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A world of wrath just like Homer’s January 21, 2007

Posted by grhomeboy in Culture History Mythology.

Alexander the Great slept with a copy of the Iliad when on campaign.

This made more sense than it might seem to modern mankind. The Greek world, the culture of Hellas, its gods and state of mind, was first fashioned by Homer’s epic poem “Iliad” of Troy and the Achaean progenitors of the Hellenes. Centuries later, the greatest Greek playwrights, Aeschylus and Sophocles, based their tragic dramas on the Homeric legends, placing modern men and women and the eternal quandaries and their fates within that world. And the world had not changed all that much in Alexander’s time: It was still a world of blood and iron.

During the last great war, 1939-45, British officers often carried a copy of the Athenian historian Thucydides, especially when they served in the Mediterranean region. Thucydides built on Herodotus’ inquiries, the Greek word Herodotus used for inquiry was “historia”, to try to show posterity what happened during the Peloponnesian War, an Aegean conflict that convulsed all Greek communities and decisively damaged that whole civilization.

The Athenian, a cashiered general, put forth clear observations of why the participants acted as they did, the pride, ambition, hope of hegemony and gain, cheating, blood lust, strained ideologies that devolved into sheer hatreds and how the Greeks rationalized massacres of other Greeks. He observed sadly that there was always some state or nation that became a terror to its neighbors and evoked horrendous conflict.

With some history beneath their belts, Brits could believe the world was not all that much changed.

If Alexander had read more Thucydides than Homer, he might have realized that his dream of a cosmopolitan world, Cosmopolis, was impossible. For Alexander himself, conqueror of his world, lost his own identity. But then Alexander was right on with Homer and the Iliad. Men were moved not by reason but pride, lust, desire for loot, love and loyalty to culture, race or clan.

When I first read the Iliad I recognized my own: tetchy, belligerent people, prideful as the Argives, concerned with honor, in which goods or property plays a part, bound by custom, decent according to their view of what is right, orderly until their cork is pulled.

The reason we still peruse Homer is that his heroes who both prayed to and defied the gods, lived in mud-floored palaces and oared swift black ships to distant shores suffused by the roar of battle, preferring death to dishonor or disgrace and or doing no great thing, debated moral issues and fought against their fate, are not all that different from us, the modern mankind. Or any race or creed of man who will not be demeaned or swallow harm. The first word in the Iliad is “wrath,” and this is still a world of wrath.

The Greeks were not without their thinkers, sociologists and even psychologists, notice that the words we still use come from Greek, who explored the rational universe.

The problem is that all the wisdom of Socrates, the enthronement of rational achievement by Plato and explanation of the universe by Aristotle never stopped a Greek war. Plato, in fact, took wars for granted, because he lived in a cosmos that had never known peace.

We moderns do not take war for granted, but I think we search for causes in the wrong places. Shakespeare wrote that our fates lie not with the stars but within ourselves, and Christians used to believe that we cannot hope to change the world, no laws, edicts, proclamations or restraints will do, unless we first change ourselves. And, perhaps, war and poverty persist because there is war and poverty in our hearts.

Poets work more from inspiration than perceived wisdom. But I suspect that Socrates was right, no man is wise, because wisdom lies alone with God, a glimmering of impious truth that gets men killed, in his world or ours.

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