The Iliad Essay - Critical Essays

Analysis

“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but whose truth emerges as a subtext or corollary of the main argument: Some readers have thought Homer’s poem a historical document of a more primitive and more brutal stage of civilization, but for those “who perceive force, today as yesterday, at the very center of human history, the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...

(The entire section is 1215 words.)