The Iliad, Homer tells us, is about the rage of Achilles and the will of Zeus, and about how these two interact with each other. Quoting Lattimore:
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…
In Homer’s Greek, the first word is not “sing” but “menis,” the Greek word for rage or anger, but a word used only for the anger of gods, apart from this use here.
Or is Achilles rage actually the rage of a God, namely Zeus?
I don’t know. I’d never thought of that before, but it resonates, because one of the things I’m exploring in The Iliad is the very complex relation between the will of Zeus and Achilleus anger. Maybe, in the end, they are the same thing. In any case, the Iliad remains an extended 24 book meditation on the power of rage and its devastation.
Yet the Greeks considered Homer their master teacher, the foundation of all their learning. How can this be if he was so caught up with anger? What does anger have to teach us?
There is this: if you want to know what a person values, watch what makes him angry. I suppose for most of us, it boils down to comfort and the way people drive.
Or might it be that Homer is singing about the rage of Achilleus and the will of Zeus to teach us something else? Does Achilleus’ anger release an energy that directs us toward something immeasurable in its value.
Let me suggest that it does. After the lines quoted above, Homer continues:
“… 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.
What god was it then set them together in bitter collision?
Zeus’ son and Leto’s, Apollo, who in anger at the king…
In what follows, a little mini-Iliad plays out. Apollo’s priest comes to the Greeks and asks for his daughter, whom Agamemnon (“Atreus’ son the lord of men”) received as loot when they sacked the priest’s city. Agamemnon won’t give her up, so the priest, whose name is Chryses, appeals to Apollo for help. Apollo, dishonored in his priest and therefore angry, comes to his aid and sends a plague upon the Greeks, who then gather in counsel to find out why the gods are angry at them.
Apollo is angry because the king dishonored his priest. The Greeks, under Achilleus’ influence in counsel, tell Agamemnon to return the priest’s daughter.
Now Agamemnon is dishonored because he has to give up the girl. He demands that Achilleus replace her with a girl of his own.
This dishonors and angers Achilleus so profoundly that he withdraws from battle, knowing that this will lead to the death of many Greeks.
Perhaps then the Iliad is not so much about rage as it is about honor. After all, in more primitive times, people were very concerned about honor.
Happily, in our day, people no longer worry about things like reputation and appearance and respect because we have become a humble culture, driven by love instead of honor.
Unfortunately, in the old days, poets would write things like this:
Tell me not (sweet) I am unkind
That from the nunnery
Of thy chaste breast and quiet mind
To war and arms I fly
True, a new mistress now I chase,
The first foe in the field
And with a stronger faith embrace
A sword, a horse, a shield
Yet his inconstancy is such
As you too shall adore;
I could not love thee (Dear) so much
Loved I not honour more
It has always been fun for me to ask girls in my high school classes if they would want their husbands or boyfriends to love honor more than they love them. Needless to say, it is not something they have discussed previously. Too bad.
By the way, that was Richard Lovelace’s poem, To Lucasta, Going to the Wars.
But here’s where I go off the rails. I think Homer is writing about anger and about honor, but I think he is doing so with a particular purpose in mind. Homer knows what he is doing. He is very deliberate and profoundly wise about teaching the Greeks.
Like any good teacher, he wants to teach. Like a great teacher, he succeeds in unparalleled ways, ways so unparalleled that if we lose what he taught we are more than a little worse off for the loss.
He is, in short, teaching the Greeks how to rebuild their civilization. He is teaching them how to think, make decisions, create art, feel, order themselves in community, etc. etc. That is why Homer is the most practical author you can possibly read (I dream of teaching exectives and school leaders and politicians how to lead using Homer).
The problem we confront was summarized by Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead Revisited when he described a meal at a very fine restaurant in Paris. He said:
The sole was so simple and unobtrusive that Rex failed to notice it.
A very fine summary of modern man. Homer, like every great teacher, tells his stories, “For him who has ears to hear.”
At the very core of the Iliad, therefore, is Homer’s deliberate instruction in how to think, make decisions, and communicate. It is, in short, a rhetoric handbook. And there is none better, not Phaedrus, not Aristotle, not Quintilian, not anything ever written by anybody ever.
If our schools taught nothing but Homer they would teach far more than they are now. But it is so simple and unobtrusive that most people wouldn’t notice it.
Another time I’ll share my lunatic theory that, while the Iliad is a handbook on rhetoric, the Odyssey is a handbook on poetics.