Barbarian Liberty and Civilisation in Homer

My latest post at the group blog Notes On Liberty

Notes On Liberty

Following from my last twoposts, this will explore the sort of ‘barbarian’ liberty that Tacitus recognised in his time, that is of the early Roman empire, and was further explored by Montesquieu and Humboldt in the eighteenth century in relation to the poetry of Homer. ‘Homer’ here refers to two Greek epic poems attributed to him, The Iliad and The Odyssey, which had a very large presence not only in Greek culture, but in Roman culture which produced a kind of sequel in Latin, The Aeneid of Virgil, a very major work in its own right deserving of separate consideration.

As already indicated Homer shows us warriors of extreme destructive ferocity, who consider it normal and admirable to destroy enemy cities, taking slaves, and collecting loot as well as killing without mercy. A reasonable immediate reaction to that from a liberty supporting point of view is…

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Homer as Political Thinker II

Odysseus’ return home is a restoration of his kingship and so is a political event, amongst other things. He faces a major political problem on his return, which is that the Suitors are out of control and are consuming his wealth. The Suitors are the aristocratic families, who seem to be largely if not entirely from Cephalonia, one of the Ionian islands south of Ithaca. It is possible to look at all this on a map of modern Greece with the reservation that the relation between Homer and observable geography is always poetic more than useful for map making purposes and that there is no certainty that the island now known as Ithaca is the same as the island kingdom mentioned by Homer. The modern name is itself a tribute to Homer rather than a name that has always been there.

The Suitors and their families seem very present on Ithaca at the end of The Odyssey, and also seem to be in a subordinate relation to Odysseus, so could be the aristocracy of Ithaca and dependent territories rather than people visiting from a separate domain. The belief that the Suitors have betrayed a relationship of loyalty is the justification for the horrifying massacre very close to the end of The Odyssey. At least one of the conversations of The Odyssey seem to suggest that the kingship of Ithaca does not go automatically to the  heir of a recently deceased king in a clear line of descent. So it looks as if the king might be an elective figure, elected by the major landowning families of Ithaca and associated territories, or at least some who commands some consensus amongst the aristocracy regarding his claims to be  king.

I cannot see anything else in Homer to suggest that kings are appointed in  that manner, though kings are assumed to be the strongest warriors and closely  related to the gods, possibly implying that their position could be under threat if they are not the best warriors. The one king at Troy who is not still a heroic warrior is Nestor of Pylos and he compensates for this with the quality of his advice, in which he resembles Odysseus, in a quality of advice that is, not limitations in his fighting capacity, which is shown to be not not much below that of the greatest heroes, Hector and Achilles. Hector’s own father, King Priam of Troy is shown to be too elderly and infirm to fight and does not compensate for that with advice and ingenuity. Hector seems to have largely taken over from him as the king in all the activities expected of a king. So inheritance seems to be the rule and on Ithaca there seems to be an assumption that Telemachus will inherit the kingdom from his father. That still leaves the question of what is inherited.

The palace of Odysseus seems to be with some other great houses in the ‘city’ in Ithaca, which is presumably a citadel with the royal palace and a few other major building, and some huts for farmers and craftsmen outside the citadel wall, that anyway is the typical pattern of Mycenaean cities. The palace of Odysseus  is identified as the best out of some buildings close together, which might suggest a group of aristocratic mansions, centred round banqueting halls, like the palace of Odysseus, and Odysseus has the biggest. Is it biggest because he is the king, or is he king because he has the most impressive private property? Anyway, the assembly of the Suitors in the ‘city’ suggests that the aristocracy have some idea of government of the city through power sharing between the great families. They also bring up the issue of people who died in the Trojan war as part of the reason for denying allegiance to Odysseus on his return.

There is a suggestion of a political aristocratic revolt against the dangers of the war, and even a slight suggestion of a war of the plebeian Cephalonians against a despotic Odysseus threatening on sending them to war in a land so far unknown to them. Odysseus is given a link with the common kind of man when he visits the herdsman Eumaeus in disguise and finds him to to be full of noble virtue. It is later suggested that Eumaeus is of a royal lineage, so quite what kind of social standing he is connected with is undefined. Odysseus himself imitate Eumaeus in that he adopts the cover story of a vagabond who used to be of very high standing. When Odysseus gets to the palace and reveals himself he restores the ideal of the stability of a kingdom under an unquestioned god king, but we have also seen evidence of other forms of conflict about the power in the kingdom.

More to come

Homer as Political Thinker I

‘Homer’ here is to be taken as what is in the texts of The Iliad and The Odyssey without any assumptions about authorship and the historical process behind these epics. It may be difficult in practice to stop any assumptions creeping in, but I’ll do my best on that score. My views on these matters can be found in my starting post on Homer.

In the early eighteenth century Giambattista Vico urged us to look for all kinds of wisdom in Homer as the ancients did, and while Vico was also suggesting decoding of Homer and that the poetry lacks abstract reflection, there is also a strong belief that Homer shows how the world is structured when we use imagination to its fullest extent in poetic universals. Universals based on passion, but which do also give us some form of knowledge of the world.

So Homeric poetry does not articulate principles of justice, liberty, law, sovereignty, and methods of government, but there is much to be found presented in those fields. The Iliad and The Odyssey are tales of kings and while mostly we do not see the business of ruling in its more routine aspects. Not only do we get more dramatic conflict than the business or ruing, we get characters who are absorbed in fighting human conflicts or supernatural terrors rather than governing at all.  Nevertheless out of all this, we do get ideas of what a king is and what kings are expected to do.

The Iliad  begins with conflict centred on Agamemnon, chief of the Greek league against Troy, who is shown in conflict with the seer who points out that he is offending the god Apollo, and then with Achilles with regard to showing respect to the seer and then ownership of Achilles’ favourite slave girl, captured while sacking a city. Agamemnon’s relation with the other Greek kings seem a bit controversial. I presume that he is the strongest king with no rights over the other kings except insofar as they have accepted that he is the appropriate generalissimo for the war against Troy. Some seem to believe that Agamemnon is more an emperor of the Greeks, ruling over subordinate kings. I do not see any evidence of this myself.

What we do see is that kingship and leading a temporary league for the purposes of war, in which the leading king gets some limited royal style authority over other kings, involved division of what was taken from  conquered peoples. It is a political structure in which the political economy in some very large part includes violent appropriation of the property of enemy people and the process of honourable division of that property between those who are the main fighters and generals in the war. The ‘generals’ and landowners who fight themselves and rase armies. Treating them according to a scale of ‘honour’, i.e wealth and war making capacity, which can be generally agreed is  a prime aspect of kingship. The beginning of The Iliad suggests that Agamemnon is lacking in some capacity in that role. Oddly, the angry Achilles who just withdraw from the war when his rank was undermined, or his honour was insulted, and appears to be breaking  all political rules, is the model of distribution of war booty during the funeral of Patroclus, towards the end of The Iliad. It is clear that many of the prizes given in the funeral games come from looting fallen cities and we see Achilles, the character driven by passion rather than forethought, show great skill in avoiding and defusing ranking conflicts/arguments of honour during the award of prizes.

Though superficially Agamemnon is presented as an admirable model king, much of Homer may cast doubt on this and certainly the Attic tragedians a few centuries later regard Agamemnon as very flawed. He does end his days murdered by his wife’s lover and even worse by the standards of the Homeric world, denied an honourable burial. While he is portrayed in the direct kind of discourse as wronged by a wicked woman, as in Odysseus’ visit to Hades in The Odyssey, where he gives his story after the Battle of Troy, we might wander if his downfall itself is a sign of poor kingship.

In The Iliad, Odysseus clearly exceeds Agamemnon as a military strategist and a political operator, which is confirmed in The Odyssey, where Odysseus’ superhuman capacities in offering are emphasised, as is the contrast between the virtue of Penelope and the wickedness of Clytemnestra.

The general political principle suggested here is that a good king rules through distributing the products of predatory warfare in ways which do  not disturb the ranking of his major followers. From this it follows that the best king has a very high capacity for strategising and avoiding problems, which tends to spill over into Odysseus like capacities for deception, disguise, and trickery. However, there is tension between the self-effacing capacity to maintain alliances and social peace on one side and the pure power of person needed by a king, who has to impose sovereignty through physical strength and a strong direct personality. Agamemnon lacks the former while clearly having abundance of the latter. Odysseus shows a capacity to integrate such capacities and it is surely very telling that at least some of the time angry self-centred Achilles shows greater capacity than Agamemnon.

More on this in the next post.

Homer and the Ambiguities of Europe

My latest post at the group blog NewAPPS, continuing the Homer theme. Opening paragraphs below, go to NewAPPS for the whole thing.

The idea of Homer is significantly tied up with the idea of Europe, which is not to say that there is one thing which is Europe and that it has some pure ideal beginning. It is to say that concepts like ‘Europe’ have origins and histories, and that some ways of thinking about origin and history are particularly influential. Though Homer is associated with the beginning of Europe, the word ‘Europe’ does not appear in the two epics, and the same applies for ‘Asia’.

The ambiguities around identity, history, and origin, are very apparent in relation to the name ‘Homer’, which may or many not be the real name of an ‘author’ of The Iliad and The Odyssey which may or may not have had a single author, and which certainly build on a very old tradition of recitation and singing of poetic narratives.

 ‘Homer’ (last time I am using scare quotes, let it be assumed from this point that my use of the name, is in a very nominalistic spirit bearing in mind the issues just mentioned) might be  taken as the beginning of Europe, because it is at the beginning of any literary tradition, which might be described as European, and presents a kind of whole world view of what it was like to be a late Bronze Age European, as far as the historical layers added to the poem until the Archaic Age in Greece, along with the nature of literary and mythical conventions allow, as well as the geographical and social focus of the poetry.

For the rest, go here.

More on Liberty and Homer: Tacitus, Montesquieu, and Humboldt

My latest contribution to the group blog Notes On Liberty

Notes On Liberty

As I have discussed before here, there is a way of writing about liberty in a conscious focus on political thought, which finds liberty to be emulated in some respect, going back at least to the first century Roman historian Tacitus. He was referring to the condition of the ancient Britons, within the Roman Empire, but rebelling against it, and the ancient Germans who could not be incorporated into the Empire.

The latter situation may have been at least as much for economic reasons as for the German fighting spirit, but they were certainly difficult to overcome and inflicted one of the great defeats on the Roman legions, at the height of Roman power in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 25CE.

The image of barbarian liberty in Tacitus was certainly in some part shaped by Homer given the deep impact of Greek culture on the Romans, and…

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The Open Borders Manifesto

I’ve just sent email asking to be added to the list of signatories for the Open Borders Manifesto, please think about doing the same. Copy and paste of manifesto below, all important and correct points with regard to one of the main human rights, civil liberties, and economic development issues of out time.

Open Borders Manifesto

Freedom of movement is a basic liberty that governments should respect and protect unless justified by extenuating circumstances. This extends to movement across international boundaries.
International law and many domestic laws already recognise the right of any individual to leave his or her country. This right may only be circumscribed in extreme circumstances, where threats to public safety or order are imminent.

We believe international and domestic law should similarly extend such protections to individuals seeking to enter another country. Although there may be times when governments should treat foreign nationals differently from domestic citizens, freedom of movement and residence are fundamental rights that should only be circumscribed when the situation absolutely warrants.

The border enforcement status quo is both morally unconscionable and economically destructive. Border controls predominantly restrict the movement of people who bear no ill intentions. Most of the people legally barred from moving across international borders today are fleeing persecution or poverty, desire a better job or home, or simply want to see the city lights.

The border status quo bars ordinary people from pursuing the life and opportunity they desire, not because they lack merit or because they pose a danger to others. Billions of people are legally barred from realising their full potential and ambitions purely on the basis of an accident of birth: where they were born. This is both a drain on the economic and innovative potential of human societies across the world, and indefensible in any order that recognises the moral worth and dignity of every human being.

We seek legal and policy reforms that will reduce and eventually remove these bars to movement for billions of ordinary people around the world. The economic toll of the modern restrictive border regime is vast, the human toll incalculable. To end this, we do not need a philosopher’s utopia or a world government. As citizens and human beings, we only demand accountability from our own governments for the senseless immigration laws that they enact in our name. Border controls should be minimised to only the extent required to protect public health and security. International borders should be open for all to cross, in both directions.

On Open Borders Day 2015, the 16th day of March, we marked the third anniversary of Open Borders: The Case. We also published the Open Borders Manifesto, a brief document summarising the objectives of the open borders movement.

The list of signatories is in alphabetical order, based on surname, and is current as of March 16, 2015. If you would like to add yourself to the signatory list, please contact us (preferably via email: and provide your name, with professional or academic affiliations if applicable.

Homer in the Repeated Beginnings of Philosophy and Literature

My latest post at the group blog New APPS

Recent close reading and teaching and Homer, along with some long standing interests leads me to reflect on the Homeric epics as a beginning in literature and a beginning in philosophy, which appears in later beginnings. It requires no argument to suggest that The Iliad and The Odyssey are foundational texts in the history of European or western literature, even making all allowances for the impossibility of any pure beginning and the ways that Homeric poetry emerges from a broad east Mediterranean world including northern Africa and southwestern  Asia, as well as Anatolia, Greece, and Italy. Even the most radical sceptic of the centrality of ancient Greece in antiquity would surely concede anyway that the Homeric epics are at the beginning of Greek literature.

For the rest, read on here.