22. Homer – from the Glory of the Battlefield to the Virtue of the Homestead.

The Iliad marks the transformation from Mythology to Metaphysics as we see here Achilles in battle.
Achilles in Battle, by Alice and Martin Provensen, mid 20th Century

“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 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.

The following quotes is from The Odyssey, Odysseus at his homecoming. Contrast that with the quote at the beginning of this article.

“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

In the book Alexander the Great by Robin Lane Fox, Mr. Fox tells of a choice that Achilles’ mother gave to him between seeking the glory of battle or a quiet life at home:

“Above all, [Achilles] is tragic, for as he has been told by his goddess-mother Thetis…’Two fates bear him towards death’s end…; if he stays and fights around the city of the Trojans, Gone are his hopes of return, but his fame will be everlasting. But if he goes home to his own dear land, Gone is his fair fame, but his life will be long. And the end of death will not be swift to find him.’ Firmly, Achilles chose fame against return.”13

Globalism and Nationalism

Nationalism is the polar opposite of globalism – they are both evils that lead to destruction.

Those of the more conservative persuasion tend to advocate for nationalism. Nationalism arose in Europe in the 19th century to fill a vacuum left by the fracturing of Europe that was a dire consequence of the Reformation. Without the tension between church and state, the state rose to be all powerful. The problem is that when there are nation states in close proximity to one another all vying for dominance, then the inevitable outcome is war. The nationalism of the 19th century led to World War I and then its continuation World War II. Two of the greatest wars of history were the direct result of nationalism. Nationalism produces many Achilles, all seeking glory obtained from dominating other nations or even the world. Adolf Hitler was a modern day Achilles seeking glory for himself and the Nazi party. As we consider this, the question that comes to mind is what hath Luther wrought through his fracturing of Europe?

On the other hand, those of the more liberal or progressive persuasion tend to advocate for globalism. Globalism suppresses or destroys not only the nation state, but the individual as well. The end result of globalism is tyranny and authoritarianism on a grand scale. Globalism’s cure for nationalism is worse than the disease. It is like advocating suicide as a cure for cancer. Sure it kills the cancer, but it also kills the patient. There is an innate tendency in man for globalism that goes all of the way back to the tower of Babel in Genesis. It comes from man’s desire to dominate and control others. Godless people love to control others, and the ultimate control is global dominance. One of the cures for globalism is to acknowledge and submit to the king that God has placed over the world – His Son Jesus Christ.14 This is called the social kingship of Jesus Christ which many popes have written about.

Globalism emerged in the 20th century as a result of failed nationalism resulting in the rise of two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. They both desired to spread their ideologies at gun point, with the United States spreading secular democracy and the Soviet Union, secular Communism. 500,000 people died as a direct or indirect result of the Iraqi War in order to make the world “safe for democracy.” To that I say, please don’t help me to be more democratic. Globalism creates fewer Achilles than nationalism. But this oligarchic few are much more powerful, and in the end seek the same glory.

Localism is the Answer

As I mentioned above, nationalism and globalism are polar opposites. If we use Aristotle’s golden mean as a guide, the the virtuous middle would be localism. One argument the conservatives use to support nationalism is that nationalism preserves local cultures. I am all for preserving local cultures. This is what makes the world an interesting place. But nationalism is not the way to do it. Nationalism just preserves the all powerful godless nation state and nothing more.

Localism is what preserves local customs through its unique mores and folkways. Local laws are also needed, but not many since the citizens usually keep one another accountable. The general rule of thumb should be that a specific locality takes care of all its needs and governs itself as much as possible. When a matter becomes too large for it to handle it delegates upwards to a weak, but more centralized governmental structure. This is what the founding fathers of the United States intended as they codified this in the 10th amendment. This is the principle of subsidiarity. One of the best examples of this is the farmers’ market that occurs in hundreds of towns across the U.S. every Saturday morning.

So rather than follow the example of Achilles, who sought the glory of conquest, we should follow the example of Odysseus who, after traveling the world and having many unique experiences, found that he had to look no further than home and hearth to find meaning and fulfillment.

A local farmers’ market

“…and thus the corner of my garden is an inexhaustible treasure-chest. Here you can dig not gold, but the value that gold merely represents.”

-Henry David Thoreau

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Footnotes:

  1. Homer, The Iliad, Book XVIII
  2. Jones, E. Michael, Logos Rising, a History of Ultimate Reality, pp. 145-6, Fidelity Press, South Bend, Indiana, 2020
  3. Ibid.
  4. The phrase “from myth to metaphysics” as well as the concept are found in E. Michael Jones’s Logos Rising, pp. 146-148
  5. Jones, E. Michael, Logos Rising, a History of Ultimate Reality, p. 144
  6. Jones, E. Michael, Logos Rising, a History of Ultimate Reality, p. 145
  7. Lewis, C.S., A Preface to Paradise Lost, p. 30, ValdeBooks., https://www.bookdepository.com/publishers/Valde-Book , 2021
  8. 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
  9. Jones, E. Michael, Logos Rising, a History of Ultimate Reality, p. 148-149
  10. Jones, E. Michael, Logos Rising, a History of Ultimate Reality, pp. 139-145
  11. Hollis, Christopher, The Noble Castle, pp. 32-42, Longmans, Green and Co., London, New York, Toronto, 1941
  12. Homer, The Odyssey, Book IX, lines 1-33
  13. Fox, Robin Lane, Alexander the Great, p. 62, Penguin Books, 1973, 2004
  14. See Psalm 2, Philippians 2:10-11, and Ephesians 1:20

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

Fox, Robin Lane, Alexander the Great, Penguin Books, 1973, 2004

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

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