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.”