Sing, Goddess, the Rage of Peleus’ Son Achilleus

What better way to start the week than with a discussion of some of the greatest literary works of all time? That’s what we do here every week at the Western Tradition, and I hope that you’ll put in your two cents in the comment section.

Here are the readings for the upcoming week:

  1. The Iliad of Homer, Books IV-VI  (GBWW Vol. 3, pp. 38-77)
  2. Of Youth and Age” by Francis Bacon (GGB Vol. 7, pp. 3-4)
  3. Plato’s Republic, Book IX (GBWW Vol. 6, pp. 416-427)
  4. Federalist #52-53 (GBWW Vol. 40, pp. 165-169; Antifederalist responses are here)
  5. Mathematical Creation“by Henri Poincaré (GGB Vol. 9, pp. 294-304; Chapter 3 of Science and Method)
  6. How We Think by John Dewey, Chapter XVI-XVII (GGB Vol. 10, pp. 185-205)

I had never realized it before, but the books of the Iliad are definitely longer than those of the Odyssey. Whereas it took us six weeks to read the latter earlier this year, it will take us eight weeks to read the former.

Here are some observations on last week’s readings:

  1. Athena stops Achilles from slaying Agamemnon (Book I)

    The Iliad of Homer, Books I-III: Book II is the dues you have to pay to read this epic. The roll call of Achaians has never been able to hold my attention. One of my professors in grad school, a fine scholar, insisted that in this narrative the gods are just metaphors. For example, when Aphrodite cloaks Paris and sweeps him away from the battlefield in Book III, it’s just a poetic way of saying that Paris ran away. I’ve never been able to accept that interpretation. How about you?

  2. “Of Bashfulness” by Plutarch: If you pay close attention, you may conclude Plutarch is challenging most of us, because “bashfulness” here is not just a synonym for “shy.” How often do we slight the demands of virtue because we are reluctant to assert them in the face of the desires of either friends or enemies?
  3. Plato’s Republic, Book VIII: For Plato democracy is the lowest form of government but one, just one step removed from tyranny. Ditto for the “democratic man.” It’s no wonder that no freshman in my survey classes who went through the modern American educational system has ever read anything by him.
  4. Federalist #51: If Madison thinks that checks and balances within the government’s structure are a sufficient protection against tyranny, history has clearly proven him wrong. No doubt he recognized this at least implicitly in later years with his support of the Virginia Resolutions.
  5. “The Universe Is Running Down” by Sir Arthur Eddington: The pride of place which Eddington gives to the second law of thermodynamics is noteworthy. I wonder if 21st-century physicists hold the same view. It’s also interesting that Eddington accepts as a “working hypothesis” the act of special creation of the universe, not being able to account for the greater orderliness of the past in any other way.
  6. How We Think by John Dewey, Chapter XIV-XV: I appreciate Dewey’s defense of abstract thought for its own sake. I don’t know if he concedes too much in terms of his educational project by then saying that most people won’t be able to do it well. The notion that some schools 100 years ago were trying to get children to play with objects that didn’t resemble the real things being imagined is strange.

Another busy stretch kept me from posting for most of last week. I’ve been up at 5:00 a.m. and at the office by 6:00 nearly every day to work on various projects. At least I’ve been able to keep these readings on track. I hope you’re making time to read as well!

About Dr. J

I am Professor of Humanities at Faulkner University, where I chair the Department of Humanities and direct online M.A. and Ph.D. programs based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy and a member of the faculty at Liberty Classroom.
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4 Responses to Sing, Goddess, the Rage of Peleus’ Son Achilleus

  1. About the Iliad, some of my first thoughts were 1) what trouble was caused by plundering enemies and kidnapping their women; and 2) the gods were pretty flaky and quite petty.

    I likewise had to just press through the list of Achaians. The portrait of Paris as a pretty boy who was long on appearance and bravado but short of courage rings pretty true to this modern reader.

    I don’t see how Aphrodite could just be metaphor in Act III. For the device to work as metaphor wouldn’t we have to interpret Paris’ flight as motivated by eros, which doesn’t seem to be the case at all. It makes sense that he would run away out of fear, but not due to eros.

    On the other hand, I can see why one might want to interpret Aphrodite as metaphor, because the scene is somewhat unsatisfying and it seems that it is cut way short by Aphrodite’s intervention. Almost Deus-ex-Machina-like.

    • Dr. J says:

      That is a great point about Aphrodite I had not considered. It does seem a bit ridiculous that, in the middle of getting smacked around by Menelaus, Paris would be overcome by erotic desire and run to his bedchamber. Keep those observations coming, Shawn!

  2. Jane says:

    Homer, The Iliad I-III: I’ve read this twice before, the last time not too long ago, but in the spirit of this process decided to give it another go and was able to listen to half of it on a car trip up and down Interstate 95 from NC to CT. The Audible recording was from the translation by Richmond Lattimore, and the (long) introduction was excellent; I’m not sure who wrote it, I guess Lattimore? He discusses how the work describes the full spectrum of human challenges, including how to face the fact of mortality. “He does not explain why man must die… Homer simply says that death is the law of man’s being – that he must learn to accept it, and that he can learn. He teaches the art that is the final lesson of philosophy: how to live well and how to die well… Homer was the first to demonstrate the independent power of the human spirit. He alone showed that by facing his inescapable destiny, man might escape his bondage to it.”

    As for the waging of a 10-year war to rescue a kidnapped woman – or restore her to her rightful owner? – here’s an understatement: “Small wonder that Trojans and Achaeans should endure so much and so long, for the sake of a woman so marvelously and divinely lovely. Still, fair though she be, let them take her and go, or she will breed sorrow for us and for our children after us.” (III)
    On a side note, Helen wonders how her brothers Castor and Pollux are faring, not yet aware that they are both “already lying under the earth.” According to myth, they were twin sons of Leda, but Castor was fathered by a mortal and Pollux by Zeus (the rape of Leda by the Swan). When Castor was killed, Pollux asked Zeus to let him share his own immortality to keep them together, so Zeus transformed them into the constellation Gemini. Helen and Clytemnestra were also said to be twins born of Leda, and some versions have it that Castor and Clytemnestra were born from the egg fertilized by the mortal and Helen and Pollux from the one by Zeus, and all four were born at the same time.

    Plutarch, Of Bashfulness: The advice to avoid passive quiescence and push back against others who would otherwise take advantage of us is sensible and something I regularly try to impart to my psychotherapy clients, particularly women who have been overtrained to be “nice” and think they can never say no if they want to be liked. The way he describes how to start by saying no to little things and building up from there makes the goal achievable.

    Plato’s Republic, Book VIII: After describing the virtues of aristocracy, here Plato discusses four “inferior” governmental forms: timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny, with each basically resulting from a devolution of the preceding one. The primary problem throughout seems to be obsession with wealth and the excess of power by a minority that can be obtained through it.

    This flows nicely with Federalist #51, where the discussion of maintaining the balance of powers continues. “The great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others.” What happens when the means and motives are warped by the desire for wealth – when politicians accept “donations” (bribes) from rich individuals, PACs, and corporations and vote in accordance with their benefactors’ wishes? Well, we are seeing what happens… and if Plato’s predictions hold true, tyranny will follow.

    Eddington, The Running Down of the Universe: Coming full circle back to Homer and the question of mortality, Eddington declares that the second law of thermodynamics means we cannot “stop the inexorable running-down of the world by loss of organization and increase of the random element.” As Yeats wrote, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…” The idea of time’s arrow always pointing forward to the future reminds me of a sequence in Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia where a character muses about how once a spoonful of jam is stirred into one’s pudding, there is no way to unstir it: “When you stir your rice pudding, Septimus, the spoonful of jam spreads itself round making red trails like the picture of a meteor in my astronomical atlas. But if you stir backwards, the jam will not come together again. Indeed, the pudding does not notice and continues to turn pink just as before. Do you think this is odd?”

  3. Keagan says:

    I, too, am reading the GBWW set, though, in chronological order. I only discovered your blog last year. Some observations on The Iliad Books I to III. Samuel Butler’s translation insists on giving the Greek gods and goddesses their Roman names. I have no idea why he did this. Was it convention at the time the translation was written? It changes one’s whole understanding and perception of the text when rather than Athena, we get Minerva helping the Greeks. Yes, they are the same goddess, but calling her Athena creates more of a symbolic link back to the Greeks.

    The list of ships and crew members is tedious, but important to read, I believe, to get an understanding of Greek ideas of self. I have no doubt book II was used as inspiration when the Greeks were faced with the Persian invasion. It gives the reader a sense of the unity of the Greeks.

    Finally, the deities cannot be metaphors because in the next book, after Paris is whisked away to safety, the gods and goddesses discuss this very act by Aphrodite.

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