Common Wisdom: Who Will Defend This City?

On the day war broke out in the Persian Gulf I by chance was reading the greatest piece of war literature in our Western tradition—the Iliad. The new translation by Robert Fagles, chairman of Princeton University’s comparative literature department, is splendid indeed. Many of us will prefer it even to the Richard Lattimore translation that for years has been the staple. With an excellent and thorough introduction by Bernard Knox, director emeritus of Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies, and supplemented by maps, notes, a genealogical table of the royal house of Troy, a bibliography, and a pronouncing glossary, this new Fagles-Knox collaboration is a treasure.

Reading Homer’s Iliad, which is by turns soaring, swashbuckling, grim, tender, and violent, and in overall theme deeply tragic, I could but think of our decision to enter war in the Middle East, and that, despite all the agonizing ambiguities of war, it was, I believe, a just decision. As Richard Neuhaus has written, the decision to take military action in the Gulf met the criteria of just-war theory.

Wars, however, never exist in the abstract. For those in combat they are the most horrifically concrete experiences on the face of the earth. The Homeric heroes of the Iliad, each time they geared up for battle, thundered in with their chariots, and leaped out for close combat first with spears, and then with swords and stones, faced possible death. The gory spearing, slashing, eye-jabbing, and beheading, depicted by Homer in gruesome detail, was the inevitable risk of battle. Modern weaponry, by contrast, if potentially destructive beyond anything the Bronze Age heroes imagined, is nonetheless designed as a deterrent to warfare. The modern soldier, although fearing death, still expects to come home alive. The Homeric hero, on the other hand, almost expected to be killed. Even Achilles, mightiest hero of the Iliad, anticipated his own end; his mother, the goddess Thetis, had told him that he was destined to die an early death in battle.

So violent is Homer’s world, so utterly saturated with war, and yet so poignant in its recognition of the waste and tragedy of war, that Homer is occasionally said to have created the first and greatest work of anti-war literature. I ran across that assertion recently, and I hardly see how that position might be defended. In the first place, it injects a modern anti-war viewpoint backward into Homer, a concept he would have found unthinkable both in the seventh and eighth century B.C. when he worked and also in the thirteenth century B.C. Bronze Age of the heroes he wrote about. Even more than that, the attribution to Homer of a modern anti-war stance imposes upon his poem a flat shallowness that does not exist. On the contrary, the greatness of Homer’s Iliad lies in confronting the effects of war in all its ramifications—tragic, heroic, and glorious—for the men who fight valiantly, who suffer and die; for the women, children, and old people who mourn them; for the cities (that is, civilizations) that endure or fall because of them. Why do we fight wars, Homer asks, and what do we fight for?

Homer has no modern sentimentality. He accepts human nature as it is. The human tendency to lawlessness promotes conflict. The willful inclination to override order breeds aggression. Thus we live with wars and rumors of wars. As long as some men choose to be outlaws, other men are left with the responsibility of defending the order of the city. And it is hard work—”the hard work of freedom,” as George Bush has called it. The Iliad, too, as Knox points out, speaks of ergon, the grueling, grinding work of war.

Even in the violent world of the Homeric heroes, war is meant to end. The purpose of any war worth fighting is peace. Mired and obscured in blood though it be, the purpose is still the restoration of order. The point of the just war is not the combat but the defense of something else, the loss of which would be even more devastating than loss of life. That something else is intangible and often hard to define, and yet the inhabitants of the city know what it is. They live surrounded by it and permeated by it—that common bond of ancestry, family ties, history, religion, culture, tradition, and purpose, united by the thousand-and-one threads of taken-for-granted knowledge that bind us to our sacred plot and move us to call a place and a country home. The Greeks from Bronze Age through Hellenistic times recognized the permanent things as personified and protected in the life of the polis, the city. And for all our chastisement of ourselves as having lost our common purpose, our center, we Americans, at least those of us who still attach meaning to the word patriotism, recognize that even yet the permanent things are best protected in the city that is America.

The aristocratic heroes of Homer’s epic fought to defend what was sacred to them—the integrity of their city and what was inextricably bound to that, their personal honor. To fight valiantly in the defense of one’s city so as to achieve glory, even after death, was the highest virtue, the aristeia, of this aristocratic Homeric age. Since death was virtually the end of things, immortality came through remembering the glorious warrior in song and story, Therefore, in battle the victor claimed the dead soldier’s armor and gear. Strict piety required, however, that the soldier’s men would recover his body and bury it with proper mourning and recounting of his valor.

The war of Homer’s Iliad was far more than a clash of opposing forces. It was then—as soldiers have ever found—a proving ground to test not only the physical strength and skill but also the inner mettle of the warrior. Whom does he love? What does he hold most sacred? Those questions have faced men from the wise Odysseus and the powerful Ajax to our soldiers in the Persian Gulf. Such common questions draw soldiers together. There is a friendship that links men in war, the comradely affection that grows between people who share a tight situation. “Friends-in-arms!” the Homeric heroes shout to each other in encouragement.

If the Greek Achilles is the greatest of the heroes of the Iliad, the Trojan hero Hector is nearly every reader’s favorite. There is a reason for the popularity of Hector: he is much more the man of the city. Achilles, after all, is half divine, the son of a mortal father and an immortal mother. His gifts are likewise almost more than mortal—his handsome beauty, his strength, his courage. But his faults, too, are immense—particularly his anger and pride, which form the tragic theme of the epic: “Rage— Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles, murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses.” As Knox says, Achilles’ superhuman rage and absorption in self approach godlike proportions. In the ferocity of his willful indulgence of his anger he, like a god, thinks only of himself, nearly sacrificing his men and then succumbing to the impiety of refusing to give back for burial the body of Hector. Achilles in his monumental anger isolates himself. His ultimate n devotion is not to the city but to himself.

Hector, on the other hand, greatest warrior on the Trojan side, is the most powerful defender of his city—its last defender. His very name Hector means “holder,” and when he dies, there is nothing left to stave off the destruction of Troy. Hector, the man of the city, the defender of civilization, is the final preserver of order against chaos. When he dies at the hands of Achilles, the effects for the city are catastrophic. Knox sums it up:

The whole poem has been moving toward this duel between the two champions, but there has never been any doubt about the outcome. The husband and father, the beloved protector of his people, the man who stands for the civilized values of the rich city, its social and religious institutions, will go down to defeat at the hands of this man who has no family, who in a private quarrel has caused the death of many of his own fellow soldiers, who now in a private quarrel thinks only of revenge, though that revenge, as he well knows, is the immediate prelude to his own death. And the death of Hector seals the fate of Troy; it will fall to the Achaeans, to become the pattern for all time of the death of a city. The images of that night assault—the blazing palaces, the blood running in the streets, old Priam butchered at the altar, Cassandra raped in the temple, Hector’s baby son thrown from the battlements, his wife Andromache dragged off into slavery—all this, foreshadowed in the Iliad, will be stamped indelibly on the consciousness of the Greeks throughout their history, immortalized in lyric poetry, in tragedy, on temple pediments and painted vases, to reinforce the stern lesson of Homer’s presentation of the war: that no civilization, no matter how rich, no matter how refined, can long survive once it loses the power to meet force with equal or superior force.

That the world has had its fortunate share of Hectors is a blessing to be cherished. When Hector prevails and preserves his city in the tranquility of order, civilization flourishes in peace. But when the outlaw revolts against order, then the city is besieged. Who, then, but Hector will come to its defense?

  • Anne Husted Burleigh

    Mrs. Anne Husted Burleigh is a free-lance writer, mother, and grandmother who lives on a farm overlooking the Ohio River in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. She has written two books: John Adams, a Biography, and Journey up the River: a Midwesterner’s Spiritual Pilgrimage. She has contributed to many publications, including Crisis and Catholic Dossier, and now writes for Magnificat.

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