Lessons from Homer

It has long been my contention that Hector is the real hero of the Iliad. He represents the domestic virtues of the settled and civilized culture of Troy, whereas Achilles and the Greeks are little more than marauding pirates (like the Vikings) of a warrior society. In the end, the ferocious Achilles relents somewhat as Priam, father of the fallen Hector, imparts to him a sense of decency and restraint in their shared grief over those slain in battle.

It is interesting that the early Greeks already evince a respect for the essentials of self-rule, which marks them out from many more advanced, and more autocratic, cultures. There is no servility towards political leaders. Agamemnon is a king, but he is no demigod like the Egyptian Pharoahs or later Roman emperors. Men will disagree with and sometimes insult him. The role of rhetoric and debate is important to public life. Phoinix has taught Achilles “how to be a fine speaker” as well as a man of action. But the warrior has yet to learn how to curb his anger.

It is the “wrath of Achilles Peleus’ son” that leads to so much disaster for the Greeks, including the death of Patroclos. At one point Apollo, a patron of the Trojans, denounces the “abominable Achilles… who has no sense of decency, no mercy in his mind.” He lacks a healthy sense of shame and rages even against the “clay” of Hector’s dead body. By contrast, the Trojan Aineias appears as a superior warrior for his laconic self-control. He chides Achilles for his incessant boastfulness, asking “why must we bandy curses like a couple of scolding wives?”

Many readers note the flaw in Homer’s theology. Men’s lives are dominated by grim fatalism and the rule of capricious gods. Thus Agamemnon tries to dodge the charges that his greed and pride, in taking Briseis from Achilles, did so much harm to the Greek cause. He pleads that “it was not my fault,” but the will of Zeus and the Avengers. Such a view avoids personal moral responsibility. It would take later Greek philosophers, in their gradual rejection of mythical polytheism, to provide a better ethical system that respected man’s free will.

Related post: Sympathy for the Trojans

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