Like many in the manosphere, I have a certain set of rituals that I conduct to keep my mind sharp. One of these rituals is that I read the Homeric epics every spring. There are many reasons I do this, Homer being a huge influence in my own writing one of the foremost.
Another reason is simply that the story of Troy is such a powerful one that I am compelled to keep coming back to it. The Iliad is so powerful because, despite the poem being 2,700 years old, and the events it is based on (to what extent they occurred) are older still, the story’s tale of human glory and folly is timelessly true, and Homer’s magnifying glass can as easily be fixated on our own time as it was on the Bronze Age.
The following are some lessons from the Iliad that are as relevant now as they were then:
1. Good Leaders Must be Servants
This is the paradox of power and ambition. Those that seek power doubtlessly have a good amount of personal ambition and desire for greatness. However, this desire must never be allowed to run amok where the leader uses his position for his personal aggrandizement at the expense of the rest.
Agamemnon is an example of a poor, or at the very least mediocre, leader. While he is often seen rallying his troops, he is just as often accused, most famously by Achilles, of skulking shamelessly in the back, watching others doing the fighting for him, all the while taking the lion’s share of the spoils, revealing in no uncertain terms the purpose of the expedition: his own gain.
Achilles remarks in Book 1:
Never once did you arm with the troops and go to battle or risk an ambush packed with Achaea’s best men – you lack the courage, you can see death coming. Safer by far, you find, to foray all through camp, commandeering the prize of any man who speaks against you. King who devours his people!
It is significant that Agamemnon rallies his subordinates, such as Teucer in Book 8, by making them promises based on the treasures of Troy as if they all belonged to him:
Teucer, lovely soldier, Telamon’s son, pride of the armies – now you’re shooting! I tell you this, so help me it’s the truth: if Zeus with his storm-shield and Queen Athena ever let me plunder the strong walls of Troy, you are the first, the first after myself – I’ll place some gift of honor in your hands, a tripod, or a purebred team with their own car or a fine woman to mount and share your bed.
Finally, Agamemnon refused to recognize he was in the wrong upon seizing Briseis from Achilles, not offering a semblance of apology in his “plea” to bring Achilles back into the action in Book 9, and blaming esoteric instances such as madness in Book 19:
I am not to blame! Zeus and Fate and the Fury stalking through the night, they are the ones who drove that savage madness in my heart, that day in assembly when I seized Achilles’ prize – on my own authority, true, but what could I do? A god impels all things to their fulfillment…
What emerges is the portrait of a greedy, selfish human being who, though he may care for the men around him, is at Troy first and foremost for his personal gain. His destructive quarrel with Achilles was the natural result of this attitude.
2. The Socially Destructive Nature of Narcissism
Achilles is not off the hook. He is in fact the single biggest cause of the horrendous loss of human life that occurs in the Iliad. His response to Agamemnon’s (admittedly wrong) seizure of Briseis in Book 1 was to take it as an extremely personal insult, an affront to his honor and his very reason to exist. He then got his mother Thetis to intervene with Zeus on his behalf:
Persuade him, somehow, to help the Trojan cause, to pin the Achaeans back against their ships, trap them round the bay and mow them down. So all can reap the benefits of their king – so even mighty Atrides can see how mad he was to disgrace Achilles, the best of the Achaeans!
This shows that Achilles cares absolutely nothing for his brothers in arms. Their lives and deaths mean nothing to him. The only thing that truly matters at the end of the day is himself and his glory. He says as much before he sends Patroclus off to battle in Book 16:
Even if Zeus the thundering lord of Hera lets you seize your glory, you must not burn for war against these Trojans, madmen lusting for battle – not without me – you will only make my glory that much less…
Oh would to god – Father Zeus, Athena, and lord Apollo – not one of these Trojans could flee his death, not one, no Argive either, but we could stride from the slaughter so we could bring Troy’s hallowed crown of towers toppling down around us – you and I alone!
And it is Achilles’ narcissism that ensures his own friend’s death. His reaction is simply to transfer his rage to Hector, displaying a complete lack of empathy for his comrades who are hungry, tired, and wounded, once more showing the audience in Book 19 that they are merely means to his end:
You talk of food? I have no taste for food – what I really crave is slaughter and blood and the choking groans of men!
Achilles’ rage and his narcissistic solipsism are ended only by the surprising and passionate pleas of Priam for the body of his son at the poem’s conclusion. It is here, finally, where he can see himself the way that others see him, and the damage that he has caused:
When Zeus dispenses gifts from the jar of sorrows only, he makes a man an outcast – brutal, ravenous hunger drives him down the face of the shining earth, stalking far and wide, cursed by gods and men. So with my father, Peleus. What glittering gifts the gods rained down from the day that he was born! He excelled all men in wealth and pride of place, he lorded the Myrmidons, and mortal that he was, they gave the man an immortal goddess for a wife. Yes, but even on him the Father piled hardships, no powerful race of princes born in his royal halls, only a single son he fathered, doomed at birth, cut off in the spring of life – and I, I give the man no care as he grows old since here I sit in Troy, far from my fatherland, a grief to you, a grief to all your children…
And it is this realization that is to set the stage for ending the Iliad on such a sad note, leaving the reader with a sense of hopeless despair. Hector is dead and Achilles is soon to die. What good resulted from Achilles’ overweening pride?
As our own societal narcissism grows, and as we continue to get unhappier at the same time, the ending of the Iliad is perhaps the most poetic reminder of the consequences of a narcissistic, solipsistic worldview, and the fate of a society that celebrates it and disincentivizes ethical behavior.
3. Evil Often Happens To Those Least Deserving
Although he is no saint, Hector is by far the noblest warrior on the field at Troy. Unlike Achilles and Agamemnon, he is not partaking in combat to advance his own aims. He is instead fighting for his family and his homeland.
He uses his position as the Trojan field commander first and foremost in the service of the cause. Though like his aristocratic peers on both sides, he is not above looting to accumulate wealth or attempting to make a name for himself, his chief aim and guiding motivations are to save Troy, and he is willing to sacrifice his personal interests (and his life) in this duty. H
is rewards for his efforts are to be brutally killed, have his corpse disrespected and nearly defiled (were it not for divine intervention, something that is not so forthcoming to most), and to have his labor and his death count for nothing.
Hector utters one of the most famous speeches in the poem, lashing out at Polydamas, in Book 12:
Bird signs! Fight for your country – that is the best, the only omen! Even if all the rest of us drop and die around you, grappling for the ships, you’d run no risk of death: you lack the heart to last it out in combat – coward!
Hector’s reward for his patriotic attitude:
So he (Achilles) triumphed and now he was bent on outrage, on shaming noble Hector. Piercing the tendons, ankle to heel behind both feet, he knotted straps of rawhide through them both, lashed them to his chariot, left the head to drag and mounting the car, hoisting the famous arms aboard, he whipped his team to a run and breackneck on they flew, holding nothing back. And a thick cloud of dust rose up from the man they dragged, his dark hair swirling round that head so handsome once, all tumbled low in the dust – since Zeus had given him over to his enemies now to be defiled in the land of his own fathers.
As has often been remarked, bad things happen to good people, seemingly more than they do to those that deserve such evil happenstances. Why does this cruel fate seem to so often accompany those that do the right thing? I believe one reason is the theme below:
4. Force Is Man’s Master
Hector, stop! You unforgivable, you…don’t talk to me of pacts. There are no binding oaths between men and lions – wolves and lambs can enjoy no meeting of the minds – they are all bent on hating each other to death.
Achilles’ chilling words in Book 22 ring as true today as in the Bronze Age that Homer portrayed. Hector proposed a binding pact, a civilized set of rules for his duel with Achilles. Achilles’ response was that of a wild beast. He is a powerful, hungry lion, neither knowing nor caring for civilization or its rules. His only goal is self-satisfaction, and he has the power to do all of this because Hector is weak.
So the strong Achilles slew the weak Hector, just as the strong Achaeans would destroy the weak Trojans, and neither victor, individual or collective, showed any mercy. Agamemnon reminds us in Book 6 what the real intentions of the Achaean expedition were:
So soft, dear brother, why? Why such concern for our enemies? I suppose you got such tender loving care at home from the Trojans. Ah, would to god not one of them could escape his sudden plunging death beneath our hands! No baby boy still in his mother’s belly, not even he escape – all Ilium blotted out, no tears for their lives, no markers for their graves!
The Iliad and the story of Troy are stark reminders that for all our civilized pretensions, for all our warmest fantasies of kindness and altruism, we are still at the mercy of force and those that can wield it. It is, in the end, force, if masked by civilized rules and procedures, that keeps those that want to do us harm at bay.
And ultimately, those without power will forever be at the mercy of those that have it. A civilization, people, or nation that is either unwilling or unable to use power to defend itself is not one that can long survive. As always, the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.
This is something we would do well to remember, as the “Long Peace” after the Second World War in which we live has no doubt diluted this sense of urgency. As Western civilization’s future elites are increasingly brainwashed by their university “educations” into believing that the weak passivity of “thou shalt not offend” (except for their own people and culture, that’s fair game and encouraged) and a nothing-matters narcissism are society’s raisons d’etre, all the while its present leaders willingly and continuously weaken its military and borders under an irrational, religious zeal devoted to abstract and foolish notions of equality, Homer echoes more loudly now than perhaps in quite some time.
When the societal zeitgeist collapses, it does so very rapidly. Troy was the dominant city in Homer’s Asia Minor. It was proud, rich, and full of hope. Its world was shattered by the arrival of a vast Achaean horde from across the sea which came to annihilate it from the face of the Earth.
Those that ignore that force is master of men and nations, who naively think otherwise, will be sorely disappointed at some point. And at that point, their doom is assured, for there are no oaths between men and lions.