In the midst of mayem and deep uncertainty, as nations tremble and empires flail, it may be worth revisiting the Iliad.
But if you do, resist (briefly) the poetic allure. Instead give more attention to the convoluted plot, human psychology, and social anthropology of the Great Tale. (I prefer Robert Fagles translation.)
Is Abu-Bakr al-Bagdadi our new Agamemnon? Is ISIS the Mycenaean wedge at the fore of loosely assembled Sunni tribes? Is Maliki a misunderstood Priam or is Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani more analogous? Who is your Hector? Who is the Paris we can all agree to blame.
Instead of playing Baghdad for Troy, you might want to consider Kabul or Bangui or Bamako. Dare we imagine Islamabad or Abuja? Damascus or Jerusalem? Some shining city on a hill. Maybe Troy is Kurdish. Your hometown?
Who are your heroes? Your villains? In Homer’s telling every god and mortal — Greek and Trojan — is capable of conceit, self-delusion, and brutality… and their opposites.
Are we so different now? There are many more of us. Our weapons are surely more horrible. Has our heroic capacity matured with our capability to kill? Achilles is the best known of Homer’s so-called heroes. But he spends much of the war sulking. When vengeance pushes him furious into battle he sadistically sullies his win; as we have seen this week in Mosul and many places before.
That this story has in some form persisted these — what, 3000? — years must reflect some realism and recurring relevance of the text.
Especially in its current form the Iliad is a product of the Axial Age. Looking back five (or 30) centuries the supposed casus belli — Helen’s kidnapping — is as absurd as the assassination of an Archduke. Battle is opportunity for personal valor, compelling comradeship, and even stirring pageantry. But warring is also reduced to the reality of individual encounter and inglorious gore, any alleged greater purpose somehow receding. Socrates fights valiantly at Delium, but Sparta still wins the war. Socrates saves the life of Alcibiades at Potidaea and he, who will drink hemlock rather than depart his homeland, becomes teacher, friend, perhaps lover, of that most ambiguous of men. Awareness of — even comfort with — such ambiguity Homer offers as civilizing: probably a Fifth Century theme added to older, less self-critical verse.
The Axial Age, at least as conceived by Karl Jaspers, brings us greater integration and more alignment of belief and behavior. Quarreling gods, random warlords and associated violence are gradually supplanted by purposeful principles and imperial command: Cyrus, Ashoka, Alexander, Qin Shi Huang, Augustus and their successors. Certainly we continue to pillage, rape and murder. But we are rather more organized about it. Boundaries — political, physical, philosophical — are put in place (with significant exceptions, some extending over thousands of miles and centuries).
According to Stephen Pinker, Joshua Goldstein, Norbert Elias and others we can measure — despite all the bloody brutality — real long-term reductions in violence. The Westphalian consensus retrieved and strengthened Axial values. The survivors of the European wars of religion deciding that violence ought be a State monopoly has been especially hard on warlords. Until recently.
Maybe it is the result of that Archduke’s assasination, but however it happened we seem to have entered a transaxial, post-Westphalian period. Era or interlude?
By transaxial I mean the once-upon stand-alone axes which cultures use to mitigate internal strife now intersect and conflict and — so far — no Frank Gehry is emerging to transform multiple axes into beautiful torque (think Bilbao Guggenheim or LAs Disney concert hall). The contradicting lines are dramatic just now along the Tigris, Indus, Niger and Nile rivers. But something similar can erupt even along the Danube or Ohio or Dnieper or James.
This crossing of axes made more dangerous as violent capabilities are more widely distributed. In many cases, the State being only one of many deadly players.
All of which is difficult enough. But what — even in this long-view — has recently caused me particular concern is for transaxial and post-Westphalian to merge with what might be neo-Manichean.
At the heart of the Axial transformation was a rough sense of shared humanity. Whether it was Buddha, Zoroaster, Confucius, Deutero-Isaiah, or Socrates/Plato each recognized in others a reality deserving respect. In the Treaty of Westphalia the signatories pledge to honor their heretical adversaries and solemnly undertake “Universal Peace, and a perpetual, true, and sincere Amity.” Whatever they felt toward lousy Lutherans or corrupt Catholics, they were encouraged in what came to be known as Humanism. It could and did fail, but as Pinker might say, “It could have been — had been — much worse.”
Today with Boko Haram, the Anti-Balakas, ISIS, and others — some closer to home — there is a growing conception of being engaged in cosmic conflict between “us” and “them” — Good and Evil — that justifies, even galvanizes mass murder. This is not just ancient tribalism, but apocalyptic wish-fulfillment. This is an ideology of annihilation. It is Achilles mocking Hector’s offer of mutual honor. It is a shrill chorus of pre-historic savagery. It must be rejected… especially if noticed in ourselves.
Overpowered by memory
Each man gives way to grief.
Priam weeping for man-killing Hector
Throbbing crouching before Achilles’ feet
As Achilles himself also weeps
Now for his father
And again for Patroclus
Their sobs rising and falling throughout the house.
May we be able to share, even with our enemies, more than grief.