September 7, 2017
Why Violent Times Need Ancient Greek Myths
By Emily Katz Anhalt
268 pp. Yale University Press. $30.
The very first word in the history of Western literature is “rage” or “wrath.” For that is how Homer’s “Iliad” begins. Composed some time in the eighth century B.C., it starts with a call to the Muse, the goddess of inspiration, to help tell the story of the “wrath” of Achilles (menin in the original Greek) — and of the incalculable sorrows and the terrible deaths of so many brave warriors that this wrath caused. Homer’s epic, set during the mythical war between Greeks and Trojans, is as much about anger, private vendetta and its fatal consequences as it is about heroic combat and the clash of two ancient superpowers. What happens, the poem asks, when your best warrior is so furious at a personal insult that he withdraws from the war and simply refuses to fight? What are the costs, to use the modern coinage, of “Achilles sulking in his tent”?
In “Enraged,” Emily Katz Anhalt, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College, offers an engaging and sometimes inspiring guide to the rich complexities of the “Iliad.” Her underlying point is that, from its earliest origins, Western literature questioned the values of the society that produced it. The “Iliad” is no jingoistic Greek anthem, proudly celebrating the achievements of its warrior heroes and their struggles for military, political and personal glory (their struggles, as she sums it up, to be “best”). The poem both encapsulates and simultaneously challenges that worldview, by asking what “bestness” is and what the costs of such a competitive culture are.
The 10-year Trojan War was fought to protect the honor of one Greek king, whose wife, Helen, had been stolen by — or had run off with — a Trojan prince. It must always have been very hard to listen to the “Iliad” (it was originally delivered orally) without wondering whether being “best” really should mean deploying almost unlimited resources and sacrificing the lives of countless friends and allies to avenge such a personal slight. Or, to put it in our terms, was the military response proportionate to the provocation? The dilemma in Homer’s plot, which focused on a few days’ slice of the action, is similar. In a public contest of bravado, clout and honor, Achilles had been forced to give up a captive girl, who was his favorite spoil of war, to the Greek commander in chief, Agamemnon. It was for that reason — the dishonor more than the girl herself — that he sulked off from the fight and by his absence caused the deaths of many dear to him. “Was he justified?” is the obvious and, in terms of traditional heroic codes of honor, the radical question.
No less radical are the different perspectives on the story that Homer encourages his listeners and readers to adopt. As Anhalt rightly insists, by setting some of his scenes behind enemy lines, among the Trojan fighters and their families — from the ruminations of the sadly regretful Helen to the encounters between Hector, the Trojan super-warrior, and his young son — Homer destabilizes the traditional “them-and-us” culture of the ancient Greek world, and its conventional polarization between civilization and barbarity. We are invited to see the Trojan enemy not as barbarians at all but as people very much like us (that is, like Greeks): laughing and joking, loving their children, kindly, fearful and in awe of their gods. In short, as Anhalt writes, the first work of Western literature already reminds us that even a sworn enemy is “fully human.”
Anhalt, however, has bigger points to make. She wants to show that the “Iliad” and other works of Greek literature (she also examines in detail two fifth-century-B.C. Athenian tragedies set in the last days and aftermath of the Trojan War) have direct lessons for the modern world. You can see why. As she makes very clear, dehumanizing the enemy is still one of the most counterproductive aspects of political rhetoric. It may suit some narrowly short-term ends to pretend that, for example, the politicians and people of North Korea do not laugh and joke and love their children; but of course they do.
She has some powerful words too on the modern unreflective complacency about the democratic political process, as if so-called free and fair elections were its only touchstone. One of her chosen tragedies, Sophocles’ “Ajax,” explores the consequences of a popular group decision that was morally wrong: After his death, the armor of Achilles was unfairly awarded as a prize to Odysseus, not to his rival Ajax — and bloody mayhem came from Ajax’s rage at the decision. Anhalt urges us to look harder, as Sophocles did, at the way democracy works, to face the uncomfortable fact that democratic decisions can be wrong and can sometimes serve the ends of tyranny and ignorance rather than of justice and equality. Her implication that it is the job of a democracy to debate and to deal with democracy’s mistakes as well as to celebrate its successes is important, even if she is occasionally unfair to some human political achievements. “In many parts of the world today,” Anhalt writes, “slavery and ethnic inequality persist and women still lack equal rights and cannot vote” — which in some general sense is true, though the last part is misleading. It is certainly the case that in some places voting may not amount to much, and that women face all kinds of political disadvantage almost everywhere, but to my knowledge it is only in Vatican City that women are allowed nowhere near a ballot box.
But as the title “Enraged” suggests, fury and anger are at the center of Anhalt’s agenda. If, she claims, we were to take a lesson from the “Iliad” and from the human costs of Achilles’ anger, we would now be trying much more determinedly to move away from the politics of violence, vengeance and reprisals, to the politics of debate and verbal persuasion. “As we face the domestic, international, and global crises of our own times we have to resist the seductions of rage,” she writes.
Ancient literature can certainly be eye opening, and it has a wonderful capacity to make us re-examine many modern assumptions that we take too much for granted. But I am very doubtful that it has any particularly useful direct lessons for us. It is slightly disappointing to find that, after many fine observations, the book’s central conclusion lies somewhere between a liberal truism (essentially: It is better to talk about things than fight) and a misleading oversimplification. As Anhalt more or less concedes, the final verdict on anger, whether political or personal, must come down to what we are angry about and how we act as a consequence. Rage, as shown in the “Iliad” and some modern geopolitical debate, can be petty and corrosive, but I doubt that Homer was advocating that we should live entirely without it. It is sometimes not only justifiable but necessary. Do we want to live in a world in which we don’t get furious at slavery, racism, or any number of other global injustices — or even at some of the dreadful truths of the human condition? When more than two millenniums after Homer the poet Dylan Thomas wrote of facing death with the words “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” it was the kind of rage that many of us understandably cherish.