“The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad is force.” The first sentence of The Iliad thus proclaims Weil’s principal thesis with a directness typical of her writing. Nearly everything that follows is evidence adduced to support the thesis. The piece is very lean in that sense.
The first paragraph also contains a second thesis, one less expressly propounded but whose truth emerges as a subtext or corollary of the main argument: Some readers have thought Homer’s poem a historical document of a more primitive and more brutal stage of civilization, but for those “who perceive force, today as yesterday, at the very center of human history, the Iliad is the purest and the loveliest of mirrors.” It is a mirror reflecting the social and political realities of modern times.
Force is that which turns people literally into things, that is, corpses: “Somebody was here, and the next minute there is nobody here at all.” The world conjured up in Homer’s epic is one of graphically depicted carnage, of hundreds of individual deaths portrayed in unflinching and gruesome detail. While valiant Hector’s mutilated body lies on the battlefield, his wife Andromache orders a hot bath for the husband who will never return: “Far from hot baths he was indeed, poor man,” Weil observes, adding “nearly all human life, then and now, takes place far from hot baths.”
There is, however, a more subtly operating force “that does not kill, [that is], that does not kill just yet.” Under this heading, Weil discusses the peculiar mode of existence of the defeated man who supplicates his conqueror. Paralyzed by the imminence of force and the death it will bring, he imitates in advance the nothingness that is his fate. Witnesses view the suppliant as they would a dead man, at first with a shudder, then with indifference. He has effectively ceased to exist even before the fatal sword stroke.
Besides suppliants, there are other, more unfortunate inhabitants of the empire of force: the enslaved, who suffer a protracted death-in-life. Weil poignantly characterizes the plight of the slaves, generally women and children, taken in war. Examples in the Iliad are Chryseis, Briseis, and, as foreseen by Hector, Andromache. Each, forcibly deprived of expression and feeling, is consigned to a “life that death congeals before abolishing.”
Weil now proceeds to make her most sweeping claim about the worldview of the Iliad: Homer’s “Poem of Force” demonstrates the pathetic debasement of all humans. The common soldier, such as Thersites, is in theory a free agent but must endure the indignities of having to accept orders and of abuse should he balk. At the high end of the social scale, magnificent and invincible Achilles suffers humiliation at the hands of his superior, Agamemnon, who in his turn must shortly humble himself. The relevance of this circumstance to later ages is...
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Only in the ten or fifteen years after World War II did Simone Weil’s thought become widely accessible through publication of books, journals, notebooks, and collections of essays. The Iliad was one of the first of her works to appear in English: Mary McCarthy’s translation appeared in the November, 1945, issue of Politics and has been frequently reprinted.
Students of Weil’s life and thought usually see her study of Homer’s epic as an excursion into literary criticism by a thinker whose major contributions lie elsewhere. In this view, The Iliad is a fascinating instance of her corroboration of her own rather pessimistic political philosophy with great works of literature. To be sure, in the dark days of World War II, Homer’s Iliad as Weil understood it was the purest mirror of the human condition.
Her analysis has nevertheless attracted by far its largest readership among students of Homer, most of whom know little of Weil’s other writings. For anyone who loves the Greek epic, the essay holds a special appeal. In the first place, its fierce clarity of expression and depth of feeling make it an extremely persuasive piece of criticism. Second, its content often comes as a revelation, for many readers have found (or have been taught to find) a delight in heroic warfare in Homer’s epic. It is often assumed that the poet’s original audience must have relished the many scenes of combat between mighty warriors and that this is the spirit in which the epic should be read. Weil shatters that conventional interpretation of the poem. Even if one does not accept completely the vision she attributes to Homer, the brilliance of her argument compels the more careful evaluation of the Iliad. Professional classical scholars, too, have admired Weil’s essay, though, like all of her work, it is certainly free of the trappings of specialized scholarship. An eminent Oxford classicist, Colin Macleod, recently wrote of it, “I know of no better brief account of the Iliad than this.”