Thursday, March 24, 2005

The Fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

It is Good Friday eve and it is a good time to contemplate, yet again, the blight of suffering in the world. I have been teaching for some time, and I could not but strengthen my conviction that no matter what gifts one possesses, what strength, wealth or intelligence, all these will not save a human being from the constant shadow of dissatisfaction and suffering. Indeed, often it is the case that 'to him whom much is given, much is expected'. In any event, having seen things at both ends of the educational spectrum--among the most advantaged and the most disadvantaged-- I see little difference in their fundamental condition.

Yes, perhaps to the world, the group with all the advantages may seem to be the luckier lot. And in the material and superficial sense, there is no doubt this is the case. This group has the prestige and the standing. They are the current academic elite, and most likely, will belong to the future socio-economic elites. But then, with the prestige comes the intense stress from parents, relatives, friends, teachers etc. to maintain their status. Then there is the constant unrelenting pressure from equally good peers. It does not matter they may be the top 0.025% or whatever--among themselves, there are losers and winners. There is always the constant fear of falling away. Fear, tension, and entrapment--their very success brings this fate.

The group with all the advantages are by far smarter in almost every way (other than maybe physical intelligence) than the other group. I say this politically incorrect thing with no qualms--for I fully recognize the unfortunate corollary. For is intelligence an unqualified blessing? Often, happy is the man who does not see clearly. For the highly intelligent can take things apart too completely, and in times of suffering, often making intense enquiries about the very purpose of existence. And can such a thing ever be solved rationally?

In the scheme of things, suffering is ubiquitious, and the highly intelligent can easily come to the conclusion that the costs of life do outweigh its benefits. Tag on a skeptical materialism, and one can see why the inclination towards death and despair is equally strong at both ends of the educational spectrum. Indeed, I would argue it may ironically be stronger among the advantaged, given their stronger will and concentration.

I personally think that people with powerful minds fall into this trap because their strong intelligence causes them to rely on the intellect too completely. Skepticism too becomes an entrenched habit. Few can appreciate that there are powers beyond mind that can see and not just think, or a heart that can find truth by a feeling deeper than thought. The deeper possibilites of life cannot be found by the intellect alone.

Not that all is dark and sad. The paradox of life is well expressed by the Genesis story about the fall of Adam and Eve. Whatever one's religious beliefs, one should be able to see the account as a potent summary of the human condition. For man is a creature who is destined, or in some mysterious way, chooses, to experience the contraries of joy and sadness, victory and defeat, pleasure and pain, good and evil. Whatever good we secure, there is a rim of evil, and whatever evil we face, a consolation of good. Whatever we are, however 'good' we seem, we carry much evil, and however 'evil' we seem, we conceal much good.

Compassion is the key to wisdom in such a world. To judge less quickly, but to see and to feel more deeply. This is however so difficult in a human nature burdened by a thick, stubborn and weary being. And in a society suffocated by fears, anger, doubts and burdens. Often the closer one is to the possible Light, the more intense and unbearable seems the darkness, and the more weary seems the earthly burden.

I do not believe that man can ever be free from the knowledge of good AND evil till he deals with its root cause. And I do not believe, unlike the secularists, that the root cause can be dealt with on a physical level. A metaphysical solution is required. The simple reason is that a deeper view will reveal that man himself is not a mere physical being. And for Christians, one can only gaze on the most paradoxical symbols of all, the Cross of God in time and the Resurrection in eternity.

It is at the foot of the Cross, gazing up at a Humanity broken, besieged and trapped, but still beautiful and inwardly divine, that one can pray in deepest truth: Kyrie eleison--Lord, have mercy.


Sigh. Often this writer feels so alien in this age and civilisation. Writing this, I could already envision the ??? or !!!. My true mentality, aspirations and experiences are strange, I suppose, compared to most of my contemporaries. Roll back the scenes thousands of years, and I will find many kindred folks perhaps. Another world, another age, then perhaps there will not be this ill sense where one can see and touch, but cannot enter.

Well, in life, one truly need to have a sense of humor, and simply have a good laugh over the absolute weridness of the world and myself and everyone around me. Fundamentally, laughter and a methodical madness may well be important sustenances in a bizarre universe.


Saturday, March 12, 2005



For these few weeks, I will gradually upload my university essays. One reason is a slight writer's block, another is just laziness. Also I want to have an alternative storage space for my essays. On the bright side, all the essays uploaded scored a 1st class (except the one on Ursula Le Guin), so these are among my best pieces and should be of reasonable quality.

Now my essay on Dante (the Italian is left untranslated):

Double-faced Amore, mad flights and fatal passions:
A study of seraphic and cherubic damnations in La Divina Commedia

In (Paradiso XI, l.37), St Aquinas describes St Francis as being ‘serafico in ardore’, thus likening him to the Seraphims, those angels with the greatest love of God (Pseudo-Dionysius’s (Celestial Hierarchy 8.1), St. Aquinas’ (Summa Theologica. 1)) . Similarly, the Franciscan order preaches passionate devotion as the best way to reach the Highest. St Dominic on the other hand is one whose ‘sapïenza in terra fue/ di cherubica luce uno splendore’ (Paradiso XI, ll.38-9). He is likened to the Cherubims, those angels with the greatest knowledge of God. The Dominicans are similarly ‘an order of students’ that emphasizes learning. Dante’s description parallels the medieval Christian categorization of spiritual seekers into either the passionate lover (or the lover of Love) or the lover of knowledge—‘types’ which correspond to the two main forms of God-ward love. Yet as we shall see, Dante reveals the perversions of the ‘seraphic’ and ‘cherubic’ types as well, specifically in the Inferno and through the characters of Francesca and Ulysses.

Turning first to Francesca, we find the ‘heart’ of her damnation in these lines:

Amor, ch’al cor gentil ratto s’apprende,
prese costui de la bella persona
che mi fu tolta, a ‘l modo ancor m’offende

Amor, ch’a nullo amato amar perdona,
mi prese del costui piacer sì forte
che, come vedi, ancor non m’abbandona.

Amor condusse noi ad una morte. (Inferno V, ll.100-6)

Barolini concurs with Martinez/Durling and other commentators when he writes how ‘these verses weave a plot without a human agency’, where the density of the language ‘creates a sense of tightly compacted ineluctability, of a destiny that cannot be escaped.’ Instead of accepting personal responsibility, Francesca makes Amore the active agent whose coercive action (emphasized by the forceful verbs ‘prese’ and ‘condusse’) and two ‘ineluctable laws’ (l.100, l.104) become the true causes of the fatal passion. Her adaptation of Guinizelli’s canzone: ‘Al cor gentil ripara sempre amore’ in l.100, is also an attempt to use an ‘authority’ to prove how the love between she and Paolo is inevitable. This is of course misguided, for the adulterous Francesca clearly fail to appreciate the Dolce Stil Nuovo understanding of the noble heart as one whose ‘innate resources’ cause spiritual love to inevitably arise. Instead she probably misunderstood it to mean that passion is the ‘destiny of every heart which is noble in this word’s literal sense, that is, made such by the gentility of its blood’. Thus she does not truly speak the language of the Dolce Stil Nuovo, but that of ‘the tradition of love fiction (prose di romanzi) [Purgatorio XXVI, l.118] in the langue d’oïl’—the genre that contains Lancelot du Lac, the ‘Galeotto’ (Inferno V, l.137) of the whole affair.

In Dante’s judgment, Francesca’s attribution of responsibility to the god of courtly romance, the all-powerful Love, is a delusion and serves as no real excuse, even though her beliefs are also that of Dante in his early work, e.g. (Rime 111, ll.9-11): ‘Però nel cerchio de la sua palestra/ liber arbitrio già mai non fu franco,/ si che consiglio invan vi si balestra’. This is probably why the Pilgrim identifies so much with the couple’s plight that he fainted (Inferno V, ll.141-2). The view of the mature Dante is found in (Monarchia 1.12.204), where judgment stands between apprehension and desire, and is in no way affected by it, but precedes and guides it. This is elaborated in his earlier work, the Purgatorio. As Virgil states, the mind (L’animo) ‘ch’è creato ad amar presto’ is easily roused into action by ‘piacere’ (Purgatorio XVIII, l.19). Thus when the faculty of apprehension presents an image (intenzione) of a pleasing object to the mind, it causes the mind to first turn (volger), and then to incline (piega) towards the object through its image (l.24-5). This inclination is love (l.26), and that leads to the ‘moto spiritale’ of ‘disire’ which makes the mind ‘non posa / fin che la cosa amata il fa gioire’ (l.31-3). Virgil also adds that this process is not involuntary, for even if

che di necessitate
surga ogne amor che dentro a voi s’accende,
di ritenerlo è in voi la podestate. (Purgatorio XVIII, ll.70-2)

This power and ‘nobile virtù’ (Purgatorio XVIII, l. 73) is free will (‘libero arbitrio’ (Purgatorio XVIII, l. 74), ‘la volontà la libertate’ (Paradiso V, l.22)). This is a ‘joint faculty of the practical reason and the will’ that ‘consiglia/ e de l’assenso de’ tener la soglia’ (Purgatorio XVIII, ll.62-3) with regards to apprehended objects; a process that allows or stops the inclination of love from becoming the movement of desire through the judgment of the intellect and the corresponding choice of the will. This faculty should ideally make sure that every elected love (amor ‘d’animo’ (Purgatorio XVII, ll.93)) inclines us successively to the means necessary for the fulfillment of man’s ‘primi appetibili l’affetto’ (Purgatorio XVIII, l.57-9) --meaning his natural love and prima voglia (l.59) for the good in general and the particular good of each human faculty (Summa Theologica. I-II, q.10, a.i).

This natural love finds its fulfillment only in the Infinite Good, and as such it is not different from man’s instinct to return to God:

ma vostra vita sanza mezzo spira
la soma beninanza, e la innamora
di sé sì che poi sempre la disira.’ (Paradiso vii, ll.142-4)

This passage (similar to (Convivio iv, xxviii, ll.2-3)) highlights how man loves God, because the rational soul that makes him human is ‘an immediate effect’, and therefore an image of God, and thus of the divine ‘love whose object is God Himself’. Also, since man has been ‘enamored of God’ at the birth of his soul, this element of ‘nostalgia, the truly platonic note in love speculation’ makes God the true end of human love. It is to Him that souls should soar, propelled by natural love, ‘la virtù di quella corda/ che ciò che scocca drizza in segno lieto.’ (Paradiso I, ll.125-6). Man’s love thus determines whether he plays his part in God’s plan, for natural love is found in all, and is the God-given inclination of all things to achieve their special type of perfection and the ‘place in the universe…that is proper or ‘natural’ to them’:

Ne l’ordine ch’io dico accline
tutte nature, per diverse sorti,
più al principio loro e men vicine

onde si muovono a diversi porti
per lo gran mar de l’essere, e ciascuna
con istinto a lei dato che la porti. (Paradiso I, ll.109-114)

Love is the teleological moving force of the Chain of Being, and it is by loving in accordance with the divine will that creatures can voyage to their destined porti; an act that allows cosmic ‘ordine’ (Paradiso I, l.104, l.109) to manifest. This ‘è forma/ che l’universo a Dio fa simigliante’ (Paradiso I, l.105) and that which allows rational beings to see:

de l’etterno valore, il qual è fine
al quale è fatta la toccata norma. (Paradiso I, ll.106-8)

While non-rational creatures always follow natural love, rational creatures must choose to love correctly. As such the righteousness of each human love is evaluated in relation to his primal love for God, and it is morally good so far as it conforms to it. Thus ‘amor sementa in voi d’ogne virtute / e d’ogne operazion che merta pene.’ (Purgatorio XVII, ll.107-8), while free will, and its discriminative aspect in particular, is

l’principio là onde si piglia
ragion di meritare in voi, secondo
che buoni e rei amori accoglie e viglia. (Purgatorio XVIII, ll.61-66)

For Dante, love is the saving force capable of bringing man to God, and yet also the impulse that can lead to eternal death.

The latter applies to Francesca and Paolo not because of their love per se (for it is the natural response to beauty), but because they have freely chosen to let it develop into a pursuit of ‘falso piacere’ over the course of abstinence dictated by their ‘impeto primo’ (Paradiso I, ll.134-5). Their choice of ‘l’amor torto’ (Paradiso XXVI, l.62) is thus one in which ‘the appetibile bonum’ is put before the true Good, a commitment that ‘defines itself as the opposite of right love, for it has a particular object and its end is active, finite, centred in self.’ Unlike in the romances, the intensity of their love does not ‘redeem’, and the ‘riso’ (Inferno V, l.133) that Lancelot kisses degenerates to become the fleshy ‘bocca’ (Inferno V, l.136) of Francesca. This is the ‘descent from literature to life, from fiction to reality, from romanticism to realism; or more simply, from sentimental fancy to moral truth.’ Their damnation highlights the futility of the literary cult of love, and implicitly rejects Dante’s early beliefs. Or as Smith succinctly puts it: ‘Dante’s tacit irony is to make the bliss of the Roman de la Rose the hell of his Divina Commedia.’

Yet if Francesca and Paolo show the perversion of the ‘seraphic’ lover, then Ulysses represents the perversion of its ‘cherubic’ counterpart:

O frati’, dissi, ‘che per cento milia
perigli siete giunti a l’occidente,
a questa tanto picciola vigilia

d’i nostri sensi ch’è del rimanente
non vogliate negar l’esperïenza,
di retro al sol, del mondo sanza gente.

Considerate la vostra semenza:
fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza. (Inferno XXVI, ll.112-120)

This orazion picciola (l.122) reveals the ambiguity of Dante’s Ulysses. On one hand, it ‘is written in language that in tone and cadence is similar to that of all the great maxims of moral conduct in the poem’ and it is a powerful speech that ‘rightly or wrongly’ has ‘moved generations of readers’. Cicero’s praise in the De Finibus of Ulysses’ ‘innatus cognitionis amor et scientiae’, or Horace’s ‘quid virtus et quid sapientia posit/ utile proposuit nobis exemplar Ulixen’ among others, also informed Dante’s picture of Ulysses setting out on his quest for virtue and knowledge; endowing it with the awesome spirit of the classical world and ‘man in his natural dignity’. This has led the ‘pro-Ulysses group’, led by Fubini, to maintain that ‘Dante feels only admiration for the folle volo, the desire for knowledge it represents, and the oration that justifies it.’ But these critics pay too little attention to Ulysses’ damnation. Also there is no one else in Inferno whose speeches are unrelated to their damnation, and it is unlikely that Ulysses should be the only exception.

Then there is a less united group that emphasizes Ulysses’ sinfulness and seeks to investigate the cause for his damnation, whether attributing it to his fraudulent counsel or pinpointing the voyage as the main sin. Given that Ulysses has been ‘a figure of sapientia’ since late antiquity (as could be seen by the words of Horace and Cicero), and that St. Augustine himself used Ulysses’ voyage as ‘a paradigm for the vita philosophica’ , his voyage to gain ‘l’esperïenza’ of the ‘mondo sanza gente’ could thus possibly represent the attempt to know God’s mysteries through personal intellectual efforts. Nardi therefore argues that ‘Ulisse invece personifica in sè la ragione umana insofferente di limiti e ribelle al decreto divino che interdiceva all’uomo di mettersi sulla via che conduce al legno della vita.’ As such, the Ulyssean ‘ardore’ (Inferno XXVI, l.97) for knowledge is clearly a l’amor torto, because the folle volo (Inferno XXVI, l.125) that follows flaunts the ‘decreto divino’ (as symbolized by the pillars of Hercules (Inferno XXVI, l.108)), and like Francesca’s affair, sets the fulfillment of personal piacere over the loving obedience to God. There is also a parallel between Adam and Ulysses in that both have hubristically trespass the ordained limits of their knowledge: ‘Nell follia d’Ulisse e dei suoi compagni v’è tutto l’orgoglio umano che spines Adamo ed Eva al trapassar del segno [Paradiso, XXVI, l.117] gustando il frutto della scienza del bene e del male, per esser simili a Dio.’ Thus Ulysses represents those who instead of sincerely loving God and Truth, strive arrogantly to be His equal through the acquisition of universal knowledge. Nardi compares this endeavor to Lucifer’s rebellion, and it clearly constitutes an excessive love of self.

Interestingly, Nardi and others have pointed out the Ulyssean ‘passion for knowledge’ and ‘Averroistically-inspired reason’ in Dante’s philosophical work, Il Convivio. Lansing however cautions that ‘in the Convivio Dante never explicitly sets reason in opposition to faith or philosophy against theology. His goal…is forever one of synthesis, of bringing together, or at least correlating, diverse systems of thought.’ Yet he also admits that the Convivo is peculiar in being the only work of Dante kept under ‘house arrest’. He further notes the enthusiasm in the Convivo’s language, like when Dante alludes to the idea of the Church as the Bride of Christ, and promotes Philosophy ‘as sponsa Dei’:

‘Oh nobilissimo ed eccellentissimo cuore che ne la sposa de lo Imperadore del cielo s’intende, e non solamente sposa, ma suora e figlia dilettissima!’ (Convivo III.xii.13).

Most importantly, Lansing writes how the Convivio reveals a story where the donna gentile of the Vita Nuova, ‘now baptized Lady Philosophy’ emerges ‘victorious over Beatrice’, a victory celebrated in ‘Voi, che n’tendendo il terzo ciel movete’ and also in (Convivo II.ii.3-4; Convivo I.xii).

It is in this light that we can interpret the Siren dream of Purgatorio XIX. The dream follows the lesson of love by Virgil, and the Pilgrim’s reaction shows the natural human response to ‘piacere’ (l.21), while the action of the holy lady indicates the need for discrimination between objects of love. The erotic quality probably means that the piacere in question refers to sensual pleasures (like the case of Francesca). Yet judging by Ulysses’ cognitionis amor et scientiae, Cicero’s influential interpretation of the Siren episode in the Odyssey as Odysseus’ temptation of knowledge and the Siren’s claim that ‘Io volsi Ulisse del suo cammin vago /al canto mio’ (ll.22-3), the ‘piacere’ should include ‘intellectual temptations’ as well. Thus Dante’s Siren is possibly an emblem of ‘philosophical pride or as the temptation of false knowledge’, a knowledge which lacks the aid of revelation, and handicaps the finding of Truth. And it is possible that allegorically, Beatrice’s words about the Pilgrim’s enthrallment to a ‘pargoletta’ (l.59), and his failures to resist after ‘udendo de Sirene’ (Purgatorio XXXI, l.45), record Dante’s past idolatry of Lady Philosophy and his Ulyssean pursuit of ‘virtute e conoscenza’ in the Convivio.

The dream in (Purgatorio XIX) then dramatizes how Dante/pilgrim (the poet and character) was converted with the aid of Virgil and Beatrice —incidentally the same movement of grace that saved the Pilgrim from the ‘selva oscura’ of (Inferno I, l.1). This highlights the possibility that the Dante/pilgrim’s loss of the straight way in the first Canto is the straying that the Siren dream dramatizes, and which Beatrice later rebukes in (Purgatorio XXX). Indeed, Beatrice states that Dante/pilgrim, by giving himself to another (Purgatorio XXX, l.126), was brought so low that the only way to save him was to ‘mostrargli le perdue gentil’ (l.138)—again recalling the Inferno. Thus the shipwreck and siren-diversions of Ulysses can stand for Dante/pilgrim’s ‘disastrous prelude to the preparation of grace’ and ‘preconversion self’ where he gives an excessive importance to philosophy and intellect. Dante/pilgrim’s conversion then includes the all-important process where he becomes a ‘new Ulysses’ —a new creation who recognizes that Reason can lead only towards a finite intellectual understanding of God and world.

So while the intellect is needed to discriminate between good and evil loves, it is not enough by itself to reach the lowest reaches of the supernatural world (Mount Purgatory). It is Virgil who exemplifies the true attitude. While he like Ulysses ‘personifica la ragione umana tendente alla sua totale esplicazione’, he wisely recognizes its limits and humbly commends the Pilgrim to the superior truth of Revelation from Beatrice:

Quanto ragion qui vede
dir ti poss’io; da indi in là t’aspetta
pur a Beatrice, ch’è opra di fede. (Purgatorio XVIII, ll.46-8)

Reason must give way to faith with regards to the mysteries of God:

State contenti, umana gente, al quia;
chè, se potuto aveste veder tutto,
mestier non era parturir Maria; (Purgatorio III, ll.37-9)

Instead of depending on personal resources, the New Ulysses depends on grace and humble faith to reach God. Contrast Ulysses’ folle volo with how the Angel scorn to use ‘argomenti umani’ and ‘remo non vuol, né altro velo/ che l’ali sue, tra liti sì lontani (Purgatory, II, ll.31-3). Or the voyage metaphor in (Paradiso II, ll.8-9) where the Pilgrim ‘no longer trusts to himself, and he does not lead, but allows himself to be led’:

Minerva spira, e conducemi Appollo,
e nove Muse mi dimostran l’Orse

Yet faith and dependence does not imply a fideistic satisfaction with ignorance. Instead those doubts that spring up at the ‘piè del vero’ (l.131) serve as the natural force which spur ‘noi di collo in collo’ (l.132) till one reaches the Truth ‘di fuor dal qual nessun vero si spazia.’ (l.126). The ardore of Ulysses for knowledge are certainly required for the flight to God, but it must be directed firmly at the Highest Truth, and the wings and oars should be humility and a faithful openness—those attributes that enable the Pilgrim to be led by Beatrice and the other channels of Divine Light.

God is Light and Truth, revealer and possessor of all knowledge, but He is also the divine beloved, the lover and the ardore of infinite love:

O luce etterna che sola in te sidi,
sola t’intendi, e da te intelletta
e intendente te ami e arridi! (Paradiso XXXIII, ll.124-6)

Thus the cherubic love for Truth is ultimately also the seraphic passion for Beauty and Love. The seeker of wisdom and the lover are seekers of the same Lord, just as both St Dominic and St Francis works for ‘un fine’ (Paradiso XI, l.42): the service of Christ and his Body on earth. The Pilgrim’s quest is not just a transfigured Ulyssean voyage, but also the fulfillment of the passion of Francesca and Paolo in the transcendent eros of Beatrice and Dante. No longer is love turned lustfully towards the ‘sign’, the external beauty per se, but towards:

l’essenza ov’ è tanto avvantaggio,
che ciascun ben che fuor di lei si trova
altro non è ch’un lume di suo raggio. (Paradiso XXVI, ll.31-3)

Thus ‘such intelligible beauties’ as Dante perceives in Beatrice are the strongest ‘morsi/ che far lo cor volgere a Dio’ (Paradiso XXVI, l.55-6). Dante hence insists from the very start on the ‘intelletto d’amore’ (Vita Nuova xix and Purgatorio XXIV, l.51), and Beatrice is she ‘che ’ mparadisa la mia mente’ (Paradiso. XXVIII, l.3). And whether it is the increasing knowledge revealed to him by the blessed souls, or the intensifying beauty and goodness that shows forth in the raggio of Beatrice’s eyes (Paradiso XXVIII, ll.11-12 etc.), both are means through which God woos the soul. The equivalence is clearer at the allegorical level where Beatrice is a figure for Christ, revelation, theology and grace. Her beauty and loveliness then is the glory and attraction of Truth, and vice versa. Thus whether it is in response to knowledge or the sight of the beloved, love must increase:

chè ‘l bene, in quanto ben, come s’intende,
così accende amore, e tanto maggio
quanto più di bontate in sé comprende. (Paradiso XXVI, ll.28-30)

Dante’s ideal is similar to the ‘spiral of grace described by St Augustine, knowledge increasing love and love intensifying the desire to understand’. This culminates when his

vista, venendo sincera,
e più e più intrava per lo raggio
de l’alta luce che da sè è vera. (Paradiso, XXXIII, ll.49-54)

With his intellect raised by amorous grace to become intuitive sight, he is finally ready for the vision of the primal Truth:

Nel suo profondo vidi che s’interna,
legato con amore in un volume,
ciò che per l’universo si squaderna:

sustanza e accidenti e lor costume
quasi conflati insieme, per tal modo
che ciò ch’I dico è un semplice lume. (Paradiso XXXIII, ll.85-90)

And this oneness with Reality is also his fusion with ‘l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle.’ (l.145). Thus only at the end of the Commedia is revealed the culmination of the seraphic and cherubic urges behind the damnation of Francesca/Paolo and Ulysses—unveiling their full tragic grandeur in the glory of Dante’s deificiatio.

To conclude, in Dante’s conception, all things are moved by love, and in rational creatures, it is their responsibility to love in accordance with their natural urge towards God. Those who do so are often divided into two types of seekers who emphasize either the love of wisdom or the love of Love--as typified by the cherubim and seraphim, the Dominican and the Franciscan. Francesca and Ulysses on the other hand represent the perverted versions of these ideals. Francesca and Paolo freely choose to misdirect their love towards sensual pleasure instead of the summa bonum, swerving fatally from their primal impulse. They thus represent the inverse type of the spiritual lover. Ulysses on the other hand can be seen as an allegorical figure of the philosophical seeker, perhaps even Dante himself, who pursues knowledge with great ardore, but is handicapped by hubristic pride and an indifference to God’s will. The Ulyssean voyage thus represents more the love for self than the love for Truth. Dante/Pilgrim on the other hand is a New Ulysses whose sight is fixed on God, and who depends on grace and humble faith for his journey. Inseparable from this, he and Beatrice also transfigure the romance of Francesca and Paolo into a divine passion that looks beyond the sign to ultimate Love—revealing Dante’s highest ideal as the fusion of seraphic and cherubic impulses. It is thus only in the Paradiso, when we see how Ulysses and Francesca have precisely those elements that propel the flight to God, that we appreciate the full tragic waste and significance of their damnation.


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Press, 1974.

Saturday, March 05, 2005


For these few weeks, I will gradually upload my university essays. One reason is a slight writer's block, another is just laziness. Also I want to have an alternative storage space for my essays. On the bright side, all the essays uploaded scored a 1st class (except the one on Ursula Le Guin), so these are among my best pieces and should be of reasonable quality.

First off is my essay on Homer.

Death and Homeric Theodicy
A study of sociological theodicy in the Iliad and the Odyssey

Theodicy, a term coined in 1710 by Gottfried Leibniz in his Essais de Théodicée, traditonally refers to the attempt in Christian theology to reconcile the reality of suffering with a God both benevolent and omnipotent. This definition has been expanded in sociology and comparative religion to comprise the legitimations of suffering, evil and death in religions and political movements (e.g. Marxism). Building on the groundbreaking essay ‘Das Problem der Theodizee’ by pioneering sociologist Alfred Weber, where ‘the theodicy problem referred to any situation of inexplicable or unmerited suffering, and theodicy itself referred to any rationale for explaining suffering’, work in this field has been expanded by various successors, especially Peter Berger in The Sacred Canopy. Berger’s approach is especially relevant to Homeric studies because he deals not only with ‘advanced’ religions, but also with more ‘primitive’ traditions closer to Homeric religion. Using Berger’s definitions, this essay will examine how the Iliad and the Odyssey contain ‘theodical’ elements for their audience in ancient Greece, further noting how the epics cross-examine their theodicies.

Unlike other animals, Homo Sapiens does not live in a world ‘prefabricated for him’ by genes (Sacred Canopy, 5), but is born ‘unfinished’ without ‘highly specialized and firmly directed’ drives (Sacred Canopy, 5) and has to ‘make a world for himself’ (Sacred Canopy, 5). This man-world is ‘culture’, the ‘totality of man’s products’ (Sacred Canopy, 6), whether material or not. Society is part of non-material culture, constituting that aspect which ‘structures man’s ongoing relations with his fellowmen’ (Sacred Canopy, 6) and imposes ‘a meaningful order, or nomos’ upon ‘the discrete experiences and meanings of individuals’ (Sacred Canopy, 19). Language for instance is a social product that serves a ‘nomizing’ function by ‘imposing differentiation and structure upon the ongoing flux of experience’ (Sacred Canopy, 20). A body of ‘knowledge’ consisting mostly of ‘interpretative schemas, moral maxims and collections of traditional wisdom’ is then constructed on this linguistic foundation. As Berger writes:

‘Whatever these variations, every society provides for its member an objectively available body of ‘knowledge’. To participate in the society is to share its ‘knowledge’, that is to co-inhabit its nomos.’ (Sacred Canopy, 21)

This ‘objective’ nomos becomes a subjective one through the process of socialization. Experiences thus become ‘meaningful’ in ways common to the whole society. Hence to live in a ‘social world’ is equivalent to living ‘an ordered and meaningful life’ (Sacred Canopy, 22).

It is because of this that the nomos is a ‘shield’ against terrifying ‘marginal situations’ where ‘one is driven close to or beyond the boundaries of the order that determines his routine, everyday existence’ (Sacred Canopy, 23). The best example is death, which like its allied ‘anomic’ phenomena of suffering and evil, severely undermines everyday assumptions and ‘reality’ (Sacred Canopy, 23), reveals the precariousness of manmade worlds, and challenges the ‘cognitive and normative’ order of society. Thus anomy demands explanations and justifications, i.e. ‘legitimations’ (Sacred Canopy, 32) within the nomos. This constitutes the project of ‘world-maintenance’ (Sacred Canopy, 29), where legitimations in its various forms, whether ‘proverbs, moral and traditional wisdom…myths, legends, or folk tales’, or Religion, ‘the historically most widespread and effective instrumentality of legitimation’ (Sacred Canopy, 31-2), are used to justify the nomos.

This has two aspects. With regards to nomos as the social order, legitimations refer specifically to the ‘answers to any questions dealing with the ‘why’ of institutional arrangements’ (Sacred Canopy, 29). But beyond this, ultimately societies must ‘legitimate’ the anomic phenomenon and integrate it within the cognitive nomos. As Berger writes:

‘The anomic phenomena must not only be lived through, they must also be explained---to wit, explained in terms of the nomos established in the society in question’ (Sacred Canopy, 53)

Adapting Weber’s original definition, it is this explanation of anomy in ‘terms of religious legitimations, of whatever degree of theoretical sophistication’ that Berger calls a ‘theodicy’ (Sacred Canopy, 53). Since Berger defines religion as ‘the human enterprise by which a sacred cosmos is established’ and that project which renders nomos co-extensive with cosmos (Sacred Canopy, 25), we may infer that ‘religious legitimations’ means any such that are consonant with this endeavor and which involve some idea of the sacred---defined as ‘an immensely powerful reality’ and ‘a quality of mysterious and awesome power other than man and yet related to him, which is believed to reside in ‘certain objects of experience’ (Sacred Canopy, 26), ranging from material things to abstract principles. Theodicy is indispensable if a nomos is to make sense of the ‘discrepant and painful aspects’ of experience, and locate ‘the individual’s life in an all-embracing fabric of meanings that…transcends the unique place of these phenomena’ (Sacred Canopy, 54) Thus a suffering person can take refuge in a sacred canopy of subjective, cosmic and socially-shared meaning (for the three are one in a religious legitimation), making individual ‘pain more tolerable, the terror less overwhelming’ (Sacred Canopy, 55).

Turning to the Homeric epics, we can see how it is a treasure-hoard of ‘custom-law, apprehended not in the shape of specific edicts but as a body of maxims or sayings which describe the properties of behavior both personal and social’. If we accept Berger’s definitions, such ‘cultural knowledge’ can clearly be considered a component of the cognitive nomos. And while Havelock intends a narrower meaning in his study, he independently uses similar terms and describes these properties as being ‘conveniently identified in the words nomos and ethos, or nomoi and ethe in the plural: the custom-laws, the folkways, the habits of a people’. In a predominantly oral society like ancient Greece, the repetitive meter, oral formulas and sheer artistic power of the epics greatly facilitate the preservation of nomos. Thus the artistry of Homer is inseparable from its sociological importance. Milman Parry for instance commented how the speech of Sarpedon to Glaukos (Iliad, 12. 310-328) states ‘the moral grounds which oblige them to high deeds’, ‘the rewards and responsibilities of prestige in a society of Homer’s time’ and how it serves as ‘a sanction and an ideal’ for their warrior roles. That the speech is a ‘sanction’ indicates that Sarpedon’s speech is not only a statement of nomos, but also its legitimation.

Yet the question remains as to whether the speech evidences religious legitimations for death. Turning to its last portion:

‘Man, supposing you and I, escaping this battle,
would be able to live on forever, ageless, immortal,
so neither would I myself go on fighting in the foremost
nor would I urge you into the fighting where men win glory.
But now, seeing that the spirits of death stand close about us
In their thousands, no man can turn aside nor escape them,
Let us go on and win glory for ourselves, or yield it to others.’ (Iliad, 12.322-8. Lattimore’s translation.)

Sarpedon’s reason for going into battle is that since no man can escape death, it is better to die with a chance for glory. While he does not explicitly state any religious reason for universal mortality, the keres he mentions are linked to the concept of moira, and the epics often emphasize that it is the moira of all men to die:

‘No man is going to hurl me to Hades, unless it is fated,
but as for moira, I think that no man yet has escaped it
once it has taken its first form, neither brave man nor coward.’ (Iliad 6.487-9)

Schadewaldt comments interestingly that this speech is Hektor’s ‘consolation’ to Andromache. Furthermore, the origins of Homeric moira are clearly religious:

‘The notion of a destiny that fixes destiny and death is rooted in the prehistoric belief whose earthly forms the Homeric religion, in many cases, pushed back from the foreground and made into a respectable background for itself.’

According to Otto, the Erinyes, Keres, and the Moirai were probably related earth-deities. Hesoid for instance, writes on how Night give birth to the Moros (the male form of Moirai) and the Erinyes, and also how both the Moirai and the Keres follow up the transgressions of gods and men until they have exacted due punishment. In general, Greek myth often presents the Moirai in connection with ‘the ancient forces of order, with Erinyes, the Hours, and above all, with Themis’. In addition, one might associate moira with atē, the personified Error, Delusion and Ruin, the ‘elder daughter of Zeus’ (Iliad, 19.91) who was banished from Olympus after she deluded her father himself. The Homeric epics still preserve hints of these relationships, for example in how the Erinyes stopped the speech of Xanthos after he has mentioned how ‘a great god and powerful Destiny’ (Iliad, 19.410) is going to cause Achilleus’ death, or in Sarpedon’s speech where moira is implicit, but only the keres are mentioned.

This ‘personal’ moira exists as a backdrop in Homer, in instances where a god and moira is paired together, or where some form of action is imputed to moira (most ubiquitously in its spinning). Yet moira’s aspect as a deity dispensing gifts and blessings is practically missing, and her main Homeric function is to deal with death. Thus Homeric moira is not an independent power overriding the gods’ authority. Instead, as Wilamowitz shows, it most fundamentally means an ‘alloted portion of life’. Ehnmark adds that this is ‘occasionally personified just as atē or death, the lot of man being conceived as the cause of the events which constitute his fate’. A second meaning, inseparable from the first, is the idea of moira as that which underlines and allows ‘a certain order of things’ in the cosmos. This description can be misunderstood, for moira is not developed into a metaphysical principle of Divine Law, as found for instance in Christianity and Hinduism (ritam). Nor does it imply a ‘clockwork universe’ . Instead, while it does not preclude human choice, moira, being the allotted portion, enforces a regularity in events. In Adkins’ simile:

‘The world under the influence of moira, in fact, is not so much like a piece of clockwork as it is like a game of celestial snakes and ladders. Most moves are free; but should one alight at the foot of one’s own particular ladder, or at the head of one’s own personal snake, the next move is determined.’

The key example for this is the choice of Achilleus:

‘I carry two sorts of destiny toward the day of my death. Either,
if I stay here and fight beside the city of the Trojans,
my return home is gone, but my glory shall be everlasting;
but if I return home to the beloved home of my fathers,
the excellence of my glory is gone, but there shall be a long life
and my end in death will not come to me so quickly.’ (Iliad, 9.411-416)

As Ehnmark writes, Achilleus was allowed ‘to choose, the course of his life depending on his own choice, but once he had made that choice his fate was irrevocable’. For our purpose, it is also important to note how the consistency of moira resides not so much in the when or the how, but in the eventual ‘end in death’ regardless of Achilleus’ choice. Achilleus is simply choosing between more or less steps to the next snake, so to speak. This inexorable nomos of moira, the condition of the world under its control, is something that all men must conform to and the gods themselves are powerless to stop it. As Athena says:

‘But death is a thing that comes to all alike. Not even
the gods can fend it away from a man they love, when once
the destructive moira of leveling death has fastened upon him.’ (Odyssey, 3.236-8)

Zeus himself is prevented from saving Sarpedon, and accomplishing that which is hyper moron by fear of heavenly resentment (Iliad, 16.441). While critics have pointed out that if Zeus can contemplate saving Sarpedon at all, then he probably can go against moira if he really wants to, yet the reality is that he does not, and no other god ever does.

Instead of going against moira, the gods are in fact always its willing or unwilling guardians. In addition to the death of Sarpedon, another example is the doom of Hektor:

‘But when for the fourth time they had come around to the well springs
then the Father balanced his golden scales, and in them
he set two fateful portions of death, which lays men prostrate,
one for Achilleus, and one for Hektor, breaker of horses,
and balanced it by the middle; and Hektor’s death-day was heavier
and dragged downwards toward death, and Phoibos Apollo forsook him.’ (Iliad, 22.208-213)

Zeus and Apollo once knowing (or confirming) the moira of Hektor with relation to Achilleus, instantly abandon him to Achilleus and Athena---no matter how much they may honor him. As Otto points out, the relationship between moira and the gods is epistemological. They know Fate and act according to it ---an infallible regularity that amply confirms Sarpedon’s and Hektor’s prescient acknowledgements of their lot.

To sum up, Homeric moira is a probable development from prehistoric conceptions of ‘order-enforcing’ earth-deities. It determines the end of all men, circumscribes the actions of the gods, and endows the cosmos with infallible, and thus meaningful order, i.e. cosmos is thus made co-extensive with nomos. And while moira is not a god, it is certainly ‘sacred’ in being an ‘immensely powerful reality’ and being ‘other than man and yet related to him’. Moreover, while Homeric epics are centered on gods and men, traces of moira as a truly cosmic order applying not just to them but also to all animals and plants is present. The best example is probably the twice-repeated simile of the leaves that links the rhythms of nature to the moira of man:

‘As is the generation of leaves, so is that of humanity.
The wind scatters the leaves on the ground, but the live timber
burgeons with leaves again in the season of spring returning.
So one generation of men will grow while another
Dies.’ (Iliad, 6.146-150)

In addition, there are many descriptions of sacrificed animals (e.g. the horses that are driven ‘aloft the pyre [of Patroklos] with loud lamentation’, (Iliad, 23.172)) and coupled with this simile, the kinship between man and the rest of life is highlighted. In the Homeric view, despite the sound and the fury, even the greatest men are ultimately as ephemeral as fading leaves. Thus judging from its characteristics, moira is evidently a ‘religious’ idea in Berger’s sense, and moreover one that helps to give predictable order to the anomy of death.

Such an order is ‘comforting’ because the basic presence of some ‘sense’, some vague but universal pattern however arbitrary, already helps towards calm acceptance. Moira may be mysterious and ruthless, but she is ‘fair’. As Jasper Griffin succinctly puts it, in the Iliad ‘the only comfort for death is that all must die’, and there is nothing ‘unique’, unnatural or worse still, incomprehensible for any individual death---a theodical element we can detect in the consolation of Hektor to Andromache, or in the ‘consolation’ of Achilleus to Lykaon (see later). And unlike Hesiod’s Works and Days (157-69) where there is an afterlife paradise, there is no ‘otherworldly’ theodical comfort in Homer, other than the odd cases of the Elysian-bound Menelaos and the alternately immortal Kastor and Polydeukes. Thus the universal moira of man is the fundamental account for death in the Homeric nomos, and Homeric man must find some ‘comfort’ in it, or at least achieve a sane acceptance of death through it.

This project is inseparable from the Homeric heroic ideal. It is indeed only those who are aristoi and possessed of arête that can face their portion without flinching. And one might say that the greater the hero, the less the need for any other theodicy for death but the universal moira of man. The greatest and most tragic among these is of course Achilleus:

‘So friend, you die also. Why all this clamour about it?
Patroklos also is dead, who was better by far than you are.
Do you not see what a man I am, how huge, how splendid
And born of a great father, and the mother who bore me immortal?
Yet even I have also my death and my strong destiny,
And there shall be a dawn or an afternoon or a noontime
When some man in the fighting will take the life from me also…’ (Iliad, 21.106-112)

In this justly renowned passage, Achilleus addresses Lykaon as friend, philos, by virtue of their brotherhood in mortality. Both are ‘leaves’ regardless of their disparity in greatness. And implicit in ‘Why all this clamour about it?’ is Achilleus’ acceptance of his own individual and universal portion:

‘I will accept my own death at whatever
time Zeus wishes to bring it about, and the other immortals.
For not even the strength of Herakles fled away from destruction,
Although he was dearest of all to lord Zeus, son of Kronos,
But his fate beat him under, and the wearisome anger of Hera.
So I likewise, if such is the fate which has been wrought for me,
Shall lie still, when I am dead.’ (Iliad, 18.115-121)

Achilleus accepts that if the greatest of all men, Herakles himself, has to yield to moira and die, then why should it be different for him? As Apollo warned Diomedes:

‘Take care, give back, son of Tydeus, and strive no longer
to make yourself like the gods in mind, since never the same is
the breed of gods, who are immortal, and men who walk groundling.’ (Iliad, 5.440-442)

Know yourself, and know that all men are mortal. It is Achilleus who most completely attains this vision. As Redfield writes, the ‘greatness of Homer’s heroes is a greatness not of act’ but of the consciousness of both their godlikeness and their mortality. That, as Griffin writes, ‘ennobles and makes bearable’ the final bloodbath, for Achilleus is elevated above a bloodthirsty ogre out for vengeance, to become a tragic figure in a sublime universe. We cannot help sharing in the beauty and terror of the realization that Achilleus, Lykaon, Patroklos, Hektor and all the men who are slaughtering and being slaughtered are united in a common mortal humanity.

But it is perhaps only Achilleus who can so fearlessly accept death in the ruthless light of moira. The idea of Fate provides some meaningful order in the face of death no doubt, but still it is an unsubstantial one. Homer does not attempt to explain anything about moira, about what ‘brought Death into our World and all our woe’ or provide any comfort in the afterlife. It is not surprising therefore that most usually seek additional theodicies. One such way is to impute some ‘sacred’ importance to the collectivity, and to accept a mysterious ‘ontological continuity between the generations’, where ‘the individual finds his ancestors continuing within himself, and in the same way he projects his own being into his children and later descendants’ (Sacred Canopy, 62). For instance, Menelaos on seeing Telemachos, describes how:

‘Odysseus’ feet were like this man’s, his hands were like this,
and the glances of his eyes and his head and the hair growing.’ (Odyssey, 4.149-150)

Similarly, Menelaos praised Peisistratos saying:

‘Dear friend, since you have said all that a men who is thoughtful
could say or do, even one who was older than you are---
why, this is the way your father is, so you too speak thoughtfully.’ (Odyssey, 4.204-6)

Both Agamemnon and Achilleus are also chiefly interested in their sons during Odysseus’ descent to the dead. Even Achilleus who warned Odysseus to ‘never try to console me for dying’ (Odyssey, 11.488) is visibly thrilled by the description of Neoptolemos; In Odysseus’ words, he is ‘happy for what I have said of his son, and how he was famous’ (Odyssey, 11.540). Thus in the Odyssey, the generational ‘ontological continuity’ that allows a vicarious immortality through one’s descendants ameliorates the pain of death.

In the Iliad, one sees a variant of this in the Trojan version of dulce et decorum est pro patria mori:

‘He who among you
finds by spear thrown or spear thrust his death and destiny,
let him die. He has no dishonor when he dies defending
his country, for then his wife shall be saved and his children afterwards,
and his house and property shall not be damaged, if the Achaians
must go away with their ships to the beloved land of their fathers.’ (Iliad, 15.494-9)

The theodical element is that the individual death is relativized (Sacred Canopy, 62) by how the collectivity and one’s descendants are allowed to go on living. For Hektor, this refers to Andromache and his son Astyanax, who is notably referred to as such because ‘Hektor alone saved Ilion’ (Iliad, 6.403). Thus like Telemachos and Peisistratos, Astyanax is seen as participating in Hektor’s being. We note also Hektor’s prayer, asking that his son:

‘May be as I am, pre-eminent among the Trojans,
great in strength, and rule strongly over Ilion;
and some day let them say of him: ‘He is better by far than his
father...’ (Iliad, 6.478-480)

Schadewaldt has described how Hektor here prays ‘that in this preserver of his blood and race his own self may be preserved and enhanced’ [Italics mine], thus highlighting the theodical connection between the justification of death by the vicarious survival of one’s being through descendants.

But because this prayer takes place at the location where Astyanax will later be hurled down, it is endowed with deep tragic irony. This brings us to an interesting feature of Homeric theodicy. The epics do not merely present various theodicies, but often question them as well. Not that this renders all legitimations false and spurious. Besides the question of ‘Homeric unity’, the epics are not works of philosophy and do not obliterate one view with another. Instead, it is more like a painting, where sharp contrasts often add to the overall beauty and thought. Thus Hektor will be dragged around the walls of Troy, yet the death of Astyanax, Andromache and the destruction of Troy will still happen. On that level, Hektor’s justification for death and his hopes are hollow. Yet given unknown odds, Hektor’s theodicy is rational and is also attractively altruistic and self-sacrificing. It is one theodicy that is well nigh universal and has survived even into the present day. There is no nihilistic jibe at Hektor’s hopes. Instead his theodicy is both noble and valid in a universe where one must do his best for all that he loves in the face of darkness and death.

In addition to Hektor’s theodicy, the importance imputed to the collectivity and future generations endows heroic glory with theodical value. Even Achilleus did not doom himself only because he has realized the mortality of all men (though it might be his most moving and tragic reason). Achilleus, like Sarpedon earlier, also desires to ‘win excellent glory’ (Iliad, 18.121). But glory is as ambiguous as Hektor’s hopes. As Griffin writes:

‘The hero dies, not so much for his own glory, not even so much for his friends, as for the glory of song, which explains to a spell-bound audience the greatness and fragility of the life of man.’

The Homeric epics themselves are a testament to this, for as stated above, one of its most important roles is to preserve the cultural memory and history of the Greeks. The most striking examples of this are (Odyssey, 8.72-82) and (Odyssey, 8.498-520), where Demodokos sang about the deeds of Odysseus at Troy ironically to Odysseus himself. The epic shows a self-consciousness of its role from Odysseus’ words:

‘Demodokos, above all mortals beside I prize you.
Surely the Muse, Zeus daughter or else Apollo has taught you,
for all too right following the tale you sing the Achaians’
Venture, all they did and had done to them, all the sufferings
Of these Achaians, as if you had been there yourself or heard it
From one who was.’ (Odyssey, 8.487-492)

The bard is credited with divine knowledge of the past, and thus the epic is justifying the reliability of its knowledge. For the majority of the people in illiterate Greece, the medium of epic and song is clearly the all-important link to their history. But here Odysseus mentions how it is not only the glorious deeds, but also the ‘sufferings of these Achaians’ that are sung. And when Telemachos mentions the vengeance of Orestes, speaking of how his glory will be carried ‘far and wide, a theme for the singers to come’ (Odyssey, 3.204), we must remember that the cost is the gruesome deaths of his parents. Moreover it is a weeping and homeless Odysseus who listens to his past exploits, and whenever the Trojan war is mentioned, whether in Menelaos’ household or the first scene in Odysseus’ palace, it is invariably accompanied by sadness and tears. These highlight the enormous cost of the glory of song. Helen’s words sums this up when she speaks of herself and Paris as:

‘Us two, on whom Zeus set a vile destiny, so that hereafter
we shall be made into things of song for the men of the future’ (Iliad, 6.357-8)

Thus as Griffin points out, it is also ‘suffering’ which ‘produces song, and by song we understand that suffering is universal for men, comes from the gods, and must be accepted.’ The glory of song thus takes on a darker shade and given its supreme cost, one might even question, like Achilleus’ shade, whether one will rather be a ‘thrall to another/ man, one with no land allotted him and not much to live on,/ than be a king over all the perished dead’ (Odyssey, ll.489-91)

Yet there is another perspective. Despite the often-skeptical view of heroic glory, dying in battle is still a ‘good’ death ‘subjectively meaningful to oneself and objectively meaningful in the minds of others’ (Sacred Canopy, 44). As Redfield writes: ‘Man dies in any case, but he can choose to die well…In his nature the hero remains like other men, but culture bestows on him a value; he does not survive, but he is remembered.’ This ‘remembrance’ is achieved not just in song, but also in those burial mounds so important in the hero cults of Homeric and post-Homeric Greece. Conversely, an accidental demise is regarded as a ‘dismal death’ (Iliad, 21.281). With regards to his father, Telemachos spoke of how:

‘I should not have sorrowed so over his dying
if he had gone down among his companions in the land of the Trojans,
or in the arms of his friends, after he had wound up the fighting.
So all the Achaians would have heaped a grave mound over him
And he would have won great fame for himself and his son hereafter.’ (Odyssey, 1.236-239)

Similarly, Achilleus fears a death like that of a ‘boy and a swineherd’ (Iliad, 21.282) after he was overwhelmed by Skamandros. He, like Telemachos for Odysseus, prays for a death in glory:

‘I wish now Hektor had killed me, the greatest man grown in this place.
A brave man would have been the slayer, as the slain was a brave man’. (Iliad, 21.279-280)

Thus all deaths are equal, but some are more equal than others. Or in Berger’s terms, some deaths are more legitimated and thus are more acceptable. The ‘choice of Hektor’ as he stands waiting for Achilleus is another example:

‘Now, since by my own recklessness I have ruined my people,
I feel shame before the Trojans and the Trojan woman with trailing robes, that someone who is less of a man than will say of me:
‘Hektor believed in his own strength and ruined his people.’
Thus they will speak; and as for me, it would be much better
At that time, to go against Achilleus, and slay him, and come back,
Or else be killed by him in glory in front of the city.’ (Iliad, 22.104-110)

Here glory becomes an inverse theodicy, where death is made acceptable by contemplating an alternative but worse fate of infamy. This ‘shame’, aidōs, is due to the subjectively internalized nomos imparted by social conditioning, for there is no inherent reason why shame is worse than death if socialization has not imparted that as part of the ‘role’ Hektor must play, or for that matter, nothing is ‘shameful’ till it is defined as such in the nomos. For example, in Hektor’s speech to Andromache, he stated clearly that:

‘I have learned to be valiant
and to fight always among the foremost ranks of the Trojans,
winning for my own self great glory, and for my father.’ (Iliad, 6.444-6)

Commenting on this passage, Schadewaldt writes:

‘He [Hektor] is concerned about the talk of the citizens, which in that society was the inflexible source of honour or dishonour; and through it, perceptible in a sense of ‘shame’, there comes to this hero ‘from outside himself’ what we would call ‘duty’. But this duty---always to be the best, to fight in front of the battle, not to dishonor the reputation of his father and to protect his own reputation---is precisely what he as a man of princely blood has ‘learned’. What was once a matter of instruction and example has long since become second nature to him through his breeding.’

Schadewaldt describes the process of nomos internalization exactly. Thus the epic is conscious that what constitutes glory or shame is socially dependent, as does the parallel case of Sarpedon who also fought in the front since that is what is ‘expected’ of him. It is the dēmou phēmis either in praise or in nemesis that is the foundation of the heroic theodicy. And it is possible that the epic’s consciousness of its sociological roots reveals the theodicy’s artificiality and weakens its effectiveness. Yet this is so only if the sacred importance of the collectivity and its nomos are questioned; and there is not enough evidence for that. Yet Redfield has pointed out how the simile of the leaves, with its connotations of man’s kinship with the rest of mortal nature, precedes the description of breeding and lineage in Glaukos’ speech (Iliad 6.145-211). This may show that the epics do in fact indicate the insubstantiality of the cultural world and show how it is merely a ‘translucent screen against the terror of nature’.

How then should we ‘reconcile’ the questionings and affirmations of the value of heroic glory? Again, there is probably no reconciliation. The two strands must stand together, the theodicy and the anti-theodicy. After all, as we have seen, the dead Achilleus who gives the most extreme condemnation of heroic glory in the two epics is also at the same time deeply thrilled by his son’s heroic achievements. This ambiguity is kept up, and thus in the end, instead of a mere celebration of blood and iron, it leads to a remarkably subtle and compassionate understanding of heroic endeavor. Also the fundamental theodicy of man’s natural portion throws all other theodicies into relief, and casts doubt on them. It makes us question whether glory, vicarious immortality in song, tombs and descendants, are really human constructs superimposed desperately onto that fundamental reality that all must die. Thus a nagging doubt remains: Can anything really compensate for the annihilation of death? Or is Achilleus’ naked acceptance of his universal lot the truest, and thus, the most heroic theodicy of the epics?

To conclude, if we accept Berger’s definition of theodicy as a ‘religious legitimation’ for death, meaning a justification that imposes consoling meaning onto anomic phenomena with reference to the idea of a sacred and conceivable cosmos, then there are clearly ‘theodical’ elements in the Homeric epics. This range from the basic ‘ordering’ fact of universal moira to more developed theodicies like the consolation of vicarious immortality and the commemoration of glory. These theodicies are spoken through different heroes and often show self-subverting elements. This increases the thematic sophistication and sublimity of the Homeric conception, but detracts from a philosophical consistency that the epics never sought to achieve. Given the subsequent nomizing influence of Homer on later Greek culture, it is probable that these Homeric theodicies not only reflect the way people justify their own deaths in the eighth century BC, but are also formative factors in fields as diverse as the Greek tragedies, theological development, tomb epitaphs and generally in the way the Greeks face anomy. Thus an analysis of theodicy in the Homeric epics is valuable for the assessment of its possible sociological impact, and also illuminates its moving literary beauty and profound understanding of the human condition.


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