Nature and Order in Homer

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Rembrandt’s Homer Dictating His Verses in 1663

It has been argued that Homer represents a significant turning point for philosophy, especially toward politics and nature. Odysseus, the man that most closely resembles Socrates, is identified as a well traveled man knowing many cities and many men’s minds. He is fascinated by these minds of the men he encounters. He yearns to learn more, and also to experience more. He is both a tactician, and also a man of action. Frequently in the Odyssey, during his most painful moments, he speaks to his heart and persuades it to overcome his passing strife.

The key turning point, or reorientation, in Homer comes, oddly enough, when the plant moly is introduced by Circe and the word “nature” is used to express the common characteristics among its group, as an organic thing that is ruled by a force other than mankind. The word “nature” was never used in the Hebrew Bible, a similar phrase that can be loosely translated as “way” is more appropriate to describe what, in Homer, is clearly articulated as “nature.” It might be said that wily Odysseus is the first to utter this distinction. Being a well-traveled man, he sees strong distinctions and differences that arise between the many cultures of the earth, but he also notices some similarities. For example, the Ethiopians may have a closer kinship with Poseidon while the Phaeacians find favor among Apollo of the sun, however starting a fire happens by the same process whether he is in Troy or Ithaca -that is to say fire has a nature. Towns or tribes may differ, but fire burns the same everywhere. This critical separation provides a grounding for later inquiry into the nature of things, such as Heraclitus or Parmenides, and other PreSocratic thinkers who inquire into the original first principles of nature. Heraclitus makes the claim that fire is the first principle, while Parmenides asks the question: why does anything have being rather than nothing at all? Also, this separation runs the risk of being exposed to a particular assumption, namely that the nature of humans is somehow unnatural, in contrast to the mysterious self-perpetuating natural cycles found throughout the earth.

The birth of the city comes out of this radical separation -humans devise laws in the cities to complement the nature of things found throughout the cosmos. Natural order is imitated in the city. Consider the similes invoked by Homer -wild lions, gazelles, bees, low hanging grapes, olive trees, eagles, serpents, and so on. The Achaean and Trojan forces are “like” these naturally occurring organisms -they are mimesis or imitations of things that have a nature, or physis.

Therefore, the Homeric turn is to ground early philosophy toward the nature of things, and it inevitably becomes a quest to discover first principles of things such as air, water, fire and so on. This puts the inquiry of philosophy at odds with the city which depends on convenient myths to explain its origins, rather than venturing into the far-off regions of first substances (recall the image invoked by Socrates in the Theaetetus of a bumbling Thales who is so focused upward on the heavens, while he clumsily falls down a well and is made a mockery). Philosophy necessarily comes into conflict with the city in this endeavor -the city is threatened by philosophy. Not until Socrates does mankind’s mode of thinking undergo a more fervent reorientation than Homer.

(for more see Michael P. Zuckert’s writings on Homer)

Persuading Achilles: Books IX, XVI, XXIV Considered

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“Triumphant Achilles” by Franz von Matsch

In Book IX of the Iliad, the Achaeans have been stricken with Panic (“panicos” meaning pertaining to Pan, the god of shepherds and wild animals). In the absence of Achilles on the battlefield, Hector has beaten back the Achaeans nearly to their ships. All that is left is to burn the Achaean ships into the sea. The prospect of returning home begins to cross the Greek minds, and Agamemnon, the shepherd of the people, pleads that Odysseus and Ajax form an embassy and persuade Achilles to return to the battle.

Which form of persuasion is best when speaking to Achilles? What is his response to the various methods of persuasion lobbied towards him?

Upon the Achaean arrival to the camp of the Myrmidons, Odysseus and Ajax are greeted as friends of Achilles, in fact the ‘men he loves most’ and together they feast until Ajax nods to Phoenix and Odysseus raises a toast to the “health” of Achilles (269-273).

Before we examine this diplomatic mission further, let us step back for a moment and consider the scene.

The heroes Odysseus and Ajax make their way along the beach, praying to Poseidon to “bring the proud heart of Achilles round with speed and ease” (217-221). Odysseus leads the way. Upon arrival, they find Achilles “delighting his heart” by plucking his lyre, part of the spoils from razing Eetion’s city, and singing the famous deeds of heroes. Here, Achilles assumes the role of poet with an audience of, at least, Patroclus. He is startled out of his peaceful song by his “dearest friends,” and instantly Achilles realizes that he must be sorely needed on the battlefield.

Achilles welcomes the emissaries and sits them down on purple carpets with bigger and stronger cups of wine than he and Patroclus are currently enjoying. Presumably, they are both under the comforting spell of wine as they speak with Odysseus and Ajax. Achilles carves and serves the meat, while Patroclus lights the spit and delivers the bread in wicker baskets. Together, with Achilles sitting against the far wall, they sacrifice to the gods and eat and drink.

Now that we have properly characterized the scene -a symposium, or a banquet -let us return to Odysseus’s toast. He fills his cup and raises it to the “health” of Achilles. It is healthy and fitting that friends should eat and drink with one another. Second, Odysseus compares the great feast from Achilles to that of the feast in the son of Atreus’s tent, Agamemnon. He states that they are both excellent feasts, and by making this comparison, he reminds Achilles of the unity existing between the Achaean forces.

Following this toast, that is the sweet honey he gives to Achilles before delving into political matters, Odysseus tells the great warrior that the Achaeans are “afraid” (276). First, he explains the dire situation: the Trojans have pitched thousands of tents and fires along the ramparts of the Achaean lines, Zeus sends favorable fire bolts on the right (in classical antiquity, fortune always favors the right, while the is always sinister, coming the Latin meaning “left”), and Hector yearns for morning to destroy the Achaeans. All hangs in the balance, and the fate of the Achaeans lies in the hands of Achilles.

Odysseus also recalls the parting words of Achilles’s father, Peleus, before sending him out with Agamemnon. He reminds Achilles that his father said friendship is always better than troublesome quarrels. In addition to invoking the memory of Achilles’s father, Odysseus also tries to persuade Achilles with troves of gifts and promises from Agamemnon: seven tripods never touched by fire, ten bars of golds, twenty burnished cauldrons, a dozen prize-winning stallions. He will also give twenty women, fine artisans, from Lesbos, including Briseis, whom he swears a sacred oath over that he did not have relations with her. Finally, if they conquer Ilium, Achilles will take his pleasure of the spoils: twenty women second only to Helen, and he can choose any of Agamemnon’s three daughters -Chrysothemis, Laodice and Iphianassa to marry into his family and be treated as an equal of Orestes. Agamemnon will also promise seven citadels to Achilles on sandy Pylos -all facing the sea.

Odysseus closes by beckoning Achilles to, at least, take pity on the Achaeans who will, no doubt, honor him like a god if he returns to the battle to kill Hector in his murderous frenzy.

Achilles responds to Odysseus’s attempt to persuade him (although we should bear in mind that Odysseus has been compelled to relay the messages of Agamemnon, and therefore his attempt to persuade Achilles is both a mix of Odysseus’s tact and Agamemnon’s offerings). He says he will speak bluntly with Odysseus because he hates “the man like the very Gates of Death who says one things but hides another in his heart” (378-379). Rather than riches or honor, Achilles is preoccupied with death -what is the point of fighting if the same fate awaits the coward and the hero?

He criticizes Agamemnon. While Achilles risks his life, pirating 12 cities by sea and 11 cities by land in Troy, the spoils always end up in the hands of Agamemnon. Achilles takes a stand on principle. Agamemnon gets the greatest share of goods, but is undeserving of them because he waits calmly behind the lines. Therefore Achilles’s principle is that the person, or warrior, who takes the greatest risk should receive both the greatest share of bounty and also the greatest honor. He feels cheated and lied to -and he takes down each prize offered to Achilles from Agamemnon and promises to return home after the third day. He wants no brides, or prizes, or citadels, or stallions, or any other gifts offered by Agamemnon, for what good are transient things when a man’s life breath slips away between his teeth. He reminds Odysseus of his fate as told by his mother, Thetis. Achilles can either remain in Troy and die a quick death but will be unendingly honored, or he can return home to a long but forgotten life.

Achilles’s response stuns them all into silence.

Phoenix, the great Myrmidon charioteer, speaks next. He reminds Achilles of his training, in both arms and letters, upon setting out from the house of Peleus to join Agamemnon. Phoenix teaches Achilles and helps to rear him as his own son. He recalls his childhood and running away from the house of his father, only to be taken in by Peleus. He also invokes the image of the gods, none of whom have such an inflexible, iron heart as Achilles. Phoenix, apparently the most poetic and skilled in the art of music, recalls an ancient tale for Achilles, a tale only to be told among friends. He tells the fable of Meleager, the great fighter for the Curetes, as they were locked in combat with Aetolia. His rage was so powerful that he turned the tide of the war, but he suddenly became enraged at his mother, and he retired to his bed to be with Cleopatra, his wife. It was not until Cleopatra wept bitterly as the city was torched, prizes taken, women raped that he decided to rejoin the fight, however it was too late. He ultimately won the battle, but he was not given the treasures he was promised by fighting alongside his friends.

Achilles responds firmly, not persuaded like Chauntecleer of pleasing poems and speeches. He will not rejoin the battle, so long as Agamemnon is his enemy. He also invites Phoenix to join him in his spurn of Agamemnon, as they should shun him together. He tells Phoenix to sleep in his tent tonight, and in the morning they will decide whether to sail home or not -a noticeably different answer than the one he gave to Odysseus. He, at least, leaves open the possibility that the Myrmidons will rejoin the war.

Lastly, Ajax, son of Telamon, rises and speaks to Odysseus that their mission to win over Achilles has failed. He rebukes Achilles for behaving this way over a single woman -perhaps forgetting the catalyst of the war is conducted over the illicit capture of Helen -he asks Achilles to open his heart and show respect for those who want to become his dearest, closest friends. Ajax’s chastisement of Achilles is the shortest attempt to persuade him yet.

Achilles responds “warmly” and that everything he said is after Achilles’s own heart, “or at least mostly so” (788). What could Ajax have said that is not after Achilles’s own heart? Perhaps Achilles, one of the few unmarried men in Troy, does not respond favorably to the fight over a woman, as he does not care for women the way other Achaean warriors do.

Contrast this scene with the image of Patroclus weeping to Achilles in Book XVI. He laments Achilles’s stubborn “heart of iron” and wishes there was a way to help their comrades push back the Trojans as they close in on the Achaean ships. Achilles moved to “pity” admits, for the first time, that is anger could not last forever and also that the Trojans have not yet reached the Myrmidon ships. Therefore, he tells Patroclus that he may don the mighty shield and armor of Achilles and enter the battle with the Myrmidons to push back the Trojans. However, he tells Patroclus that he must return to the camp once the Trojan army has been sufficiently stultified.

Odysseus, in his attempt to move Achilles to pity, gave the best effort at persuasion. Yet he was bound by covenant to present Agamemnon’s gifts as possible retribution. However, with Patroclus, Achilles -who is also a poet and a player of music -is moved to pity at the tears of Patroclus in his love for the Achaean comrades.

Consider a final example of persuasion and Achilles. In Book XXIV, Priam, with the help of the messenger Hermes, goes to the Achaean camp as all of the Myrmidons are stricken with wonder as they see him. Priam, as Odysseus attempted to do and Patroclus did successfully, persuades Achilles by appealing to his sense of sorrow and pity. He begs Achilles to recall his father and the great sadness that comes to a father who loses his son (presumably Achilles recalls his fate that will never let him see his father, Peleus, again). They both weep together as Priam kisses the hands of Achilles, the killer of his son. Once Achilles overcomes his state of lament, he vows to return Hector back to Priam. In addition, Priam offers gifts, as Agamemnon once did, in an attempt to persuade the Achaeans to sail away as they have won the war. However, Achilles does not respond in kind. As in the earlier case from Book IX in which Agamemnon sends Ajax and Odysseus to offer gifts to Achilles, he, once again, does not embrace the idea and also threatens Priam, alluding to his impending death.

Thus, in summary, Achilles, as a man of many passions, is persuaded best by feelings of pity. He is a tragic man who sees only sorrow and rarely comedy -we are never given an instance of laughter with Achilles, but we are given many examples of him weeping. He is compelled to act by his great tragic pity he feels for his friends, and this influences his mighty wrath, which Homer identifies as the subject of the Iliad. While Ajax chastises Achilles and Phoenix tells a pleasing fable, Odysseus makes the best presentation by appealing to his pity for his fellow soldiers. Although Odysseus ultimately fails in this mission, he, nevertheless, gives a lasting impression to the young Patroclus who is moved by feelings of pity as he sees the Achaean forces being trampled by the Trojans. This moment, in turn, causes his appeal to Achilles and Achilles relents his wrath in exchange for feelings of pity for his friends. As when Zeus bears two jars at his feet, one with honors to bestow on humans, and the other with sorrows to bestow on humans, Achilles takes far too much stock from the latter and opens his fate to a tragic demise.


For this reading I used the Fagles and Lattimore translations.

Thoughts on Odysseus and Achilles

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A 1st Century fresco found in Herculaneum on the education of Achilles by the centaur Chiron

Achilles is a man of many passions. He is often described as quick, or “swift-footed.” For Achilles, the warrior, his life is short and grim. His unfettered rage is drawn out and drawn towards those who have offended him, especially those who have offended him most recently. He knows only friends and enemies. Rather than pursuing a strategy of diplomacy, of weighing the advantages and disadvantages among both friends and enemies, Achilles knows only total war. Friends and enemies are without qualifications -they are, so to speak, black and white to a warrior like Achilles.

Achilles also demands moral perfection. He expresses dislike for men who give speeches and commit acts that do not reflect the truth concealed in their hearts. Instead, he looks for authenticity. Any lie is a bad lie for Achilles -he does not approve of such a thing as a noble lie. He is skeptical of poets, tactful poets like Odysseus. This is why he fails in the realm of politics. He lacks the will to negotiate with Agamemnon, and his decision leaves his Myrmidon men muttering to themselves.

Odysseus, on the other hand, is filled nostos, the root for nostalgia meaning homecoming. His deep longing is to return home to reclaim the house of his fathers. Unlike Achilles, who is described as longing to return home to garden and live a long but quiet life, Odysseus longs to return home to continue to lead his family.

The Iliad is a text explicitly dedicated to the passion, the rage, of Achilles. The bard calls to the goddess in the Iliad, but in the Odyssey, he calls to the Muse about “a man.” Who is this man, to whom an entire Homeric epic is dedicated?

In the second line of the Odyssey, Odysseus is identified as the winner of the Trojan war. This is of course contra Achilles, the great warrior, whose rage is not credited with winning the war. Instead Achilles’s rage is characterized as leading many Achaeans to their death. The killing of Hector is inferior to the wooden horse ploy in leveling the city of Priam. Odysseus, on the other hand, is identified as the man of many twists and turns. He speaks in different ways to different groups. Toward the noisy masses of men, like Thersites, he forcibly punishes them. Toward men of renown, such as Agamemnon, he persuades them, appealing to their capacity for reason. As an example, Helen explains to King Priam that Odysseus’s wise council is second only to Zeus. He is crafty and cunning, a man of many disguises. He is also a dangerous poet to his foes, a pleasant liar who speaks and acts with reason, rather than passion. He is favored by Athena, goddess of wisdom.

Perhaps the differing educations of both Achilles and Odysseus bear significance on their unique distinctions. Achilles is a properly educated and reared man. The centaur, Chiron, is the legendary teacher who educates Achilles as his own disciple. Achilles, however, can only be reared to a certain limit. His heel, after all, is the only body part not dipped into the river Styx by his mother Thetis. Whereas Odysseus received no formal education, he was presumably trained in the art of war, and also in music and poetry. In addition Odysseus, who is perhaps a genius, has the gift of interpretation. While Achilles responds to events, typically with rage, Odysseus analyzes and then responds. For this reason, Odysseus endures and Achilles lives a short life but memorable life.

Now to turn the page, the two heroes notably share a common bond on this final point regarding durability. Achilles strives to make an enduring name for him by, somewhat ironically, sacrificing his own life. He knows, according to the prophecy, that by killing Hector, he will remain in Ilium and never return home with the Myrmidons again. Yet he is driven by his ceaseless rage. Similarly, Odysseus is concerned with his name. For in an age of endless challenges, war and contest are the ways for man to build a lasting name for himself. Odysseus, who nearly drowns at the hands of Poseidon, cries out that his story be not forgotten. It is good and fitting that the life of a man should emulate an epic, such as the epics of Homer, rather than a tragedy, perhaps of those written by Euripides. It is better to be remembered triumphantly and heroically than it is to remembered as pitiable and tragic. However, to be remembered is what is most important to the Achaean heroes, and this need to search for the enduring qualities in life is a characteristic lesson that is of value to learn from Homer, the teacher of the Greeks.

Notes on the Odyssey Books I-IV: The Telemachia

In the Telemachia, the first four books of the Odyssey, we encounter a strange kinship between the speeches and actions of Telemachus and the warrior Achilles. Both are passionate and wrathful, for different reasons, yet as the character of Telemachus begins to emerge in this prelude to the story of Odysseus’s homecoming, so does his guile and tact.

Telemachus welcomes a “stranger,” who is Athena disguised as Mentes lord of Tapian men, and as he joins the goddess for a banquet he also explains the downfall of his father’s house (Book I, 180-205). Telemachus, now twenty years old, laments his father’s probable death. He is also skeptical of his origins -Is Odysseus his true father? With Odysseus absent, Telemachus can only rely on the word of Penelope, his mother (Book I:248-255). Like Oedipus he yearns for knowledge of his origins, and like Orestes, later expounded upon in Aeschylus’s Oresteia, Telemachus longs for revenge.

Telemachus soon knows the stranger to whom he speaking as a god, and rather than continuing to call Athena a “stranger”, he calls her a “friend”. One who gives guidance, a teacher, is more a friend than a stranger. Upon her departure, Telemachus is filled with courage and the memory of his father.

Telemachus is regularly compared, or rather contrasted with Orestes, son of Agamemnon, who avenges his father by killing Aegisthus for claiming Agamemnon’s throne by taking Clytemnestra, Agamemnon’s wife, as his own. Unlike Orestes, Telemachus is greatly outnumbered by the suitors, particularly Antinous and Eurymachus, who look to grow fat and rich off the pleasures of the house of Odysseus.In response, he calls a council for the leaders of Ithaca, yet he fails to speak to the men in a way that persuades them of his cause and his problem. He is not yet compelling and persuasive like his father. He relies, ultimately, on Athena to guide him as he ventures out. Why does Athena beckon Telemachus to leave his father’s house?

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“The Farewell of Telemachus and Eucharis” by Jacques-Louis David (1819)

Perhaps Telemachus’s naïveté prevents his future kingship from being realized. Athena, rather than simply explaining to Telemachus the current status and whereabouts of Odysseus, must compel him to learn. He must be led out to learn of his father. The son lives according to the story of his father. The question of the life or death of a father cannot remain unanswered.

Curiously, in the courtyard, a beautiful bard is singing of the suffering of the Achaeans in Troy. Perhaps he is recalling Homer’s Iliad. The song causes Penelope much despair, and Telemachus commands that retire to her chambers if she does not like the song of the bard. Rather than putting the poet on trial, Telemachus puts those who weep and lament in a position of choice.

In answering the pressing question of his origins, Telemachus travels to Pylos to encounter Nestor and his children after sailing over the “wine-dark sea.” He tells only Eurycleia, his family’s long-serving nurse of his departure. On Pylos, Nestor recalls the many felled men in Troy: Ajax, Achilles, Patroclus, Antilochus -the son of Nestor. He recounts both his and Menelaus’s speedy plan to flee the inner conflicts breaking out between the Achaeans, while brothers Menelaus and Agamemnon went thier separate ways, Menelaus and Nestor traveled back to Achaea, and Odysseus and Agamemnon stayed behind in Troy sacrifice. Therefore Nestor can only recount hearsay of the fate of the Achaeans. The Myrmidons made it home safe, Orestes claimed revenge on his father Agamemnon by killing Aegisthis who first killed Agamemnon and took Clytemnestra. Nestor tells him to go to Menelaus using his stallions with his son Pisistratus to travel Laedemon, or Sparta.

“More than all other men he was born for pain” (Book III: 106). Telemachus speaking to Nestor about Odysseus.

In the golden banquet halls of King Menelaus, Telemachus beckons  Menelaus to recount his return home from Ilium. Similar to the way in which Homer presents the homecoming of Nestor, a framed narrative -a story within a story -Menelaus tells his story. First, Helen recalls the story of Odysseus dressing as a beggar and infiltrating the walls of Troy, and Agamemnon recounts the tale of the wooden horse, devised by Odysseus. He recalls the suffering they incurred at Troy and his subsequent inability to leave Egypt, a much praised country for its wise healers that is unparalleled on earth. He asks Eidothea, the daughter of Proteas , why he is stranded and prevented from returning home. In council, she recommends that he capture her father, Proteas, when he emerges from the water at noon surrounded by seals. Proteas is unable to tell a lie once tightly grabbed ahold of. Menelaus completes this task, with his three best men, and tightly grabs hold of Proteas as he transforms: first into a lion, then a serpent, then a panther, then a wild boar, then a torrent of water, and finally a tree before assuming his natural form. Proteas tells Menelaus that he must return home via the Nile in Egypt, and he also tells of the death of Ajax and Menelaus’s brother, Agamemnon -avenged by Orestes.

Meanwhile, the Telemachia, concludes with a pending sense of doom for Telemachus. The suitors hatch a plan to cut him down upon his return to Ithaca. Rather than let him reclaim his father’s throne, they hope to kill him and court his mother instead. However, in his travels Telemachus has gained a newfound tact, possibly from the model set forth by Athena. This cunning skill will, no doubt, prove fateful for the suitors. It is fitting that in youth, men venture forth, and that in old age, they find themselves filled with nostalgia.


For this reading I used the Fagles and Lattimore translations.