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.


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