Finding Truth in Homer's Iliad

Finding Truth in Homer's Iliad

(Originally published in The BC Catholic)

Beautiful poetry will allow the reader/listener to stop and reflect, thinking about the images produced by words, their sounds and meaning, while transmitting beliefs and values.

Poetry and philosophy share some resemblance in engaging the reader/listener to reflect and to probe. Philosophy evolved not only from the poetic myths that explored the relationship between the human and the Divine, but also from fundamental human questions about life, truth, and love -- existence itself and one’s relation with God. Divine justice was an ongoing question.

The earliest poetry in western civilization and the emerging philosophy are to be found in Greece along the eastern seaboard of the Aegean. Homer’s works go back to the 8th century BC in Ionia. His writings are not philosophical works in themselves, but his epics Iliad and Odyssey generate discussions on fate.

The Aegean is where east meets west. Could Ionic philosophy have been influenced by Egyptian civilization in the southeast? Or from Babylonian cultures directly east? Egypt and Babylon were both known for their studies in mathematics and astronomy. Egyptians pursued mathematics for practical purposes, like measuring flooding in the Nile, while the Babylonians used their astronomy for divination serving more as astrology. The significant difference with the Greek thinkers was that the pursuit of knowledge was for the sake of knowledge: philosophy means the “love of wisdom.” 

In the Homeric vision of the world, destiny, a sort of cosmic law or will, governs both gods and people. Gods experience the same condition of fate as humans: both gods and humans are subjected to a cosmic order. Homer’s conception of destiny is manifested in the events that appear in the Iliad. 

In Greek tragedy and ethics one finds philosophical issues that later re-appear in Christianity as ethical debates: fate/destiny/order/predestination and free will. We use different words to describe destiny in our daily language as when conditions and experiences are consistently favourable we say, “born under a lucky star,” or “whatever he touches turns to gold.” If negative, we speak in terms of “bad omen” or other variants. In religious language we say, “she was blessed” or “God punished him.” Christianity will eventually be caught up in conflicting interpretations of pre-destination as it relates to both salvation and damnation. Order in the cosmos suggests that there is a natural order or “natural law.” Somehow, humans are free within this cosmic order, but are also accountable before God.

So, now let us turn directly to the Iliad for a glimpse into the formation of early Greek philosophy. The setting of the Iliad is the tragic city of Troy, a city on the seaboard of western Asia Minor. Homer relates in his epic the last years of the Trojan War, a war provoked by Paris, son of Priam, King of Troy. While on a voyage to Sparta, Paris visited Menelaos, and dishonestly left with Helen (with her consent), the wife of Menelaos. The brother of Menelaos, Agamemnon, King of Mykenai, led an army against Paris to rescue Helen while she lived with Paris as his consort in Troy.

We need to remember that the Spartan war against Troy was caused by the deceptive departure of Paris with Helen -- both having acted unjustly. In the case of Helen, she was not abducted but freely consented to leave with Paris making Helen morally responsible (irresponsible) for her act. Her legitimate husband was Menelaos who had received Paris with hospitality. 

Agamemnon had a powerful warrior, Achilles. Paris’s brother, Hector, was the defender of Troy. Achilles kills Hector demonstrating that Hector did not have the favour of the gods. Hector, by defending Troy, was also securing the illicit relationship between Paris and Helen.

The supremacy and power of Achilles, instead, reveal the gods looking upon him favourably. But Achilles’, too, shows weakness: his pride. Like poison, pride kills the person’s soul, and the gods respond accordingly. The fall of Troy is brought about by the will of the gods. The fall of Troy is divine justice. Illiad is the earliest example in Greek poetry examining Divine justice in response to human actions; justice presupposes a natural order that is violated. 

Image credit: By Peter Paul Rubensen

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