June 24, 2004 -- "Sing, oh Goddess, the wrath of Peleus' son Achilles, which brought pains a thousand-fold upon the Achaians."
So opens the Iliad, the world's first great literary work. Homer's poem about the Trojan War has intrigue, politics, sex, and vast battles—all the elements of an exciting epic, whether recited in the halls of ancient palaces or made into a Hollywood blockbuster. The Bronze-Age society of the Greeks who fought before Priam's fortress around 1250 B.C.E. was in many ways primitive and brutal. After the sack of sacred Ilium, that society collapsed. Five hundred years later, Homer told the tale in a Greek society that had emerged from a dark age and was in transition to the classical civilization that marked the birth of the West.
America today is at war with barbarians from a culture that also is primitive and brutal, but which is hopefully in transition to something far better. Homer's Iliad thus offers lessons for us today that echo from that distance age.
Wars are always brutal, ancient ones especially so. The battles described in the Iliad were gory, blood-soaked affairs, with spears spilling brains from skulls and swords tearing out entrails. Homer's epic portrays courage in battle, but also dramatizes a particular cause of war and violence.
Achilles is a man driven by his unrestrained passions. When the Greek commander Agamemnon takes from him a captive woman he was awarded by the army, Achilles sulks in his tent, seething with anger, as Hector and the Trojans kill his friends and threaten to drive the Greeks into the sea. When his beloved friend Petraclos is killed by Hector, Achilles' grief and fury turns him into a human killing machine, hacking off heads and limbs, as he butchers his way to the walls of Troy and slays Hector. His anger still unsated, he commits sacrilege, dragging the body behind his chariot. Only when Hector's father, King Priam, sneaks into Achilles' tent and begs for the body of his son for a proper burial does Achilles' fury finally dissipate. He becomes human again, recovering his sense of decency.
The classical Greek philosophers who came after Homer understood that reason, not emotions, should rule the soul, that whims should be subjected to cool, objective appraisal, and that one should discipline one's passions. Aristotle taught that anger out of proportion to the incitement is a vice in an unbalanced soul. Plato taught that the souls of the most miserable individuals are ruled by master passions that drive them to spiritual and physical destruction. Such thinkers understood that it is to the extent that a society's culture is ruled by reason that the arts of peace and civilization flourish.
Radical Islamists today—like ancient Achilles—are dominated by their rage and hatred. Add to that envy of the West, which is heir to classical Greece. In their obsession with abusing and mutilating the bodies of dead enemies and cutting off the heads of the innocent, we see a reflection of the wrath portrayed by Homer that has brought pains a thousand-fold upon the Middle East.
Further, Islamists share with Bronze-Age Greeks an obsession with religion. When those Greeks got ideas in their heads, it was the gods who were whispering them in their ears. When they showed courage or succumbed to fear, it was often the gods who prompted them. They saw their fates in the hands of the gods; they sought the gods' favor and acted in the name of the gods.
Similarly, Islamists are immersed in a primitive theistic mindset. God is responsible for all things. It is through the will of Allah that everything happens and in the name of Allah that they commit the most heinous crimes imaginable. Allah is as real to them as Zeus, Poseidon, and Ares were to the warriors before the walls of Troy. But, of course, all of those gods were simply in their heads, not in Olympus or heaven.
But the classical Greek thinkers, Aristotle especially, understood that impersonal laws of nature—not the gods—govern the order of the world, and that our rational minds are capable of understanding the world, hence the birth of science. They understood that each of us—not the gods—are responsible for our own actions, that our individual wills—not those of the gods—create the character of our souls, and that the path to happiness is through self-discipline and subjecting our whims to the rule of reason, hence the birth of ethics.
Of course, most Greeks in classical times were not atheists. But it was the secular elements that distinguished the classical culture from the Bronze Age, that produced the great achievements in classical times, and that still produce achievements in our own society today.
A millennium ago, Islam had a tradition of rational thought and critical thinking that created a major civilization; Islamic scholars in that era reintroduced the works of Aristotle into backwards Medieval Europe. Today, the backwards cultures in most Islamic countries are dominated by anger, violence, and superstition. And it will only be an ethic of reason and the subjugation of whims to thoughtful reflection that can lead those cultures and their people back to enlightenment and free their imaginations and creativity so they can lead truly human lives.
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.
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