the gods, not twenty lines later:

“Oh, for shame, how the mortals put the blame upon us gods, for they say evils come from us, but it is they, rather, who by their own recklessness (atasthalia) win sorrow beyond what is given…” (1.32-35)

So, though the students gave a detailed list of times when the gods seemed to add to the suffering of mortals, the most provocative of which is likely during Book III of the Iliad when Hera and Zeus agree to let Ilion be destroyed and Athene convinces Pandaros to break the truce between the Trojans and the Achaians, we will remain sensitive to the statement that mortals create their own suffering and that their own lack of resiliency, perseverance, discernment, or fidelity lead to their destruction during the Odyssey.

In conclusion, as an extra treat, I will include here major themes we will consider, and which will be present all through Homer’s Odyssey and our seminars on it:

(1) Father and son relationships and their complexity;

(2) Concealed (kalupto) or veiled truths and the art of misdirection;

(3) Perseverance and the “hero’s” journey;

(4) Homecoming (nostos) and what makes a home (so important);

(5) The Xenia or guest/host relationship and its importance;

(6) Detainment, both mental and physical, and its hateful nature.

And bonus number two is a list of Relevant Quotes to the first Seminar which may well earn their own post soon:

1.347-349 Telemachos blames Zeus for all mortals’ troubles.

“They [the suitors] all would find death was quick, and marriage a painful matter.” (1.266)

“You should not go on clinging to childhood. You are no longer an age to do that.” (1.296-297)

“The gods have not made yours a birth that will go nameless…” (1.222)

Nobody really knows his own father.” (my bold; 1.216)

“Your words to me are kind…what any father would say to his son.” (1.307-308)

“Do not detain me any longer, eager as I am for my journey.” (1.315)

“The daughter of Ikarios, circumspect Penelope, heard and heeded the magical song from her upper chamber, and descended the high staircase that was built in her palace, not all alone, since two handmaidens went to attend her. When she, shining among women, came near the suitors, she stood by the pillar that supported the roof with its joinery, holding her shining veil in front of her face, to shield it, and a devoted attendant was stationed on either side of her.” (1.328-335)

“But if she continues to torment the sons of the Achaians, since she is so dowered with the wisdom bestowed by Athene, to be expert in beautiful work, to have good character and cleverness, such as we are not told of, even of the ancient queens, the fair-tressed Achaian women of times before us, Tyro and Alkmene and Mykene, wearer of garlands; for none of these knew thoughts so wise as Penelope knew;” (2.115-122)

*Greater detail will be given to Telamonian Aias during our seminar on The Ajax of Sophocles.

Conversations with Students IX: It Ends where it Begins

This is the final seminar on Homer’s Iliad for the students this year! It has been a struggle and battle through the text, but in the end, the students share an experience of the heights and depths of war, the pain and trouble unbridled emotion can cause, and just what a completed whole looks like. In addition to considering Book 24 and its nekyia-like properties, the students considered the Iliad as a whole as well.

First, we considered the fact that Hermes is sent to guide Priam to Achilleus, and what it is that Hermes, as psychopomp, represents (24.330-466), and is it not symbolically true that by killing Hektor Achilleus has sealed his own fate and is a “dead-man” walking? And also by killing Hektor, greatest hero of Troy, has Achilleus not also sealed the fate of Priam and the Trojans as well in line with Zeus’ prophecy from Book 15 (15.61-71) that Troy must fall? Hermes, then, acting as psychopomp or “guide of souls” is leading one dead-shade to another in service of the corpse of Hektor in Achilleus’ own personal Hades. They cross a river together, pass guardians whom Hermes puts to sleep, and open an impossible to open (for Priam anyway) gate–very similar to entering the underworld. And when they reach Achilleus’ structure–Achilleus, who multiple times has been called pitiless, like the death-god himself (9.630–633;16.33-35)–Achileus now appears as king of his own dark underworld full of sadness and misery, and he holds court with Priam just to cry alongside him (24.507-515) and to finally, in some small way, regain some measure of his humanity through returning Hektor for a ransom in just the way that he refused to accept Agamemnon’s ransom to return to the fighting in Book 10.

We then consider even deeper the connection between Priam and Achilleus, and more so the connection between mortals and their eventual deaths: possibly the most major theme of all Homer’s Iliad. We have seen both in Book 6 and Book 21 mortals compared to leaves which soon fall from trees, both by a mortal, Glaukos (6.145-150), and an immortal, Apollo (21.463-465), but here we see the deepest and longest exposition of just what it means to be a mortal man from a man fated soon to die himself, Achilleus.

“Such is the way the gods spun life for unfortunate mortals, that we live in unhappiness, but the gods themselves have no sorrows. There are two urns that stand on the door-sill of Zeus. They are unlike for the gifts they bestow: an urn of evils, an urn of blessings. If Zeus who delights in thunder mingles these and bestows them on man, he shifts, and moves now in evil, again in good fortune. But when Zeus bestows from the urn of sorrows, he makes a failure of man, and evil hunger drives him over the shining earth, and he wanders respected neither of gods nor mortals. Such were the shining gifts given by the gods to Peleus for his birth, who outshone all men beside for his riches and pride of possession, and was lord over the Myrmidons. Thereto the gods bestowed an immortal wife on him, who was mortal. But even on him piled evil also. there was not any generation of strong sons born to him in his great house but a single all-untimely child he had, and I give him no care as he grows old, since far from the land of my fathers I sit here in Troy, and bring nothing but sorrow to you and your children. And you, old sir, we are told you prospered once; for as much as Lesbos, Makar’s hold, confines to the north above it and Phrygia from the north confines, and enormous Hellespont, of these, old sir, you were lord once in your wealth and your children. But now the Uranian gods brought us, an affliction upon you, forever there is fighting about your city, and men killed. But bear up, nor mourn endlessly in your heart, for there is not anything to be gained from grief for your son; you will never bring him back; sooner you must go through yet another sorrow.” (24.525-551)

This speech comes just on the heels of Priam and Achilleus’ share moment of grief and sorrow, Priam for Hektor, and Achilleus alternating between grief for Patroklos and for his own aging father. Rather than focus on the duplex nature of human existence, to be both part divine and heroic, but to be subject to nature and fate and die, the students, in all their youth, focused more on the fact that Achilleus here, in his somewhat callous philosophy, shows some measure of learning from his experience–and in having learned of the suffering he has caused, not only to Priam but to his own father (Achilleus’ name is derived from the root achos: “the grief”, interestingly enough) he sees himself and his actions for their effect on others. And in this show of empathy, he shows his ultimate return to his senses and to the consequences and “ups and downs” of human existence.

We then briefly considered why we are given Andromache, Hekabe, and Helen’s mourning speeches over Hektor’s body in succession and especially why Helen is given the last word (24.710-776). Perhaps for purposes of parallelism: just as she is the cause of the war, so is she the cause of the death of Hektor in a remote way. And just as she, in her own way, began the war, so does the Iliad end by recognizing her and her mighty influence, conscious or not, on the events which have trespassed during Homer’s Iliad. It is also directly in line with the theme that semi-divine characters, Achilleus too as written above, must feel suffering for their actions, due to their humanity, regardless of their divine heritage. Just as Achilleus must grieve for his dead friend and for the suffering he has caused his father, so must Helen grieve for the death of the only man who has been kind to her beyond Paris, and the fact that his death is in no small way connected to her presence in Troy.

We finally considered the Iliad as a whole, and the importance of the text ending with the confrontation and shared tears between Achilleus and Priam (24.507-516) and the mourning for Hektor by Andromache, Hekabe, and Helen (24.710-776). In observing Achilleus both cry and not only begin eating again (24.621-626), but argue for eating to grieving Priam (24.602-620)  (what a change from Book 21!), we see the “end of Achilleus’ rage” which was first sung of in the proem (1.1-7) come to an end. We recall in Books 19 through 21 Achilleus’ rapid loss of his humanity: his refusal of mortal food (19.200-214; 19.305-309), his likening to the consuming and devastating effects of fire (19.15-18; 19.375-380), and his fundamental lack of human empathy or sympathy in his callous murdering of Polydoros (20.407-418) and Lykaon (21.35-135)–not to mention his manic likening of himself to Zeus after he fells Asteropaios and leaves his body to be eaten by “eels and fishes”(21.184-199) [more info on these inhuman characteristics is written of here].

But why is it exactly that the story ends with the death of Hektor and the mourning and misery over Hektor’s death regardless of when Achilleus strikes down Hektor or better when Troy falls? This end diverts attention both from the glorious nature of war and the eventual glorious sack of Troy and squarely focuses our attention on the bitter consequences of human conflict. Rather than revel in the divine satisfaction of heroic deeds and impossible ends being achieved, the eventual fate of all men, hero and cowards alike, is expressed with great pathos. Very different in tone is this from Vergil’s patriotic epic from 7 centures later: the Aeneid, which will end in a blaze of fiery glory–Aeneas taking his throne and fate into his own hands through the vanquishing of Turnus in mighty battle (Virgil. Aeneid. Mandelbaum tr. 12.1265-1271). And he (Aeneas or Vergil) thus glorifies Rome’s ancient and violent heritage. Homer’s Iliad does not end with the prizes of war, but with its devastating personal consequences.

The students then shared the answer why this is: Homer’s Iliad is not simply the story of the Trojan War, nor or the greatness of heroes, but rather it is the story of Achilleus’ rage and the devastating consequences which it releases. “Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians…” (1.1-3) This is a story about a man and the consequences of his emotion, unrestrained, and the suffering which ensues from it. It is only appropriate then that in the final Book of the story that his rage be spent and that he, and the man to whom he has caused the most suffering, Priam, share a moment of desolate and disconsolate sorrow together. For the story is not one that glorifies war and heroes, simply, but one which seeks to teach the full consequences of unrestrained human emotion in the service of a nearly divine but all too-human man. The story begins with rage and ends with sorrow. And in this way, so does the Iliad itself reflect the images on the shield of Achilleus, wrought by Hephaistos: the city at War and the city of Peace offering the extremes of life and all that lies between.

Conversations with Students VIII: Wrath, Tragedy, and Inhuman Cruelty

Well, the climax of Homer’s Iliad is finally reached in Books 21 and 22. We see Achilleus descend into burning fury, and become more and more an inhuman force of nature. We observe him also almost pay strongly for his delusions in both being chased by the wave of a powerful river, Xanthos/Skamandros, but also chasing down a god he thought was a man (Apollo). We see the famous theomachy or fight between the gods on Achaian and Trojan side, and even more famously we see the resolution of Hektor to stand and fight Achilleus, his moment of terror and flight, and then his deception and death–followed most famously by his being dragged behind Achilleus’ chariot in an act of unspeakable cruelty. All this was considered today during our eighth conversation with students.

During Book 21 we discover that Achilleus was once glad to catch men and ransom them into slavery (Lykaon, for example), but that now, especially in the cases of Polydoros, Lykaon, and Asteropaios (who gives his lineage in a way most similar to Glaukos from Book 6), Achilleus will spare no Trojan, especially those who are the sons of Priam. He says directly 21.99-113:

“Poor fool, no longer speak to me of ransom, nor argue it. In the time before Patroklos came to the day of his destiny then it was the way of my heart’s choice to be sparing of the Trojans, and many I took alive and disposed of them. Now there is not one who can escape death, if the gods send him against my hands in front of Ilion, not one of all the Trojans and beyond others the children of Priam. So, friend [philos], you die also. Why all this clamour about it? Patroklos is also dead, who was better by far than you are. Do you not see what a man I am, how huge, how splendid and born of a great father, and the mother who bore me immortal? Yet even I have also my death and my strong destiny, and there shall be a dawn or an afternoon or a noontime when some man in the fighting will take the life from me also either by spearcast or an arrow flown from the bowstring.”

Truly, the charge made of him by both Patroklos (16.33-35) and Aias (9.630-633) of him being pitiless has become true. He is changed even in character from the sort of youthful rage he endured earlier in the text to a being consumed and represented by fire (19.15-18; 19.375-380). He can do naught but consume, ravage, and destroy–whether it be the warrior’s ethical code, funerary rites of defeated heroes, or the lives of those who knees he unstrings, Achilleus loses more and more humanity as he gives in further and further to his desperate wrath, a passion beyond belief, unchecked by the mediocrity of average human abilities. He refuses food (19.200-214; 19.305-309), eschews kingly gifts (19.146-153), and in fact likens himself to Zeus (22.186-199) and to fate (21.99-103).

There are, however, reminders of Achilleus’ mortality: Athene must infuse him with nectar and ambrosia so that he does not weaken from hunger and thirst (19.349-356); Skamandros the river god almost drowns him before Hera sends Hephaistos to Achilleus’ rescue (21.240-380), and Apollo deceives him by taking the shape of Agenor and leading Achilleus from the Trojan wall during a crucial Trojan retreat (21.590-611). As inhuman as Achilleus becomes, his mortality and human limitations are constantly present, though subtly expressed. It is a unique situation that a man with such a divine pedigree (his mother is a Nereid (sea-nymph) and his paternal great-grandfather is Zeus), and he is nearly invulnerable, has sacked 23 cities, and causes such great fear in his opponents that his mere yell can cause enough disorientation and confusion for men (12) to die. And yet as he embraces his god-like gift for killing, so does he speed his exit from the world in completely giving himself over to his fate to die a young man, full of glory. The students rightly ask, though he becomes less and less human, does Achilleus become more divine? Largely, the answer was no–though he more and more reflects a force of nature, that force is naturalistic, without conscience, and animal-like, or fire-like, as one suggested.

Although the theomachy or battle of the gods occurs in Book 21, it interestingly enough did not catch the attention of the students. Certainly, they enjoyed Hephaistos lighting Xanthos, the river, on fire and steaming his liquid body. And no student was without a smirk in reading aloud of Athene striking Ares with a stone in laying him out over seven acres, followed immediately by her striking Aphrodite on the breast. They thought Apollo refusing to fight Poseidon was “lame”, though Apollo sounds so similar to Glaukos, a mortal, from Book 6 in likening mortals to leaves: “Shaker of the earth, you would have me be as one without prudence (saophrona) if I am to fight even you for the sake of insignificant mortals, who are as leaves are, and now flourish and grow warm with life, and feed on what the ground gives, but then again fade away and are dead. Therefore let us with all speed give up this quarrel and let the mortals fight their own battles.” (22.462-467) Though, it is worth noting that the theme again of the temporary nature of human life is referenced with disparity, and that such quotes are really mounting up. Book 15, too, Athene, reminds us of the mortal nature of man: “Therefore I ask of you to give up your anger for your son. By now some other, better of his strength and hands than your son was, has been killed, or will soon be killed; and it is a hard thing to rescue all the generation and seed of all mortals.” (15.138-141) And Hera to Zeus in Book 16.440-442: “Majesty, son of Kronos, what sort of thing have you spoken? Do you wish to bring back a man who is mortal, one long since doomed by his destiny, from ill-sounding death and release him?” The students are getting the point: all mortals, including them, must some day die, and they see Achilleus, consumed by rage and fiery emotion, hurtling helter-skelter towards his end, they have also seen him for the divided and pensive man his was in Book 9. Ultimately, the answer of how to live with the knowledge of death is not solved for the students by Achilleus, but the question, at least, is asked so that they know even the most divine of men was faced with the deepest existential question we know: “how should we then live?”

We then come to the stunning climax or anti-climax of the whole poem in Book 22: the death and desecration of Hektor. The moment is climactic in that all the story, at least since Book 16 (and really even the prophecy in Book 15.62-70), has been leading up to a battle between Hektor and Achilleus, never mind the fact that Aias has thoroughly thrashed Hektor twice already (7.244-276 ;14.409-420). The fight, too, is strange in that it is intricately set up. It is not, like the one on one combats between Paris and Menelaos or Hektor and Aias set up from the beginning, but rather comes about “naturally” but also with great interference from Athene. Hektor first chooses, finally, to stand and fight against Achilleus, but upon seeing Achilleus up close, he runs (22.131-167), and perhaps the most beautiful simile of the poem follows after several others: “As in a dream a man is not able to follow one who runs from him, nor can the runner escape, nor the other pursue him, so he could not run him down in his speed, nor the other get clear.” (22.199-201) This is hardly Hektor’s finest moment; nor is it highly courageous when Athene tricks him into standing alone against Achilleus by likening herself to Hektor’s brother Deiphobos, so that Hektor need not fear fighting Achilleus alone. Nor, yet, is it Hektor’s finest moment either when he tries to barter with Achilleus that whoever wins return the body of the fallen to his side (22.251-259). Hektor is no coward, but when Achilleus says “Hektor, argue me no agreements. I cannot forgive you. As there are no trustworthy oaths between men and lions, nor wolves and lambs…” (22.261-263) one sees just how terrifyingly predatory Achilleus has become. He is divine in his strength and pitiless in his aspect. Even the great Trojan hero, perhaps in a moment of sobriety, knowing there is no escape for him, finds himself, like a lamb, attempting to reason with what was once a man, but is now something vastly different.

The fight itself is short. Achilleus throws and misses with a spear-cast which Athene returns to him (22.275-278) (why she finds this necessary to do is beyond the students and me). And Hektor then strikes the shield of Achilleus, but like Aineias before him, the great shield Hephaistos wrought for Achilleus turns the spear away. Hektor then experiences his moment of ultimate doom in turning to Deiphobos for his spear just to realize that Deiphobos is not there and that he must have been tricked by a god. (22.293-305) He faces death admirably, at last: “But now my death is upon me. Let me at least not die without a struggle, inglorious, but do some big thing first, that men to come shall know of it.” (22. 303-305) Hektor, like Patroklos and Sarpedon dies honorably in the eyes of the students.

The students, then, are far less forgiving of Achilleus’ stringing “thongs of leather” through the heels of Hektor and dragging him through the dust behind his chariot in front of the city he loved and defended as his horrified people and family watch. There is some evidence that Hektor would have despoiled the body of Patroklos, however, and the students did notice that in Book 17.125-128: “But Hektor, when he had stripped from Patroklos the glorious armour, dragged at him, meaning to cut head from his shoulders with the sharp bronze, to haul off the body and give it to the dogs of Troy;” So, sagaciously, the students suggested that Achilleus had a similar intention to Hektor, but he simply had the means necessary to carry out his malicious wish. This certainly says something strong for the benefits of having normal human limitations. But a counter, if not a strong one, is that Achilleus almost certainly did not know the intent of Hektor to despoil Patroklos’ body, and even if Hektor did so, it would not be out of pure avarice and inhuman anger, but as a tactic motivated to attack the morale of the Achaians while rallying the battle spirit of the other Trojan men fighting for the protection of their home. So while the battle itself is somewhat anticlimactic (I do tell the students that the battle between Achilleus and Memnon, at least as told by Quintus of Smyrna in his Posthomerica, goes all day), it does bring Achilleus’ inhuman passion to the fore. He is unlimited by the wills and morals of other men, and ultimately, he uses this not to help others, but to tarnish his own image and the body of a beloved hero. In this moment, Achilleus becomes impossibly distant and unsympathetic to us. Perhaps in Book 24 he will find some redemption, in his own self-made underworld.

Conversations with Students VI: The Deaths of Heroes

The main text discussed during this most recent seminar was Book XVI of Homer’s Iliad. Three major events occur during this episode: (1) Achilleus allows Patroklos to don his armor and go out into the fighting looking as he would; (2) Patroklos kills Sarpedon, son of Zeus and King of Lykia, and (3) Apollo, Euphorbos, and Hektor all take part in the killing of Patroklos.

This might be a useful point, as well, to briefly mention the purpose of this “Great Books” with high school student project that is here being recorded and is ongoing in the classroom. The point is that when a student asks me, “why do we read these books?” for me to be able to answer. “Well, in this transitory time when all around you changes–media, houses, people, language, all that you believe makes you the person you are in the world you live in–these books and the ideas within them will still remain. And though how they are perceived and bound and packaged will of course always change, what is within them serves less to differentiate us, as people, from each other, and more to connect each generation to those which came before it in solidarity, though never uniformity.” That brief waxing philosopho-poetic complete, let us move on to the seminar and the questions considered therein.

1) Fate and its relationship to the deaths of Sarpedon and Patroklos (and soon Hektor and Achilleus).

2) Aristotle’s four causes and the etiology of Patroklos’ death–who, really, are we to blame for this? An immortal? Zeus or Apollo? Or one of the men who directly killed Patroklos: Euphorbos or Hektor? Or one of the men indirectly responsible: Achilleus or Nestor, or even Patroklos himself?

3) In allowing Sarpedon to die, was Zeus valuing his role as king over his role as father? Or truly was he valuing his promise to Thetis over any other responsibility? Was he truly persuaded by Hera’s comment that the gods would resent him that action as the majority of them (sans Apollo) were still restricted from interfering on the battlefield? That said, as ruler of the gods, is Zeus then less subject to the laws he upholds or moreso? A strange and perturbing question.

A theme today will be applying Aristotle’s four causes to the deaths of Patroklos and to Sarpedon because that may be a useful way to determine the precise roles which each person, god, and intangible fate plays in the end of each. A brief explanation of Aristotle’s causes comes from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

“In Physics II 3 and Metaphysics V 2, Aristotle offers his general account of the four causes. This account is general in the sense that it applies to everything that requires an explanation, including artistic production and human action. Here Aristotle recognizes four types of things that can be given in answer to a why-question:

  • The material cause: “that out of which”, e.g., the bronze of a statue.
  • The formal cause: “the form”, “the account of what-it-is-to-be”, e.g., the shape of a statue.
  • The efficient cause: “the primary source of the change or rest”, e.g., the artisan, the art of bronze-casting the statue, the man who gives advice, the father of the child.
  • The final cause: “the end, that for the sake of which a thing is done”, e.g., health is the end of walking, losing weight, purging, drugs, and surgical tools.” (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle-causality/#FouCau)

The reason we delve into Aristotle here and this brief explanation of his causes is because really the deaths of Sarpedon and Patroklos are that complex. First and foremost there is a prophecy in Book 15 that both will die in a grand sweep of formal causality in the service of Zeus keeping his promise to Thetis. He speaks the following prophecy to Hera:

“Let [Apollo] drive strengthless panic into the Achaians, and turn them back once more; let them be driven in flight and tumble back on the benched ships of Achilleus, Peleus’ son. And he shall rouse up Patroklos his companion. And glorious Hektor shall cut down Patroklos with the spear before Ilion, after he has killed many others of the young men, and among them my own son, shining Sarpedon. In anger for him brilliant Achilleus shall then kill Hektor. And from then on I would make the fighting surge back from the vessels always and continuously, until the Achaians capture headlong Ilion through the designs of Athene.” (15.61-71)

So, we will consider the place of fate within Aristotle’s concept of the four causes. Just as Patroklos is clearly the efficient cause of the death of Sarpedon and his spear the material cause. So, is it clear that the final cause is in order to be part of a succession of events which lead to inevitable return of Achilleus to the battle and the fall of Troy. The formal cause might be “the account” of the death of each of the men, whatever that means. The collateral damage, as it were, of this are the lives of Sarpedon, Patroklos, Hektor, and Achilleus, as well as the countless men whom each of them kill. All this though goes to show us that within Aristotle’s framework there are several different factors which led to the death of each of these men–the material cause which for both was a spear (16.480-481; 16.816-820), the efficient cause which was in the case of both men was another man using the spear against him, and the final cause which was Zeus’ plan to allow Troy to fall from all the way back in Book IV (4.30-69). Since Sarpedon’s death was foretold but also caused by Patroklos alone, let us consider the example of Patroklos, as it offers far more complexity than Sarpedon’s death.

First and foremost, we know from above that Patroklos is doomed to die by the hand of Hektor due to the prophecy and will of Zeus. Secondly, we know that Nestor is the one who even suggested that Patroklos take the battlefield wearing Achilleus’ armor in the first place (would him giving that idea make him also an efficient cause?) (11.790-803). Thirdly, we know that Achilleus accepts Patroklos’ request but himself refuses to return to the fighting because he still bears a tremendous grudge towards Agamemnon. That said, he does warn Patroklos to return to his tent after driving the Trojans back from the ships for fear some god might crush him (or that he might dishonor Achilleus). (16.48-100). Fourthly, there is the fact that Patroklos himself gets caught up in the heat of the battle and does not return as Achilleus requested that he do, but the reason for this is itself ambiguous: “But Patroklos, with a shout to Automedon and his horses, went after Trojans and Lykians in a huge blind fury. Besotted: had he only kept the command of Peleiades he might have got clear away from the evil spirit of black death. But always the mind of Zeus is a stronger thing than a man’s mind.” (16.684-688) So, whether Zeus or Patroklos’ own battle-fury is cause of his death in this case is subject to question. Then of course, fifthly, there are the two men and one god who strike him: (1) Apollo knocks off his corselet, shield, helmet, and splits his spear and mazes his wits at 16.788-807, and then Euphorbos strikes him with a spear in his back (16.812-814), and Hektor, his “third slayer” strikes him in the midriff 16.821-822. So, with these five causes laid out, who is it exactly that is responsible for the death of Patroklos? Do Aristotle’s causes ultimately help to determine who is most responsible? Zeus seems to have the final cause covered, but it is unclear whether Patroklos’ own motivations, Nestor’s prodding words, or simply the killing throws of Euphorbos and Hektor are the efficient causes of Patroklos’ death. And what chance had he, really, to stand up to Apollo? And could he have really avoided being crushed by Apollo had he gone back to the ships, or was he doomed to be “besotted” by the will of Zeus, who is too strong?

Though question three, about Zeus’ role as a father is a fair one for the students, beyond Hera’s argument that the gods will resent Zeus, Athene in Book 15 gives a response to Ares who wishes to avenge his son Askalaphos very much like Glaukos’ speech to Diomedes in Book VI which seems to satisfy why a god must allow his mortal son to die: “Therefore I ask of you to give up your anger for your son. By now some other, better of his strength and hands than your son was, has been killed, or will soon be killed; and it is a hard thing to rescue all the generation and seed of all mortals.” (15.138-141) Such a fact must be accepted by the gods, regardless their relationship and love of their children who are mortal. Those are who mortal are doomed to die, regardless their gifts or lineage, just as the commoners–such is a recurrent and ever prevalent theme in Homer’s Iliad, the common lot of man.

Conversations with Students V: Subterfuge, Cunning, and Power in Homer’s Gods

This time around, we covered a long stretch of readings: Books 11-15 and the first 100 lines of Book 16. In years past, I have skipped straight from Book 11 to 16 because the transition is so seamless. But this time around, I wanted the students to see , Poseidon’s direct contravention of Zeus’ order for all gods to remain off the battlefield (13.10-38), Agamemnon’s second attempt to flee (14.74-81), the seduction and deception of Zeus (14.160-360), and Poseidon’s near fight with his brother, equal in rank, but not in power (15. 167-235), and of course the fateful request of Patroklos to Achilleus for his armor and return to the battle at the head of Myrmidons (16.20-100).

A major theme which shows up again and again in Homer’s Iliad is power and its manifold expressions–and also the intricacies connected to differences in power and rank. For instance, in Book I, one of the governing reasons for the conflict between Achilleus and Agamemnon in the first place is that Agamemnon exceeds Achilleus in rank, but Achilleus is “far stronger” than is Agamemnon (1.130-245), In similar but distinctly different fashion, we observe the machinations of both Hera and Poseidon, in defiance of Zeus, during Books 13 and 14. Both may claim to be equal to Zeus in terms of birth and in fact Poseidon in his response to Iris suggests that either he or Hades could easily be king over the sky as Zeus is had the lots been cast in their favor. The difference, however, seems to be that equal as Hera and Poseidon may be to Zeus in rank and as siblings, they have not his brutal power. Even Poseidon is cowed by Zeus’ might (15.205-215). This difference in power leads to another expression of power, particularly feminine, by Hera.

Hera observes her brother Poseidon enter the Trojan battlefield against the orders given by Zeus (from 8.1-28) at 13.10-28. Knowing that if her brother and husband finds out about this that he will be angry and immediately seek to stop Poseidon from helping the Achaian side, Hera seeks a way to keep Zeus’ attentions divided. Her solution, since she can hardly force Zeus, is to use the tools at her disposal: deception and male weakness for female flesh–which she actually uses on two gods. First and foremost, Hera goes to Aphrodite with a contrived tale of how she wishes to go see Okeanos and Tethys and “reignite the passion” between them that has been lost (she wants to return them to the same marriage bed). But in order to accomplish this act she requires the “zone” of Aphrodite which will make her irresistible to mortal men and gods. Aphrodite willingly gives the zone over citing the fact that Hera shares the bed of Zeus as her reason. Interesting to note is that Hera is not explicit about how she wishes to use the zone–is it to give to Tethys so that she is irresistible to Okeanos? Or is it that Hera will have limitless persuasive power over both with the zone? In any case, Hera acquires the belt, and then she goes to see the god Sleep (Hypnos).

Just as Hera played on the weakness of Aphrodite’s position in requesting the zone of her, so here does she play on the weakness Sleep has for a certain Grace, Pasithea.  First, Hera attempted to offer a throne and footstool wrought by Hephaistos, but apparently this is not the first time Hera has made this request of Hypnos, and he is wise to the consequences of interfering with the plans of Zeus. The last time Hera made such a request–after Zeus fell asleep, Hera sent a storm with the help of Boreas (the North Wind) to drive Herakles, her most hated step-son, off course to Kos. When Zeus woke up, however, he threw all the Olympians and gods on Olympus in rage and only retreating to Mother Nyx (Night) saved Sleep from bearing the full fury of wrath of Zeus (14. 245-269). All that said, Sleep, being male, is immediately swayed to do as Hera asks when she offers to him the Grace that he is soft for.

All the pieces in place, Hera then seeks out Zeus at Mount Ida and makes a pretense to request his permission before leaving for Okeanos and Tethys. Looking as good as she does though, and augmented by Aphrodite’s zone, Zeus suggests that they bed-down before she goes–he does not even want to wait the span of time necessary to go to Hera’s house, which we find out in Book 15 would be the span of a thought (15.78-82). He shrouds them in a golden cloud, and Hera buys Poseidon time to undue as much of the harm as Zeus has caused to the Achaians as possible.

The whole scene–and what leads up to it and what comes after (with Iris commanding Poseidon off the battlefield after Zeus sends Hera to convey his will to her) is a fascinating study in the use of varying powers. Hera, knowing her brute force is far less than that of her husband, knows that she can still circumvent his will by deceiving him and Aphrodite, and convincing Sleep to help. All this she does, too, in such a way that she can still swear a holy oath on Styx that she did not put the thought to act against Zeus into Poseidon’s mind (15.35-45). Clearly, she did help Poseidon by distracting Zeus and worked hard to ensure his success, but in the face of the rage of the Olympian she can claim to have been innocent of orchestrating the plan. For those who feel powerless in the wake of the force and strength of their betters, Hera is truly the acme of resourceful cunning in these two books.

All the while that this is happening, Agamemnon, too shows himself to be still a weak and easily discouraged leader. Just as in 9.17-28, so does he again suggest fleeing at 14.65-81 (and if one counts his failed attempt to rouse the battle spirit of his men by reverse psychology, he did the same at 2.111-141). Although Agamemnon is remarkable for his ability on the battlefield, particularly in Book 12, as a leader he is easily discouraged, and he is rightfully admonished by Diomedes in Book 9 and Odysseus in Book 14. The students, as any person reading this epic poem might imagine, maintain a low opinion of Agamemnon’s gift for marshaling the men and maintaining morale. Interestingly, when asked who they would prefer leading the troops, many suggest Diomedes, but most suggest Odysseus. One, however, suggested that Odysseus, though he leads well, especially in the aftermath of Agamemnon’s speech in Book 2, is of higher value in his current place as the man who “gets things done”: whether he be re-invigorating troops in Book 2, or drawing off lines for one on one combat in Book 3, or going as an envoy to Achilleus in Book 9 or stalking through the night for information in Book 10, Odysseus is the man “who gets the job done.”

Patroklos’ request to don the armor of Achilleus at the suggest of Nestor was touched on, but largely it will be discussed during seminar this upcoming Wednesday in the wake of Patroklos’ death. For one of the most hotly debated topics of seminars on Homer’s Iliad is this: who is responsible for the death of Patroklos? In our next post, we will delve into the subtleties and complexities of this question.

Nota Bene*The students are beginning to see that that which is flashy, superficial, and without substance is weak and without value, not simply in Homer’s Iliad but in the world around them.

Conversations with Students III: Defeat, Destruction, and Catastrophe on the Trojan Plain

The body of text that we covered in preparation for this seminar was technically Homer’s Iliad Books VI-VIII, and just through the very beginning of Book IX. During that time, the students encountered the odd exchange between Glaukos and Diomedes of vows of friendship and an exchange of armor of wildly disparate values (Glaukos’ gold armor was worth 100 oxen and Diomedes’ 9), but the students were quick to remind that at least Glaukos left the encounter with his life, so perhaps the 91 oxen difference is value is at least one or two short of the value Glaukos lays on his life.

Much of the remainder of Book VI is given to Hektor briefly leaving the battlefield in order to order a sacrifice to Athene within the walls of Troy, to collect his brother Paris, who is sitting about his bedchamber, doing nothing, like a pale shadow of Achilleus, and for Hektor poignantly to see his son, Astyanax, and his wife, Andromache for the last time.

Book VII then carries on with the fighting and Apollo and Athene decided that yet another one on one combat between champions is in order: Apollo chooses Hektor, the greatest warrior of the Trojans, and when Hektor calls out his challenge to the Achaians, only Menelaos attempts to accept it–but his older and more prudent brother, Agamemnon, stops him from volunteering, insisting that Hektor is “by far the greater man”. Nestor, the wise old counselor of the Achaians, then tells a story in typical fashion about him once defeating a great champion named Ereuthalion, and the Achaians now shamed and full of fighting spirit have 9 intrepid champions volunteer to fight: Agamemnon, Diomedes, Aias the Greater, Aias the Lesser (The two Aias’ are called the “Aiantes” when referred to together), Idomeneus, Meriones, Eurypylos, Thoas, and Odysseus. Each man then has a lot assigned, and with a prayer for Diomedes, Aias the Greater, or Agamemnon to be chosen, Nestor shakes the helmet and shoots the lot. Aias’ lot is chosen, and he proceeds to seriously task Hektor during the fight: penetrating his shield twice a spear, tearing Hektor’s neck, and crushing his shield inward with a rock while sustaining no damage himself. Unfortunately, night comes and the two champions are separated by the heralds, Idaios and Talthybios.

Book VII then ends with the Trojan advisor, Antenor, sagaciously suggesting that the Trojans just give Helen and the stolen possessions of Menelaos back to the Achaians, but Paris demurred, and for some reason, his father Priam, king of Troy, agrees to send the possessions back but not Helen. Of course the Achaians take this as a slap in the face, and they do not accept the fulsome offering from the Trojans. All this said, the seminar we had to today largely focused on why the Achaians and Trojans are still fighting after 9 long years of war. Several suggestions ensued.

1) Helen is a political object which was possessed by Menelaos, king of Sparta, and she was stolen by a foreign dignitary, Paris, and therefore an act of war was made by Troy against Sparta. In the background to this is the fact that many of the great men around then Achaia, Argos, and what would come later to be called Hellas or Greece had all been suitors to Helen before Menelaos was chosen as winner. During this process, Odysseus, seeking after his own interest in winning Penelope, niece of Tyndareus (father of Helen) suggested that Tyndareus have every suitor honor the decision of Helen and Tyndareus on husband and promise forever to protect Helen and her husband. The idea behind this oath was to keep the suitors from outright murdering Helen, her father, and her new husband in a collectively spurned rage. Little did any of them expect that they would later be honor-bound to mass armies, cross the Aegean Sea, and fight a ten year long war, which few enough of them would return from.

2) The second reason that the students gave for why the war rages on is the champions/heroes’ desire for further enlarging and expanding their kleos or honor. This claim might see some evidence with Pandaros, fool that he is, being persuaded by Athene to shoot his arrow at Menelaos in a misbegotten attempt to win honor at the expense of continuing the war on (4. 115-140). Also, Diomedes several times distinguishes himself as a great battler, susceptible to shaming (4. 425-430) and desirous of wonderful honor during his heroic and god-like deeds during his aristeia all throughout Book V. But the problem with this perspective was that in the first nine books of Homer’s Iliad there are five attempts by the Achaians or the Trojans alone or in tandem to draw the war to a quick end–all five of which occur during a Two day stint (Books III-VII are one long day of fighting, Book VIII another long one during which the Trojans rout the Achaians with the favor of Zeus, and Book IX begins on the same night as Book VIII).

The first time the Achaians show their weakness and desire to leave is actually the same day spoke of in Book III but is found back in Book II. Agamemnon devises a “reverse psychology” sort of speech where he tells the Achaians that they should just go home because Zeus must have falsely promised Agamemnon Troy (2. 119-153). Instead of having their battle spirits raised, the men of the Achaians just start heading back towards their ships, and it takes a command by Hera to Athene to rouse the men back up through the voice of Odysseus and then the liquid-honey voice of Nestor to get the men to stay. The point is though Odysseus suggests that it is disgraceful to return home after a long time empty-handed, that these men are all tired and beaten down.

The second time both the Achaians and Trojans show a desire for a quick end is when Paris suggests to his brother Hektor single-combat against Menelaos, winner take Helen, receive war-restitution, and the items stolen from Sparta alongside Helen. Menelaos hears of this opportunity, and with the assent of all his people (and likely the Trojans too), proceeds to beat Paris senseless (its true; he knocks him over with his spear, breaks his sword over Paris’ head, and then attempts to choke him with his own helmet’s chin-strap) (3. 375-400). Unfortunately for both sides, Aphrodite then saves Paris and deposits him safely back in his bedchambers with Helen, who all too humanly, is disgusted with her wretched and cowardly husband.

The third time both Achaians and Trojans, and even the gods Athene and Apollo, show a desire to end the war is when in Book VII a second single combat (on the same day as the first) is suggested between Hektor and an unnamed Achaian champion, who after a rousing speech by Nestor, and nine men volunteer, ends up being Aias the Greater, who is chosen by lots (as summarized above as well). This battle is less one-sided than the Paris and Menelaos battle in a way, but Aias essentially dominates it until the heralds Talthybios and Idaios stop it do to the onset of darkness, and ostensibly, because both men are so beloved, that neither side really wants to see either die on account of pathetic Paris.

The fourth and most pathetic attempt to end the war (until we see the fifth at the beginning of Book IX) is Antenor’s suggestion to the Trojan council that the Trojans just give Helen back to the Achaians with Menelaos’ possessions and be done with it all. After two failed attempts at ending the war that day, Antenor reasonably assumes that the will of the people is to end the war, with Troy not being sacked. As reasonable as his perspective is, Paris demurred, and for some reason, Priam places the desires of Paris above the will of his people. Is this perhaps because he would prefer to see Troy destroyed than it further suffer disgrace at the hands of his beautiful but weak son? One is led to wonder, but the thought is never confirmed by him.

After Book VIII and Zeus’ decree that the Trojans shall smash the Achaians back until Achilleus retakes the field of battle (after his friend Patroklos dies), Agamemnon begins Book IX disconsolate. He is so disconsolate that now, without using reverse psychology, he suggests to his counselors that they just retreat (9. 18-31). Zeus is just too strong! Naturally, Diomedes, the young and name-making Achaian, who had just fought with the gods Ares and Aphrodite is sick of this sort of attitude and claims that if he and Sthenelos were left alone on the battlefield that they would sack Troy themselves. But all that said, over a span of two days, the men show just how tired, worn-out, fatigued, exhausted they are. Though kleos might be the immortal measure of a man’s life and power, his mortal limits apparently must be taken into account.

In the end, the students were asked just who was keeping this war going, gods or men, and in two of the accounts gods stepped in to keep the war from ending (examples 1 and 2), but in the following three (Examples 3,4, and 5) it was mortal men who continued to fight. What keeps them going? Or is it who? With these questions we left seminar, though the issue of Helen, her acute ability to spot Aphrodite through her deceptions, her keen hand for weaving and her take on all this remains for us to discuss another day.

Inception in Ilion: Agamemnon’s Dream

Long before Christopher Nolan was wowing audiences with expensive CGI and notions of thoughts being placed into minds via dreams, Epic Greek literature was doing much the same. For those of you who need a brief refresher on the concept behind Inception: it is an action-adventure movie that centers around the notion that men, in the near future, can dive into dreams and interact with the dreamers in their dream, or in the case of the theoretical “inception”, they could plant an idea which the thinker thinks is his own. The marquis scene where two characters are talking about breaking into the dream of the wealthy heir of a corporate super-power in order to plant the idea to “break up his father’s empire” follows:

EAMES
Arthur? You’re still working with
that stick in the mud?

COBB
He’s a good point man.

EAMES
The best. But he has no
imagination. If you’re going to
perform inception, you need
imagination.

COBB
You’ve done it before?

EAMES
Yes and no. We tried it. Got the
idea in place, but it didn’t take.

COBB
You didn’t plant it deep enough?

EAMES
It’s not just about depth. You need
the simplest version of the idea
the one that will grow naturally in
the subject’s mind. Subtle art.

COBB
That’s why I’m here.

EAMES
What’s the idea you need to plant?

COBB
We want the heir to a major
corporation to break up his
father’s empire.

EAMES:
See, right there you’ve got various
political motivations, anti
monopolistic sentiment and so
forth. But all that stuff’s at the
mercy of the subject’s prejudice
you have to go to the basic.

(Full script Here)

So just as these futuristic “mind-hackers” sought to place an idea in the mind of a corporate tycoon to break up his company by utilizing “the relationship to the father” (check the next line or two of script), so does the king of the gods in Homer’s Iliad lack and equally subtle and perfidious device by which to affect a massively powerful royal tycoon. In fact, the idea is so similar, who knows whether cryptomnesia, conscious alluding, or even inception is responsible for it. Let us examine the evidence below.

Early on in Homer’s Iliad, in the first lines of Book II, Zeus, king of the gods, lays awake at night wondering how to fulfill his promise to Thetis: how to glorify Achilleus and punish the Achaians because of Agamemnon’s haughty actions. Because his wife Hera is one of the three gods fighting for and striving to destroy Troy alongside the Achaians, Zeus must act subtly in order to maintain his neutrality, but also definitively to honor his word to Thetis, Achilleus’ mother.

Zeus has an insight: he will send a “false dream” down to Agamemnon–a dream which will counsel Agamemnon to act foolishly; and as Agamemnon is the war-chief (commander-in-chief) of the Achaians, if he is beset with a false or harmful idea, great will be the harm which befalls his men. Let us look at what the false dream counsels Agamemnon to do in the form of his trusted advisor, Nestor:

“Dream listened to his word and descended. Lightly he came down beside the swift ships of the Achaians and came to Agamemnon the son of Atreus. He found him sleeping within his shelter in a cloud of immortal slumber. Dream stood then beside his head in the likeness of Nestor, Neleus’ son, whom Agamemnon honored beyond all elders beside. In Nestor’s likeness the divine Dream spoke to him:“Son of wise Atreus breaker of horses, are you sleeping? He should not sleep night long who is a man burdened with counsels and responsibility for a people and cares so numerous. Listen quickly to what I say, since I am a messenger of Zeus, who far away cares much for you and is pitiful.   Zeus bids you arm the flowing-haired Achaians for battle in all haste; since now you might take the wide-wayed city of the Trojans. For no longer are the gods who live on Olympos arguing the matter, since Hera forced them all over by her supplication, and evils are in store for the Trojans from Zeus. Keep this thought in your heart then, let not forgetfulness take you, after you are released from the kindly sweet slumber.” So he spoke and went away, and left Agamemnon there, believing things in his heart that were not to be accomplished. For he thought that on that very day he would take Priam’s city; fool, who knew nothing of all the things Zeus planned to accomplish, Zeus, who yet was minded to visit tears and sufferings on Trojans and Danaäns alike in the strong encounters. Agamemnon awoke from sleep, the divine voice drifting around him.” (Homer, Iliad, Bk II 16-42 University of Chicago Press. Lattimore. tr.)

Because Zeus must consider the will and retribution of his wife, Hera, he decides not to physically support the Trojans, nor to act explicitly or openly against the Achaians. He does something far more cunning, perfidious, and effective: he convinces Agamemnon that an Achaian assault will end in victory (possibly that day, though Agamemnon may later supply that detail with his dim thinking). Agamemnon therefore believes that his actions have the will of the gods on his side, so that even when his wisest counselor, Nestor–this time the real Nestor–gives lukewarm and fainthearted praise for Agamemnon’s plan* Agamemnon is blinded by his take on the will of the gods.

“Nestor, he who ruled as a king in sandy Pylos. He in kind intention toward all stood forth and addressed them: “Friends, who are leaders of the Argives and keep their counsel, had it been any other Achaian who told of this dream we should have called it a lie and we might rather have turned from it. Now he who claims to be the best of the Achaians has seen it. Come then, let us see if we can arm the sons of the Achaians.” (Homer, Iliad, Bk II 77-83 University of Chicago Press. Lattimore. tr.)

Poor Nestor to have to fight under such a fool. He attempts to convince Agamemnon, through subtlety, that his plan is ill-conceived and incorrect by saying that “had it been any other Achaian who told of this dream we should have called it a lie…” suggesting that it is Agamemnon’s position as king, and not the veracity or intelligence of his plan, which keeps Nestor or any man at all from opposing it. So even though the idea which Zeus’ “dream” plants is not particularly deep, it is extremely simple–“attack Troy tomorrow and it will be destroyed.” Agamemnon follows through with this plan, and Zeus’ will is done. Inception.

***This has been part of an ongoing series on “Dreams and prophecies in the Ancient World”. Make sure to follow for further updates.

Conversations with Students: Causes of the Trojan War

In this series, “Conversations with Students”, we will list out the major questions from the daily seminar, and then we will report frequent and also exceptional answers from the conversation, with added depth as the medium provides.

The basic background comes from the story of the “Apple of Eris” which was conveyed to us by Pseudo-Hyginus in his Fabulae, Lucian, and Apollodorus in his Library. The basic story is as follows: The mortal hero Peleus (father of Achilleus) and Thetis, his immortal Nereid wife, were to have a grand wedding where all the gods and goddesses were to be invited. Eris, however, the goddess of discord and chaos, was noticeably excepted because of her naturally destructive nature. Being of a divine and therefore easily offended nature, Eris concocted a plan to throw one of the golden apples of the Hesperides into the wedding with the Greek superlative, Kallisti, on it, or, “to the fairest/most beautiful”. All the goddesses contended for this beautiful and vaunted apple, but in the end three were chosen as finalists: Aphrodite, Athene, and Hera.

Naturally, the three goddesses chose the king of the gods and principle of divine order as the natural judge of this high honor, but intelligently, Zeus recused himself due to his marriage to Hera, and his paternal relationship to both Aphrodite and Athene. There is, however, and perhaps even more perfidious, a theory that Zeus did this knowing all along that a war would ensue regardless of Paris’ choice, because he wished to cull the population of man and the heroes of the generation of Achilleus. In any case, the young shepherd son of Priam, Paris, was chosen to choose the fairest goddess. Poor boy.

At first, perhaps having some intuition into the nature of judging the gods as a mortal, Paris attempted to split the apple into three equal parts for the goddesses. Being goddesses, however, of course they did not accept this “cop-out” decision, and each attempted, knowing the nature of the others, to bribe the young mortal man. Athene offered Paris victory in any battle or war–a fine gift from the war-goddess always accompanied by Nike, goddess of victory. Hera offered the young man the power to rule on high. But it was Aphrodite’s offer of “the most beautiful woman in the world” which tantalized Paris most. He, not being as sharp as he was passionate, wrongly assumed that he would be receiving Aphrodite as bride. She however reminded him after his choice that she was a goddess, and no mere mortal woman, so a certain married Helen of Sparta, wife of Menelaos would have to do.* From there, it is all mythological-history: Paris visits Sparta and Menelaos’ court; Menelaos leaves to attend the funeral of Catreus, his maternal grandfather in Crete, and Paris absconds with Helen.

With that brief summary of the story so far presented, we will continue on to the questions of the seminar.

We talked first about the causes of the Trojan War and who was at fault: was it Eris, goddess of Discord’s, fault for throwing the apple marked kallisti in the first place? Or was it perhaps Peleus and Thetis’ fault for not inviting Eris. Surely she would have caused some sort of disturbance, but likely not one so large. Was the blame in fact on Zeus for delegating the task of choosing the which goddess received the kallisti apple to a mere mortal, Paris, or was it Paris for not choosing Athene or Hera in the first place?

We then considered which goddess and which bribe should have been accepted: Athene’s war-victories, Hera’s political power, or Aphrodite’s most beautiful woman in the world. At first, the students mostly thought that Athene’s gift was best, but slowly they started to see the consequences of each decision with each goddess. For instance, with the capacity to win all battles, they then started to consider what their day to day lives would be like–battling over and over. Watching friends, family members, and enemies die over and over again. Their every day would be filled with suffering and misery of all those around them, and they themselves might be turned cruel by the endeavor.

Hera’s gift is potentially not much better: to gain political power one must take that power from another, and as Paris is not the eldest son of his father Priam, he would supplant both Hektor and his father, and it is highly unlikely that he would attain his power without many deaths–and that after attaining it in such a way that he would not maintain it similarly. His life would be one conspiracy after another to maintain and garner power, never trusting another.

And of course Paris’ decision to go with Aphrodite led to him being awarded the chance to woo and win Helen away from her powerful husband, Menelaos of Sparta, and from this the Trojan War erupted which would eventually destroy his people. Choosing who the fairest (kallisti) goddess is is a rough deal indeed.

The final source of conversation was focusing on Agamemnon’s choice to sacrifice Iphigeneia at Aulis after Artemis turned the winds against the fleet there. On the one hand, why would Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter in order to save his sister-in-law? But the situation is more complex, because he is not only choosing to save his sister-in-law, but to honor his relation to his brother and increase his own personal honor. And to use an argument from Herodotus’ Histories and Sophocles’ Antigone many of the students decided that as Menelaos is the sole brother of Agamemnon, and their father Atreus is dead, and that Agamemnon both has two more daughters and the capacity for more–that his primary duty was to his brother, not his daughter, though she, and not his brother, was under his protection and tutelage.

On the other hand, with so many former suitors of Helen, had Agamemnon not allowed his daughter to be sacrificed, it is most likely that the men trapped at Aulis would still have been honor-bound to fight for Helen at Troy and that Artemis would stay un-appeased without blood spilled from the House of Atreus. Therefore, had Iphigeneia not been sacrificed, it is very possible that Agamemnon himself may have ended up on the chopping block. So, whether Agamemnon was acting to honor his brother, add to his own honor, or to save his own skin was subject to dispute.

Last but not least, we turned to the first book of Homer’s Iliad and considered the conditions under which Agamemnon took Achilleus’ concubine Briseis from him. It is true that Achilleus, out of turn, called an assembly of Achaians together and then rudely insisted that not even Agamemnon would lay a hand on the prophet Kalchas if he should give forth bad news (to Agamemnon that he must return his concubine Chryseis). So Agamemnon was likely already slightly irritated with the actions of his most powerful but also most overbearing warrior. Oh, and they had been fighting together for nine years during which time they had sacked 23 cities. So, tensions were riding fairly high. Agamemnon, fresh with the knowledge that he had to return his concubine Chryseis to her father, Chryses, was understandably annoyed and took it out on the person annoying him most: Achilleus. The question, however, was: was this an intelligent and strategic decision by Agamemnon as a leader? Clearly, he had to assert his authority in some way over the openly disrespectful Achilleus, but in taking his concubine, Achilleus retreats from the war and in fact–through his mother–turns the will of Zeus against the Achaians. So, in a way, the question of the rectitude of Agamemnon’s actions is self-answering.

This has been the first of weekly conversations with students. This year we will feature seminars on Homer’s Iliad, Odyssey, Vergil’s Aeneid, Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes and more!

*Even though Herodotus suggests that Paris perhaps wished to steal Helen to make up for some injury done to Troy by the Achaians in a past generation, this theory is given little light in our discussion.