The Iliad

I’ve read excerpts of it, but I have decided it is time to go deep and read the whole thing. I’ve started and I have a ways to go to get to the end of The Iliad.

It’s a mythological tale, you know. And even before I get to the content, it’s mythological to me. The story itself is about the Greeks conquering the city of Troy. And the story of the story is huge to me.

Greeks were so compelling that the Romans swallowed them whole, and spread through their empire and the history of their empire a barely transformed version of the Greek myths and ideals. THEN the Romans were so compelling that the rest of their former empire swallowed their myths whole. It’s a mythological turducken.

Let me be clear. When I say the rest of the Roman Empire, I am talking about one part: Britain.

One of my English professors explained it this way. He came from an Italian family and his brother told him, “You will always have three identities. We are Italian because that’s our family. We are American because we were born here. And our identity will always be English; because that is the language we speak and read.”

Greek and Latin are so important to Englishness. For centuries the universities on that little island read and translated Greek and Latin texts. It influences every single schoolboy from England. Boys, because that’s how the world worked then. Girls had a different path.

I can feel that while reading the Iliad. I can know that my favorite authors long dead read these stories and thought about these heroic characters. I am in a timeless community of readers with this story.

The Trojan War did actually happen, it’s a true story. A true story rewritten to express the highest ideals of the Greek culture at the time.  Battle and Honor and Glory. Gaining the favor of the gods and battle prizes.

They spoke in beautiful description, sailing their beaked ships and burning thigh bones. This was not everyday speech. It was lofty and expressive. Who talks like that anymore?

Really, who? Honestly, ordinary people even then didn’t talk like that. This was high culture speech, even when it was new.

Who is talking high culture now? Who is aiming for the immortal?

I think of a speech of Winston Churchill, right before WW2:

We must not underrate the gravity of the task which lies before us or the temerity of the ordeal to which we shall not be found unequal. We must expect many disappointments, and many unpleasant surprised, but we may be sure that the task which we have freely accepted is one not beyond the compass and the strength of the British Empire and the French Republic…If these great trials were to come upon our island, there is a generation of Britons here now ready to prove itself not unworthy of the days of yore and not unworthy of those great men, the fathers of our land, who laid the foundations of our laws and shaped the greatness of our county.

So inspiring! Very high culture. And I can hear the heroes, Agamemnon and Achilles, in the words and cadence of this British leader’s words.

Of course, war always brings out speeches. My American president John F. Kennedy had a good speech for the general citizenry

Here is a piece of it:

We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution. Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch had been passed to a new generation of Americans—born in this century, tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage—and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty.

Yes. That’s what I’m talking about.

Still, those speeches were a long time ago—more than 50 years old. So much has changed since then. What are our highest ideals? What speaks to us as a higher calling? Who are our visionaries and prophets?

Most recently, Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford commencement speech is an example of contemporary high ideals:

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.


I also have heard Steven Foster Wallace in his Kenyon commencement speech (turned into a book):

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline and effort, and being able to truly care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative in unconsciousness, the default setting, the ‘rat race’-the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing

These three American men are dead, tragically, which lends pathos to their words. Pathos is an intensifier of profundity, and I will affirm these speeches are profound.

Let me stop here, dear readers, and apologize. I have brought to you in very quick succession, some of the greatest speeches and ideas that this past century contained. It is not fair, I know, and I am standing on lofty shoulders, leaping from peak to peak to explore another idea separate from the topics these speeches express. I am sorry if I give you altitude sickness.

I’m talking about cultural ideals, ancient and modern.  As I read the Iliad, and as I’ve compared it here to more modern idealistic expressions, I see one huge difference.

These modern speeches had one, or perhaps a small group, of authors.  They were also written in a relatively short period of time.

The Iliad was written by Homer. Except it wasn’t. That long epic verse was and refined over time. Many many hands were part of it, although it was so long ago it’s not clear which part got “improved” when. And the academics are still arguing.

My point though, is that this epic poem of high ideals was  an outgrowth of a group of people. Their ideals were static for long enough to endure refinement and preservation.

Our modern ideals are highly individual. Is that all we have time for now? Is that the new shape of the world?

Or do we lack the visionary poet to express the culture of a group?

Who talks that way anymore?


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