Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1215
“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but whose truth emerges as a subtext or corollary of the main argument: Some readers have thought Homer’s poem a historical document of a more primitive and more brutal stage of civilization, but for those “who perceive force, today as yesterday, at the very center of human history, the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 clear to Weil: The persistence of warfare and other forms of violence throughout history has meant that, though force may victimize some later rather than sooner, some less patently than others, all without exception are drawn into its net.
Force, like death, is the great leveler. Weil hammers home the point that those who “possess” force do so only apparently and always temporarily. Warriors in the Iliad may enjoy short-lived triumphs, but they will eventually taste defeat. Achilles’ death follows Hector’s as surely as Hector’s does that of Patroclus. The lesson is that “Ares is just, and kills those who kill.” Yet this lesson is lost on those who, with a fatal shortsightedness, believe that they control force, naively expecting to evade...
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the consequences of their actions: “Those who have force on loan from fate count on it too much and are destroyed.” Weil rightly notes the pervasiveness in Greek literature of the idea that “violation of measure [moderation] brings automatic retribution.”
The ultimate philosophical proposition of Weil’s book is that the essential immoderation of force infects all whom it touches. Only a superhuman virtue could resist its allure. Thus it is that soldiers march to war with such enthusiasm. Victory in battle is itself an excess, and “excess is not arrived at through prudence or politic considerations. . . . Man dashes to it as to an irresistible temptation.” The countervailing voice of sweet reason is rarely raised in Homer’s poem and falls always on deaf ears. The initial intoxication with force may persist for a time, but eventually and unavoidably the brutal realities of defeat and death, including the practical possibility of one’s own death, deform the soul of the warrior. Men in war are caught in a horrific self-perpetuating cycle, their minds so preoccupied with doing violence as to become incapable of finding a way out: “Regularly, every morning, the soul castrates itself of aspiration.” Because the inertia of force seems unopposable, the warrior can see only death in his future.
Weil discovers confirmation for this view of the effects of force on human beings in many of the similes Homer employs. Again and again, he compares Greeks and Trojans to animals, to elements (sand, fire, flood, wind), to plants, in short “to anything in nature that is set in motion by the violence of external forces.” Force transforms human beings into objects, either bodies or, what comes to the same thing, soulless instruments. The same petrifactive quality is everywhere at work. Weil admits that “brief, celestial moments in which man possesses his soul” relieve the scenes of the undiluted horror in the Iliad. At these times, one sees a respect for the bonds of hospitality, the devotion of familial love, and even the possibility of friendship between mortal enemies. Nevertheless, such uncommon moments of grace only heighten the regret at the eclipse of human kindness in the world that force engenders.
Weil stresses the tone of bitterness that suffuses Homer’s Iliad—a bitterness arising from the poet’s tender sympathy for the fate of mankind, trapped as it is in the harsh realities of war and the greatest of human calamities, the fall of a city. This sympathy bathes the characters of the epic—Greeks and Trojans alike—in a light of love and justice. No human escapes suffering, no suffering is contemptible.
According to Weil, the Greeks alone developed such a view of the world and fashioned from it “the only true epic the Occident possesses.” In a provocatively frank assay of literature, she finds a vision akin to that of Homer’s Iliad in the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles and in the Gospels, which she considers “a last marvelous expression of the Greek genius,” but not in the Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.), the Old Testament, the Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.), or the chansons de geste.
Weil’s work ends with a somber meditation on the failure of European literature (save for brief glimmerings in the works of Francois Villon, William Shakespeare, Miguel de Cervantes, Moliere, and Jean Racine) to regain the Greek freedom from self-deception and to renew the epic genius. Because of this failure, the lessons of Homer’s poem—not to idolize force, not to despise the enemy, not to disdain the unfortunate, not to hope for exemption from fate—remain for the peoples of Europe to learn.