Liberty and Homer

The ‘Expanding the Liberty Canon’ label is not adequate for some texts that ought to be discussed with regard to liberty, since they have something important to say about liberty, but even on an expanded inclusive definition cannot be said to put forward a case for liberty, certainly  not from the perspectives of classical liberalism, libertarianism, the liberty movement, or any other label for thinking which favours liberty understood as individual rights, markets, voluntary association, and rule of law over communalism, collectively directed distribution, state domination of society, and administrative rules.

I have plenty of further texts to discuss under the ‘Expanding the Liberty Canon’ heading, but here is a beginning to the ‘Liberty and…’ sequence. It is an appropriate starting point in that the epic poems associated with the name of Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey are at the very beginning of European literature, culture, and knowledge. This is not say that there is pure beginning to Europe’s cultural and intellectual heritage with no precursors and no outside influence. It is to say that these are the first big texts in the history of anything that can be labelled European history. The name ‘Homer’ conceals considerable uncertainty about whether these poems have a single author and if so who.  What can be safely said is that these are long poems written down in approximately 800 BCE, drawing on a long oral tradition of sung poetry, referring to a world of Mycenaean late Bronze Age Greeks, who traded with and fought with the peoples of Anatolia, in a civilisation that disappears from the archaeological record in about 1 100 BCE.

On the side of Homer not being a hero of liberty is the apparent endorsement of a world where war and piracy have greater respect than trade and manufacture, the greatest role for a man is to defeat enemy armies and sack their cities, women’s role is to stay at home, do a lot of weaving, and obey their husband. Political authority is patriarchal-monarchical, based on the claim that kings are warrior-hero aristocrats are close to the gods. Ordinary people are deprived of choices and influence, subordinated to the hero-aristocrat class and may even be slaves. In The Iliad, a league of Greek kings lays siege to Troy for ten years, purely for reasons of honour connected with a Trojan Prince taking a Greek queen from her husband back to Troy. The violent destruction on enemy cities, the enslavement and murder of civilians, the organised theft of property are all part of the value system of Greeks and Trojans. In The Odyssey after various adventures on the way back from Troy, Odysseus massacres a group of aristocrats who have been trying to marry his wife during the twenty years of his absence, living in his palace using up the wealth, and follows this up with a massacre of those servant women who were too friendly with the massacred men.

So where does liberty come into this world of violence and traditionalist authority? One part of the answer to this question is that maybe the Homeric epics are critical of this world, at least in some part. The exploration of where there might be a critical distance in the Homeric poetry from the most disturbing aspects of the world it depicts gets into much detailed and questions of ambiguity to pursue here, but is something to bear in mind when reading Homer. Leaving that aside, there is the underlying issue of the formation of a world of poetic creation, which in some degree must be distant from and reflect on a world, so raising the possibility of individual critical perspectives.

Anyway, even staying at the level of the more direct and literal meaning, it portrays different possibilities of individual character and ways of being. In The Iliad we are see Achilles the proud angry warrior who lives to become the hero of song, even if that means dying young. His devotion to violence co-exists with a belief that he has rights as an individual against his overlord, a passionate devotion to his best friend, a capacity to overcome his angry nature when he allows the father of the Trojan hero, Hector, who killed his friend to take the body for honourable burial.

Hector himself has a near Achilles level of ‘heroic’ violence combined with a deep and self-effacing attachment to his wife and child. Many other possibilities of human individuality are explored including that of the most intelligent and cunning of the Greek leaders, Odysseus, who understands that war is won by stratagems as well as devotion to violence. This man of reflection, forethought and an early form of the life of the mind, becomes the centre of the second Homeric epic, The Odyssey, which recounts the ten years of his journey back from Troy to his homeland of Ithaca.

Odysseus starts back with his own fleet of ships carrying an army of Ithaca, by the time he gets back to Ithaca all of this is lost, and he is alone, in disguise playing the part of a vagabond when he arrives on his home island. Early in his adventures he described himself as No-man to trick his way out of danger from the giant Polyphemus and then proudly shouts his real name at the giant on his escape. This is at the base of his ten year journey since the god Poseidon is the father of  Polyphemus and takes revenge on Odysseus when Polyphemus can tell his father how Odysseus harmed him. Again and again Odysseus has to struggle with his own impulses and with the need to play a part, stretching his identity, in order to return to his island kingdom. So he is growing as an individual, exploring all the possibilities of individuality, including self-concealment, self-invention, and self-transformation.

The extreme violence of the return of Odysseus is followed by the brief description of a new beginning in Ithaca, an order of social peace in which a possible cycle of revenge is pre-empted through oaths and the prospect of justice settling differences rather than violence. This reconciling ending of The Odyssey itself builds on the sombre peace at the end of The Iliad, when a truce is agreed so that the city of Troy can bury and mourn its hero Hector, so that the values of peace and acknowledgement of individual suffering can stand up against the cycle of destructive violence.

In these and many other ways, Homeric epic offers much to stimulate thought about the nature of individuality and the kinds of social form which might allow individuals to flourish together, even in its depiction of the most destructive outcomes of human passions.

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