August 03, 2006


Caption: A Greek warrior, represented here by a boxer, falls on a hapless Trojan, gallantly portrayed by a toy monkey.

"If only strife could die from the lives of gods and men..." Iliad, Book 18.

This is the fourth post in a series about Homer's Iliad and what it may have to say to us today. First time visitors are encouraged to scroll down to the week's earlier entries.

Simone Weil, a French writer who lived from 1901 to 1943, wrote the essay "The Iliad or the Poem of Force" in the shadow of Nazi-occupied France where she was involved in Resistance activities. In it, she argues that:

The true hero, the true subject, the centre 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.

She defines force as "that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing," either literally as a corpse or figuratively as a defeated foe begging for mercy or a slave who can only shed tears of pain when her masters weep.

Like Tolkien's ring, force often betrays those who think they own it:

Force is as pitiless to the man who possesses it, or thinks he does, as it is to its victims; the second it crushes, the first it intoxicates. The truth is, nobody really possesses it....Thus it happens that those who have force on loan from fate count on it too much and are destroyed.

Welcome to our world.

It may be true that a moderate amount of coercion is necessary to protect life and precious things, but this holy moderation is rare. As Weil puts it, "A moderate use of force, which alone would enable man to escape being enmeshed in its machinery, would require superhuman virtue, which is as rare as dignity in weakness."

This is the problem with unleashing shock and awe on the world: shock and awe aren't loyal. They bounce back, grow and spiral. When people--any people, anywhere--think in their arrogance that they can unleash it with impunity, they deceive themselves.

Next time: concluding reflections on how the Iliad has been found useful in healing the wounds of warriors.


1 comment:

Khazouh Baszhees said...

Wells, England - Barney the Doberman, assigned to guard a $900K collection of stuffed teddy bears, including one formerly owned by the King (Elvis, not George W), somehow lost track of his priorities and tore hundreds of his fuzzy charges to shreds. Stuffing was everywhere, with little bear heads, arms, legs, and torsos scattered throughout the museum. Barney, who most likely will be seeking new employment, had no comment other than "they all kept staring at me".

Heads up Frankie - mangle the monkey with impunity today. But all heroes fall eventually.