Week 1 of a Greek Lit Course: Beginning the Iliad

Our first week of class gave us a lot of exposure to Homeric literature. We received a bit of background on the Iliad in class. My hours on Greek literature were spent readings and comprehending the Iliad and answering more philosophical questions that my professor Dr. Sandridge composed on love, identity, values.

To start the first class, Dr. Sandridge came into the classroom with a guitar — an experience I haven’t had since elementary school. “THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS” is not what Dr. Sandridge’s guitar said, but I got the sense that it, like Woody Guthrie’s guitar, had just that purpose (not only because he mentioned Woody Guthrie’s guitar in the first class). We went on to discuss the first reading on the 5 Great Stories of human beings. The stories are meant to represent 5 paths that do have the opportunity to intertwine, but these are how we define ourselves: career, love/social relationships, spiritual/intellectual enlightenment, leadership, and partnership. Although I didn’t have the opportunity (or gaul) to speak on one of my paths, many students discussed theirs. One of my peers discussed his desire to have either his name or a great big picture of his face on a satellite that would, secondarily of course, give the world free wifi. Another student mentioned a symposium where the Dalai Lama spoke and spoke about his greatest fear: a rabid dog. She felt this experience humbled her and advanced her intellectual journey. No one is as divine, but simultaneously, no one is as terrible as we believe them to be; we all have our very human (or even animalistic) quality of fear, which is not at all present in the omnipotent. We then went on to discuss the difference between “partnership” and “love/social relationship,” which we called longevity, commitment, and shared resources.

The following class we simply received background on the Trojan war including the three steps of the war: (1) The Wedding of Peleus and Thetis, who bore Achilles, prophesied to be greater than his father, (2) the Story of the Apple of Discord, in which Eris, goddess of Discord, went to the wedding uninvited and started a competition over the fairest between Hera, Aphrodite, and Athena, and finally (3) The Judgement of Paris which ended with Aphrodite’s win and the Trojan War.

After reading Book 1 of the Iliad, I recorded some of my first thoughts in answers to questions Dr. Sandridge assigned us. I quickly recognized that the most important thing to Achilles based on this first book are his people and their right to decent lives. Achilles prioritizes freedom and equality of a Greek state. Although Achilles is mad that his prize is taken from him, what really flusters him is the audacity of Agamemnon. He wishes for Agamemnon’s suffering and an end to his madness before asking for the return of his prize. He first indicates this desire in his speech to the council addressing Agamemnon: “Son of Atreus, I believe now that straggling backwards we must make our way home if we can even escape death, if fighting now must crush the Achaians and the plague likewise” (1.59–61). Rather than fighting to achieve kleos, Achilles, who is still very much a young man at this point, decides that the well-being of his men is more valuable. He also demands fair treatment as recognized after Agamemnon decides that he will take Achilles’ prize, Briseis: “…pin the Achaians back against the ships and the water, dying, so that thus they may all have profit of their own king, that Atreus’ son wide-ruling Agamemnon may recognize his madness, that he did no honour to the best of the Achaians” (1.409–412). Achilles here is daring enough to call out a king — more powerful than he, the wise elder Nestor will tell us — for the sake of his fair treatment. Achilles is bold enough to call the king crazy and leave the fight for his rights to a prize, which all Greek heros are entitled to.

Agamemnon in contrast values the exercise of his immense power in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity. Achilles makes the strong point that by exercising his power for willfully and without precedent he will become a much harder king to follow: “O wrapped in shamelessness, with your mind forever on profit, how shall any one of the Achaians readily obey you either to go on a journey or to fight men strongly in battle?” (1.409–410). Agamemnon then denounces his greatest warrior at the expense of his greatest warrior and that warrior’s followers to prove his omnipotence, that he is unchallengeable: “And if the everlasting gods have made him a spearman, yet they have not given him the right to speak abusively.” (1.290–291). Although Achilles did speak out of line (and was correct), Agamemnon unnecessarily puts more coal on the sacrificial lamb by furthering his cause and putting Achilles on a lower tier, belittling his strength as a warrior.

Achilles has a self-importance lacking in the primarily blindly loyal Greeks. Instead of conceding his prize to Agamemnon, he argues — with a king — his right to a prize equally as great because of his great impact on the wars. Achilles sees his identity as greater than what it is and Nestor notes this because he, as a lesser ruler, does not have the right to criticize Agamemnon. Agamemnon understands his place and knowingly plays the role of the entitled, apathetic king, who refuses to empathize with his subjects, as he says to Achilles: “I myself going to your shelter, that you may learn well how much greater I am than you, and another man may shrink back from likening himself to me and contending against me.” (1.185–187). Agamemnon also proves his intolerance for insolence through his reprimanding of a prophecy who only did as he was commanded and by discarding and dishonoring his most powerful warrior, Achilles. Demonstrating his influence and power, Agamemnon denied the “gifts beyond count” offered by Chryses for his daughter, as an act to legitimize his omnipotence.

After a bit of interpretation of the reading, I called my father to speak to him for almost an hour and a half about the value of a human being. When I brought up the worth of a human being and our conversation quickly turned towards intelligence, though initially my father said there were no determinate factors. By this standard my father could not solve his issues based on utilitarian principles. If math could not determine the best option, I challenged my father to then answer the following question: “Who would you save? One child falling from a tree to concrete or a bus full of adults.” He answered the former. The child, he argued, has not yet had the chance to impact the world, the adults on the other hand had — or at least to some extent. He does though stress that his personal relationships with people trump the worth of any strangers and the stronger those ties are the more value the person has. For my father those two factors determined a person’s worth: personal tie with him and potential, but obviously potential is hard to determine. I pushed further and asked him how potential is determined and if knowledge can determine that (Socrates would come to a different conclusion in his dialectic with Mino).

We made it our mission to first define knowledge and quickly realized that it, along with experience and rationality, made up wisdom. So then knowledge is simply the information you learn and store from mediums like books, lectures, and history. We did realize that experience and knowledge do somewhat overlap, but that experience stresses day-to-day interaction, learning from mistakes, rather than learning particular methods and applying them like knowledge. Rationality is also a very important factor in wisdom. The wise are able to make good decision for themselves and for the greater good. If someone is wise then they must have intelligence from both experience and knowledge. For this reason we, as a society, associate wisdom with age because with age comes experience and the opportunity to gain knowledge. Young people are still on this path. But not all old educated people can truly make good decision for the greater good, hence Donald Trump. What also needs to play a role is rationality. To make logical decision based on an internal dialectic — as Socrates performs with many of the Athenians. A wise person must be able to challenge themselves and come to a sound conclusion after presenting all falsehoods and holes within arguments. If it is wisdom that we as a human race need to make good decision for all of humanity, then it is the most young and most wise who have the most potential and therefore are the most valuable people. Virtue then is wisdom and youth.

On Saturday I visited the National Gallery of Art to photograph pieces that represented love. Following are th

Clara and Lizzie, Daughters of Frederick and Elizabeth Shattuck by Bela Pratt — 1893
The Kiss (Le Baiser) by Auguste Rodin — c. 1880
Madonna and Child by Domenco Ghilandaio — c. 1470
The Hand of God by Auguste Rodin — 1896

The works I chose to photograph have separate representations of love in reality, but exist together in our universe as the possible manifestations of love between rational beings — that is human beings. Instead of photographing three works, I chose four. Each one, I believe, represents love in its different forms that a human can experience: with one’s faith, as we see in The Hand of God, with one’s friend, as we see in Clara and Lizzie, with one’s romantic partner, as we see in Le Baiser, and with one’s family, as we see in Madonna and Child. In each work of art there is an embrace, which is the most animalistic expression of love. Touch is our mind acting on love. We prove our love to each other through intimacy, but something more than a longing gaze, something like a caress. The artworks together address the fluidity and physicality of love that makes us so human. Humans are cognitive sentient beings, but with love, we become animals, lose our rational and instead of using our ability of speech, we touch, hold, kiss, and give.

The hand of God holds Adam and Eve, and Adam and Eve, in their love of God, lay comfortably in Her hands embracing each other, looking into each others faces without expression through verbal language, but through symbolic gazes and body positioning. Rodin’s second piece in this curation (although it was only in this moment I realized that I chose two of his pieces to photograph), is The Kiss. This sculpture represents the most commercial form of love that exists today: the love of lovers. Romantic love is the most expressive of the four depicted here because it is the most sexual. Here the Rodin sculpted two naked lovers holding each other — around the neck, on the thigh, other erogenous zones — to ensure a graphic physicality is grasped by the onlooker. This romantic love represented in The Kiss, is a mature love that is similar to that between friends, but the dynamic evolves into something more burning and more needed, which is the result of our animalistic need to have sex. The love between Clara and Lizzie is a form that exists on earth that involves sacrifice, altruism, and harmless embrace. Clara and Lizzie share flowers in the portrayal.

The first love that we then encounter is between us and the divine, assuming we believe in that higher power, the second then is between familial love. Our creator, that is the divine featured in The Hand of God, placed our souls with a family. Not all families are conventional with mother, father, and child , but we all are born of an egg and a sperm, that develop within a mother’s womb. The mother who bore a child looks at it longingly, understanding the beauty of creation and of literally giving a part of one’s self to a new being. This love is divine. Like a god that creates, the mother, with the assistance of a father, creates. In Madonna and Child, the infant is too young to comprehend the world around it and observes without taking real notice of its creator. The infant of course is most comfortable in its creator’s hands like Adam and Eve in The Hand of God, and if removed will likely cry. The mother on the other hand looks down at her child and the artist sweeps his brush upwards at the end of the mother’s mouth indicating the happiness and love the mother feels with her child in hand. While friendship and romantic love are the more grounded forms, love of faith and familial love represent the ethereal, the love the exists because it must.

Love and rationality fulfill the distinction that gives us our humanity. Simultaneously, love acts as a suppressant to rationality. Love, in itself, is inexplicable. To define love is to explain an unconditional attraction to and care for another person. Because it is unconditional and in rationality, all things are conditional, it suppresses rationality. Logic seeks to explain and justify all actions and love, as an abstract emotion, does not require and, furthermore, denies and defies explanation. Love is the conqueror of logical thought. When a woman with means is repeatedly abused by the love of her life, her boo, her soulmate, and she chooses, disregarding her wellbeing, to stay with this man, her love is conquering her ability to think clearly, to weigh her options, and remove herself. Love is instinctual and for that reason it defies reason. Humans are separated from animals because we do not act on instinct, but we do not control who we love, rather than a cognitive process in the brain, we (very unscientifically) feel this emotion in our chest — our heart. This emotion is irrational, uncontrollable and conquers our ability to reason.

For fun here’s a picture of me in front of the gallery and a depiction of the Judgement of Paris: