Homer, Chiefs, and Presidents

While visiting in Cape Town, I recently had the pleasure of taking a summer school course at the University of Cape Town on Homer’s Iliad, from Professor Richard Whitaker, who has recently translated it into a South African context and idiom. (The Iliad of Homer: A Southern African Translation.)

Like most of us, I had only read bits and pieces of this classic work over the years, earning me only a general sense of the story and context. How refreshing to get a lucidly presented sense of its history, context, structures, and many layers of meaning!

As we walked through this pathway — a labyrinth to us, a familiar garden to him — I came away not only with a new appreciation of the power and depth of this classic from the beginning of our literary traditions, but also with two new perspectives I’d like to share with you.

The first was prompted by a comment made by Professor Whitaker in the second lecture. Homer was writing, as best we can ascertain, sometime around 725 BCE, drawing on oral, probably sung, traditions about events from around 1200 BCE. One can understand this lengthy poem (about 15,000 lines) in terms of the transition from a world of warring clans, tribes, and their chiefs to the world of city-states and civil government that was beginning to arise around his time. In a sense it is the story of the transition from Sparta to Athens.

The world of the Trojan War (if there was a “war” in our sense) is one in which men of strength and courage battle over women and cattle, glory and immortality. Need I point out that the first two are sheer possessions, the second two religious quests? On the other hand, the world of the town, the polis, is one in which self-restraint, moderation, reasoned argument, and fellow-feeling make possible life in settled communities.

The world of the warrior, as Homer presents it, focuses on the prowess of individual warriors. The world of the citizen focuses on the cooperation of equals. The first exalts honor and domination, the second honesty and persuasion.

One of the reasons I think Whitaker’s translation works is that South Africa’s history has been one in which the tribal life of chiefs and their search for women and cattle has coexisted and competed with democratic constitutions and governance by negotiation. And I don’t mean simply native African chiefs, for many European settlers functioned in very similar ways. T

he Republic’s present president, Jacob Zuma, with his four wives and lavish kraal of dwellings, vividly represents this collision of two cultures. Homer’s world of chiefs (Agamemnon and Priam) reminds us immediately of the legendary Zulu warrior Shaka, who welded the Zulu tribes together at the beginning of the 19th century.

By using the language usually associated with Shaka’s time, Whitaker jars us into a realization of Homer’s relevance and contemporaneity, at least in terms of South Africa’s history. But this isn’t just something for South Africans.

Let’s think about that supposed modern cradle of democracy, the United States. In the nation’s present battle over guns, I think we see Homer’s epic being lived out cinema style, but with real casualties.

On the one hand we have the individualistic credo of the mythical cowboy (our Achilles and Hector) wielding his gun (or spear) to protect his family, control his women, and develop his cattle herd. The more guns, the more security in a world of individuals bent on possession and glory.

Over against this mythos and the interest groups and gun manufacturers that support it, stand people who live in densely intertwined communities, where security emerges out of trust, mutual interest, law and state government. In short, this mythical conflict would have been entirely familiar to Homer, who rehearsed its nuances with enormous power.

On the one hand Homer reminds us about the depth of passion fueling this conflict, but also the civilizational stakes in its outcome. The second perspective is related to the first. Homer presents this warfare of Greeks and Trojans as a drama ensnared in the capricious and petty conflicts of the gods of Mount Olympus.

From the human side it arises, as Whitaker pointed out, from Achilles’ anger at Agamemnon and does not end until his anger is finally exhausted. From the side of the gods, it arises simply from their “household” animosities, which mirror in petty form those of mortals. Because the gods always prevail, no matter how brave the warriors the outcome of their battle is already fated.

The effort of men to control their fate by force of arms ends in nought, for all is in the hands of the gods, who pull the strings of human destiny like giant puppeteers. What looks like human strength and glory is but a pitiful spectacle to entertain the gods. However, these gods are not divine in the sense we might ascribe to the God of Biblical and Qu’ranic religion. They are simply exceedingly powerful and immortal, unlike human beings, who are finite and must die.

Humans, facing and fearing death, can actually enact moral acts, that is, acts that go beyond the instinctual acts of self-preservation. In the face of this fear, any act on behalf of others, whether from empathy, pity, or duty, gains an ethical status. The gods, however, are incapable of acting morally because no act can lead to their own death and the end of their endless pursuit of their own pleasure.

As amoral, though immortal, beings, they are thus no source of moral guidance themselves. We are neither to emulate them or obey them in order to become moral beings. The Greeks therefore had to seek out the source of an ethic apart from conceptions of divinity. In turning to some sense of human “nature” for this source, they began a long tradition of ethics.

But it is not the ethics of Jews, Christians, and later Muslims, who found their ethical ground in the word, will, and acts of a transcendent and mysterious God, whose very acts as the Creator were the definition of the Good. An encounter with Homer’s world and vision thus gives us entry into the decisive difference that Jews and Christians found in encountering the Hellenic world.

I can’t trace this out here, since that would comprise many volumes! But it is worth thinking about the question of how we ground our most important ethical commitments and what difference that makes in our everyday lives. In our present political context, we need to ask what that difference makes for the fundamental transition from a world of tribal chiefs to one of democratic persuasion. But that is a point for much further conversation and debate. And debate, at least, both philosophers and rabbis have pursued for generations.

3 thoughts on “Homer, Chiefs, and Presidents”

  1. Thank you, Gerd, for such a fascinating parallel in our own recent history to the issues that were already present in the Iliad. Our inability to learn from the past must be willful as well as unintentional. While the Gymnasium may have yielded outcomes that perverted justice, it also provided many tools for remembering, reflecting on, and interpreting the past for a fuller flowering of life as well. Thanks for showing us how it might do that.

    And, Sara, I’ll have to think more on expanding on your point when I’ve gotten back. Stay tuned.

  2. Exciting perspectives. I remember I.F. Stone on the trial of Socrates where he lucidly analyzes Socrates’s and Platon’s conservative, antí-democratic criticism of Athens as just a self-interested corrupt commercial enterprise and the praise of the military dictatorship of the self-disciplined Spartans driven by heroic concepts of honor and at the same time exploiting their helots = slaves. Stone thinks that the trial of Socrates made sense because he was seducing the Athenian youth into preferring anti-democratic dictatorial governance rather than inducing them into supporting the give and take of democratic rule.

    As a German, I’ve often thought that the love of Greece in the German Gymnasium (exclusive high school for the upper 5% in the old days, now about 33% and more) education was geared to the preference of Sparta (seen as prefiguring Prussia or even the Germanic trib es or later the Germans as a whole) and thereby gave a mythical romantic philisophical grounding to monarchy and dictatorship,the German army and in the Nazi perversion the SS being like the Spartan elite soldiers (“we have done our duty, we have remained clean”, Himmler to the SS).

    That interpretation of Stone was an eye-opener for me on why the German classsical education was not more of a bulwark against the Nazhi primitivisms.

    More intuitions to you, Bill and Syl, in the land struggling for a democratic continuation
    in a country of former lords and former quasi-slaves trying to build a democratic public realm.

    Peace and Justice to you,

    P.S. what I found in the internet for further reading:
    I.F. Stone Breaks the Socrates Story:
    An old muckraker sheds fresh light on the 2,500-year-old mystery and reveals some
    Athenian political realities that Plato did his best to hide.

    I. F. Stone

    (This interview was originally published in The New York Times Magazine, April 8, 1979.
    Stone further developed his ideas about the Socrates trial and published them in his 1988 book, The Trial of Socrates.)

  3. Very interesting, Bill. Knowing nothing about the debates of philosophers and rabbis, I’m curious about the grounding of ethical commitments if not in “…the word, will, and acts of a transcendent and mysterious God.” Will you offer further conversation on this topic?

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