In our attempt to reinterpret and perhaps make some sense out of Greek thought and philosophy, we start at the most obvious beginning, Homer, and in particular, The Iliad. Our choice is justified not simply by the fact that this is the earliest material available but also by the role of The Iliad in Greek society.

In another passage Cyrus Gordon compares its influence on the Greeks to that of The Bible on the Hebrews. J.B. Bury reports that Alexander the Great kept a copy by his bedside. Similarly, the Romans thought highly of Homeric wisdom and influence in asserting that, unfortunately:

aliquando bonus dormitat Homerus

    Obviously, The Iliad is a fine tale, a little slow-going in translation perhaps, but from a contemporary perspective could one truly regard it as canonical or pretend that this story of the "anger of Peleus' son Achilleus" measures up to The Bible? At first glance, the answer is obviously not. My second reaction is that evidently it did have this influence at which point one is forced to reconsider the whole matter in attempting to account for its long and powerful influence. I contend that this must be accounted for before one can meaningfully interpret the environment in which the more formally designated 'philosophers' worked and to which their thoughts were a response.
    One can take the obvious tack of saying that it was a kind of book of manners, designating the way in which interpersonal relations should be carried out. It gives models of friendship and courage and, though it is not exactly a Book of the Courtier, it does provide some behavioral guidance. However, the nature of this guidance is key and makes this position untenable beyond a simple recognition that it may well have had this effect. A passage like Achilleus' speech to Hector:

In the translation of a passage like this one is rather apt to miss the point. If a translator goes for word-for-word accuracy, he is going to lose the passion in the Greek in the over-rationalized and emotionally crippled medium of modern English. In an effort to touch on some of the original meaning, my own translation is as follows:

Hector, don't waste your words. I know you!
Would that my demon rage could tear the meat off your bones and eat it raw for what you have done to me.

In any case, this is rather far from a restrained book of etiquette and if it affected manners one might posit that its influence would in fact be negative assuming one takes moderation as a positive behavioral criterion. Perhaps we had best look elsewhere for the source of its power and impact.

    If it were a man's to choose, would be not choose to feel good all his time in life? Why then do men suffer from such emotional variability? I contend that, in The Iliad, we are faced with a basically foreign concept of mind and the inter-relationship of emotional, intellectual and physical reality, or more basically of mind and matter. What we encounter is a long way from the Cartesian duality. Even some of the gods are simply emotions.

or again:

Our interpretation will be that we are faced with an inversion of our conception of reality. Instead of holding the individual constant and his emotions as variables, in The Iliad the emotions are the constants and their environmental expression the variable. Emotions are field beyond man's real control. What causes them to change and what relationship is there between them and physical reality and further, what is their relationship with the individuals that feel them?
    Primarily, we find the fundamental assumption of not only the validity of the emotions but of a strong interaction between, or, rather, a lack of distinction between psychic and physical reality. The two are inextricably interwoven like a tapestry in which the threads are the lines of purpose that lead to the realization of certain reality, the total of the interacting participants. One sees plans within plans within plans with emotions as a kind of reality test as to the state of ones particular purpose. So says Hera:

    Let us first look at the role of mortals in the pattern before considering the gods more fully. The power and purpose of mortals is not entirely to be dispised nor their ability to perceive the workings around and within them for these two are one.

For to feel evil within is to fight its coming into reality by containing it within ones own strength as one "who within the heart is armed with astute thoughts".9Or, as with Agamemnon fighting his fear in the night:

Does he not suffer in order that the reality conform to his purpose? This fear is not a sign of any cowardice, it is an emotion to be felt and either supported or denied and fought out of existence through knowledge and suffering. For circumstances are manipulable. Reality in the future is built partially on the thoughts and actions of the present. As Priam admonishes:

For emotions are influenced by words and by simple extension so is the reality in which one exists. Thus we are exposed to the importance of the astute mind in interpreting reality and determining appropriate responses to a given situation. One can see that calling Odysseus the equal of Zeus in counsel is not mean compliment but implies that he can grasp the most active and viable alternatives for satisfactory resolution of a difficult emotional/real situation.

    It has often been said that the Greek gods are anthropomorphic, mere extensions of human strengths and failings into divinity. This is somewhat like saying that The Iliad is a book of etiquette. The Greek gods in The Iliad express a singularly elegant and useful account of the nature of reality and of change in reality. The interrelationships among the gods, the source of their powers and weaknesses, are all made clear. Their role in the determination of reality and the reason for their taking this role are also exposed.

The key to our discussion is that the source of this power is not but an extension of what gives power to men. Zeus has power because Zeus is in a concordant relationship with the causes of change and this concord is not derived arbitrarily but rather, in that Zeus knows more and is a better guide to the participants in his mind than any other, his purposes are infinite--therefore, to please him is to fulfill those purposes. His power comes from the superiority of his designs to any others.

The nature of the dominion of Zeus becomes clear in a statement of Poseidon when his designs came into conflict with the will of Zeus:

What is the mind of Zeus? It is that which extends between the power called up by his purpose and its actualization in reality. It is clearly not an isolated but a participant system.

One might usefully look at it in terms of a purpose as the function of the desire to actualize some feeling and its strength as defined by the both the height of the feeling being sought in reality and the knowledge linking that feeling with its physical expression.

    We referred before to plans within plans. One might posit that superior strength would come out of containing the designs of others within ones perspective such that their alternative actions are accounted for within your designs. This interpretation is confirmed by a challenge by Zeus:

The connected nature of power is again seen in a confrontation between Pallas Athene and Ares in which she says:

Obviously part of Ares' power is drawn from his relationship with his mother and to go against her will is not simply to lose this power but to invert it. Powerful emotions are seen in this as defining their own expression in reality or, as Hera was quoted earlier saying:

    We have spoken of gods and mortals but not of the relationship between them other than to say that they both operate in the same reality and so can be seen as analogous in at least their basic modalities in dealing with that reality. The range of relationship between men and gods runs from the distant manipulation of Zeus--

to the very active intervention of Ares in Hector.

Men, because of their limited knowledge and power, are subject to the manipulation of the gods as their purposes are contained and used by the gods toward the gods' ends. There is even a goddess of this faculty. Says Agamemnon:

This metaphor is particularly interesting in that it could be interpreted that her delusion is based on her bringing about completion of emotional disatisfaction with reality not on the 'firm earth' but in 'the air over men's heads'--i.e., beyond their knowledge. Thus would a conflict seemingly be wrestled into resolution when in fact it remains 'in the air', not in true relationship with reality and the actual situation that the defines a given anticipated emotion.

    Achilleus is often spoken of as a tragic figure. In a sense, that anachronistic designation is descriptive but in a more contemporary and perhaps more interesting sense he is considerably more than that. As shown in our first quote, Achilleus himself chose an infinite purpose. He chose to revolt against strife not only in himself but among gods and men. His purpose stretched to include all and yet to act on such a purpose as a man is to transcend human behavioral systems and beyond that even the behavioral systems of the gods. As says Zeus:

Achilleus chose a stand beyond his knowledge to actualize to such an extent that his actions, as a result of this stand, were out of accord not only with the wills that shape reality but with 'the dumb earth' itself, the very stuff that forms what is. Thus by fomenting natural resistence to yet another imposed and manifestly unworkable solution did Zeus mount his defense against justice. Verily, Zeus has much to fear considering the appalling cacocracy we know in Homer, later so graphically captured by Aeschylus:

toiauta drosin hoi neoteroi theoi,

krotountes to pan dikas pleon

phonolibu thronon


peri poda, peri kara.-

paresti gas omphalon prosdrakein haimaton

blosuron aromenon agos eyhein.



Exuding the glowing assurance of a used-car salesman and often at the point of a sword, with screams and the crackling flames of the auto-da-fé in the background, Christianity has force-fed us of a shifting vision of a God of Love for centuries. But what does love have to do with any of it? Is this not simply a question of power and control, tyranny and impunity? Who could fail to suspect that the desperate confrontation mapped out by the Ancient Greeks is what has marked, scarred, determined the horrendous travesty of human history? Primal eriV, existence's furious strife as it is raped, tortured, contorted and perverted to amuse the neoteroi theoi, the unconscionable, inutterably cruel "younger gods" and their human wanna-bes, surely accounts for our bloody path of auto-immolation far better than any other explanation.



1. Cyrus Gordon, The Common Background of Greek and Hebrew Civilizations (New York, 1965), p. 218.
2. Homer, The Iliad, trans. Richard Lattimore (Chicago, 1951), XXII, lns 261, 345.
3. Ibid., XVIII, ln 107.
4. Ibid., XI, lns 2, 10, 73.
5. Ibid., V, ln 739.
6. Ibid., XVIII, ln 362.
7. Ibid., III, ln 30.
8. Ibid., X, ln 93.
9. Ibid., XXIV, ln 218.
10. Ibid., XVIII, ln 328.
11. Ibid., XXIV, ln 87.
12. Ibid., XX, ln 242.
13. Ibid., I, ln 545.
14. Ibid., XV, ln 193.
15. Ibid., VIII, ln 7.
16. Ibid., VIII, ln 19.
17. Ibid., XXI, ln 410.
28. Ibid., XVIII, ln 367.
19. Ibid., XXIV, ln 528.
20. Ibid., XVII, ln 210.
21. Ibid., XIX, ln 39.
22. Ibid., XXIV, ln 39.