HOMER ON THE GODS & HUMAN VIRTUE: Creating the Foundations of Classical Civilization

Peter J. Ahrensdorf

CUP (2014) h/b 271pp £30 (ISBN 9780521193887)

Plato’s Socrates cites Homer frequently, often with irony (Rep. 599b-e), and from his ideal state he finally rejects Homer’s poems, his heroes, and the ‘poetic tribe’ of imitative poets. These are ‘childish passions of the many’ (Rep. 377d-e, 600c-601b, 608a), since their narratives fail to improve citizens. Ahrensdorf (A.), au contraire, oddly assumes that compassionate Homer was the first moral philosopher. He analyzes the ‘proto-philosophical’ heroes’ views on virtue, piety, duties, glory, etc., as though Achilles and Odysseus, even Ajax, were tarrying in Socrates’ Athens. He systematically translates the aretê (usually ‘excellence, prowess’) of Homer’s warrior culture as ‘virtue’—anachronistic retrojection in all Homeric passages. He leaves unexamined this complicated word’s original, more concrete, semantic range (including horses’ or a garden’s aretê) and overlooks its developments, as if language, values, and cultural contexts never change. He slaloms around problems of genre, post-Christian translating, focalization (who speaks? Narrator, berserker battler?), and context (bivouacs, not drinking parties). When two characters use the ‘exact same words,’ he seems oblivious to oral poetics—formular epithets and type-scenes. His tendentious translations produce results like ‘Virtue [aretê] means, in [Achilles’] eyes, sacrificing for others.’ A., then, nods at but ignores a century’s progress in philology and ancient history.

A. usefully summarizes views on Homer’s controversial educational value from early modern philosophers and philologists—Vico to Nietzsche. Four chapters follow on Homer’s Theology, Achilles compared to Hector, the ‘virtuous warrior’ Achilles, and Odysseus compared to Achilles. A. ignores Adam Parry’s insights into existential Achilles’ eloquence and insights. The political scientist puzzles over heroes’ inadequate sense of duty, as though these men lived in nation-states that we take for granted, and by rules of war that diplomats still debate. But Homer’s soldiers inhabit a combat-fatigued, genocidally inclined Achaean camp—a fragile coalition commanded by the inept Agamemnon. A. wonders, logically but inappropriately, what Achilles would do were the Achaeans to abandon their campaign (Agamemnon’s advice thrice!).

A.’s deconstruction of Homeric gods demonstrates anew their comic imperfections—even if Homeric characters (and A.) incline to judge them ‘providential, wise and just beings.’ He gathers examples pro and contra in a conscientious manner. Like Plato, he abhors Zeus’s deceptive dream sent to Agamemnon; when it backfires, Homer has exposed the folly of Zeus. So capricious, lower-case gods don’t care about us anyway, because gods don’t ‘get it’ [tragic mortality].

A.’s strategic wisdom posits that the Trojan alliance, had the troops stayed inside their walls, could have survived or eventually won. Hector’s faults include rashly moving them and himself out into battle. Hector emerges poorly indeed, not only as commander but as a cowardly person, ‘breathtaking[ly] selfish,’ foolish, and shallow—also reckless, over-confident in Zeus’s favour, clumsy, and brutal to Andromache. On the other side, A.’s Agamemnon has shown sufficient ‘contrition’ to placate anger-enjoying Achilles (cf. the honey simile, Il. 18.108-12). Further, Achilles’ ‘attendant’ Patroclus wants to show his ‘virtue,’ (i.e. martial prowess), but Achilles stunts his career so as to appear ‘Most Virtuous’ in a zero-sum game.

Oddities multiply, e.g. Achilles thinks ‘the noble deserve everlasting life,’ while he hopes Achaeans will ‘renew their devotion to Justice.’ ‘Odysseus’s curiosity is focused on one… question … the question of divine providence.’ Odysseus is humble and pious. Agamemnon seems especially pious. Odysseus imprudently kills all the suitors in ‘pious zeal.’ Since the suitors fail to assassinate Telemachus, they did no harm to Odysseus’s family; therefore, he rationally should accept contrite Eurymachus’ promise of suitor reparations.

The book’s blurb finds A.’s study provocative; it clearly provoked me. General readers may dismiss this book that misspells the names of Hecuba, the savage Laestrygonians, and George Dimock, and that cherishes clichés like ‘tender mercies.’ A. finds Achilles’ rejection of fighting ‘simply baffling,’ but this exceptional youth’s actions were neither simple nor baffling to those acquainted from birth with Homer’s understanding of honour and status (cf. Walter Donlan and Hans van Wees’s studies). To what extent did fifth-century hoplites internalize earlier epochs’ collective standards? Did Homer intend the self-interested basileus Achilles to serve as model for polis-inhabitants? A.’s close readings extract significant questions, but one cannot equate all Bronze Age and Twitter Age dilemmas. A. seeks to honour Homer, but the blind poet is deaf to these praises.

Donald Lateiner—Ohio Wesleyan University

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