Sunday, December 09, 2007

Thoughts on Iliad

In the lull before the storm of finals grading, I wanted to make sure to put up a post that's been waiting a few weeks.

Over Thanksgiving, I finally was able to get some time to finish the Iliad. I am really glad that I reread it after all these years. Reading a work like this in high school is important, but it is hard to appreciate it at that age and in that context. With so little life under one’s belt, it is hard to take to heart many of the lessons this book teaches.

My reaction to the book was something of a surprise to me. There were many aspects of the work that I found I didn’t like. I found myself bored in the middle books with the endless give and take of the battle. The endless list of names of the killers and the killed--and their genealogies. Moreover, I didn’t find that I connected or empathized with any of the characters, even the main ones. The constant intrusion of the gods into the affairs of the mortals also bothered me a lot.

That said, I have a greater sense of the importance of this work and the themes it discusses. I was never quite sure of the point of the Iliad other than being a great mythological/historical epic tale. Now, I can appreciate some of the themes that have made this story immortal.

The primary theme is, I think, the human condition of facing mortality. This seems to explain and integrate most of the story, from Achilles' actions and his contrast with Hector to the role of the gods in the story.

One of the things that had always bothered me about the Iliad was the point at which it started and ended. It starts with the conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon that leads to Achilles withdrawing from the fighting. It ends with Achilles reintegration into the Greek fighting force and the death of Hector. The ending bothered me more. Why this point? Why doesn't the story continue to Achilles' death or the Greek victory?

After this reading, as well as listening to the wonderfully insightful The Iliad of Homer by Elizabeth Vandiver, I think I understand why it ends here. Hector is presented as the most human of all the characters. While he is helped by the gods, he is not related to the gods. He shows the range of human emotion and virtue: he demonstrates courage and wisdom but also fear and hubris. We see Hector interacting with his family; in particular, his wife and child. No other character gets that treatment. If the major theme of the Iliad is human mortality, then Hector's death--the paradigmatic human-- as the climax and ending of the Iliad makes sense.

One of the main pieces of understanding this theme came from Vandiver's lectures. She explains that Achilles doesn't accept his humanity. He pulls himself from the battle and separates himself from his community. For the ancient Greeks, this separation would be symbolic of renouncing one's humanity. He even seems to reject the mores of his culture when he rejects the honors to be bestowed on him by Agememonon if he rejoins the fight. Honor and glory are held up to be the ultimate ends of this society and Achilles casts them aside as unimportant. This is more god-like. The gods don’t need or care for honor and glory--they live forever, they don’t need, as the human hero does, the epic poem to give immortality.

Then there is Achilles near superhuman fighting ability. After he finally rejoins the fighting he goes on a killing rampage. Vandiver notes that during this rampage no other character kills another. Achilles also rejects the norms of fighting as well: he shows no mercy, indeed, no humanity. Achilles refuses to eat or bath while on this rampage. He is nourished by the gods so that he can continue to fight.

The most significant fact about Achilles, however, is that he knows his fate. He knows that he will die in Troy. This unique knowledge marks Achilles as different. Hector and the other characters do not know their future and when or how they will meet their end. Knowledge of fate is something the gods have, not humans.

Achilles doesn't seem human until he meets with Priam after killing Hector. It is then that he eats and sleeps. He shows to Priam kindness and empathy. Vandiver explains that Achilles has reintegrated into his community—and with his reintegration Achilles accepts his human condition and with it his own mortality. And so the Iliad can end.

The role of the gods makes more sense in the context of the theme of human mortality. As immortals, the gods offer a contrast to humanity. The gods are also petty and lack nobility. Only the humans can attain glory, honor, and nobility. That is, only humans have the need and capacity for morality. It is our mortality that gives rise to morality.

On a different note, I wonder to what extent Homer sees himself as a critic of the culture he is writing abut. He presents the fighting in a way that almost makes it seem futile and wasteful. During the longest day, where the Greeks and Trojans fight brutally, with the battle going back and forth with no progress for either side, there is a general sense of meaninglessness to the fighting. Homer paints us the scene of the fields are littered with the dead – he shows us that on both sides the dead are honorable and noble men. There seems to be an implicit question: but to what end and for what reason are they dead? This is probably my modern sentiments coming in, but I wonder if it is “really” there in the text.

I was also struck by Achilles’ refusal of the new and greater honors offered to him by Agamemnon if he returns to the fighting. He says that these don’t mean anything to him anymore. The greatest hero in the greatest story is rejecting the morality of his society. That strikes me as a criticism of that morality and society.

As I said above, I was annoyed by all the interferences of the gods in the battle. Each time one of the heroes seems in trouble the gods swoop in and save him. Or the hero is made stronger by the gods and goes on rampage. This undermines human achievement and autonomy. Why do we praise a great warrior if his greatness is the result of a god? This raises a variant on the Euthrypho dilemma: are the heroes great because the gods choose them or do the gods choose the heroes because they are great?

If you haven’t read the Iliad or haven’t read it in years, it is worth a new or first look. And I can’t recommend The Teaching Company’s course strongly enough as a companion piece.


Doug van Orsow said...


Elizabeth Vandiver is one of the most accessible lecturers in the whole Teaching Company library. I recommend any of her other courses to you and your students. She is somewhat biased towards her thesis subject of Herodotus, but she doesn't treat Thucydides any worse than he should be.

You may find my Teaching Company user forum useful where I review all lectures from their new courses:

Doug van Orsow

Shawn Klein said...

Hi Doug,

I've listened to most of Vandiver's courses. She's great, one of my favorites. Greenberg is probably the best Teaching Co. lecturer. I'm listening to the new course on the Federalists and Anti-Federalists. Very solid.

I look forward to checking out your site.

Unknown said...

On a much much lighter note, you might enjoy "Ilium" and "Olympos" by Dan Simmons

Adam Haman