“My mother Thetis tells me that there are two ways in which I may meet my end. If I stay and fight, I shall not return alive, but my name will live forever; whereas if I go home my name will die, but it will be long ere death shall take me.”1
-The Iliad, Achilles talking to Odysseus
Homer’s mythology, like much mythology of the ancient world, was an attempt to explain reality through the interaction between the gods and between the gods and men. But unlike other mythologies, say, of the ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamians, Homer takes a less superstitious approach. Rather, his mythology is more human than divine – his gods are all too human, complete with human weaknesses and shortcomings.2 Also, his gods have less control since they, too are subject to fate just like humans. With Homer, we see the cosmological myth is starting to fade. For even thought The Iliad is full of gods, Homer presents a more psychological rather than cosmological explanation of things. As E. Michael Jones states in Logos Rising, “There is nothing divine about the gods of The Iliad.”3 In this respect, with Homer, we start to see the beginning of the transition from myth to metaphysics.4
The Honor and Glory of Battle
The Homeric world of the Iliad was a hard existence. As E. Michael Jones states:
“The Iliad provides a record of the senseless brutality and carnage which characterize the dark age.”5
Toughness and fighting ability on the field of battle were some of the few ways to exhibit virtue or what the Greeks called arete.6 In later Greek thinking, especially under Aristotle, virtue would evolve into character traits such as truthfulness and justice. But at this point, it simply meant to be excellent at something, and that something usually was fighting.
The reward of arete was honor and glory. So, life for the Homeric hero was an individual quest for honor and glory in battle. Having said that, the life portrayed by Homer in the Iliad was a life of gloom and despair.
If there is any brightness at all in the Iliad, it is Homer’s poetic style itself. As C.S. Lewis wrote:
“Only the style – the unwearying, unmoved, angelic speech of Homer – makes it endurable. Without that, the Iliad would be a poem beside which the grimmest modern realism is child’s play.”7
The paradox of the poem is that it is the beauty of words that saves the poem about despair from despair. It is the words that manifest most acutely in the long debates and discussions that occur between the battles amongst gods and men. By the powerful use of words, both poetically and within the debates in the story itself, the Iliad brings us a step further from a mythological explanation of the world and a step closer to the rational explanations of the Presocratic philosophers.
By the time that we get to Homer’s Odyssey, we see even more rationality enter the picture.8 Odysseus exhibited more rationality than the warrior heroes in the Iliad when he used his wits rather than his physical strength to outsmart opponents like the Cyclops. Achilles’s chief weapons were his physical strength and his rage, whereas Odysseus’s was his wit and cunning.
Glory, or kleos, was something to be sought after in the Iliad, whereas in the Odyssey, it was a temptation for Odysseus, something to be avoided.9 And unlike the heroes of the Iliad, Odysseus demonstrated many virtues such as longsuffering, prudence, and temperance. Arete is more developed in the Odyssey than the Iliad, but still not as much as it will be by Aristotle. Nevertheless, Odysseus was a more multifaceted human being then Achilles and because of that became an ideal for later Greeks to imitate.
The Greek Dark Ages
For some reason still unknown, after the destruction of Troy in the 12th century B.C., the Greek world was plunged into what is termed the “Greek Dark Ages.”10 Homer wrote his epics when the Greek world started to emerge from this darkness in the eighth century B.C. Homer was trying to make sense of the collapse of their civilization and the subsequent upheavals and brutality that had occurred over the previous centuries. Writers will often do some of their best writing in the midst or aftermath of a serious crisis when things are in upheaval. For example, St. Augustine wrote the City of God as the Roman Empire was collapsing and J.R.R. Tolkien wrote his Lord of the Rings trilogy in the aftermath of World War I.
The oral poetry that comprised the Iliad and the Odyssey and was written down by Homer was possibly a way for people to make sense of the centuries of brutality and turmoil of the Greek Dark Ages. The 10 years it took for Odysseus to return home was emblematic of the difficulty in restoring a collapsed culture. Odysseus turned down the chance to marry two women, Calypso and Nausicaa, where he could have lived the life of a prince and had great wealth.11 Rather, he returned to his wife Penelope and his hometown of Ithaca. Although, even though he returned home and refused to marry other women, he had not been faithful to his wife Penelope. She, on the other hand, did remain faithful to Odysseus and thus became the exemplar of virtue in the Odyssey, just as it was Hector, and not Achilles, that was the virtuous one in the Iliad.
Reason and Virtue
What started as an epic battle between the Greeks and the Trojans ended with Odysseus making things right in his own household. To make things right, he used his mind rather than his strength He eschewed glory, power, and fame rather than seeking them out. Homer teaches us that reason and virtue trump (pardon the verb usage) superstition and might. And in this way, he laid the groundwork for rebuilding what would eventually become Western Civilization. He also teaches us that the work of rebuilding civilization begins locally, in our own households, and not on the battlefield.
I can’t help seeing the parallel to our own day. In recent times, we have spent countless lives and resources fighting in insignificant wars overseas while things have been falling apart at home.
“Mine is a rugged land but good for raising sons – and I myself, I know no sweeter sight on earth than a man’s own native country.” 12
-The Odyssey, Odysseus at his homecoming
Why do you think that Homer’s poetry still resonates with people over two millennia later? Please leave your comment below. Thank you!
- Homer, The Iliad, Book XVIII
- Jones, E. Michael, Logos Rising, a History of Ultimate Reality, pp. 145-6, Fidelity Press, South Bend, Indiana, 2020
- The phrase “from myth to metaphysics” as well as the concept are found in E. Michael Jones’s Logos Rising, pp. 146-148
- Jones, E. Michael, Logos Rising, a History of Ultimate Reality, p. 144
- Jones, E. Michael, Logos Rising, a History of Ultimate Reality, p. 145
- Lewis, C.S., A Preface to Paradise Lost, p. 30, ValdeBooks., https://www.bookdepository.com/publishers/Valde-Book , 2021
- Duchesne, Ricardo, The Uniqueness of Western Civilization, Leiden: Brill, 2011 as cited in Jones, E. Michael, Logos Rising, a History of Ultimate Reality, pp. 148-9
- Jones, E. Michael, Logos Rising, a History of Ultimate Reality, p. 148-149
- Jones, E. Michael, Logos Rising, a History of Ultimate Reality, pp. 139-145
- Hollis, Christopher, The Noble Castle, pp. 32-42, Longmans, Green and Co., London, New York, Toronto, 1941
- Homer, The Odyssey, Book IX, lines 1-33
Bibliography and Sources:
Dawson, Christopher, Progress & Religion, An Historical inquiry, The Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C., 1929, 2001
Duchesne, Ricardo, The Uniqueness of Western Civilization, Brill Publishers, Leiden, 2011
Hollis, Christopher, The Noble Castle, Longmans, Green and Co., London, New York, Toronto, 1941
Homer, The Iliad, translated by Robert Fagles, Penguin Classics reprint ed., New York, 1991
Homer, The Odyssey, translated by Robert Fagles, Penguin Classics, reprint ed., New York, 1999
Jones, E. Michael, Logos Rising, a History of Ultimate Reality, Fidelity Press, South Bend, Indiana, 2020
Voegelin, Eric, Order and History, Vol. 2: The World of the Polis, classic reprint, hardcover, Forgotten Books, London, 2018