The Iliad, The Classics, and Standing against The Anti-Culture

I recently finished reading Homer’s epic poem The Iliad.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, though I have to admit, it was a challenge at times.  Reading The Iliad is part of a larger goal of mine to read and re-read classics of Western culture.  I decided to do this as an edifying and constructive response to the cultural decline we’re currently experiencing as well as for my own growth and enjoyment.  The thing to understand is that we live in the midst of a cultural crisis, what scholars have correctly called an “anti-culture.” Institutions are failing or in many cases have completely disappeared.  Historic heroes of western culture and classic literature itself are being attacked as part of a larger zeitgeist of nihilism and repudiation of all things in the past.  We’re living through an era where every year is year zero, and anything from the past must be repudiated.  To live a good life in the midst of this black hole of death is to instead stand for life, hope, faith, family, ethics, heroism, friendship, duty, patriotism, and honor.  Reading and studying the classics is an act of defiance against the anti-culture all around us.   It is edifying, rewarding, and inspiring.
I’d compare reading and studying The Iliad to running a marathon, a marathon of the mind, it takes some commitment and time, but it can be done by most people.  Since the book was written during what’s called the heroic age, the brave and courageous behavior of the characters is inspiring and we can learn something from them in our modern age when we aren’t called to fight for noble causes often, if at all, particularly in a physical way.    Many passages were very emotionally moving, but it was also easy to get frustrated and bored with the many name changes and long, arcane and complicated passages. 

For example, the Greeks (who are at war with the Trojans) are also called the Argives, Achaeans, and Danaans.  In other words, three separate names are used for one Greek Army.  Then imagine the other characters in the book being referred to by several different names, especially the common ‘son of’ so and so. Frustrations and challenges aside, reading the book was inspiring, edifying, and rewarding.  Having read the book for the second time, the first being a minimal reading of it in school, I now feel like a worthy participant in the larger chain of history, a full-fledged member of a culture, that being western civilization beginning in the Greek and Roman world and on into Europe and her daughter countries like the USA. 
At a time when illiteracy, social isolation, meaninglessness, and cultural disintegration is increasing, it is a worthwhile effort to study and preserve vital elements of our western cultural patrimony.  Being part of a culture is how you live a good and healthy life.  Unfortunately, many modern people, especially in the US, feel like they don’t belong to a culture.  Being a cultured person provides a sense of belonging to something bigger than the self and gives us something to live for and enjoy.  Great classic books bring us out of our own mundane life and our fleeting concerns of the present time and into a bigger and more expansive world of eternal values, in this case those of western civilization.  I’d recommend this to anyone who has the time, for enjoyment, self-growth, and as a powerful antidote to nihilism.
These were some of the important themes I encountered in The Iliad:

  • Heroism- this story takes place during what’s called the heroic age. 
  • Violence
  • Honor
  • Loyalty
  • Patriotism
  • Piety- to God and to the gods
  • Duty
  • Magnanimity (Greatness of Soul)
  • Religious Rituals and Sacrifices (Prefiguring the Sacrifice of Christ)
  • Fate vs. Free Will
  • God and the gods’ intervention in human affairs
  • Man’s fallen nature
  • Omens- especially birds
  • Animals- especially lions, hounds, and horses
  • Games
  • Armor & Weapons
  • Friendship
  • Sin- specifically the pride of Achilles
  • Monotheism- even though the Greeks had a pantheon of gods, Zeus clearly states he is the most powerful, more powerful than all the other gods combined
  • Charity- being willing to have compassion, even on the enemy
  • Hospitality – a duty to be hospitable to strangers
  • Natural Law, or what CS Lewis called “The Tao” in his book, The Abolition of Man. 
    • Through the moral and ethical maturation of the character Achilles, we can see a type of universal right and wrong emerging, and a goodness of soul shine through.  This is amazing in light of when the epic was written, sometime around 2500 BC, and it has been around much longer than that.

It’s not easy reading, but I highly recommend reading The Iliad. Nothing worthwhile accomplishing is easy.  This book is right up there with the Bible for books that have influenced our culture so it’s certainly foundational for all the works that followed.  I used the Spark Notes study guide, as well as the Canterbury Classics version by Samuel Butler, which has extensive notes and short section summaries.   Both of these were invaluable in reviewing what I’d read as well as for keeping up with the names and identities of the many characters.    

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