Virtues Of War – Homer

Over the next four weeks, we will be discussing the classical virtues of four different cultures. You will hear the phrase “conception” or “account” of the virtues frequently, for they vary slightly from person to person and society to society. Virtues name the characteristics necessary for a political union, or polis, to thrive, and things like cultural advancement, geography, diplomatic situation, and common ideals all contribute to social group’s self-determined trajectory.

037_homer-polisAs I said on the first day about education, an origin without a destination is not a journey, nor is movement properly “progress” unless there is an end in sight toward which a journey moves, or to which progress names an ever-increasing proximity. This will be important for the next few weeks because virtue theory requires an end. The Greek word in play here is telos, which means end, purpose, or goal. All virtue theory is teleological, it assumes an end toward which it gives us a stereotype, a fixed set of characteristics representing the kind of person we should strive to be.

homer-telosI am aware of the irony of using the word “stereotype” in a positive moral light, but it is the most appropriate word to use. An archetype is the beginning of something, even before it takes material form, while a prototype is the first of something, from which subsequent models become increasingly functional. Stereotype is a word that belongs, in the modern world, to publishing. It is what the printer does by laying down each individual lead character, called a type or a sort, in its prescribed place on the printing tray, called “furniture,” Stereotyping must not begin until the printer is confident that all prior revisions have been completed. It is the last step before the ink is warmed and applied. Once the stereotyping is set, no changes may be made. “Stereotypes function as cultural shorthand, a way of describing something in simplistic, quickly recognizable types, usually as a means of self-preservation. They are problematic insofar as they are fixed, solid, and firm, reflecting their Greek root; stereos (στερεός).

stereosBut we are, ironically, called to become stereotypes. Our ultimate purpose is to embody whatever it is that makes us whatever character we play in the social drama we embody, to continually revise and refine our personal habits and actions so that we become the best [fill in the blank] we can be, whether that character is named “skateboarder,” “dad,” “American,” or, simply, “human.” We all are the embodiment of the story we’ve inherited (what Lindemann calls “Found Communities”) and the story we are building for ourselves (“Communities of Choice”).

This is leads us to Homer, and what MacIntyre calls Heroic Society, for “Heroic social structure is enacted epic narrative.” (After Virtue, 129, emphasis in original)

Homer’s Heroic Society

Homer takes for granted that there might be coherent “accounts” of virtue. That no accounts existed may suggest that, within the Homeric imagination, there was no need for them, precisely because they are taken for granted; according to MacIntyre, Sophocles’ play Philoctetes (409 BCE) is the first to display “a connection between some of the basic incoherencies in classical society and the Homeric background” which Plato also may have been trying to articulate by producing his own “coherent well-integrated account of the virtues.” (After Virtue, 131) The very production of such an account implies a lack, a need, a desire; If true, then in the centuries between Homer and Plato, the virtues had become somehow incompatible with Greek society, prompting their revision and organization.

homer-poemsFor Homer and the world he or she called home, the virtues were dissolved into the cultural kool-aid. In fact, calling them virtues may be distracting, for the root word, virtus, is Latin, not Greek. Derived from vir, for man, virtus initially named a particularly skilled Roman soldier (i.e. to be truly manly one must be a member of the military), but its meaning diffused into non-military spheres over time. The Greek equivalent, which we find in Homer and Aristotle, is arête, or excellence.  Virtue, in the Iliad and Odyssey, is displayed in people being excellent at what they do, whether that is soldiering or politics, for example. An excellent soldier might be strong and courageous, while an excellent politician may know how to negotiate competing interests. Excellence is not restricted to men, as Penelope’s excellence is displayed in The Odyssey by her fidelity, whose “good sense” secured for herself “the fame of her great [arête].” (Book 24, line 216. Fagles, p.474) Nor is excellence restricted to humans, as animals or even inanimate objects may also be described that way.

Although excellence may seem to be a state of being or character, in Homeric literature, it is equally related to efficacy. The excellent soldier uses all their talents and gifts to complete whatever their mission may be. Arête is about results, for excellence can only be truly secured at the end, as a person and a community reflect back from the twilight of a life or an endeavor successfully concluded. Excellence is about fulfilling one’s compete potential, by becoming and fully functional model and exemplar of whatever character or role they fill in society.

039_homer-areteFor soldiers, the guarantor of arête was a noble death in war. For wives, it was to be forever faithful to their husbands. For tradesmen, it was to yield excellent products, like the sharpest blade, the strongest shield, or to breed the fastest horse.

There were often multiple subordinate elements of excellence: excellent athletes were not only expected to win, but to do so as good sportsmen; excellent philosophers were not only expected to be wise, but to put wisdom to work by practicing what they preached; excellent tradesmen were not only expected to yield reliable products, but to conduct their business fairly.

By MacIntyre’s account, Homer functioned as a moral backdrop to heroic societies, a supplier of epic narrative which gave shape to the everyday lives of ancient Greeks. Greek arête assumed narrative form because epic characters provided actual human beings with the means by which Homeric ideals assumed embodied form. This is precisely why MacIntyre puts insists “Heroic social structure is enacted epic narrative.” (After Virtue, 129, emphasis in original)

041_stereotypeThe earlier printing reference is important, and not just because I have family in the business. If “the chief means of moral education was the telling of stories” (After Virtue, 121) then culture itself is transmitted by crafts like literature and theater, which we’ll cover later. History itself often assumes the form of a story, a certain kind of story told by a certain kind of narrator. As ancient literature, Homer’s epic poems The Iliad and Odyssey are imitative, mimetic, making them inescapable to the average Greek hearer. Aristotle felt that the only form of literature truer to life than epic poetry was tragedy, which he described as “an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude… through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation [catharsis] of these emotions.” (Aristotle, Poetics, VI.1449)

Modern histories assume certain commitments to “facts” that earlier forms do not. There is no way to say decisively that Homer did not understand his or her task to be anything but the transmission of history.  That it may not align with our own expectations about the genre, by the depiction of gods or super natural phenomenon, only discloses our modern assumptions. It is the modern emotivist self which assumes “the capacity to detach oneself from any particular standpoint… and view and judge the standpoint from the outside,” but a person “who tried to withdraw [themselves] from [their] given position in heroic society would be engaged in the enterprise of trying to make [themselves] disappear.” (After Virtue, 126)

History is both political and storied, we are “what the past has made us and we cannot eradicate from ourselves… from those parts of ourselves which are formed by our relationship to each formative stage of our history.” (After Virtue, 130) History, like any story, is made up of characters, some of whom we find morally upright and exemplary and others which we find morally repulsive and which serve as cautionary tales to dissuade later generations from acting in like fashion. History and narrative each ultimately beg the questions “What kind of person shall I be? What kind of society do I inhabit, and is it worth my life?”

This brings us back to the virtues, or excellences, by which we can morally self-assess and, as needed, replot our moral trajectory. Becoming the kind of person we should requires understanding the kind of person we are, which is dependent upon knowing our surrounding story. Likewise, “to understand courage as a virtue is not just to understand how it may be exhibited in character, but also what place it can have in a certain kind of enacted story.” (After Virtue, 125) MacIntyre forces us to ask not only “What kind of stories does Homer tell?”, but more importantly, “What kind of characters does Homer describe?” We have no time to contend with the many, and more academic, descriptions of The Iliad, though it would help to know the title means something like “The song of Troy’s capital” (where the battle takes place), but it’s opening lines insist the actual subject is Achilles “murderous” rage (Fagles, 77), which hurled

down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls, great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion, feasts for the dogs and birds

We can get at both earlier questions, however, through a brief consideration of a concluding scene from The Odyssey, when the war-weary Odysseus finally returns to his native Ithaca, where his queen, Penelope and heir, Telemachus, have waited 20 long years for his arrival.

Men vying for the Queen’s favor in the king’s absence have devised a contest to determine who shall usurp Odysseus’ throne. The first string Odysseus’ fabled mighty bow and hit a mark will win her hand as well as assume Odysseus’ rule. The long-gone king, disguised as a commoner, waits until the last to reveal his identity, at which time he proceeds to slay the entire cohort of suitors. The twenty second book describes “The Slaughter in the Hall” as Odysseus and Telemachus make easy work of the many ambitious admirers. Thus concludes Odysseus’ long trek home from the Trojan war. Here is how Vietnam veteran Doug Anderson summarizes the seemingly satisfying conclusion of Homer’s two volume history of the Trojan War and its aftermath (“Homecoming,” in The Moon Reflected Fire, 43);

Telemachus felt something enter his spine 

when his father threaded the axe-heads, 

victorious arrow quivering in the wall, and a small cry escaped him when, 

without pausing, the old man fit 

another shaft onto the string 

and shot Antinoos between the nipples. 

And so it began for Telemachus, 

the deep, swirling momentum;

some power slipping him on like a skin,

and him mad with it; hiss of sword—stroke

father and son working the cowering suitors,

the one stalking, the other cutting off escape,

until the stone floors were slippery red.

But finally, when he thought it was over,

his righteousness spent, and the weeping servant girls 

on their hands and knees were sopping up the blood, 

he leaned on his sword,

tried to fit his dream of the man gone twenty years 

over the gore—soaked beard and chest before him. 

And then his father looked around, and scarce believing 

there was no one left to kill, smiled at his son.


Questions for discussion:

  • What kind of person is Achilles, and what kind of story is the song of Illium?
  • What kind of person is Odysseus and what kind of story is his Odyssey?

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