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"Sometimes worthy Homer nods," but not often

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    "Sometimes worthy Homer nods," but not often


    In our attempt to reinterpret and perhaps make some sense out of Greek thought and philosophy, we start at the most obvious beginning, Homer, and, in particular, The Iliad. Our choice is justified not simply by the fact that this is the earliest material available but also by the role of The Iliad in Greek society.

    Fifth-century authors, such as Herodotus and Thucydides, speak of Homeric epic as the outstanding classical and virtually canonical text of antiquity.1

    In another passage Cyrus Gordon compares its influence on the Greeks to that of The Bible on the Hebrews. J.B. Bury reports that Alexander the Great kept a copy by his bedside. Similarly, the Romans thought highly of Homeric wisdom and influence in asserting that, unfortunately:

    aliquando bonus dormitat Homerus (“sometimes worthy Homer nods”)

    Obviously, The Iliad is a fine tale, a little slow-going in translation perhaps, but from a contemporary perspective could one truly regard it as canonical or pretend that this story of the "anger of Peleus' son Achilleus" measures up to The Bible? At first glance, the answer is obviously not. My second reaction is that evidently it did have this influence at which point one is forced to reconsider the whole matter in attempting to account for its long and powerful influence. I contend that this must be accounted for before one can meaningfully interpret the environment in which the more formally designated 'philosophers' worked and to which their thoughts were a response.
    One can take the obvious tack of saying that it was a kind of book of manners, designating the way in which interpersonal relations should be carried out. It gives models of friendship and courage and, though it is not exactly a Book of the Courtier, it does provide some behavioral guidance. However, the nature of this guidance is key and makes this position untenable beyond a simple recognition that it may well have had this effect. A passage like Achilleus' speech to Hector:
    Hector, don't waste your words,
    I cannot forgive you.2
    I wish only that my spirit and fury would drive me to hack your meat away and eat it raw
    for the things you have done to me.3

    This is rather far from a restrained book of etiquette and if it affected manners, one might posit that its influence would in fact be negative assuming one takes moderation as a positive behavioral criterion. Perhaps we had best look elsewhere for the source of its power and impact.
    I wish that strife would vanish away
    from among gods and mortals,
    and gall, which makes a man grow
    angry for all his great mind,
    that gall of anger that swarms like
    smoke inside a man's heart
    and becomes a thing sweeter to him by
    far than the dripping of honey.4

    If it were a man's to choose, would he not choose to feel good all his time in life? Why then do men suffer from such emotional variability? I contend that, in The Iliad, we are faced with a basically foreign concept of mind and the inter-relationship of emotional, intellectual and physical reality, or more basically of mind and matter. What we encounter is a long way from the Cartesian duality. Even some of the gods are simply emotions.
    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. . .There the goddess took her place and cried out a great cry and terrible and loud, and put strength in all the Achaians hearts; to go on tirelessly with their fighting of battles. And now battle became sweeter to them than to go back in their hollow ships to the beloved land of their fathers.
    Hate, the Lady of Sorrow, was gladdened
    to watch them.
    She alone of all the immortals attended this action.5

    or again:
    all about which Terror hangs like a garland, and Hatred is there, and Battle Strength and heart freezing Onslaught6. . . and Terror drove them, and Fear, and Hate whose wrath is relentless.7

    Our interpretation will be that we are faced with an inversion of our conception of reality. Instead of holding the individual constant and his emotions as variables, in The Iliad the emotions are the constants and their environmental expression the variable. Emotions are a field beyond man's real control. What causes them to change and what relationship is there between them and physical reality and further, what is their relationship with the individuals that feel them?
    Primarily, we find the fundamental assumption of not only the validity of the emotions but of a strong interaction between, or, rather, a lack of distinction between psychic and physical reality. The two are inextricably interwoven like a tapestry in which the threads are the lines of purpose that lead to the realization of certain reality, the total of the interacting participants. One sees plans within plans within plans with emotions as a kind of reality test as to the state of one’s particular purpose. So says Hera:
    Even one who is mortal will try to accomplish his purpose for another, though he be a man and knows not such wisdom as we do. . .How could I not weave sorrows for the men of Troy, when I hate them.8

    Let us first look at the role of mortals in the pattern before considering the gods more fully. The power and purpose of mortals is not entirely to be despised nor their ability to perceive the workings around and within them for these two are one.
    The heart was shaken within him; to avoid death he shrank into the host of his own companions.9

    For to feel evil within is to fight its coming into reality by containing it within one’s own strength as one "who within the heart is armed with astute thoughts."10 Or, as with Agamemnon fighting his fear in the night:
    Terribly I am in dread for the Danaans nor does my pulse beat steadily, but I go distractedly, and my heart is pounding through my chest, and my shining limbs are shaken beneath me.11

    Does he not suffer in order that the reality conform to his purpose? This fear is not a sign of any cowardice, it is an emotion to be felt and either supported or denied and fought out of existence through knowledge and suffering. For circumstances are manipulable. Reality in the future is built partially on the thoughts and actions of the present. As Priam admonishes:
    Do not hold me back when I would be going, neither yourself be a bird of bad omen in my palace. You will not persuade me.12

    For emotions are influenced by words and by simple extension so is the reality in which one exists. Thus, we are exposed to the importance of the astute mind in interpreting reality and determining appropriate responses to a given situation. One can see that calling Odysseus the equal of Zeus in counsel is not a mean compliment but implies that he can grasp the most active and viable alternatives for satisfactory resolution of a difficult emotional/real situation.
    But Zeus does not bring to accomplishment all thoughts in men's minds.13

    It has often been said that the Greek gods are anthropomorphic, mere extensions of human strengths and failings into divinity. This is somewhat like saying that The Iliad is a book of etiquette. The Greek gods in The Iliad express a singularly elegant and useful account of the nature of reality and of change in reality. The interrelationships among the gods, the source of their powers and weaknesses, are all made clear. Their role in the determination of reality and the reason for their taking this role are also exposed.
    Zeus whose purposes are infinite14. . .Zeus builds up and Zeus diminishes the strength in men, the way he pleases, since his power is beyond all others.15

    The key to our discussion is that the source of this power is not but an extension of what gives power to men. Zeus has power because Zeus is in a concordant relationship with the causes of change and this concord is not derived arbitrarily but rather, in that Zeus knows more and is a better guide to the participants in his mind than any other, his purposes are infinite -- therefore, to please him is to fulfill those purposes. His power comes from the superiority of his designs to any others.
    Hera, do not go on hoping that you will hear all my thoughts, since these will be too hard for you, though you are my wife. Any thought that is right for you to listen to, no one neither man nor any immortal shall hear it before you. But anything that apart from the rest of the gods I wish to plan, do not always question each detail nor probe me.16

    The nature of the dominion of Zeus becomes clear in a statement of Poseidon when his designs came into conflict with the will of Zeus:
    Therefore I am no part of the mind of Zeus. Let him in tranquility and powerful as he is stay satisfied with his third share. And let him absolutely stop frightening me, as if I were mean, with his hands.17

    What is the mind of Zeus? It is that which extends between the power called up by his purpose and its actualization in reality. It is clearly not an isolated but a participant system.
    Now let no female divinity, nor male god either, presume to cut across the way of my word, but consent to it all of you, so that I can make an end in speed of these matters.18

    One might usefully look at it in terms of a purpose as the function of the desire to actualize some feeling and its strength as defined by the both the height of the feeling being sought in reality and the knowledge linking that feeling with its physical expression.
    We referred before to plans within plans. One might posit that superior strength would come out of containing the designs of others within one’s perspective such that their alternative actions are accounted for within your designs. This interpretation is confirmed by a challenge by Zeus:
    Let down out of the sky a cord of gold; lay hold of it all of you who are gods and all who are goddesses, yet not even so can you drag down Zeus from the sky to the ground, not Zeus the high lord of counsel, though you try until you grow weary.19

    The connected nature of power is again seen in a confrontation between Pallas Athene and Ares in which she says:
    You child, you did not think even this time how much stronger I can claim to be than you, when you match your fury against me. Therefore, you are paying atonement for your mother's furies since she is angry and wishes you ill, because you abandoned the Achaians and have given your aid to the insolent Trojans.20

    Obviously, part of Ares' power is drawn from his relationship with his mother and to go against her will is not simply to lose this power but to invert it. Powerful emotions are seen in this as defining their own expression in reality or, as Hera was quoted earlier saying:
    How could I not weave sorrows for the men of Troy, when I hate them.21

    We have spoken of gods and mortals but not of the relationship between them other than to say that they both operate in the same reality and so can be seen as analogous in at least their basic modalities in dealing with that reality. The range of relationship between men and gods runs from the distant manipulation of Zeus --
    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 the evil hunger drives him over the shining earth, and he wanders respected neither of gods nor mortals. 22

    to the very active intervention of Ares in Hector.
    Ares the dangerous war god entered him, so that the inward body was packed full of force and strength. 23

    Men, because of their limited knowledge and power, are subject to the manipulation of the gods as their purposes are contained and used by the gods toward the gods' ends. There is even a goddess of this faculty. Says Agamemnon:
    Delusion is the elder daughter of Zeus, the accursed one who deludes all; her feet are delicate and they step not on the firm earth, but she walks in the air above men's heads and leads them astray. She has entangled others before me.24

    This metaphor is particularly interesting in that it could be interpreted that her delusion is based on her bringing about completion of emotional dissatisfaction with reality not on the 'firm earth' but in 'the air above men's heads' -- i.e., beyond their knowledge. Thus would a conflict seemingly be wrestled into resolution when in fact it remains 'in the air,' not in true relationship with reality and the actual situation that defines a given anticipated emotion.
    Achilleus is often spoken of as a tragic figure. In a sense, that anachronistic designation is descriptive but in a more contemporary and perhaps more interesting sense he is considerably more than that. As shown in our first quote, Achilleus himself chose an infinite purpose. He chose to revolt against strife or hate not only in himself but among gods and men. His purpose stretched to include all and yet to act on such a purpose as a man is to transcend human behavioral systems and beyond that even the behavioral systems of the gods. As says Zeus:
    No, you gods; you desire to help this cursed Achilleus within whose breast there are no feelings of justice, nor can he be bent, but his purpose is fierce like a lion. . .so Achilleus has destroyed pity and there is not in him any shame; which does much harm to men but profits them also. . .Great as he is, let him take care not to make us angry; for see, he does dishonor to the dumb earth in his fury.25

    Achilleus chose a stand beyond his knowledge to actualize to such an extent that his actions, as a result of this stand, were out of accord not only with the wills that shape reality but with 'the dumb earth' itself, the very stuff that forms what is. Thus, by fomenting natural resistance to yet another imposed and manifestly unworkable solution did Zeus mount his defense against justice. Verily, Zeus has much to fear considering the appalling kakocracy we know in Homer, later so graphically captured by Aeschylus:26

    They do such things, the younger gods,
    who rule, wholly beyond justice,
    a throne dripping blood,
    about its foot, about its head.
    I can see the center-stone of the earth
    defiled with a terrible pollution of blood.


    1. Cyrus Gordon, The Common Background of Greek and Hebrew Civilizations (New York, 1965), p. 218.
    2. Homer, The Iliad, trans. Richmond Lattimore (Chicago, 1967), XXII, ln 261.
    3. Ibid., XXII, ln 345.
    4. Ibid., XVIII, ln 107.
    5. Ibid., XI, lns 2, 10, 73.
    6. Ibid., V, ln 739.
    7. Ibid., IV, ln 440.
    8. Ibid., XVIII, ln 362.
    9. Ibid., III, ln 30.
    10. Ibid., XX, ln 35.
    11. Ibid., X, ln 93.
    12. Ibid., XXIV, ln 218.
    13. Ibid., XVIII, ln 328.
    14. Ibid., XXIV, ln 87.
    15. Ibid., XX, ln 242.
    16. Ibid., I, ln 545.
    17. Ibid., XV, ln 193.
    18. Ibid., VIII, ln 7.
    19. Ibid., VIII, ln 19.
    20. Ibid., XXI, ln 410.
    21. Ibid., XVIII, ln 367.
    22. Ibid., XXIV, ln 527.
    23. Ibid., XVII, ln 210.
    24. Ibid., XIX, ln 91.
    25. Ibid., XXIV, ln 39.
    26. Aeschylus. Eumenides, trans. Herbert Weir Smyth (Cambridge, 1926), ln 162.

    Last edited by Elok; 08 Sep 2021, 15:31.