With God(s) on Our Side

The Council of Gods by Raphael (1517)
“The Council of Gods” by Raphael (1517)

For most first-time readers of the Iliad, especially traditional college-age undergraduates, Homer’s epic poem is a sudden plunge into strangeness. To immerse oneself in the competitive violence at the heart of Ancient Greek honor culture; in the repetitive, gruesome descriptions of battle-field deaths; or in the appalling practice of taking wartime concubines (the trophy-like status of Briseis alone in the opening dispute between Agamemnon and Achilles tends to bring out the sober moralism in even my most apathetic students). To immerse oneself in all of this is to be given a crash-course in the notion that the past is not just a foreign country, but a brutal one, too. In this way, many students’ responses are not all that different from Friedrich Nietzsche’s, which was marked by a kind of awe and trembling; the Iliad was animated by “a tigerish lust to annihilate,” Nietzsche writes, which can only compel readers to ask themselves: “Why did the whole Greek world exult over the combat scenes of the Iliad? I fear that we do not understand these in a sufficiently ‘Greek’ manner; indeed, that we should shudder if we were ever to understand them ‘in Greek.’”

To get a conceptual foothold into this kind of ethical question, readers often search for divine or metaphysical foundations, an interpretative move that has led many of my undergraduate students to a deceptively simple observation: In the Iliad, the Olympian gods differ profoundly from most monotheistic conceptions of God. Instead of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent, and omniscient Christian God, the Olympian gods are frequently capricious, jealous, and duplicitous.

In this essay, I want to argue that this basic, almost banal, observation has radical ethical and moral implications for how we teach the Iliad in today’s undergraduate classroom. I have found that many students, whether aware of it or not, approach the Iliad with an implicit deontological framework—i.e., they tend to think that moral decision-making is essentially a rule-based procedure wherein a rational agent identifies, and then acts upon, coherent and universal standards of right and wrong. Within the context of war especially, this moral framework is usually rooted in the theological belief that a monotheistic God also shares these universal standards and supports one (good) side over another (bad or evil) side. However, the Olympian gods’ arbitrary and impulsive decisions to support a given side in the Trojan War disrupts Post-Enlightenment, Kantian-based moral philosophy’s attempt to posit a systemically coherent ethical theory. For characters in the Iliad, then, the whims of the gods preclude any possibility of a rational human agent in the Kantian mold from mapping her dilemma onto a ready-made, universal ethical framework. Ultimately, what students gain from this literary encounter is not a content-based insight (e.g., cultural relativism or postmodern anti-foundationalism), but rather a methodological insight:

A core text like the Iliad can be an invaluable tool for critically analyzing deep-seated assumptions about how we discern moral truth in the contemporary world.

As a piece of literature, the Iliad is an ideal text to investigate serious moral questions since a literary text does not demand ideological assent so much as it invites readers to imagine the ethical and political stakes of various representations. Literature, in short, does not ask the audience, “Is this true or false?” but rather “Imagine if this were the case; what would the implications be?” From that perspective, the experience of reading literature is an opportunity to bracket the hasty insistence on moral, historical, and political clarity in hopes of grasping unexpectedly deeper relationships between these categories. Moreover, the Iliad’s specific genre as an epic poem only deepens this kind of investigation. As Adam Nicolson points out in Why Homer Matters, an Ancient Greek epic is neither a subjective act of memory nor an objective account of history. Instead, the Homeric epic, Nicolson writes “occupies a third space in the human desire to connect the present to the past: it is the attempt to extend the qualities of memory over the reach of time embraced by history. Epic’s purpose is to make the distant past as immediate to us as our own lives, to make the great stories of long ago beautiful and painful now.”

The epic Iliad makes ancient moral questions urgent and alive. Essentially, it says to readers, “Imagine that you are in this strange world underpinned by this even stranger metaphysical order, and then ask yourself (to paraphrase the Book of Job): where shall moral wisdom be found?” Students conclude, rather quickly, that it shall not be found on Mount Olympus. For it is not just that the gods “highhandedly dispense victory and ruin” in battles, as the French philosopher Simone Weil writes in her famous essay The Iliad, or The Poem of Force, but that they “are always the ones to provoke the stupidities and betrayals that, time and again, preclude peace; war is their true métier, whim and malevolence their only motives.” For Weil, the gods relentlessly intervene in human conflicts, but they do so without adhering to any set of general, overarching ethical principles.

Retaliation against an insult, a favor rooted in self-interest or nepotism, fear of more powerful divine foes—these are the fundamental reasons that the gods act, their primary motives for shaping every aspect of human life.

For instance, the Trojan War commences after Paris steals away Helen, but the deeper cause is rooted in the famous Judgement of Paris—i.e., the divine vanity contest between the goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. But during that contest, as the classicist Edith Hamilton points out, the goddesses did not try to uphold even the pretense of fairness or impartiality. Paris “was not asked,” Hamilton writes, “to gaze at the radiant divinities and choose which of them seemed to him the fairest [or most beautiful], but only to consider the bribes each offered and choose which seemed to him best worth taking.”

Another example is Zeus’s reason for helping the Trojans early in the poem, which begins as a favor to Achilles’ mother, Thetis, but ends in something darker and more malevolent. After Achilles sulks over Agamemnon stealing his concubine, Briseis, and refuses to fight, he appeals to his divine mother, who then appeals to Zeus. In turn, Zeus allows the Trojans to take the upper hand for a while in order to make Agamemnon and the Greeks realize, through sheer loss of human life, just how dearly they miss Achilles on the battlefield. But “[w]hile Achilles imagines at that point that Zeus’ only intention is to restore Achilles’ lost honor,” notes classicist and translator Stanley Lombardo, “Zeus’ role in the events of the Iliad is, in fact, much more complicated and enigmatic…[H]e seems mysteriously bent on the perpetuation of the war to the point of maximum destruction.” After reconciling with Agamemnon in Book 19, Achilles himself reflects on Zeus’ overzealousness when he wonders aloud: “Somehow it has pleased Zeus / that many Greeks should die.”

A final example of the selfish, arbitrary motives of the gods—less well-known, but more humorous—is in Book 14 when Hera, in an attempt to help the Greeks, promises the divine figure Sleep one of the female Graces if he lulls Zeus to sleep, thereby neutralizing Zeus’ support for the Trojans. At first, Sleep refuses purely out of fear: “Goddess… / If this were any other of the gods eternal / I’d lull him to sleep without any trouble, / Even if it were the River Ocean, / Which was the origin of them all. / But not Zeus.” However, when Hera promises to make the young Grace, Pasithea—“the object of all your desire,” she reminds him—his wife, Sleep readily agrees. Every step of the way, Sleep’s calculation has nothing to do with larger moral principles, and everything to do with a self-interested cost/benefit analysis, all while human lives hang in the balance.

These examples show that Mount Olympus, as one of my female students put it, seems less like a proper location for divine beings and more like the most toxic high school imaginable, but one where all the bullies and “mean girls” have superpowers.

Her insight is trenchant and routinely voiced by scholars (though, admittedly, in less colorful language) and worth considering in some depth—i.e., that the Homeric gods are profoundly anthropomorphic, and that this impairs their moral reasoning skills. On the one hand, anthropomorphic gods made the chaos of the world intelligible for the Ancient Greeks. Being “anthropomorphically conceived,” writes the religious historian Karen Armstrong, the gods and “their endless feuds symbolized the agonistic relationship of the sacred forces that the Greeks sensed all around them. When they contemplated the complex Olympian family, Greeks were able to glimpse a unity that drew its warring contradictions together.”

But on the other hand, as ancient philosophers at least as early as Xenophanes argued, and later Plato, the price that the Greeks paid for cosmic intelligibility was moral inconsistency. As Geoffrey Miles notes in Classical Mythology, Plato’s deep commitment to reasoned inquiry caused him to attack “the traditional tales of the gods’ tricks and thefts and adulteries as immoral.” The problem, which Plato exposes most famously in his Euthyphro dialogue and which keen students ventriloquize (sometimes without ever having read Plato), is that in the Iliad, it is impossible to tell whether the very concept of moral goodness is loved by the gods because it is morally good in an objective sense, or whether it is morally good simply because the gods love it arbitrarily. Usually referred to as the Euthyphro dilemma, this is precisely the kind of deep moral questioning that an encounter with the Iliad’s profound cultural weirdness (at least to our modern minds) can engender. It can show students that Dostoevsky’s famous maxim about the sources of moral truth—i.e., “Without God, all things are permitted”—should occasionally be inverted and seriously contemplated: “With the gods on your side, everything is permitted.” Ultimately, the Iliad can still serve as an invaluable whetstone for students as they sharpen their critical reasoning tools and interrogate the complex relationship between morality and metaphysics.

Bryan Santin is Assistant Professor of English at Concordia University Irvine