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The Homeric Triad

Rembrandt, “Aristotle Contemplating a Bust of Homer,” 1653

930 words

Translated by Greg Johnson

For the Ancients, Homer was “the beginning, the middle, and the end.” A vision of the world and even a philosophy are implicitly contained in his poems. Heraclitus summarized his cosmic foundation with a well-turned phrase: “The universe, the same for all beings, was not created by any god or by any man; but it always was, is, and will be eternally living fire . . .”

1. Nature as Foundation

In Homer, the perception of an uncreated and ordered cosmos is accompanied by a magical vision carried by ancient myths. The myths are not beliefs, but the manifestation of the divine in the world. The forests, the rocks, the wild beasts have a soul that Artemis (Diana for the Romans) protects. The whole of nature merges with the sacred, and men are not isolated from it. But nature is not intended to satisfy our whims.

In nature, in its immanence, here and now, we find on the other hand answers to our anguish: “As leaves are born, so are men. The wind scatters the leaves on the ground, but the forest is green again in spring. So too with men: one generation is born as another is erased” (Iliad, VI, 146). The wheel of the seasons and life, each transmitting something of itself to those who will follow, thus assuring a measure of eternity.

Certitude strengthened by awareness of leaving a memory in the mind of the future, which Helen says in the Iliad: “Zeus gave us a hard destiny so that we will be praised by the men to come” (VI, 375–376). Perhaps, but the glory of a noble name is erased like the rest.

What does not pass away is interior, within oneself, in the truth of one’s conscience: to have lived nobly, without baseness, to have remained in accord with the model one has set.

2. Excellence as Goal

In the image of the heroes, the true, noble, and accomplished men (kalos kai agathos) seek in the courage of action the measure of their excellence (arete), as women seek in love or giving of oneself the light that makes them real. The only thing that matters is what is beautiful and strong.

“Always be the best,” Peleus tells his son Achilles, “better than all the rest” (Iliad, VI, 215).

When Penelope is tormented by the thought that her son Telemachus could be killed by the “suitors” (usurpers), what she fears is that he could die “without glory,” before doing what it takes to become a hero the equal of his father (Odyssey, IV, 728).

She knows that men should not wait for the gods and hope for any help beyond themselves, as Hector said in rejecting an ill omen: “One omen is best: that one fights for one’s fatherland” (Iliad, XII, 250).

In the final battle of the Iliad, understanding that he is condemned by the gods or destiny, Hector tears himself away from despair by a surge of tragic heroism: “Ah, well! No, I don’t intend to die without a fight nor without glory, nor without some great deed that will be retold by men to come” (XXII, 330–333).

3. Beauty as Horizon

The Iliad starts with the anger of Achilles and ends with him soothing the sorrow of Priam. Homer’s heroes are not models of perfection. They are prone to error and excess in proportion to their vitality. For this reason, they fall under the blows of an immanent law that is the wellspring of Greek myth and tragedy. Every fault carries punishment, that of Agamemnon like that of Achilles. But for Homer, innocents can also be suddenly struck by fate, like Hector and so many others, because no one is safe from tragic destiny.

This vision of life is foreign to the idea of a transcendent justice punishing evil or sin. In Homer, neither pleasure, nor the taste for battle, nor sexuality is never likened to evil. Helen is not guilty for a war willed by the gods (Iliad, III, 170–175). Only the gods are guilty of the fates that befall men.

The virtues praised by Homer are not moral but aesthetic. He believes in the unity of the human being defined by his style and his acts. Thus men define themselves with reference to the beautiful and the ugly, the noble and the vile, not good or evil. Or, to put it differently, the striving for the beautiful is the condition of the good.

But beauty is nothing without loyalty or bravery. Thus Paris cannot be really beautiful because he is a coward. He is only a fop who deceives his brother Hector and even Helen whom he seduced by magic. On the other hand, Nestor, in spite of his age, retains the beauty of his courage.

A beautiful life, the ultimate goal of excellence of Greek philosophy, of which Homer was the paramount expression, supposes the worship of nature, the respect of modesty (Nausicaa or Penelope), the benevolence of the strong for the weak (except in combat), the contempt for baseness and ugliness, the admiration for the ill-fated hero.

If the observation of nature taught the Greeks to moderate their passions, to limit their desires, then there is nothing silly about the idea that they were wise before Plato. They knew that wisdom was associated with the fundamental harmonies born from overcoming oppositions: masculine and female, violence and gentleness, instinct and reason. Heraclitus had been to the school of Homer when he said: “Nature likes opposites: through them, it produces harmony.”

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