Reclaiming Homer

The assault against Western culture and civilization is moving full steam ahead. Even our most long-standing and cherished of writers, Homer, is being banned. The usual gobbledygook critiques are thrown out at him: sexist, toxic masculinity, and white male! Such rage, oh the irony, completely misses the real majesty and endurance of Homer.

In a time when nihilism and iconoclasm are in vogue, what value does Homer hold for us today? Homer was, of course, the greatest poet in the Western tradition and arguably the greatest poet who ever lived. The Iliad remains the fount and wellspring of our civilization and literary and cultural tradition. The Odyssey is too a seminal read of cultural literacy and consequence—yet this hasn’t stopped the anti-Western iconoclasts from devouring even the most important of writers.

Homer, like many of the famous Dead White European Males, has fallen on hard times simply for being an old, dead, white, European male—as Bernard Knox wrote in the 1990s. Yet, Homer is the great voice of our age of rage and resentment. Far from celebrating and glorifying violence, Homer subtly deconstructs the Hesiodic cosmos of rage and violence, and sings into being a cosmos of love that is based on compassion and forgiveness.

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“Rage—Goddess—sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles.” Those are the immortal words of the greatest song ever sung. What is important to realize when being introduced to Achilles, is that he is attributed with a divine trait, mēnis, rage or wrath. Mēnis is the term Homer uses to describe the rage of the divines. Kholos, by contrast, is the term Homer uses to describe the rage of mortal humans. There is a divine horror to the rage of Achilles at the beginning of his epic.

Civilization is formed by song. This necessitates us to ask what song and civilization was Homer singing into existence?

Homer’s great rival, Hesiod, famously sung of the violence of the gods in the Theogony. Hesiod sings of gods and violence. Homer sings of a mortal man surrounded in a world of violence, but ends with a note of love and peace heretofore unseen in the Hesiodic world.

Homer’s cosmos is one where violence and bloodshed are very much present. After all, Alexander the Great famously slept with a copy of The Iliad under his pillow while campaigning against Persia. But the violence and bloodshed that permeates Homer’s song is not what Homer considers heroic. Imagery of tenderness, love, and pity stand alongside the maelstrom of war. That imagery of tenderness, love, and pity begins the greatest revolution in the history of mankind, and marks the true birth of the West.

The Iliad is not just a war epic. It is the song of the metamorphosis of Achilles; his fall out of the Hesiodic cosmos of rage and impersonal violence (and into the mortal and fleeting world of love and pity) is what the epic concerns itself with. When you read Hesiod, you encounter nothing but rage, resentment, and hatred ending in violence, patricide, and usurpation—much like the people claiming to be loving, compassionate, and kind. Rage, resentment, and hatred exist in Homer’s world—Homer does not neglect this reality—but Homer doesn’t command the muses to sing of the powerful overthrowing the vindication. Instead, the heroism Homer sings of is the heroism of love.

In this stirring opera Homer composed, the movement of love moves through the filial piety of Hector and the compassionate pity exuded by Patroclus to loving forgiveness—as witnessed by Achilles and Priam. While the world is engulfed in war, Hector, on the walls of Troy, disrobes his military garb to cradle his infant son in his fleshy arms to calm the babe from his shrieking terror. Laughter and joy enter the world for the first time. 

However moving, this filial love is ultimately insufficient to bring healing to the broken world. Hector and his family experience a brief serenity in the midst of war, but no healing occurs, and Hector ventures forth back into the storm of war. The love that Patroclus exudes, by contrast, does bring some form of healing into the world ripped apart by war.

As the Greeks are retreating from the Trojan counterattack, Patroclus sees the wounded warrior Eurypylus limping back to the ships with an arrow wound in his thigh. Rather than run to Achilles to be a cog of war, Patroclus takes the time to embrace Eurypylus in the tender embrace of pity and helps heal his wound. Pity, as Homer sings here, heals. It also binds men together in lasting friendship.

This is precisely what Briseis says in her lament over the dead body of Patroclus. When Briseis’s city was burned and her family killed by the rampaging Greeks, Patroclus took pity on her and promised to make her the bride of Achilles. As Briseis laments, the kindness of Patroclus is what she will forever remember. The mourning of Briseis is not so much out of grief, as it is out of affectionate love for Patroclus and the loving kindness he showed.

What was missing from the love shown by Hector and Patroclus was forgiveness. Here, the monumental achievement and genius of Homer reaches its full glory. As we know, Achilles has reentered battle, wrought terrible destruction, slayed Lycaon and Hector, and cursed Priam, swearing to wipe his seed off the face of the earth. Now Achilles has that opportunity—a defenseless Priam weeping in his tent.

Rather than succumb to that divine and impersonal rage which has thus far characterized him, Achilles is humanized in the presence of Priam through the love Priam shows for Hector. Achilles begins to weep as he remembers the love Peleus showed him as a boy, and the love that Patroclus always displayed when alive. Initially alone, this overwhelming love that floods Achilles leads him to embrace Priam as a fellow friend instead of an enemy.

The love that Achilles exudes is a love that includes forgiveness. Achilles forgives his avowed enemy, embraces him as a friend in love, and returns the body of Hector so he can receive a proper funeral. But Achilles doesn’t stop there. Out of his own free will and compassion, he offers a temporary truce so the Trojans can mourn and honor Hector. In this act, Achilles sheds the residue of divine rage and becomes a model for the new humanism Homer sings as the highest form of heroism: loving forgiveness.

While we know the rest of the story, Homer doesn’t end his magisterial song with the burning of Troy, beheading of Priam, or the death of Achilles. Instead, The Iliad is a long and arduous struggle through the Hesiodic cosmos of rage and violence, and ends with the birth of the Homeric cosmos of love and forgiveness, which bring healing and peace to the war-torn world. 

In a grand song and dance, Homer sings into existence a familiar world of compassion, pity, and forgiveness. For only compassion, pity, and most importantly, forgiveness, can heal the broken and shattered world that we live in—and the world that Homer knew and traversed. Far from an irrelevant voice, Homer’s message of love and forgiveness as the method to heal a shattered world remains as relevant today as when he creatively sung it nearly three millennia ago. It is ironic that the partisans of love and forgiveness bring only hatred and destruction in their wake.

The Homer of love, pity, and forgiveness is the true Homer. Only those with rage and resentment in their hearts of stone miss the powerful message Homer sings of. We would be wise to listen to Homer once again, and not those who advocate disrupting our great books.

[Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons]


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