Essays on Homer’s Iliad





[This essay, which has been prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC (now Vancouver Island University), Canada, is in the public domain and may be used by anyone, in whole or in part, without charge and without permission, provided the source is acknowledged; released August 2005. For the Table of Contents of the series of essays and an Introductory Comment outlining the purpose of the series, please use the following link: Essays on Homer’s Iliad. References to the text of the Iliad are to the online translation (by Ian Johnston) available here. The references in square brackets are to the Greek text. For comments and questions please contact Ian Johnston.]





The enduring (and growing) popularity of Homer’s Iliad offers the most persuasive testimony of all that the vision of life celebrated in the poem still reaches deeply into the human imagination, spanning more than two thousand five hundred years. Cultures since Homer’s time have constructed social and personal lives on systems of meaning very different from the harsh demands of the warrior code, but the continuing power of the work reveals just how strongly the significance of that ancient way of living still speaks to the human imagination. For, to stress the main assumption on which the interpretation in these essays rests, the Iliad endures, not because it qualifies as an important historical document picturing for us a civilization of human beings quite unlike us, but rather because it makes direct contact with our modern imaginations, enabling readers to discover or re-discover those parts of their identity which contemporary visions of human nature often inadequately express or ignore altogether.


Today almost all readers live in a culture that thinks of itself in a manner very different from the society depicted in the Iliad. For one thing, we organize our personal, social, and political lives around a vision antithetical to traditional fatalism. Both capitalist and socialist democracies, offspring of the optimistic, rational, and progressive theories of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, accept as the major challenge of life the possibilities of changing the world continuously for the better, so that human beings can liberate themselves as quickly as possible from cosmic fate or malignant chance. And we have developed extraordinarily powerful rational metaphors which enable us to comprehend nature and the mind in such a way as to foster this central imperative of our culture, especially in North America, where we have almost no traditions from before the age of progress (other than our aboriginal cultures, which have had virtually no effect on the thinking of non-aboriginal citizens). This optimistic doctrine, which we might call liberalism, informs virtually all contemporary political and personal thinking in the West (excepting only those traditional religious faiths which have survived from earlier times, notably the Roman Catholic Church). Underlying our apparently rich array of political choices, there is a massive consensus about the appropriate relationship between man, nature, and the gods.(1)


Clearly this modern orthodoxy encourages a faith incompatible with the pessimistic fatalism and the conservative ethic of the warrior peer group. What sane modern man sets out to direct his energies in a vain fight in the killing zone when all the important battles, in which victory is, of course, attainable, require him to combat the corrigible faults in his social organization, environment, or personal life? When we substitute rational sociology or psychology and a faith in scientific progress for irrational fatalism, we erect a substantial imaginative barrier between ourselves and Homer. Moreover, in applying our modern models to the interpretation of human character, we have become extraordinary self-conscious. We can no longer accept actions, especially unusual departures from the norm, as simple spontaneous expressions of character for which the agent does not bear total responsibility. Instead we measure them by analytical tools which enable us to explain them away as products of this or that inner process: behind every unusual action lies an unusual molecule or a strange family life. Obviously this affects our ability to appreciate the behaviour of the Iliadic warriors, for by modern standards we can easily see their apparently strange conduct as the actions of deviants, case studies in abnormality, something to be dismissed, controlled, or condemned. And the tragic hero, the person who launches himself on an ironically self-destructive quest for ultimate meaning, becomes an odd ball. The ancient symbol of the highest possibilities for the human spirit degenerates into a clinical specimen. And so, when our faith in our most cherished modern ideals fails us, we populate our stories with tragic-comic figures, who cope with an emotionally absurd world by playing games, trying to fill in time until something happens, or else we laugh with the comic figures who retreat with style from the chaos. The instinctual certainties of ancient heroes often turn neurotic or farcical.


Moreover, those forms of modern belief which celebrate individualism have little room for the conventions of status, public opinion, and shame as worthy guides to conduct. Inheritors of the Romantic movement, we adhere strongly to the official notion, especially in our private lives, that the individual has an obligation to create his own future in his own way, without regard to pressure from peers. To do this, we need to separate ourselves from the past. The conduct of one’s ancestors, if it counts at all, is something we must move beyond. Particularly in North America, where the cult of self-reliance has taken such deep root, the conservative family and peer group standards in the Iliad run counter to the spirit of the place. What popular cowboy hero, the ultimate self-made man, ever had parents, a home town, or a peer group to control his actions? His sense of value comes from his self-generated code of conduct, often in defiance of and usually unconnected to any social group. Always in motion and always alone, he defines himself, in large part, by the absence of any traditional associations. And anyway, in the huge, anonymous, multi-cultural, pluralistic cities where most of the hero worshippers live, where do we find the truly significant peer group we need to answer to?


Each tragic hero, in his defeat, beats on the boundaries of existence and makes them less limiting. The limits had to come from the idea of a community, where every individual had a name and a local function. This sort of community, with a system of individual craftsmanship interlocking for the common good, this pure division of labor, is a far cry from revolutionary ideas of community or communism. These larger economies are geared to units of such massive size that every individual must be expendable. Tragedy is a remnant of the time when no one was. The older idea of community is an organic one, and the malfunction of one member of that community analogous to the failure of an organ of the body. That “body politic” has now become the “system.” (Lenson 160)


To such a culture what can Homer’s Iliad possibly say? The continuing vitality of the poem indicates that it obviously provides something significant to us, but given the radical differences sketched out above (in much too cursory a fashion), what could that be? In searching for an answer to this question, we discover why reading the Iliad matters, why the poem, for all its strangeness (or perhaps because of its strangeness) generates an imaginative excitement often missing from contemporary fiction. For the Iliad acquaints us (or re-acquaints us) with potentialities of the human spirit with which we may have lost contact in daily lives shaped by a different and, in some respects, more limiting vision of reality. In doing this, the poem obviously challenges our sensibilities and forces us to explore from a fresh perspective many of those unexamined assumptions which we accept as the truth because we have never known or imagined any alternatives. If that takes place, then the work is educating our imaginations in the fullest sense, putting us in vital contact with those parts of our own nature that our modern faith cannot entirely satisfy.




To accept the challenge of the Iliadic vision of life is not always easy, for the picture Homer gives us may radically contradict our cherished beliefs in a very different system of order. It is not surprising, then, that the history of Homer criticism reveals a number of different ways in which interpreters of the Iliad have traditionally sought to ward off the challenge by changing the poem into something more readily compatible with more comforting visions of experience. In such cases, the dialectical tensions between the old vision and present sensibilities, which lies at the heart of all significant interpretation of old works, becomes weighted in favour of the prejudgments and cultural biases of the reader, and the potentially fruitful interaction between the past the present transforms itself into an energetic defence of modern ideas, often at the expense of the text itself.


Some of the earliest criticism we have of Homer, for example, finds his vision unacceptable because the religious system in the Iliad is incompatible with a belief in divinities who uphold clear moral standards or who behave in a morally acceptable manner. Plato’s treatment of the poets, and especially of Homer, is well known. They must leave the ideal state, with due honours, if their fictions are not commensurate with the rational system of belief upon which everything in the state is to be organized. Nowadays, the great authority of Homer as an enduring classic, the fame of his poems, means that serious critics, lacking Plato’s revolutionary intentions, find it impossible to dismiss the Iliad out of hand, but anyone who teaches the epic to general readers will recognize a common initial response to the poem in the rejection of it on the ground that, by modern standards, what it contains is abhorrent. Significantly, such a response does not always indicate, as we might too readily assume, an insensitivity to the poetry. On the contrary, the moral disapproval that the Iliad sometimes evokes can demonstrate that the readers are seeing and reacting to the emotional implications of Homer’s vision. The energetic dismissal of that vision can express the urgency with which they feel the need to respond decisively to a seductively dangerous alternative view of the world (my own sense is that this remark applies especially to Plato).


A second, more sophisticated strategy for dealing with any discomfort the Iliad might occasion is to make the poem much more familiar by imposing a traditional moral framework upon it, that is, to interpret the poem so that it fits a more reassuring sense of moral order in the cosmos. The history of Homeric studies reveals a long tradition of such a response to the poem.(2) This method defends the poem against the criticisms of those who would dismiss it outright on moral grounds, but at the expense of forcing onto Homer’s vision a simple moral paradigm, which can enervate the work’s most paradoxically vital heart. If the reader can draw a familiar and comfortable moral from the story, subordinating its radical and discomforting ironies to the moral verities of a modern way of thinking, then the poem becomes an endorsement of contemporary belief rather than a challenge to it.(3) Those interpreters who, like Don Juan’s mother, earnestly wish to pass on classical literature to the young as easily and inoffensively as possible often find this method of dealing with the Iliad very persuasive.


His classic studies made a little puzzle,
Because of filthy loves of gods and goddesses,
Who in the earlier ages raised a bustle,
But never put on pantaloons or bodices;
His reverend tutors had at time a tussle
And for their Aeneids, Iliads, and Odysseys,
Were forced to make an odd sort of apology,
For Donna Inez dreaded the mythology. (Lord Byron, Don Juan)


In a similar vein, a certain Archdeacon Williams in the nineteenth century was surprised to find ”most of the essential principles of Christianity in the Iliad,” and could explain this remarkable similarity only by accepting the fact that heathen Homer must have had access to the tradition of the Hebrew patriarchs (qu. Blackie 16). We may well chuckle at the credulous archdeacon (as did some of his contemporaries), but the tradition to which his interpretation belongs is still very much alive, even if its adherents are not quite so ludicrously explicit about the matter. An approach to the Iliad which seeks to transform the Trojan war into a moral encounter between the forces of civilized good and barbarian evil, for example, and which, therefore, ignores the overwhelming similarities between the opponents and the eternal, fated quality of the war, makes the harshness of the Iliad much more acceptable. We may hate the destructiveness of war as much as the ancient warriors, but we cope with that by the notion of a just war, where the forces of good are (regrettably) justified in punishing their nasty opponents. Indeed, this is the commonest argument we use today (with the Iraq conflict still raging) to reconcile ourselves to war’s brutality. That such an interpretation of the war in the Iliad violates Homer’s vision will be apparent to anyone who has found the arguments in these essays at all persuasive.


In his study of the Iliad, for example, Seth L. Schein insists upon important cultural differences between the two opposing groups, so as to make the Trojans the “aggressors” and “transgressors, who are morally responsible for their own ruin” (20). This judgment is unacceptably strained. Given the fact that the Achaeans have come a long way from home to raze Troy, destroy its male citizens, including the children, and to enslave the women, Schein’s desire to place the war in an modern orthodox framework of belief, making it a punishment for sin, has led him to bend the notion of aggressor and transgressor beyond a reasonable limit. This assessment, moreover, violates the commonly expressed sympathy many readers have for the Trojans. G. S. Kirk, too, like C. M. Bowra (23), shares the view that the Iliad demonstrates a simple moral lesson, “all this has been made inevitable to Paris’ offense against hospitality” (Commentary 333). Thus, he can transform the terrible power of the gods into something much more comfortable: although they are “not always Sunday-school characters in Homer, they are nevertheless determined guardians of the basic rules of order and respect” (“Homer” 73), a comment which changes Homer’s irrational and fiercely quarrelsome and destructive divine family into a group of those genially and mildly sadistic but, on the whole, pedagogically effective junior housemasters and housemistresses who maintain the rules in the traditional private school.


The application of a simple moralistic formula to Homer’s narrative has some unfortunate effects. First, it denies that quality for which Homer has always been highly acclaimed, namely, his impersonality, the objectivity with which he impartially records the most passionate efforts of heroic men. Secondly, this approach suggests that, far from challenging our imaginations with a sense of life’s mystery, Homer has already done all the significant thinking we need to bring to the poem. Thirdly, reduction of the Iliad to a simple morality piece does raise at least one interpretative problem which those who offer such a reassuring hypothesis characteristically avoid. Quite apart from the persuasive evidence that Zeus and his divine family are not driven by or upholders of such a simple moral code, this common interpretation inevitably raises the question familiar to readers of Paradise Lost: How does one reconcile such a neat moral scheme with the disproportionately harsh punishment, the brutal deaths of many warriors, the destruction of an ancient city and its inhabitants, in response to the sin of romantic adultery and theft. A reasonable consideration of this issue prompted Herodotus to observe that the Greeks “were seriously to blame; for it’s the Greeks who were, in a military sense, the aggressors. Abducting young women, in their opinion, is not, indeed, a lawful act; but it is stupid after the event to make a fuss about it” (42). If we are prepared to entertain the notion that the Iliad is a tale with a straightforward moral (and as critics we should be prepared to examine any reasonable hypothesis), then we should also be ready to explore the implications of that interpretative approach fully and not simply use it to close off further consideration of the poem’s complexities.


One can make similar objections to other attempts to derive from the poem a picture more amenable to our conventional imaginations: for example, Kenneth John Atchity’s sense of the “didactic distinction” in the moralized lesson depicted on the shield of Achilles or Redfield’s assertion that “There is not much nobility in the act of war, which is in itself a negation of human things, barbaric and impure” (101). Such attempts would obviously include the strategy of distancing the reader from the heroic warriors by the use of a style rich in clinical terms, a language which tries to establish their extreme psychological abnormality. When, for example, critics write of the Iliadic warriors as schizophrenic and constantly subject to hallucinations (Jaynes 93) or describe Achilles’ behaviour as “pathological barbarism” (Kirk, “Homer” 73) or “the throes of an acute neurosis” (Michelopoulos 95), the critical vocabulary may encourage reader to place the Homeric characters in that special place we reserve for the sick people we find unacceptable, the hidden medical facility into which we need never glimpse, once we’ve read the diagnostic labels. Such an interpretative language obviously inhibits the reader from exploring imaginatively the connections between her own behaviour and the often brutal conduct of Homer’s warriors. Such loaded medical language is of no help in coming to grips with anything important in the vision of life this poem presents—it’s rather like offering as an analysis of Lear’s conduct the fact that he is senile or of Oedipus’ story that he’s too paranoid, comments with no helpful explanatory value. For if Homer’s characters are clinically ill or psychologically abnormal, then why do we need to attend to them as human beings with recognizable connections to ourselves?


Our response to the Iliad can be explained as a recollection of the infantile struggle to define the self in terms of the mother’s image, projected to the child, of himself, a struggle that is erotic in Freudian terms and a response to sense impression in Hegleian terms. We find in the Iliad a concentration on this narcissistic struggle and seek thereby the explain the paradox that in a poem about a war fought for a woman the focus of attention is on the relationship between the hero and his dear male companion. (MacCary xi)


The modern approach defined in the above quote leads inevitably, as one might expect, to the positing of an “Achilles complex” which “with its speculation of the self, if uncorrected by oedipal displacement onto others of all our ontic energy, is a vector reversing to recover that void: the death drive” (250). And so the imaginatively rich suffering of Achilles becomes the study of yet another modern maladjusted heel.




One of the most curious and yet popular method for neutralizing the potentially disturbing qualities of the Iliad leads critics to dismiss the significance of the religious vision because the gods are “merely” literary devices, with no meaningful link to anything that matters outside the poem. This tradition goes back many years and remains, even in this century, in spite of our vastly increased knowledge about the vital importance of “primitive” faith, a common way of approaching what can be for some people a particularly difficult aspect of the poem. C. M. Bowra’s well-known comment is an excellent example:


This complete anthropomorphic system has of course no relation to real religion or morality. These gods are a delightful gay invention of poets who were prepared to use their material freely in an age which enjoyed its gods. (222)


For some reason, this rather odd view is fairly common: “The gods whom Homer pictures are not the gods he worshipped; they are poetic creations whom Homer adapted to his own needs without fear and evidently without reverence” (John Scott 174); “the gods of the Iliad belong to the conventional world of the epic and were understood as such by the audience. Just as the epic tells not of men, but of heroes, so also it tells stories, not of gods conceived as actual, but of literary gods” (Redfield 76); “The gods are in general not an expression of the poet’s religious beliefs but part of his mechanism for preparing future events” (West 17). And so on.


Obviously there’s a certain validity to such claims that Homer’s divine figures are a literary creation, because Homer’s gods are present in a literary work. But the intention here seems to be to persuade us that they are “merely” literary creations, an invitation not to take them as serious explorations of religious belief. The confident tone these remarks project rests on no firm historical evidence, since we have no access to reliable information about the relationship between Homer, his poem, and the religious beliefs or poetical conventions of his age. And a study of later Greek religion can encourage us to see these gods as considerably more than delightful literary inventions (whatever that means precisely).


The Homeric image of divinity is an image of marvellous and compelling adequacy; it underwrites and explains the human sense of contradiction and conflict in experience, and yet contains contradiction within a more fundamental order. It enables divinity to be understood as the source of disorder in the world, and, in the extreme case, mirrored in the myth of war between the gods and giants, as the ultimate defence of order against brute chaos, as well as being the unconquerable barrier to human excess and the potentially destructive violence of human self-assertion. We would be quite wrong, I suggest, to set aside the model of divinity that we find in the Homeric poems and imagine it as a purely literary fiction and no part of the “sense” of Greek religion. (Gould 25)


Moreover, even if the historical record clearly demonstrated a significant difference between Homer’s religious vision and the views of his contemporaries or established the existence of a conventional literary Olympian family with no religious significance, that would still not necessarily mean that the Iliadic gods carry no religious weight outside the poem. For Homer, as a great artist (like Blake or Milton) is perfectly capable of creating an enduring and serious vision at odds with contemporary orthodoxy. Our response to the gods must take its cue, surely, from the attitudes to them developed in the poem. For example, the important difference between our assessments of, say, Milton’s divine characters in Paradise Lost and Pope’s celestial machinery in The Rape of the Lock emerges not from any connection or lack of connection we may perceive between these visions and the historical reality of the fiction or the biographies of the authors, but from the very different attitudes towards the divine which the narrators of the poems and characters in them express. And whatever we may, from our contemporary perspective, want to believe about the gods in the Iliad, there is no doubt that the narrator and the characters take them very seriously indeed. 




The most firmly entrenched way of separating the reader’s modern sensibility from what Homer’s text has to reveal about our common humanity, however, is the approach which insists that we can only properly appreciate the poem if we deal with first and foremost as an ancient historical object, firmly rooted in a particular time and place and inaccessible except to those willing to absorb a great deal of historical information. I have no wish here to weigh the conflicting demands of the past and the present in our interpretations of ancient texts, but any brief survey of modern treatments of the Iliad must take into account the ways in which the historical approach to such a work can, in many cases, encourage an emphasis which lessens the immediate imaginative impact of the work for the non-specialist. It may well be true, as one anonymous reader of an earlier version of this essay observed, “the best critics of Homer have always been historical critics, and it is quixotic to think otherwise.” But it is equally true that specialized historical enquiry, for all its obvious achievements (including, most importantly, the text of Homer’s poems), has often tended to remove the Iliad from the realm of public discourse, that is, from the world of the general reader, who is not prepared to wade through rivers of historical facts in order to reach an understanding of the poem. There is no necessary reason why historical criticism must do this, but that it often does is attested to by many melancholy observations:


Modern studies of classical antiquity tend to stress anything and everything rather than the moral-political nexus. The present trends in classical scholarship cannot be taken as a reliable guide to either the past or the present value of the classical humanities for us. . . . To put it in a relatively polite and objective way, most scholarship in the humanities is not very humanistic, if measured by the value-oriented old humanities. (Else 807)


The problem lies not in historians’ methods but in their ambitions. Professionalization and specialization have reshaped history, like all academic disciplines. Historians—partly from the stark necessities of making a career, partly from a natural inclination to direct their work to those best fitted to judge—write almost entirely for other historians (or for the students in courses taught by other historians, which in practice usually amounts to the same thing). The proliferation of more or less esoteric methodologies in the past ten or fifteen years has accelerated this tendency considerably. Countervailing pressures to speak to a wider audience of educated men and women are fitful and feeble. In this, history closely resembles other disciplines. (Turner 223-4)


My own (unresearched) sense is that in the past twenty years or so, the renewed interest in Great Books programs in North America has lessened the emphasis on historical approaches to Homer, at least in the classroom, since many (or most) of those students now studying the Iliad have no intention of immersing themselves in Classical Studies and are studying the work without constant reference to its historical context. Nonetheless, it is still important to emphasize that we have to be careful not to shield ourselves from Homer by insisting that it is an old work from another age, which we can understand only by constant reference to historical facts, as best we can ascertain them. Of course, the Iliad is immensely important as a historical document, but we need to remember, too, that “As poetry [the Homeric epics] are independent of place and date, for their appeal is to human nature” (Myres 3). Thus, when Cedric Whitman tells us that it is “impossible to approach the Homeric poems as one would approach the written text of any other author” (8), we need take this advice with some care. If Whitman simply wants to call attention to Homer’s unusual style, then the remark states only what we might point to in any great masterpiece—its uniquely challenging poetic language. If, on the other hand, the claim here is, as it seems to be, that the oral conventions of Homer’s poetry turn the epic into something inaccessible to the modern reader without a thorough grounding in the scanty records of oral poetry in Ancient Greece, then the general reader has to ask herself whether she should not give up and turn her attention to reading Shakespeare, until such time as a well-known scholar tells her that understanding the plays is “impossible” without a thorough grasp of Elizabethan stage conventions and the history of blank verse. Whitman’s book, interestingly enough, refutes his own claim, for, in addition to its remarkably interesting scholarship, Homer and the Heroic Tradition stands out as one of the most useful critical interpretations of the Iliad largely on the strength of the central chapters, in which Whitman deliberately sets aside his historical concerns and approaches the text of the poem directly, in accordance with the ahistorical principles of a New Critic, a methodology for which he offers a persuasive defence (102 ff).




Nowhere does Homer challenge our modern sensibilities more than in our feelings about war, for our vision of that common human activity is significantly different from that of the Iliadic warriors, even though we may share with them a sense of war as an unwelcome evil, a brutal and destructive enterprise which threatens much that human beings most cherish. In recognizing this, our modern spirit approaches war as it would any other evil, as a problem with particular human causes (psychological, social, political, economic, and so on) and therefore as something corrigible. Our civilization has worked hard to eliminate any trace of the idea that warfare is a given fact of life which we need to organize into coherent rituals in order to make it bearable, and we have made repeated attempts to end warfare (e.g., the “war to end all wars”). The result has been, to say the least, ironic: we have multiplied by the millions the destructiveness of the experience we so confidently set out to control and have left the presence of war as common as ever. In the process, even our most humanitarian intentions have become horribly transformed into routine atrocities and, largely as a result of our rational plans for the improvement of our condition, the battlefield has, in many cases, lost its vital human significance and turned into a place of “terrible, terrible war made so fearful because in every country every man lost his head and lost his own centrality, his own manly isolation in his own integrity, which alone keeps life real” (D. H. Lawrence 216).


To make this observation is not to claim that Homer is right and that we are wrong. Such crude, sweeping evaluations are simplistic. What a confrontation between Homer’s vision and our modern historical experience might suggest, however, is that our vision of warfare and the metaphors of human nature and society from which it springs may well be flawed in some fundamental ways which, because we are so thoroughly products of modern times, we cannot properly comprehend. With the traditional rational optimism which forms the basis for most of our political rhetoric and media analysis, we may not be able to grasp the ironic complexities of the most ironic of human experiences. Looking back over the past two and a half centuries, we can easily find evidence to suggest that many of the great slogans born from the Enlightenment were excessively sanguine. And surely none of those confident pronouncements viewed in retrospect now appears more disingenuous than liberalism’s most famous dictum about war, the heading to section twenty-four in the first chapter Carl von Clausewitz’s On War, “War is Merely a Continuation of Policy by Other Means.” To the rational analyst, there’s no mystery about it, for warfare is just one more useful tool in our box of political instruments, and “Anything other than that which still remains unique to war is concerned merely with the peculiar nature of the means war uses.” The wars in the century and a half since the publication of these words are a terrible denunciation of the naive rational analysis which makes warfare nothing more than a convenient tool available to our policy planners.(4)


To point out this irony of modern times is not to claim that our best hopes for humankind are entirely misplaced. Nor does it mean that we must set aside our efforts to contain or mitigate warfare. These are worthy and necessary priorities. However, a challenge to our conventional ways of thinking about war might well help us recognize that many of the frustrations we encounter and mistakes we make in thinking and deciding about war may well stem, not from the complications in or misuse of Clausewitz’s toolbox, but from the rational metaphor we apply to something which properly belongs to the mysterious and irrational order of nature, which is, in the well-known words of J. S. Haldane, not only stranger than we presently imagine, but stranger than we can possibly imagine.


It’s clear, for example, that we don’t like to acknowledge Athena’s presence in the battle lines, that is, to acknowledge that war answers to certain powerful, joyous, and creative potentialities in the human spirit. That the finest men often respond to combat with enthusiasm and a vital pride in themselves and that the working class, which was going to save society from the cruel militarists, is often particularly eager to volunteer for the next campaign can puzzle us, often into angry denials of what we do not wish to confront, in spite of the evidence all around us. Our understanding of war, in other words, may suffer from limited and limiting notions of human nature and providence and prevent us from a more intelligent sense of war’s mystery.


And yet the mystery insists on manifesting its power. Commenting in 1910 on our continuing inability to abandon warfare, William James observed:


Turn the fear over as I will in my mind, it all seems to lead back to two unwillingnesses of the imagination, one aesthetic, and the other moral; unwillingness, first to envisage a future in which army life, with its many elements of charm, shall be forever impossible, and in which the destinies of peoples shall nevermore be decided quickly, thrillingly, and tragically, by force, but only gradually and insipidly by “evolution”; and, secondly, unwillingness to see the supreme theatre of human strenuousness closed, and the splendid military aptitudes of men doomed to keep always in a state of latency and never show themselves in action. These insistent unwillingnesses, no less than other aesthetic and ethical insistencies, have, it seems to me, to be listened to and respected. One cannot meet them effectively by mere counter-insistency on war’s expensiveness and horror. The horror makes the thrill; and when the question is of getting the extremest and supremest out of human nature, talk of expense sounds ignominious. The weakness of so much merely negative criticism is evident—pacificism makes no converts from the military party. The military party denies neither the bestiality nor the horror, nor the expense; it only says that these things tell but half the story. It only says that war is worth them; that taking human nature as a whole, its wars are its best protection against its weaker and more cowardly self, and that mankind cannot afford to adopt a peace-economy. (9)


These words appeared before we witnessed the staggering increase in battlefield and civilian atrocities in two world wars and more or less continuous warfare somewhere or other ever since, and yet, to judge from the continuing popularity of war in nations great and small and the enormous commitment around the world to maintaining military institutions, pacificism continues to win too few converts from the military party. That being the case, it strikes me that a fatalistic sense of the complexities of war might well be a more useful way of thinking about the subject, a traditional starting point which, in our rational hopes for progress, we have too easily dismissed. Of course, such a stance might contradict our most cherished dreams, but if we wish to cope with the realities of war maturely, we must surely by now be willing to recognize the dangers of those illusions which have repeatedly disappointed us and left us incapable of dealing intelligently with our own battle experiences.




The most obvious contemporary evidence for our inability to comprehend fully our own wars comes from the very popular but very confused films which attempt to make sense of the conflicts in Vietnam (and now in Iraq). The most remarkable characteristic of these conflicts is the way in which they resist the easy moral categories our modern North American culture has developed to understand its own wars. For the first step we traditionally undertake to understand the brutality of war is to identify a particular evil person or group against whom the national forces of goodness can then direct an arsenal of well-armed liberal principles to solve the problem quickly and efficiently. We need to identify someone to blame, especially someone who, in the progressive combat between good and evil, can finally be overcome by the forces of goodness. American popular artists had no trouble fitting World Wars One and Two and the Korean War into this conventional paradigm, because the nasty Germans, Japanese, and Chinese were, in the popular imagination, so obviously the sources of all the evil which warfare brings and because the forces of good eventually triumphed. But the war in Vietnam is not susceptible to such treatment, and what’s going on in Iraq creates problems, as well. The Vietnamese appear so uncomfortably close to the American vision of what constitutes goodness (constantly fighting for their liberation from foreign occupiers and tyrannical corruption in Saigon, for example), and, for all the later Rambo revisionism (“They never beat us in a pitched battle” and so on), the Vietnamese eventually triumphed. No one can deny the atrocities of the killing zone, and no one can yet forget the scenes of American personnel desperately scrambling for the last helicopters. Where did all this originate? Where is the clearly identifiable culprit? Years later, similar atrocities in Iraq are a daily feature of the news, and the forces of goodness are increasingly bogged down in a destructive mess they themselves created. What happened?  


And so in the popular imagination the blame is placed on the liars in the White House, deranged militarists, or on some sinister military-industrial complex. Even those who know better, who are aware of the hopelessly ironic experience of the war in which the country had become enmeshed, could not challenge the national mythology which it is their political duty to sustain. Asked why he had not told the American people the truth about Vietnam, President Johnson answered with characteristically colloquial but revealing candour, “When your mother-in-law has only one eye and that eye is in the middle of her forehead, you don’t keep her in the living room.” One sees what the president meant. In the Great Society Polyphemus is not a native son, or at least we do not openly admit to a relationship. The optimistic national faith in the goodness of man and the country does not wish to confront a more sinister vision of itself. By contrast, it wants to protect itself with “the illusions of eternal strength and health, and of the essential goodness of people; illusions of a nation, the lies of generations of frontier mothers who had to croon falsely, that there were no wolves outside the cabin door” (F. S. Fitzgerald 134). In the Vietnam experience the wolves came right into the house, and ever since, following President Johnson’s advice, American popular artists have been trying to shove them into a hidden back room.


Such widely hailed films as Apocalypse Now (1979), Platoon (1987), Full Metal Jacket (1987), and Good Morning, Vietnam (1988), for example, depict graphically enough the horrors of war. In fact, the single most remarkable quality of these films is their rendition of the grinding and bloody interaction between men and matter, and the most compelling moments arise out of the powerful images of the destructive machinery of war. But to judge from these films (and others), the director lacks any significant way of making sense out of this destruction. The obsession with the material face of war often suggests that the director is hoping that a coherent human response to the experience with somehow emerge from a faithful rendition of the harsh surface details. The frequent and unsatisfactory use (by now a familiar convention) of the coordinating central monologue by the main character to link the scenes only reminds us how impossible it is for any American Everyman to remain true to his national faith and, at the same time, to recognize the fatal ambiguities of conduct to which the depictions of war are calling attention.


In other words, these films, by providing naturalistic pictures of men in battle, immediately raise certain complex questions about the nature of warfare, but then, as if ignorant of or horrified by what is emerging, the films inevitably fail to manifest an intelligent awareness of the ironies which they themselves reveal. And obvious example occurs in Platoon, which rather crudely directs the viewer to accept Sergeant Elias as evil and Sergeant Barnes as good. But the film necessarily raises a question it does not dare to explore: Why, then, is the good man doing exactly the same thing as the bad man, killing the enemy and leading his men out to be killed? And why, for all his protestations to the contrary, does he appear to be so good at it and to enjoy himself so much. Quite against the director’s intentions, the “evil” Sergeant Elias, emerges as the only character of real depth and interest in the film because he is the only one who looks directly at the war and makes a considered decision to accept it as a condition of his life, since he cannot escape it, and to impose his will upon it, rather than constantly trying to evade it or to complain about it with a string of colloquial and repetitive obscenities.  
Apocalypse Now neutralizes any imaginative discomfort by presenting the central character, Willard, as abnormal right from the opening frames, a man who sleeps beside his gun and slashes his own flesh as part of his morning ablutions (the name itself is interesting: the best known earlier Hollywood character named Willard was a young lad obsessed with rats). The violence is shocking, but the image finally consoling: whatever happens on the strange trip up the river need not affect the viewer’s sense of himself, because clearly Willard is, like Colonel Kurtz, a freak. And Willard does not have to deal with anything he might have learned from his nightmarish trip because the film leaves him stranded, miles up a foreign creek, while napalm takes care of the horrors he has experienced. Interestingly enough, Coppola borrowed extensively from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to create a narrative for the film but, in his treatment of the main character and the ending, totally neutralizes the point of Conrad’s haunting tale. Good Morning, Vietnam brings the protagonist right up against some of the complexities of war, including the awareness of his own complicity in the violence, and then forcibly removes him from having to act on that awareness, easily and evasively resolving his problems with a silly baseball game and laying the blame for the evils of war on stupid military types. He does not have to evaluate and act upon his new knowledge because by the time he finds out what is really happening, he knows he is going home.


In adopting such evasive strategies, whatever their declared intentions about delivering the reality of war, many modern film-makers are really trying, and to judge from the public approval for their efforts, evidently succeeding, in consoling the audience, in demonstrating with sentimental popular art that the liberal vision is still intact and that, but for a few nasty generals, mentally unbalanced citizens, and sleazy politicians, the Vietnam war would never have happened. By striving to put that war behind America into the repository of traditional national myths, the films resurrect the frontier lies and reassure their audiences that the wolves have migrated elsewhere. Responding to the optimistic imperatives of the national consciences, the film-makers dissolve Homer’s front-line sibling partnership of Athena and Ares, convert Athena into a lover of peace (or, more commonly, a hater of war), keep Ares, now the orphan result of some inexplicable and unwelcome lethal recessive mutation in the form of a few nasty human beings, and set the two deities against each other, finally awarding the palm to Athena. In the process, for all the full-screen horror these films depict, the harsh, irrational fatalism of warfare becomes changed into a reasonable, comforting, and sentimental moral allegory which can then be applied to the opening of the next encounter. In that sense, there’s a clear line between the re-interpretations of Vietnam and the bellicose confidence which launched the Iraq expeditions.


The imaginative failure of American popular culture to comprehend its own experience of war emerges also in the great hostility which often greets attempts to explore the phenomenon in more complex ways. Cimono’s film Deer Hunter, for example, makes an unusual and intelligent attempt to picture the connections between the experience of combat and the warrior’s origins in and his return to a community governed by traditional ritual. Although in the film the connections between that community and the war are very tenuous, Cimono’s treatment of the effects of war and especially his very disturbing and powerful central metaphor of Russian roulette offer no easy moral triumph for the American way. Indeed, at the end of the film the communal singing of “God Bless American” brings out the thinness of the national sentiment when matched against the irrational absurdity of the experiences we have witnessed. But liberal apologists routinely castigate the film with charges of xenophobic “racism” and “political amnesia” largely because Cimono shows the Vietnamese soldiers caught up in the barbarous treatment of prisoners of war. And thus the potential illumination of some aspects of war’s complexity gets shoved aside while opponents of this critical vision debate the historical veracity of Cimono’s narrative (see, for example, “Four Shots” and Kael 512-519).  


Similarly, The Warriors (1979), not a Vietnam film but a particularly interesting exploration of urban combat, earned the wrath of Sol Yurick, the Marxist-inspired author of the book on which the film was based. He hated the film because it had taken his vision of the economic deprivation of the young New York street gangs, an attack on the social imperfections of American society--”You see, I wanted to get across the sense of what the social distribution of wealth really means” (qtd Auster and Georghkas 22)--and turned it into a challenging picture of how in the midst of an irrational, hostile, and fated labyrinth from which there is no exit and where danger leaps out from every corner, the human spirit responds with a Homeric sense of aggressively brutal and frequently beautiful individualistic assertiveness, held together by the dynamics of status within the group. The author’s liberal imagination could not accept the Greekness of the film. That’s odd, of course, because he had based his story on Xenophon’s Anabasis.




To introduce into an essay on Homer’s Iliad a discussion of modern popular visions of battle is a legitimate way of calling attention to a central argument of this essay, namely, that Homer’s epic has much to teach us about ourselves. For a culture’s vision of war, the way its people comprehend that universal experience, arises out of its deepest assumptions about man, nature, and the gods, that is, from the mythology basic to the way people think and feel. One is not surprised, therefore, that the difficulties popular film-makers have in exploring the Vietnam conflict are to a large extent shared by intellectuals investigating the same events. The academic literature on that war, by now very copious, demonstrates again and again the extent to which the attempts to understand what happened and why are limited by the liberal assumptions about the nature of man fundamental to our intellectual enquiries. The terrible emotional impact of a brutal war and humiliating defeat are explained away in accounts of the events which point to the unskillful use of the machinery of war, the evil or stupidity of particular leaders, the ignorance of those who should have studied the data more thoroughly, and so on. Significantly absent is the notion that warfare is something beyond complete human control and understanding and that, therefore, the confidence with which we discuss it and try to use it as “merely the continuation of policy by other means” or as a machine with lots of friction reveals a dangerous naiveté which we would be wise to take into account. Such studies thus not only prevent us from recognizing any possible connection between the destructiveness, our inadequate metaphors, and the mysterious passions lurking in nature, but also finally reassure us: there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the metaphor or with the common man; we (or some of us) just applied it incorrectly.(5) And, after all, the Vietnamese never beat us in a pitched battle.


To those who maintain such a comforting hypothesis the example of Senator William Fulbright is particularly instructive. In his opposition to the Vietnam expedition, Fulbright was fond of pointing out the parallels between American folly and Thucydides’ account of the Athenian expedition to Sicily. The comparison is obviously pertinent, in the same way that a comparison with Homer’s vision of the Trojan war is pertinent, for it calls attention to the ironic disparity between the fondest hopes of ambitious, naive, overconfident, and misinformed human beings and the eternally mysterious reality of nature, human and non-human. One wonders, however, what might have happened in the congressional debates on Vietnam if Senator Fulbright, the most authoritative spokesman in Congress on matters of foreign policy at the time, had attended to Thucydides earlier, before he began his opposition to the war, before, that is, he personally sponsored, in August 1964, the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which gave the American interventional whatever national legitimacy it possessed.


This resolution, it is worth remembering, passed unanimously in the House after only forty minutes of debate. In the Senate only two dissenting voices were raised (Senators Morse of Oregon and Gruening of Alaska). Senator Fulbright, who apparently regretted his decision ever after, claimed that the President had lied to him. Both Homer and Thucydides, in their different ways, could have informed the Senator clearly enough that in matters of warfare, folly and deception in high places are not unusual. The same information might well have proved useful in similar discussions years later over the reasons for going to war in Iraq for the second time.


The point worth stressing here, of course, is that in any fully informed debates about going to war it is useful to bring to bear an intelligent sense of what war is going to involve, so that any notions that a declaration of war can lead to a “quick fix” and an obvious “exit strategy” in the service of a rationally thought-out foreign policy are balanced against a sensitive appreciation for what “going to war” really means, especially when those discussions are being carried out by people who have no direct familiarity with the enterprise and are not sufficient attentive to those who have. The most obvious example of such a need is George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. It is clear enough he and his closest advisors simply ignored the advice of those who did have a better appreciation for the complexity of warfare, namely those in the military who stressed that such an expedition would need a few hundred thousand troops and would require the Americans to stay for years. Brushing such reservations aside, the President launched the war, posed under the “Mission Accomplished” banner, and then watched his confident application of force evolve into what may well turn out to be the most disastrous foreign policy decision ever made by a US president. There are few better examples of the naiveté of modern liberal thinking about warfare, and as I write these words (in April 2006) there is something fascinating about watching President Bush constantly wrestling with his inability to confront what he is up against.


It is clear that on the basis of those assumptions which inform how people think and feel, they determine the most important choice in their personal, social, and political lives. So long as we restrict ourselves to the conventions in which we have been educated to perceive reality, our ability fully to grasp what we are is, in some essential manner, limited, for we have no proper way of understanding, let alone dealing with, problems which arise out of the very concepts we use to interpret nature, including our own. The Iliad remains important and valuable to us, not because it provides us with a viable alternative system of belief, but because it puts great pressure on us to examine the adequacy of our conventional ways of thinking and feeling, especially about warfare. That human beings can often respond powerfully to uncomfortable visions which challenge their favourite ideas is evident from the popularity of Homer’s epic, which, in spite of the fact that many translations and interpretations seek to blunt that challenge, remains an imaginatively rich and moving vision.  


This force of a different view of nature stands revealed also in the most extraordinary and eloquent legacy of the Vietnam experience, the memorial in Washington, DC, to the Vietnam dead. For this tribute to the victims of the war, designed by Maya Lin, is anything but a conventional monument neatly deposited on an appropriate civic square, a tidy white decoration celebrating with a suitable pro patria mori slogan the valour and patriotism of the slain. The black Vietnam wall rises from the earth like some grimly beautiful chthonian presence announcing the secret and bloody powers of nature itself. The contrast between it and the neighbouring Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial with which the shape of the wall deliberately links itself, could hardly be more striking (to say nothing of the contrast between it and the newer and much more conventional World War II memorial). Not surprisingly, the design met fierce opposition to what conventional thinking, accustomed to very different tributes to the fallen, labeled a “black gash of shame,” something “unheroic, unpatriotic, below ground, and death oriented” (Swerdlow 563). That the design could survive the selection process intact with only minor (although deleterious) modifications is a tribute to the emotional richness of the stark image. Extraordinary, too, is the feeling the memorial creates in the visitors who approach it, a reaction quite different from the typical responses to traditional cenotaphs. At the Vietnam wall, those close to it feel impelled to touch the stone or kiss it, as if they wish quite spontaneously to establish an irrational but vital contact between the earth out which it arises and their own frail lives. No purely rational analysis of the Vietnam conflict even understands, let alone communicates, a sense of the atavistic truth which emerges from that stone and ground.


In spite of all our needs
we do help at her labors.
We deliver bodies to fertilize the earth we fight over.
We die to make bodies count for something,
to control the places of slaughter
that old terror we still call Mother
in the earth wind and water
intended a fields of praise. (Gerald Barrax)


There is surely no profounder public symbol of the challenge to the modern Western imagination than the images honouring the ideals of George Washington, the founder of the nation, the eloquent and courageous striving of Abraham Lincoln, the preserver of the union and president during the Civil War, and the mysteriously beautiful and ominous powers of the earth itself, all in close proximity in the political heart of the Western enterprise. Our future will be determined more than anything else by the extent to which we can in our public and personal lives manifest and combine the paradoxical qualities of human life that these monument, all of them, reveal and preserve, recognizing that we must retain our faith in the ideals that lift our eyes up to the sky, that we must fight to defend the best hopes for mankind, and, finally and most important, that in seeking life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all, we put those very ideals at terrible risk whenever we neglect the ancient and powerful forces which still, whether we care to acknowledge them or not, ascent irresistibly out of the earth to impose limits upon our most cherished visions of ourselves.


To be put back into imaginative touch with the irrational centres of human life is to experience the fullest and most mature awareness of our most vital hopes. For only by testing those hopes against alternative visions can we properly understand a little better than we do the conditions common to us all.


So long as we see our troubles exclusively from the familiar cultural, anthropocentric perspective, they can appear only as problems awaiting a technical or political solution. But what if we tried not so much to overcome our problems as to understand them and listen to what is speaking there?  Nothing in today’s civilization encourages so seemingly passive a stance, but if we were able sometimes to look at our situation through older eyes and with their aid relearn the power of limit (the limes or boundary line separating the human settlement from the wild, whose encroachments must always be respected), then the more equable relation between culture and nature which some are looking for might seem less unattainable. A search into our past might prove to be not a step back but a way of facing the questions that come at us from the future. (Carne-Ross 60).


One final point. In recent decades we have been witnessing in North America something of a cultural crisis, a loss of confidence in the Western enterprise and an increasing confusion about the value of our civilization. As our power over human and non-human nature grows exponentially, so, too it seems, to our doubts. Many of those who have written recently about this malaise from many different intellectual perspectives echo the words in the above quotation, seeing in our neglect of the past the source of our confusion and in a rediscovery of that cultural past the very best hope we have for regaining a sense of a purposeful present and future.


I share the conviction that our best hopes for the future must emerge, if at all, not from a more energetic recommitment to future inventions, utopian revolutions, therapeutic innovations, narcotic anodynes, or freer trade, but rather from an imaginative re-engagement with our neglected traditions. My purpose in writing these essays on the Iliad has been to encourage the reader to see in this great poem, in its beauty, power, and terror, a uniquely rich vision of human nature which can reacquaint us with ourselves, with the joy and wonder of tragic striving in the face of destiny, a response which may still summon from us the courage to realize more fully and intelligently what we can be, in an age that often, it seems, in the effort to liberate humankind, has somehow sadly reduced our significance.




(1) My remarks here owe a great deal to the writings of George Grant and Michael Howard. [Back to Text]


(2) For an interesting study of this and related matters, see Howard Clarke. The Christian precedents of such a treatment of pagan literature are very old and authoritative, stemming, in part, from Deuteronomy 21:10, which advises the God-fearing man who wishes to domesticate a beautiful and desirable infidel enemy to “bring her home to thine house and she shall shave her head, and pare her nails,” in other words, immediately surrender all her wild, dangerous, and alluring strangeness. If she behaves herself for a while, she may stay, and an appropriately safe union may be consummated. [Back to Text]


(3) So, for example, Dryden’s summary judgment in “Preface to Troilus and Cressida” that Homer’s moral is “union preserves a commonwealth and discord destroys it” (1:213), or Hadas’ view, quoted in the last essay, that the story of Achilles is a victory for civilization.  [Back to Text]

(4) Significant, too, is the industrial metaphor upon which Clausewitz bases his analysis: “The conduct of war resembles the workings of an intricate machine with tremendous friction, so that the combinations which are easily planned on paper can be executed only with great effort” (17).  [Back to Text]

(5) See Smith, “Vietnam Without Fear” and “Vietnam Post Mortem.” [Back to Text]



[For the Table of Contents of the series of essays and an Introductory Comment outlining the purpose of the series, please use the following link: Essays on Homer’s Iliad.]