Section One of The Breaking of the Day by O.G. Rose
The Apocalypse of Achilles
Destiney could, theoretically, be defied, but only at the risk of chaos.
To figure out how Homer fits into the history of Western literature, we first have to decide what constitutes defining characteristics and themes of the West. This is difficult, seeing as in every civilization we can find pockets of thought resembling every other civilization: the moment we discuss a monolithic “Western Civilization,” we inevitably leave out countless dissenters, minorities, and points deserving nuance. That said, precisely because diversity is real and substantive, civilizations do have different emphases, focuses, and narratives they claim to live by (however imperfectly), and this shapes a civilization’s literature as that literature then turns around and shapes the civilization. We cannot say that “any given individual in the West thinks x,” only that “it is more likely a given person in the West thinks (like) x versus y (though we cannot be sure),” or that “it is more likely a given person is shaped by x dialectic versus y,” and so on. Peter Berger said it well in his book A Far Glory when discussing people behind a hypothetical veil:
‘Remove the screen, and what comes out may be a deconstructionist from Harvard who is a fierce Evangelical and a fervent Republican who drives a used Cadillac from one pro-life rally to another. As a sociological I cannot say that such a figure is impossible; I can say that this is unlikely […] And, once again, a different set of probabilities would apply to an individual whose occupation and income place him or her in the working class.’¹
Though it is not the case that we can say for sure that a person born in the West or East will think x, y, and z, there are lines of thought that are more likely for a Western to think than an Easterner. But what are defining features of Western Civilization? Well, any answer given will be incomplete, biased, and too general, but still, assuming cultural hierarchies are avoided, an answer can at least be sketched out for the sake of determining how Westerners have been shaped based on where they have come. No map can be its territory, but maps have a place. All models are wrong, George Box tells us, but some are useful.
Inspired by Philip Rieff, I’d like to submit that the paradoxical tension between freedom and order is very important to the West, which manifests acutely in Western religion. Another similar paradoxical tension that’s important to the West is between “Athens and Jerusalem,” that tension of which is best personified in Hamlet, who — to put it vaguely — is caught between Greek and Christian values. Hamlet struggles to choose between Achilles and Jesus, and Hamlet ultimately chooses Achilles in a world that can only understand his actions in terms of Christianity. This is a problem we encounter today in Pluralism that sociologists like Philip Rieff and James Hunter discuss well, but I will not fully dive into that here.
Moving on, a key section of The Iliad, in my view, is the following, which is voiced by Zeus ( ‘above all, whose wisdom rules the world’ (Book 1, 207); ‘the god who rules the world’ (Book 2, 227)). This occurs in Book 20 (lines 23–26), after the death of Patroclus and the rage of Achilles:
Still, here I stay on Olympus throned aloft,
here in my steep mountain cleft, to feast my eyes
and delight my heart. The rest of you: down you go,
go to Trojans, go to Achaeans. Help either side
as the fixed desire drives each god to act.
If Achilles fights the Trojans — unopposed by us —
not for a moment will they hold his breakneck force.
Even before now they’d shake to see him coming.
Now, with his rage inflamed for his friend’s death,
I fear he’ll raze the walls against the will of fate.
The gods in Homer are concerned about maintaining “the will of fate,” and it seems that everything must unfold in a certain way at a certain time. Even if x will achieve the fated end of z, if fate would have z achieved by y, then x cannot be allowed by the gods. If x were to occur, “chaos” would prevail, which seems to mean the entire spacetime continuum would be torn down. This unleashing of chaos would certainly destroy mankind, but would it also destroy the gods? This is a critical question that influences Western religion, which in turn shapes Western psychology (for if we accept Feuerbach’s line of thought, metanarratives and psychology deeply influence one another).
Here is another passage of note out of Book 16, 522–531:
Do as you please, Zeus…
but none of the deathless gods will ever paise you.
And I tell you this — take it to heart, I urge you —
if you send Sarpedon home, living still, beware!
Then surely some other god will want to sweep his own son clear of the heavy fighting too.
Zeus the Almighty wants to save his beloved Sarpedon, but it is against the will of fate for Sarpedon to survive (we should ask how the gods know this, but it’s not exactly clear). Considering this, who is more powerful? Zeus or fate? Listening to Hera, it does seem as if Zeus has the power to defy fate, and yet he can’t so defy it without there being dire consequences that not even Zeus can avoid. An image that suggests Zeus even controls fate:
‘then Father Zeus held out his sacred golden scales: / in them he placed two fates of death that lays men low — ‘
(Book 8, 81–82)
So which is it? Does fate control Zeus or does Zeus control fate? Perhaps Zeus created fate and in so doing chose to submit himself to fate? Does this mean he isn’t all-powerful? Or is it that since he chose to submit himself to that limitation, that limitation is an expression of his power? These questions are not answered by Homer, but I would submit to you that these questions important to the formation of Western thought and psychology. They reappear in Christianity: if God can’t forgive humanity of its sins without the Atonement, is God really all-powerful? Is there some universal law hanging over God the Father (a line of thought C.S. Lewis hints at in Book 1 of the Narnia series)? In what sense is God really God if God must follow a certain “order of things?”
Some more sections that hint at the strange role of fate in Homer:
Hector: No man will hurl me down to Death, against my fate. And fate? No one alive has ever escaped it […] it is born with us the day that we are born.
(Book 6, 581)
We swept down from Olympus, all to join this fight / so Achilles might not fall at Trojan hands today. / Afterward he must suffer what the Fates spun out.
(Book 20, 147–150)
Aeneas […] Pull back at once, whenever you’re thrown against [Achilles] — or go down to the House of Death against the will fate. / But once Achilles has met his death, / his certain doom, take courage then […]’
(Book 20, 381–386)
All of this is admittedly strange: if Achilles is fated to die, why does it matter when and how he dies? It seems to matter very much. And isn’t it strange for Zeus to tell the gods “go to Trojans, go to Achaeans. Help either side / as the fixed desire drives each god to act.’ ” Isn’t that counterproductive for ending the war, for would not the gods cancel themselves out? Well, yes, but the goal doesn’t seem to be about just ending the war but ending the war in a certain way. And the gods must descend, some on each side, and make sure that “the certain way” comes to pass or else chaos will be unleashed. What will happen if chaos is unleashed? It certainly won’t be good for humanity and might take out the gods too, but Homer is ambiguous about this.
Keeping the bigger arch of Western Civilization in mind, I believe something similar seems to be going on with Jesus in the New Testament. Following the thought of Karl Barth in his Church Dogmatics IV.1, the Devil tempts Jesus in the wilderness to simply go on and do what God wanted Jesus to do — “attractive realism” — just not through the cross.² The Devil tells Jesus to take his place on the throne of the world, and Jesus says no, which is odd, seeing as Jesus ultimately will take his rightful place, so why not cut to the chase? Jesus constantly says things like “my hour has not yet come” (John 2:4), which suggests how Jesus comes to rule the world is just as important as him indeed ruling. But how can that be if God is all-powerful? How can God be bound by a ‘how’ and still be God? Can’t God do what he wants and “confusion [not have] its masterpiece?”³
“The rage of Achilles” is so problematic because Achilles seems to have the ability to destroy fate and tear down the spacetime continuum. What seems to be a linear war is actually an event in which the entire cosmos hangs in the balance if things don’t happen “in the right order.” For me, this makes The Iliad much more interesting and cosmic. It also makes it clearer why the gods care so much about this conflict beyond just their arbitrary hates and likes of certain characters.
It seems like war is when fate is most likely to be (accidentally) defied and broken, and perhaps this is why the gods have so much interest in the conflict. Regardless, it’s clear that Achilles is a god-man, and so like a god, he possesses certain powers over fate, but not all gods seem to possess equal power. Zeus seems absolute in his control, while Achilles may only have such power when rage overtakes him. Also, Achilles doesn’t seem fully conscious of his power, precisely in he himself having his death bound by fate and generally accepting that destiny. Perhaps Achilles knows he could defy fate but doesn’t because he is aware of what “chaos” will unleash? After the death of Patroclus however, when rage overtakes him, perhaps Achilles loses sight of this truth? Hard to say, and I leave that question up to better readers than me.
How does all this play into the formation of Western thought? If you take my word for it that a society’s religion deeply forms its values and psychology, then it matters very much to the formation of the West if it’s gods are:
1. Controlled by the cosmic order.
2. Control the cosmic order.
3. Are controlled by the cosmic order by choice (for the sake of themselves and humanity secondarily).
4. Are controlled by the cosmic order by choice (for the sake of humanity solely).
If a people believe 1, the gods might not hold a big role in their lives, because what difference do the gods make? If 2, the gods will matter very much. If 3, the gods matter, but they’re in it for themselves, and though they hold power over the cosmic order, that power is suicidal. If 4, then the gods are good, and the cosmic order something made for humanity’s sake that the gods submit themselves to for humanity’s benefit, even though the gods have real power over the cosmic order and it may cost the gods something.
If 1, the gods are forced by the cosmic order to stop Achilles from destroying the cosmic order, meaning Achilles never had a real chance to destroy the cosmic order, only an apparent one. If 2, the gods control the cosmic order, which means it makes little sense that they are worried about Achilles, because he couldn’t destroy the cosmic order if the gods didn’t want him to so destroy it. If 3, then the gods are using humans as pawns in a game for their own self-preservation. If 4, then the gods are trying to stop humanity from destroying themselves for humanity’s sake, because regardless what happens to fate, the gods will endure: beyond all their egotistical personalities, their involvement in the Trojan War is ultimately a selfless act.
If 1, then people are likely to be generally passive. If 2, people are likely to be gnostic and focus exclusively on divine matters, disregarding earth. If 3, people are likely to be more nihilistic and distrusting of divinity. If 4, which I submit to you is what Western thought dialectically tends to move toward through its history, then Divinity cares about humanity and humanity matters. In fact, humanity almost has a power over Divinity by Divinity’s choice, but paradoxically humanity is ultimately powerless and only has this “supposed power” because Divinity so allows it. This creates a strange mixture of pride, individuality, humility, and “being part of something bigger than ourselves,” a strange mixture which is hinted at here in Homer and that will develop and come into focus as Western Civilization advances.
¹Berger, Peter. A Far Glory. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1992: 11–12.
²Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics IV.1. Translated by G.W. Bromiley. Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010: 262.
³Allusion to MacBeth by William Shakespeare, Act II, Scene 3.
1. If you accept my argument that Achilles has the power to destroy the cosmic order, you could see Achilles as a Jesus who gives into rage against order, while Jesus is an Achilles who doesn’t give into rage against God’s Will (though Jesus is clearly capable of it, considering how he reacts against the money-changers in the temple). Hamlet isn’t sure who’s the better man, because after all, rage facing an injustice is good, yes? No?
2. Luck seems to be “when fate sides with you,” so the line between luck and destiny is blurred (it seems to be luck/fate). There is luck/fate for humans, but only destiny for gods.
3. The West struggles with itself on the meaning of freedom, particularly between “freedom found in order” versus “freedom found in no boundaries.” We see in Homer’s gods a notion of freedom that is bound but paradoxically un-free without those bounds, a notion that will be important to understanding how America in particular balances individual sovereignty in light of social obligation.
4. There seems to be a connection between “honor” and “fate,” where if honor is violated, “the order of things” is likewise violated. Dishonor seems to be a threat to fate.
5. What seems to be a linear war is actually an event in which the entire cosmos hangs in the balance if things don’t happen “in the right order” (similar to The Mahābhārata in Hinduism, but with key differences that would be interesting to discuss if we hope to illuminate defining features of Western thought).