In the first portion of our excursion through the sticky saying that we discover in Homer’s Achilles I explored the idea that we’re not as different from Achilles as we think. Hearkening back to Bespaloff (On the Iliad), we might at this point be able to recognize that while in spirit we admire Hektor, more often than not in action we emulate Achilles. For confirmation, we only need to survey our society in which appearances, wealth, fame, brash self-assertion, and power are our golden calves.
The best literature teachers rely on classic books, but how can you tell a classic from a non-classic? One popular answer to this question is that you have to wait because it takes time to identify one. You must wait and see which books manage to transcend the concerns of their own time and place and speak to the hearts of people from other times and places; which books, in other words, address universal themes in universally compelling ways.
Seventy-five years ago, as the Nazis were methodically implementing their conquest of Europe, the French philosopher/mystic Simone Weil published a long essay titled “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force.” In her perceptive take on Homer’s poem, she describes force as “The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad....,” and defines it as “that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing.” (The Nazis brought this practice to a new level, and still stand as role models for
With the help of Wes Callihan and his Epics series my sons, Alex and Andrew, and I are reading The Iliad this term. I have read The Iliad before, honest injun, but for most of my children I have just assigned it as reading during their year in King’s Meadow Antiquities. I thought I would enjoy reading The Iliad out loud with these, my last two boys, and learning along with them this year. I fully expect it to inform each of us in different ways.