Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) November 7, 2015: In the
ancient world, war was a way of life. As a result, warriors and warrior/kings
emerged as rather privileged people in their respective groups. In exchange for
risking their lives to protect the ordinary people in their group from being
killed or enslaved by conquering warriors and their warrior/king, the warriors
and warrior/king in each group received a package of social benefits, including
honor and political power.
The honor/shame culture of the ancient Mediterranean world continued for centuries in the medieval European world -- and elsewhere. Perhaps Falstaff's infamous speech denigrating honor can be seen as marking the waning of the centuries-old honor/shame culture in Western culture.
In any event, the Homeric epic the ILIAD involves warriors and warrior/kings such as King Agamemnon, King Achilles, and King Odysseus in the Greek alliance and King Priam and his warrior son Hector on the Trojan side.
In Robert Fagles' translation of the ILIAD (1990), the classicist Bernard Knox has supplied an introduction and notes to accompany Fagles' translation.
In the introduction (pages 1-64), Knox states what he understands to be "the stern lesson of Homer's presentation of the war: that no civilization, no matter how rich, no matter how refined, can long survive once it loses the power to meet force with equal or superior force" (page 37).
Now, when President Harry Truman dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he used the superior force of the atomic bombs to defeat the Japanese in World War II -- instead of possibly allowing the rich and refined American civilization to fall to Japanese forces.
In the ILIAD, the Trojan civilization is presented as rich and refined -- by the standards of the times.
Moreover, Achilles is presented as an unstoppable force -- the symbolic personal equivalent of Truman's atomic bombs.
In the book THE HEROIC HEART: GREATNESS ANCIENT AND MODERN (2015), the conservative journalist Tod Lindberg repeatedly quotes from Fagles' translation of the ILIAD.
However, in his discussion of the ILIAD, Lindberg gives no indication that he grasps the full import of Knox's point that the lesson of the ILIAD is "that no civilization, no matter how rich, no matter how refined, can long survive once it loses the power to meet force with equal or superior force." However, in fairness, I should also say here that Lindberg does not completely miss the import of Knox's point, as I explain below.
Lindberg says, "Homer has achieved a near-perfect rendition of the highest heroic type of his age, a single character who brings into focus both the inner-directed greatness of that type and the moral peril such greatness poses to the legitimacy and authority of the political order" (page 54).
At first blush, Lindberg's words about how Achilles' greatness poses the moral peril "to the legitimacy and authority of the political order" may seem to be consistent with Knox's words. But are their two statements consistent with one another?
Knox does not see Achilles as "a near-perfect rendition of the highest heroic type of his age," as Lindberg does.
On the contrary, Knox sees Achilles as representing the kind of over-powering force that people in the ancient world should understandably fear.
For Knox, the ILIAD is, in effect, a cautionary tale about the kind of outside force that people in the ancient world should understandably fear.