Desecration and the Sacred

Devotion given at the Vermont State House, January 2012

I am currently reading the new translation of Homer’s The Iliad. I love it. I am embarrassed to say, that I’ve managed to go through 8 years of higher education without reading The Iliad. It is quite gory and quite enjoyable.

I like the Greeks. I’ve studied the pre-socratics, Plato and the Koine Greek of the New Testament — but I’ve not studied the Greeks to get my fill of gratuitous violence! With Homer, you can have your philosophy and Hannibal Lector at once.

I’ve studied the Greeks because I am convinced that their reflections on life and meaning in it, can, ironically, serve us well in the task we are given of living together well. For, whether they are talking about making love or making war — their thinking of human nature is always as Martin Heidegger put it, the thinking of self as the emergent self-upraising, the self-unfolding that cannot happen apart from world.

To me one of the greatest philosophical disasters began with Aristotle’s attempt to turn philosophy into a tool to substantialize world–to break it into disparate, essential bits. This substantializing of the world came into its fullest expression with Descartes who insisted that we are pure being, and that we need no nothing else other than ourselves in order to exist.

So, while Homer has lots of gore, his philosophy remains tenderer than Descartes. Agamemnon is the King of the People not because he Lord’s over them from a throne somewhere, but because he has the back of his foot soldiers, because he is willing to go the first into battle and to go after the biggest Trojans. There is a sense of solidarity in this great epic poem that would leave Descartes confused. The gods are intimately involved in this great war — not we presume because they were stupider than we are and believed that Athena flew down from Mt. Olympus on her horse to retrieve Achilles’ stray spear, but because they believed human life itself was mysteriously implicated one with another.

Here’s an example: Achilles has just met argued with Hector and concludes by telling him he will cut him down with his spear.

With these words he aimed and hurled his long-shadowed spear.
But Hector saw it coming and crouched to avoid it,
and the spear flew over his head and stuck in the ground.
Athena, unseen by Hector, pulled out the spear shaft
and gave it back to Achilles. Then Hector shouted,
“You missed!” So it seems that Zeus, after all, told you nothing
about my death, although you pretended to know.
It was empty talk; you were using your power with words
to frighten me and make me forget my courage.
But I will not flee and allow you to stick a spear
in my back; if a god lets you win this fight, you will have to
thrust your spear through my chest as I charge straight at you.
Now it is your turn; avoid my spear if you can.
May it find you and drive through your body with its whole length.
This war would be that much easier for the Trojans
if I killed you here, since you are our greatest affliction.” — The Iliad, XXII, 265-280

I don’t want to wrap up the easy way, by saying Homer is offensive and wrong, and that we should be better than that. I won’t — because I think something else is going on.  This is not a simple morality tale. Life and death in The Iliad, are not discrete activities, privately held. The evil that happens to us, really happens to us. Our living and our dying is not just our affair.

The Iliad my be a war poem — and there is famously a scene at the end where Achilles desecrates Hector’s body — but it is not license for wanton war nor license to desecrate bodies. It is a paean, instead to human life, mixed up as it is in tragedy. It urges us to live well, and to see our actions unfolding in a great becoming that is our community, for good or for ill.

May Athena return your stray spears (metaphorically speaking, of course!) and give you courage.


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