Classics Essays

Why We Need the Classics

Do the ancient Greeks have anything left to tell us? Anyone who deals extensively in the humanities, and especially the classics, inevitably must ask themselves this question. Apart from being eclectic or a renaissance individual, if the Greeks have nothing important to teach us, why bother wrestling with them at all? That seems to be the new prevailing spirit, notwithstanding the iconoclastic attitudes to ban, or “exclude,” anything from that critically endangered species classicist Bernard Knox called Dead White European males.

Greek literature is one of the triumphs of Western civilization—not merely because it is the seed of our literary garden but because it captures the tensions of the human struggle to find meaning in the cosmos and our place therein. Greek literature is the battlefield of our restless hearts seeking comfort and serenity in an often cold, dark, and pitiless world. Indeed, the entire dialectical movement of Greek literature is a working out of the moral cosmos and its relationship to the polis—or our civil and political life.

The Hesiodic Cosmos

The Greek cosmos is not, initially, moral. It is, however, filled with pathos. It matters not whether Hesiod composed his poem before or after Homer. Giambattista Vico, in my mind, conclusively shows that poetic metaphysics begins with the violence of the sublime. Hesiod’s Theogony is the quintessential sublimely violent poem and, therefore, draws on a tradition much older than Homer. The work, as we know, is an account of the birth of the gods. 

There are two lines of gods in the Greek cosmos. The first refers to the pre-existing gods of the pre-existent world, the primordial gods, who are not the product of sex. The second line of gods, the Titans and the Olympians, are the offspring of sex—and very violent sex. The Hesiodic cosmos is governed by lust, sex, and war—or perhaps, more simply, strife in all matters of life. Indeed, the first act of logos, speech, in Theogony is due to hatred and to further the cosmic reality of strife that the poem is saturated in. Gaia speaks to her children after forging a sickle to castrate their hateful and lustful father.

Hesiod composed his epic in a time of cosmological, that is, poetic metaphysical, transformation. It seems to me that Hesiod’s composing of the Theogony was to challenge the drift of the erotic strife-filled cosmos toward the Homeric cosmos of philia. Consciousness of this older cosmic tradition was threatened, and so Hesiod, as most poets and writers do, recorded for posterity that ancient lore that was being displaced.

Hesiod’s poem gruesomely details the birth of the gods: Titans and Olympians, through the violent sexual predation of Uranus upon Gaia. The union of Uranus and Gaia, as Hesiod recounts it, is a cruel and vicious one. Uranus constantly penetrates Gaia at his will and seals their conceived children deep in her womb, which causes her much pain as they grow and move about.

Gaia, in turn—and out of desire for cunning revenge—constructs a sickle and implores one of her children that whoever wields the weapon and overthrows Uranus will have supreme power in the cosmos. Cronus, not so much out of devotion to his mother but hatred of his father, took up the challenge, “Great Uranus came, bringing the night, and spread out around Gaia, desiring philotês, and was extended. His son reached out from ambush with his left hand, and in his right he held the sickle, long and serrated and the genitals of his father he quickly reaped and threw them behind his back to be carried away. But they did not flee from his hand fruitlessly. As many drops of blood spurted forth, all of them Gaia received.” The blood from Uranus’s castrated phallus fell to the earth giving birth to the furies, monsters, and the other gods, the first being Aphrodite.

Just as the Titans were conceived in violence and ascended through violence, the apple does not fall far from the tree. So, too, the Olympians are conceived in violence and ascend through violence. 

Zeus leads the patricidal overthrow of the Titans, just as Cronus had initiated the patricidal usurpation of his father. Hesiod’s muses sing of the Titanomachy this way:

“They moved wretched battle, all of them, females and males, on that day, Tritan gods and those who were born from Cronos and those whom Zeus from Erebos beneath the earth brought into light. These were dreadful and strong, possessing excessive force. A hundred arms shot forth from their shoulders, for all of them alike, and each had fifty heads grown out from their shoulders on sturdy limbs. Then, they settled themselves against the Titans in the dire fray, holding huge rocks in their sturdy hands. From the other side, the Titans strengthened their ranks eagerly, and both sides were revealing the works of forceful hands, and the boundless sea resounded dreadfully, and the earth screamed loudly, and wide Uranus groaned when heaved, and from the foundations lofty Olympus shook beneath the fury of the immortals. The heavy pounding of their feet reached murky Tartaros, as did the shrill screams of the terrible pursuit and powerful missiles. Thus they hurled mournful darts at one another. The sound of both reached starry Uranus as they cried out. They clashed with a great war cry.”

Clash they did, and the Olympians took their place as heads of the cosmos and the pantheon. 

Hesiod’s cosmos is a sublimely and spectacularly violent reminder of our primordial sexual and domineering drive. The cosmic reality of the Hesiod’s poem is one of divine rape, licentiousness, and male domination and violence. The female gods all suffer at the hand of the more vindictive and lustful male gods. Lastly, the Hesiodic cosmos is truly governed by the agon, and that is what the muses sing in celebration of—only the gods with strong wills and the desire for violence are worthy to be sung of.

The Homeric Cosmos

The song of Homer is not the masculine war tale that it initially seems to be. In fact, it is male sexual predation that has caused the Trojan War in the first place. Homer sheds light on the old world of Hesiod that is now being sublated by the cosmos of love. Nevertheless, Homer’s cosmos is not an idyllic and fanciful one. It retains all the old seeds of the Hesiodic cosmos but moves beyond it by offering us a path out through the power of love.

The characters that populate Homer’s cosmic drama are individuals in oscillation between the two worlds. At one pole are the characters that exude the Hesiodic characteristics of lust, strife, and obscene desire for war. Diomedes is undeniably the most Hesiodic of the Argives. His lustful embrace of conflict leads him to spearing Ares and slashing Aphrodite; not even the sacred is safe from the pillaging spirit of war. Paris is also a character who exudes the erotic impulses of the Hesiodic cosmos. His abduction and rape of Helen is what sparked the war, and he constantly fails in his duties to father and fatherland whenever he sees Helen. The other great character who begins with the Hesiodic spirit—but will overcome it—is Achilles.

The other pole includes the characters that exhibit the new cosmic spirit of love, philia, and devotedness—or what the Romans would later call pietas, piety. The Trojans tend to be the characters that exercise these virtues like Hector, Aeneas, and Priam. But these virtues are not exclusive to the Trojan heroes. Briseis and Patroclus also serve as calming characters who keep the maelstrom of war from boiling over into complete chaos. 

After Agamemnon steals Briseis, causing Achilles to sulk in his tent and refuse to fight, we learn that Briseis was the intended bride to Achilles. Patroclus managed to work out a deal between her and Achilles, which Briseis tearfully reveals when she cries over the body of the dead hero, “But you, Patroclus, you would not let me weep, not when the swift Achilles cut my husband down, not when he plundered the lordly Mynes’ city—not even weep! No, again and again you vowed you’d make me godlike Achilles’ lawful, wedded wife, you would sail me west in your warships, home to Phthia and there with the Myrmidons hold my marriage feast. So now I mourn your death—I will never stop—you were always kind.” Briseis’s revelation also reveals something about Patroclus.

“Blood and entrails, once orderly contained in human bodies, spill out chaotically over the sands of Troy.”

Patroclus, that other great hero who has been overshadowed by Achilles, is a kindly man, and he is deeply wise. He is the calming agent in the tent of Achilles. Achilles is only thrown into a rage, that infamous rage the muses sing of, when Patroclus has been slaughtered. It is as if Patroclus serves as the calming barrier preventing the outflowing of Achilles’s rage. Patroclus is a character who keeps serenity and conducts order in the strife-filled cosmos. Patroclus is the intermediary conduit of love: the body of love which keeps the rage of Achilles from pouring out in rageful vengeance over the world. The death of Patroclus causes the great unleashing of the rage of Achilles.

With the rage of Achilles now unleashed the world descends into the madness of the Hesiodic cosmos. All order, devotedness, and calm are wiped away in the bloodshed of war. Achilles mercilessly cuts down the Trojans who oppose him. Blood and entrails, once orderly contained in human bodies, spill out chaotically over the sands of Troy. In a very important moment, the royal prince Lycaon throws himself at the madman and weeps for mercy. Achilles lifts up his arm and thrusts his sword into the prince of Troy and vows to wipe out the seed of Priam from the earth. Achilles proceeds to kill Hector and attempts to defile his body by dragging it on the sands and rocks of the beaches of Troy.

Priam, who loves his son, is compelled to venture into the tent of Achilles and convince the killer to return the body of his beloved son. This is a bridge too far. Hector initially attempted to reason with the mad killer before seeing Achilles’s hate-filled resolve and losing his nerve before accepting his fate to be slaughtered. We already know that Achilles cannot be reasoned with. Yet Priam’s love still pushes him into this tent of despair and danger. And it will not be any rational conversation that leads to the touching conclusion of the Iliad but a deep pathological reality, empathy, which brings the epic to its remarkable conclusion.

Inside the tent of Achilles, we witness the metamorphosis of the great Greek killer and the manifestation of the Homeric cosmos. In a recapitulation of images—and understanding the imagery of the Iliad is the key to understanding the epic—Priam throws himself at the feet of Achilles, just as Lycaon had done. We have already seen this image before and know what the outcome was. We also know that Achilles has vowed to wipe out Priam’s seed from the earth, and he now has the opportunity to do precisely that by killing Priam who defenselessly begs for the return of Hector’s body.

Instead of killing Priam, Achilles breaks down and weeps with the King of Troy—the man whom he hates and swore to kill. It is the love a father has for his son (and the memory of a father’s love) that breaks Achilles’s heart of iron. Love includes relationships and is something that goes beyond the self. Love is that force that binds the world, friends and enemies, together. 

The triumph of Homer is in how Achilles finds redemption, salvation, in and through love. And what is more scandalous and shocking than for the greatest killer the world has ever known to be broken down by a weeping and grieving old man who begs defenselessly at his feet before lifting him up and weeping with him in unitive embrace? In the midst of the most famous war in history, it is the feminine that triumphs and brings healing to the world.

Homer’s cosmos does not dispense with the lust and strife that defines the Hesiodic cosmos; it still finds itself deeply in bed, pardon the pun, with it. But the grand achievement of Homer is how he turns this cosmos of lust and strife on its head and opens the door to the possibility that this conflictual world can be healed—even if only momentarily—by the power of love. More specifically, the love that helps heal the world is the love parents show their children; for it is the memory of Peleus’s love for young Achilles that causes Achilles to empathetically unite with Priam. As Homer powerfully sings, “Overpowered by memory, both men gave way to grief.” In that grief, loving empathy overwhelmed Achilles and Priam, and they were united in each other’s arms.

The song of Homer is truly powerful because he changes the focus from the gods—though they are ever present—to humans. Homer locates the healing and loving power of the cosmos not in the divines but in human beings. It is humans—not the gods—who bring healing and serenity to a world torn and chaotic. Homer is the first great humanist in the Western tradition and carved out a space for human agency and empathy to triumph over the will and dictates of cruel and petty gods. Empathy that breeds friendship—and forgiveness growing from empathy—is the love that now moves the Homeric cosmos.

Pity and the Euripidean Cosmos

The cosmos of love introduced by Homer undergoes further iterations and developments in Aeschylus and Sophocles (as I have written about here and here, respectively). Aeschylus gives us a cosmos of love—love of father and gods—that leads to a new world of persuasion and justice. Sophocles retrenches the importance of the family as the primary nexus where love is fostered and where our redemption is to be found, but he focuses entirely on human devotedness rather than any devotedness to the gods. Euripides chips away at the notion of love and exposes it to be hollow and insufficient; or so Euripides thinks, and so Euripides also transforms the understanding of love from empathy and devotedness to pity…

Read the rest of my essay, “Don’t Cancel the Classics—We Need Them More Than Ever” (Merion West, 12 January 2021)

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