Spirituality and the “Iliad”



Anton Mozart, “The Battle of Troy,” 1614 or 22.

In contrast to the Odyssey, for me there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of spiritual significance in the Iliad, unless you count degrees of conflict and division as significant.  As I pointed out in my book The Journey Back to Where You Are, “The Iliad is a description of a world–and a soul–at war.  It’s first word is menin, “rage,” or “wrath,” and that sets the tone for the whole poem.  It is a world ruled by anger and conflict.”  Aside from the overall conflict between the “Greeks” and the Trojans, there is constant bickering among the Greeks, from the opening scene of the conflict between Agamemnon and Achilles right on through.  There are of course moments of relative peace and reconciliation, but they are the exceptions.  The detente between Achilles and Priam that closes the work is of course just temporary, and we know what happens after that.

If anything, it seems to be a negative lesson: this is what happens when we submit to conflict, to our desire to be superior, to win.  It inevitably leads to the use of force, and as Simone Weil says,

The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad is force.  Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away.  In this work, at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relations with force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to.¹

In most ways, then, a taxonomy of the ego, and the opposite of a spiritual quest.  But lately I have come to appreciate that the overarching metaphor in the Iliad is that of the citadel under siege.  (To articulate the obvious, which is my own special skill.)  If we examine this metaphor more closely, we can see some lessons for resolving the conflicts within our own beings.

As humans, we seem to accept that we are a mass of contradictions: conflicting desires, isolated egos longing for connections, stealing–that is, taking as our own–that which is given to us.  The archetypal example of this is Agamemnon, who tells Achilles,

I care neither for you nor for your anger [kotos]; and thus will I do: since Phoebus Apollo is taking Khrysēis from me, I shall send her with my ship and my followers, but I shall come to your tent and [185] take your own beautiful prize Brisēis, that you may learn how much stronger I am than you are, and that another may fear to set himself up as equal or comparable with me.²  (1:183-189)

This is the ultimate in “do unto others before they do unto you,” the same kind of arrogance or hubris that is the downfall of all “superpowers.”  (Agamemnon of course does get his when he arrives home, but goes on making trouble in the Underworld.  See Odyssey 11:455)  Odysseus himself becomes infected with this hubris, and it is his work in the Odyssey to overcome it, shedding it piece by piece in the course of his return home (nostos).

We may think of ourselves as conflicted beings, but all spiritual teachings, including those of the Greeks, tell us that we are in fact the Being (ontotes) of Parmenides, the Boundless (apeiron) of Empedocles, the Good (Agathon) of Plato.  We are in truth more like Troy than we are like Agamemnon.  If you have ever had the feeling of unity, the “citadel-ness,” alluded to by these terms, even to a small extent, you’ll know what this means.  Physically, the body is still, upright yet relaxed.  Mentally, thoughts can be seen as they come and go.  Emotionally, desires are minimized or absent.  There is an overall feeling of well-being, harmony approaching bliss, that comes not from getting what we want, but from knowing who we are.  (Thou art That.)  We have the sense that we are part of a great saga (or epic poem) and are merely playing the part we’ve been given.  We can understand Alkinoos in the Odyssey when he says: The gods arranged all this and they wove the fate of doom for mortals so that future generations might have something to sing about. (8: 579-80)  We want nothing other than that all beings should feel such love.

And yet most of the time we do not have this understanding.  We are like Penelope, wanting to be constant and faithful to the prospect of reunification, but surrounded by suitors–thoughts and desires–who, whatever their apparent good traits, are united in trying to convince her that Odysseus is dead, that reunification is not possible, and she must choose one of them as a new husband, even as they go on “devouring (her) substance.”  They are in fact parasites.  We are constantly tempted by the suitors and usually do end up marrying one of them, “a baser man.”  (20:83)

Or in the context of our current metaphor, we are like the citadel of Troy that is under long-term siege by “baser men.”  (Sorry, fellow Greek-lovers.  The Greeks are usually thought of as the heroes of the Iliad, but in just about every respect they behave like barbarians.)  From what we learn of Troy, it was not unlike how Ithaka is described: a peaceful kingdom ruled by “a gentle father.” (Priam:Troy, Odysseus:Ithaka)  It is self-contained and serves as a beacon for civilized behavior, perhaps just a notch or two below the Phaeakians.  But then, as we might say today, “there is a disturbance in the Force.”  Specifically, Paris absconds with Helen, and the saga begins.  As Robert Lamberton says, Helen

is worldly beauty, the fragmented, imperfect copy of the form of the beautiful inhabiting the material world. The implication is that it is this beauty that entices souls (i.e., the Greeks) to leave their true home and to enter into a mode of existence for which war provides the most apt metaphor.³

We forget that there is a “form of the beautiful,” as Plato says, a “Beauty Absolute,” available to us all at all times.  It is this desire to own one manifestation of Beauty, to have it all for oneself, that is the cause of the fall from the state of grace.  (It must be said that it is this same desire that drives and corrupts much of the art world today.)  From there the events are inevitable: the Greeks must try to get Helen back, the Trojans must resist, the Greeks who cannot win by force must do so by deceit through the Trojan Horse.

So it is with our internal “Greeks.”  We may think we have held them off, that they have given up and are sailing away for good.  But then they sneak in and take over.  (Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.)

I’ve made it sound rather hopeless, but it’s not.  If “Ares is just, and kills those who kill,” Athena is also just and gives wisdom to those who wish to be wise. We are born with knowledge of the Good (the One), but we settle for the knowledge of good and evil (the two).   Wisdom does however require our constant attention and vigilance against anything we might let in that would diminish it, a continuous choice of the true over the untrue, the whole over the partial, of love over force.  It requires a continuous remembering (anamnesis) that what we are is in fact perfect.

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¹Simone Weil, The Iliad, or the Poem of Force, in War and the Iliad, New York Review Books, 2005, p. 3

²Homer, The Iliad, translated by Samuel Butler et. al., http://chs.harvard.edu/CHS/article/display/5286  (All other Iliad quotes are also from this translation.)

³ Robert Lamberton, Homer the Theologian: Neoplatonist Allegorical Reading and the Growth of the Epic Tradition, University of California, 1989. p. 200.


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