Here’s another short essay from class (this time from a course called “Theories of War”) that some might find interesting. This course is taught by Social Sciences living-legend Ned Lebow who gives some of the most engaging lectures/seminars that I’ve been in. He has also been referred to as the “International Relations version of the teacher from Whiplash,” which I don’t think is fair because he isn’t sadistic like that. He can be demanding in class discussion, and he isn’t afraid to call people out for illogical or poorly constructed arguments though.. It can be a little intimidating. This prompt was to explain a core argument or insight from Homer’s Illiad. I wasn’t too happy with how this essay turned out because I think I got distracted from my main point midway through, but here it is.
War and Peace in “The Lines Where Men Win Fame”
The work that Homer presents in the pages of The Iliad is primarily a narrative addressing the nature of man within society, particularly how he behaves in war. He conveys his message through a poetic retelling of the Trojan War. Whether the events described therein are real, slightly embellished, or entirely imagined is not particularly relevant to his purpose. This debate becomes secondary when The Iliad is read not as an historical account, but rather as work which seeks to achieve a two-fold purpose: to explain and idealize man. There are both positive and normative purposes to Homer’s epic. Overall, however, the normative elements take precedence. Homer does describe how men live and interact in communities, especially in communities at war, but he does so only to expose the tragic consequences that can result from an improperly-ordered society. In many ways Homer’s Iliad serves as an early narrative-type precursor to the Classical Greek philosophers’ quest to create and explain a just and well-ordered society. Aristotle and Plato endeavor to find truth about man and society through engaging in discourse, Homer does the same thing using narrative. The Iliad shows man and his communities in extremis in order to magnify and better describe the ideal types of man and society. Through showcasing the desirable virtues of individuals within societies at war, stressing the primacy of fame and honor in human interaction, and exposing the unexpected similarities between the Greek and Trojan societies, Homer’s epic illustrates the ways in which both Greeks and Trojans fall short of an ideally-ordered society, which in turn contributes to a better understanding of why men go to war and how they can avoid or resolve it.
The Iliad uniquely showcases the characteristics and virtues that societies praise during war. These traits, which Homer exalts in his lines, are meant to be understood as the apogee of human virtue. The tragedy that Homer implies in this description is that these traits are only on display in battle, the so-called “lines where men win fame.” By describing these war-bound virtues in the context of The Iliad, the poet makes two cautionary claims: that when virtues which are inextricably linked to war hold high positions in a society that society will perpetuate war, and that all societies are naturally inclined to hold these same virtues in a primary position. The best way of describing these Homeric, war-bound virtues is to note the character who best embodies each within the story. The most prominent virtues include: the rage of Achilles, the wisdom of Nestor, the physical courage of Diomedes, the cunning of Odysseus, and the devotion to family of Hector and Priam. While these traits are not perfected in any of these characters- Hector, for example, ultimately places his own honor ahead of his love for his family and city when he stands against Achilles in single combat- they are displayed by them at some point. Additionally, all of these characteristics are fundamentally bound to war. Achilles’ initial rage only finds an appropriate outlet in his ability to sit out of the war. His rage after the death of Patroclus is similarly only expressed in battle, this time through participating rather than abstaining. Nestor’s wisdom is the product of his years of experience in fighting wars, and he is heeded by the Achaeans, most notably Patroclus who follows his recommendation to join the battle in place of Achilles, purely on the basis of his credibility gained through battle. The courage that Diomedes displays, described by Ares as “something superhuman,” while fighting the Trojans, and even their supportive deities, finds no similar vein for expression in peace. Although it could be argued that competitions like the funeral games of Book XXIII allow a peaceful way for men to display physical courage, there is not the same life-or-death stakes in these cases that exist in combat. Like the other virtues, ultimate courage can only be attained when ultimate stakes are involved. This is why Homer uses the greatest war in history at the time to magnify these virtues. Odysseus is constantly referred to as cunning in his Homeric epithet, and this combination of daring and deception is climatically exhibited in his foray into the Trojan camp with Diomedes in Book X. While Odysseus’ cunning is arguably on display throughout the subsequent Odyssey without war, it is only in war that his cunning receives acclaim from his comrades. Finally, although it is not perfect, Hector displays a sentiment of devotion to family, as does his father Priam, perhaps more ideally. While Hector places his disdain of cowardice above his love for his wife and child, he tells Hecuba that the decision to do so “weighs me down.” This characteristic is idealized in his father whose staunch commitment to preserving the honor of his son drives him to boldly venture into Achilles’ camp. These are the primary virtues described in Homer’s epic.
Building upon the virtues that Homer describes, the primacy of honor in war is another fundamental theme of the Iliad. This focus stems from a desire within the warriors of both Greece and Troy to leave a legacy that would endure beyond their brief life span. The quest for honor is not itself a virtue, but rather an instrument through which to preserve one’s virtues beyond one’s short life. The virtues themselves are only attainable through war and their preservation through the vessel of honor is likewise only achieved in conflict. Both Greek and Trojan alike believed in the primacy of honor. Achilles cites his honor, stolen by Agememnon, as the reason that he abstains from fighting. Likewise, the preservation and gain of honor for Hector is what drives him to reject the advice of Hecuba and meet the Greeks in combat. Just like the virtues are unattainable without fighting, so too are a fighter’s glory and legacy only cemented in the memory of his family and society through war.
While the Greeks and Trojans were engaged in a brutal war against one another, Homer is intentional about pointing out how similar the two societies are. Both Hector and Achilles mourn their impending untimely deaths in light of the families that they will leave behind. The champions of both armies mirror each other in battle and often fight to stalemates. The most striking similarity, however, is that both societies are pulled into war because of the unvirtuous behavior of their elites: Paris’ lust for Helen on the side of the Trojans and Agememnon’s hubris for the Greeks. By showcasing these similarities, Homer addresses the universality of the virtues and vices which he describes. One of The Iliad’s primary insights, therefore, is that when leaders lack virtue in any society, it is destined for perpetual war.
If a desire to display war-like virtues and be remembered through honor on the battlefield is a universal condition, as this essay argues was the case in The Iliad, is humankind deterministically doomed to live in a state of violence and perpetual war or fear of war? On the contrary, the last section of The Iliad serves as a prescription for peace by adding another element to the normative picture of man already represented throughout the work. Neither word is a perfect description, but this additional trait could be referred to as dignity or empathy, and it is the ability to place the immediate gain of advantage over one’s opponent as secondary to recognition of his status as a fellow human. Achilles returns Hector’s body to Priam because he sympathizes with him and considers his own father’s grief at the loss of his son. Rather than pessimistically writing off war as an inescapable tradition, Homer shows a contemporary audience that even the great war-like Achilles, the most violent of all men described in the epic, can appreciate the value of dignity, empathy, family, and hospitality. By ending with this section, Homer encourages his audience that a path to peace does exist and that it can be found through a mutual understanding of this dignity concept. Honor that is tempered by dignity and lived out within communities rather than in isolation is Homer’s prescription for overcoming man’s natural propensity toward war and living justly.
Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin Group, 1998.
 This quote comes from Priam’s discussion with Achilles in Book XXIV.
 Homer, The Iliad, Trans. Robert Fagles, New York: Penguin Group, 1998, 24.461-2, p. 601.
 Nestor’s use of his fighting experience as his primary means of establishing credibility reinforces this idea. See The Iliad, 11.775-960, p.318 for his long speech about his former exploits to Patroclus.
 Homer, The Iliad, 5.1022, p. 193.
 After his marauding exploit he is renown by Nestor as “Achaea’s pride and glory,” an honor he never had bestowed upon him during his return journey, full of cunning though it was. Homer, The Iliad, 10.627, p. 294.
 Homer, The Iliad, 6.536, p. 210.
 Priam tells Achilles, “It’s all for him I’ve come to the ships now, to win him back from you.” Homer, The Iliad, 24.586, p. 604.
 Homer, The Iliad, 1.139, p. 81.
 Homer, The Iliad, 6.527-529, p. 210.
 Homer, The Iliad, 24.570-646, pp. 604-606.