My first thought when I woke was of the Illiad. I had been up until 1.30am reading it to the end. When the story finished, I closed it and rocked back and forth on my rocking chair saying to myself "Well that story will obviously have its full resonance later on, because the ending wasn't that flash."
Sure enough, as I woke the ending began to unfold.
The key issue for critics through the centuries has been the ethics of warfare, culminating in the previous century is what I consider the sophistry of Hannah Arendt's apology for human brutality. Arendt's views long discouraged me from reading the Illiad, since through her lens of the book all I could expect is a futile catalogue of unending bloodlettings. Fagles and Knox quote her in their present-day translation, as a kind of a bowing to conventional opinion.
I am happy to report that Homer's poem disproves Ms Arendt's views of human violence.
Homer teaches the essential (not the only) issue with the ethics of warfare is integrity.
Ms Arendt seems to prove the endless futile horror of war by showing the waste en masse of both the Dardan and Argive societies. But she is using sophistry to show this, and her view is a grave misreading (almost a dis-reading!) of the Illiad.
To attempt to find some moral meaning from the mass of actions of men and their motives involves her first inventing a hypothetical entity called an army, which is in fact a mass of individual men with individual choices to make, circumscribed somewhat by their individual situations and characters. Only individuals can have integrity, not armies. Armies can have order, but not integrity or lack thereof. So Ms Arendt's argument must then ride on the individuals concerned.
The individual story evidenly belongs to Achilles. And the miracle of the Illiad is that Achilles, who is a dog of a man, can rise from anger straight through vainglory and into integrity by the appearence of Priam in his tent in the 24th and last book of the epic. I had at first supposed Achilles was acting thus from vanity, but this is simply not so. Achilles has attained integrity, and by a means I have witnessed in real life.
Often in my life, I see people in pairings, combinations which should not be occurring. One half of the pair will have integrity, the other half will lack integrity. They ought not to be friends or partners, spouses or workmates. And yet they are, and on closer investigation the lovingness of the integrous half will prove to be the binding mechanism.
The friendship between those with and those without integrity proves to be an educational contrast, a necessary tension, a double bind that can only escaped by some unwished-for and even desperate resolution. Thus I have seen honest men die for love of dishonest women, and the women become honest. I have seen dishonest workplaces succeed in extracting the integrity from an honest worker and thus show him where and where not to place trust.
Time and again, there seems to be a silent contract between those with and those without integrity that brings all things back into order. It is as if they are drawn together.
It is the same with the Illiad. When Achilles loses his flashy vainglorious friend Patroclus, with whom he used to sit aside from everyone else and scheme together, he loses that aspect of himself that schemed for advantage, the brutal human animal. All that remains of Achilles then is the brutal killer, and it is with that aspect of himself he goes up against the paragon of integrity in the story, Hector. That Hector has integrity is proven beyond doubt by his concern not simply for his family but for the welfare of his father's civilization. He and his father Priam are one in their values, which are the leading values of Troy.
Achilles kills Hector and the brutal animal in Achilles is satisfied and becomes quiet. After killing Hector Achilles becomes conscious of the shame of his lack of integrity; and after the death of Patroclus he feels only the grief of the loss of his old self. Only shame and grief - no wonder Achilles is receptive to Priams valour when Priam appears! Achilles is the walking dead spiritually speaking when Priam finds him.
And notice for a moment Priams motives. Priam is motivated by valour, not merely by a soldier's courage but by the willingness to lay down his life for what he sees as right. Proper burial of Hector's body is not simply a personal matter, it is rather Priam's entire willingness to die for Troy, if he must do so in order to preserve his integrity. Priam is willing to go to any lengths for what he knows is right and good. This is not simple honor, but something of a totally other dimension. This is spiritual in nature. So it is little wonder Priam's integrity transforms Achilles.
The real pairing of the story is not Achilles and Patroclus, but Hector and Achilles. Hector has integrity, and Achilles has only the glamour of machismo. In killing Hector, Achilles attracts to himself to conditions whereby he transcends his own trashy macho persona and becomes a man.
The integrous values that manifested as the Dardan civilisation had clearly reached its full flower, and couldn't blossom any higher. And just as clearly it was time for that which the Hellenes were to manifest, reason, to enjoy a brief time as civilization. The transition had to be made; what were they to do, shake hands and transfer ownership of civilization with a notary's signature! And so they fought.
The thought when I woke was of the astonishing nature of Achilles coming-to-integrity. The morning passed as I discovered through phone calls that my dearest friend at present that he was not going well. Our friendship, I discovered, was not going well. I wrote about my concerns, and while clarifying them, it became evident things were not going to work out well for our friendship. This strong doubt drove me to ring him and resolve things to my satisfaction.
I should add here that the Illiad is the best and most excellent source of clarity about the nature of masculinity I have ever read. No other single book shows masculinity with such exceptional variety and power. I had the good fortune to read Hemingway's 'Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber' while reading the Illiad, and Hemingway's work in the modern world brilliantly corroborates what Homer teaches about manhood. These men bring to light issues with men in my life in stark clarity.
So I rang my friend and spoke to him. Sure enough, he had sold out on integrity. I tried to dissuade him as best I could. When I got off the phone, aware that I had most likely lost my best friend, and that he had indeed sold out, I was wracked with grief. I wept hot tears for many minutes, then fell onto the bed to rest.
It was there, grieving, that the falsehood of Hannah Arendt's view of Homer shone out. Arendt's view has defined modern criticism of Homer's Illiad, and I have never ceased to see it as somehow 'off'. I felt something in error, but could not put my finger on it. Now I can.
War is not futile. Achilles rose to integrity because of war. Priam rose to spiritual valour because of war. Greece rose briefly to reason because of war. And not simply any war, but the war of the Illiad, historical or not, the Trojan War. There was nothing futile about it: integrity won the Trojan war, a war which sophists like Hannah Arendt, using their own nature as a measuring stick, could only have lost.