Posted on | February 5, 2013 | 3 Comments
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. The 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.