August 05, 2006
Goat Rope is pleased to feature another learned commentary by bantam rooster and noted free market economist Dr. Denton "Denny" Dimwit. Dr. Dimwit is director of the Goat Rope Farm Entrepreneurship Center and is this blog's weekend commentator.
Generally, Dr. Dimwit uses this opportunity to comment on the week's posts, not generally favorably. To follow his erudite commentary, it may be best to scan the blog posts for the previous week.
It is our profoundest hope that by providing space for diverse viewpoints, Goat Rope is reducing the tragic polarization of our time and contributing to a climate of civil discourse, profound mutual respect, and deep listening.
THE DIMWIT DISPATCH
Crudawakazimini! What kind of jibbering idiots write for this blog during the week anyway?
What's all this stuff about Homer and the Trojan War? The Iliad is stupid. The only cool part is Helen of Troy but they managed to screw that up too. Instead of being a woman, Helen should be a BIG hen! Yowza! That's what I'm talking about.
And that guy Paris? They need to change it to make him a handsome bantam rooster like me. Exactly like me in fact.
Then get rid of all the other characters and it would be perfect. Yeah man.
That's the beauty of the market.
And that's the truth. You bet your cloaca.
GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED
August 04, 2006
Caption: These warriors have already strapped on their armor.
"Like the generations of leaves, the lives of mortal men.
Now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth,
Now the living timber bursts with the new buds
And spring comes round again. And so with men:
One generation comes to live, another dies away."--Iliad, Book 6
This is the fifth and final post in series about Homer's Iliad and what it has to say to us. First time visitors are encouraged to scroll down to see previous entries.
Dr. Jonathan Shay has written two very powerful books that deserve urgent attention today. These are Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character (1994) and Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming (2002).
A student of the classics, Shay found in his work with Vietnam combat veterans with severe post traumatic stress disorder that the Iliad and the Odyssey helped in understanding their sufferings and vice versa.
He found in the case of Achilles the ingredients of post traumatic stress disorder (assuming he survived to go home), beginning with Agamemnon's bad leadership and indifference to the well-being of his soldiers. This moral betrayal of soldiers and their sense of "what's right" by their leader in the Iliad was "identical to those of American soldiers in Vietnam."
Another ingredient was what he calls the "shrinkage of the social and moral horizon:"
Prolonged exposure to danger and the profound strain of battle compel this contraction of loyalty to some degree in every war. However, soldiers sometimes lose responsiveness to the claims of any bonds, ideals, or loyalties outside a tiny circle of immediate comrades. An us-against-them mentality severs all other attachments or commitments.
With these intense attachments, the loss of a special comrade can be especially devastating, especially when no time is taken to grieve. This was one thing Homer's warriors got right, as they would recover, lovingly clean, communally mourn, and properly dispose of the remains of their friends.
The loss of companions in battle can lead not only to guilt but to losing it or going berserk, a rage that, like Achilles', transgresses all boundaries. This can cause disaster not only for the opposing forces but for noncombatants, one's own comrades, the person who "loses it" and those who will interact with him in the future.
Another thing that the Iliad's warriors did better than many modern ones was not to dehumanize their enemies. Though they fought to the bitter finish (to the ultimate regret of all), for the most part, they spoke the same language, worshipped the same gods, exchanged courtesies and other signs of respect. The enemy was not labeled as some utterly alien, evil and subhuman group. Shay found that when this does happen, it can do serious harm to those who do so, even beyond the usual harm of war:
The impulse to dehumanize and disrespect the enemy must be resisted, whether its basis is religious, nationalistic, or racist. The soldier's physical and psychological survival is at stake.
In the concluding pages of Achilles in Vietnam, Shay makes a number of recommendations aimed at preventing the endless repetition of tragedy. One that's pretty obvious is trying to work to end war: "Primary prevention of combat trauma requires an end to the social institution of war."
While we're working on that one (which may take some time), he offers several others, one of which is especially important for the opponents of war: "Support on the home front for the soldier, regardless of ethical and political disagreements over the war itself, is essential."
To conclude, perhaps the Iliad, rather than being a relic of the barbaric past, contains the wisdom needed to make a better future, if that is possible. Simone Weil put it best:
...nothing the peoples of Europe have produced is worth the first known poem that appeared among them. Perhaps they will yet rediscover the epic genius, when they learn that there is no refuge from fate, learn not to admire force, not to hate the enemy, nor to scorn the unfortunate. How soon this will happen is another question.
Note: this series is dedicated to the memory of Carol Sharlip, a fallen friend, comrade and coworker:
"Patroclus...I never will forget him,
Not as long as I'm still among the living
And my springing knees will lift and drive me on.
Though the dead forget their dead in the House of Death,
I will remember, even there, my dear companion."--Iliad, Book 22
GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED
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.
GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: SOARING
August 02, 2006
Caption: A Trojan warrior, represented here by Lily, sounds the alarm.
"Even of sorrows men can have their fill."--Iliad, Book 23
This is the third post in a series on Homer's Iliad and the light this ancient epic shed on contemporary issues of war and peace. First time readers are encouraged to scroll down to the two previous posts.
Here's a ridiculously brief plot summary. The story begins years after the Greek invasion of Troy when the war has become a bloody stalemate. The Greek king Agamemnon brings plague upon his troops after seizing the daughter of a priest of the god Apollo, to whom the father turns for vengeance.
Agamemnon is every soldier's nightmare as a commanding officer. Arrogant, stubborn and selfish, he refuses to give up his prize even while the Greeks die in droves. Achilles confronts the king in an angry meeting. When he finally agrees to return the girl, he insists on seizing the prize of another warrior to maintain his sense of honor. Specifically, he seizes a woman "won" by Achilles in the conquest of a city. (Homer describes, he does not endorse.)
Enraged, Achilles, the best Greek warrior, returns to his tent, refuses to fight and wishes destruction on Agamemnon and his armies. He even involves the gods by pleading with his immortal mother in his behalf.
(Note: These guys weren't great team players.)
The tide of battle tilts towards the Trojans, led by Hector, another son of the prolific Priam. Hector is one of the most admirable characters in the story, a devoted son, father and husband fighting for the survival of his city. Under his leadership, the Trojans almost succeed in defeating the Greeks and burning their ships.
Finally, Patroclus, beloved comrade of Achilles, feels compassion for the Greeks and borrows Achilles' armor to rally the troops. Patroclus is another of the few admirable warriors, known for his valor and compassion. He is slain by Hector.
Achilles goes berserk after the death of Patroclus. In a suit of armor fashioned by the smith god Hephaestus, he wreaks incredible slaughter on the Trojans. His rage is inhuman--it has been described as both beastlike and godlike. He slays the noble Hector and drags his body repeatedly around the city and refuses to allow his burial.
Not being properly buried was a fate worse than death in this world. It meant that the spirit of the dead could never even gain the wretched rest of the underworld. It was the ultimate degradation.
At length, the aged King Priam, with the help of the god Hermes, crosses enemy lines to the tent of Achilles to beg for the body of his son. Sated with his rage and full of grief, Achilles genuinely connects with the old king at a human level. He sees his father in Priam's aging face, just as Priam is reminded of his dead son by the countenance of Achilles. They weep together and share a meal.
Achilles relents and releases the body to the grieving father so that the proper rites can be observed while a temporary truce is declared.
With this act, Achilles regains his humanity after losing himself in rage. All that's left for him to do is die.
There's a lot more to it than that, but those are the main events. It's pretty grim stuff, but Homer never glorifies war, killing, enslavement, or dying. He treats victor and vanquished, soldiers and slaves, with equal compassion, knowing the common fate and suffering they share.
As Simone Weil put it,
...this poem is a miracle. Its bitterness is the only justifiable bitterness, for it springs from the subjection of the human spirit to force, that is, in the last analysis to matter. This subjection is the common lot, although each spirit will bear it differently, in proportion to its own virtue. No one in the Iliad is spared by it, as no one on earth is. No one who succumbs to it is by virtue of this fact regarded with contempt.
...nothing is so rare as to see misfortune fairly portrayed; the tendency is either to treat the unfortunate person as though catastrophe were his natural vocation, or to ignore the effects of misfortune on the soul, to assume, that is, that the soul can suffer and remain unmarked by it, can fail, in fact, to be recast in misfortune's image.
The Iliad has nothing in common with "holy" books that glory in the slaughter of men, women, and children who happen to be different different or are regarded as infidels. For El Cabrero's money, that makes it holier.
GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: HIGHER THAN THE WALLS OF TROY (BEFORE THEY FELL)
August 01, 2006
Caption: Ferdinand the peacock's headgear resembles the helmet of Hector, prince of Troy.
"There are two great jars that stand on the floor of Zeus's halls
And hold his gifts, our miseries one, the other blessings.
When Zeus who loves the lightning mixes gifts for a man,
Now he meets with misfortune, now good times in turn."--Iliad, Book 24
This is the second post in a series about the Iliad of Homer and what it has to say to us today. Before we can get to that, a little background on the story is in order. This ancient epic has a lot to offer, but it requires a little patience.
(Note: a good way to get through this work is to read a brief summary of the contents and listen to a recorded version. These are available in many public libraries. The epics were originally meant to be heard, not read.)
For the ancient Greeks, the Trojan war was the center of a huge cycle of stories and song. Of all these, the two major works of epic poetry that survive are the Iliad and Odyssey attributed to Homer.
The Iliad tells of a brief interlude in a bitter war that lasted 10 years. The story assumes the reader (or originally the hearer), knew the backstory and following events. The war had its origin in a dispute between goddesses years before the actual events. The outcome, the fall of Troy and the suffering of the victors, is fated in advance by the will of Zeus and known by many.
Some of the characters, such as Achilles, know that their own doom is destined by the gods. He was given the choice between a long unnoted life of peace at home or an early death in Troy and eternal fame and chose the latter.
The immediate cause was the abduction of Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, by Paris, son of Trojan King Priam. This was a serious and blasphemous breach of the sacred rules of hospitality that bound both guest and host. Previously, the leaders of Greece had sworn a sacred oath to defend the marriage of whoever wedded the beautiful Helen.
The couple seeks refuge in Troy and are received by King Priam. When Priam refuses to meet the demands of Greek envoys for a return of Helen, the Greek invasion begins.
While the motive of the Trojan warriors was the preservation of their city, the Greeks fought for several reasons. One was to honor their commitment to Menelaus. Other motives included the desire for the spoils of war and for honor and glory.
Honor specifically meant public recognition of valor in the form of prizes or gifts. The problem with honor was that there was never quite enough to go around. Any honor won by one person seemed to come at the expense of another, which led to a volatile situation. For this reason, they fight more as individuals seeking distinction than as members of a unit.
Glory (Greek: kleos) had a more somber meaning. In this world, the dead were wretched shadows of themselves in the dark underworld. The only meaningful immortality a person could have was to live and die in such a way as to be spoken of after death in the stories or songs of the living. That was kleos.
The Iliad and the Odyssey show what an empty goal this is. In the latter epic, the ghost of Achilles says that he would rather be the most wretched slave on earth than king of the underworld.
We still haven't got to the storyline yet. That will have to wait for next time.
GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: OLYMPIAN
July 31, 2006
According to Homer, the beautiful Helen of Troy, represented here by Venus the goat, had a lot to do with starting the war.
"Rage--Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighter's souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus moved on toward it's end"--Iliad, Book I
The next few posts in the Goat Rope will try to follow a thread of thought about what the Iliad of the legendary bard Homer can teach us today.
The Iliad is the story of an incident in the first (but not the last) ill-advised invasion of the Middle East—Troy-- by a Western power—Mycenaean Greece. It is believed to have been assembled from oral traditions around the 8th century BC and depicts events set several hundred years earlier.
For many people, the Iliad conjures up images of old myths of gods and men behaving badly. There is plenty of that in there, but a lot more too.
Ultimately, the Iliad is about the shortness of human life and the limits of our condition. It is about war and particularly force, which reduces living people to things (figuratively as well as literally). In Homer’s world as today, those who arrogantly rely on force think that they are using it while in fact it is using them. Force is fickle and has no loyalty. Those who consider themselves the victor one day often find themselves among its victims the next.
It also has a lot to say about the sorrows and traumas of soldiers and veterans and has even been used to help understand and treat veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress.
The Iliad does not glorify war. It portrays killing and dying in graphic and distinctly unromantic form over and over again. Yet it is also a work of deep compassion and shows equal sympathy to Greeks and Trojans, kings and slave, warriors and women, children and parents.
As the French writer Simone Weil wrote, for those who “perceive force, today as yesterday, at the very center of human history, the Iliad is the purest and loveliest of mirrors.”
Next time: background to the story.
GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: ELEVATED