Right Now Is All That Matters, or, Eternity and the Present in The Iliad

Right Now Is All That Matters, or, Eternity and the Present in The Iliad

This post is a paper I wrote for school, hence the more formal tone.

First John begins with a startling juxtaposition. “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life… (1 John 1:1)” The juxtaposition is this: that the eternal being who “was from the beginning,” has entered time and space and is the Word of life who tells us that “our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:4)” The Gospel presents a hopeful world in part because it declares that there is something beyond the here and the now–eternal life coming from the eternal Savior Jesus Christ.

The Greek epic The Iliad displays a different world, one in which hope is fleeting and tragedy is the only inevitability. This despair is a major theme within The Iliad and it stems from the Homeric concept that there is nothing beyond the here and the now. Against this, the Christian worldview provides a deep and lasting comfort.

As W.H. Auden says, “The world of Homer is unbearably sad because it never transcends the immediate moment.” Auden is right, of course, but there is a nuance to add. Within the Homeric worldview, the gods do transcend the present. Despair stems from the fact that no human can hope to achieve this same transcendence. Auden calls this a tragic “flaw in the nature of existence.” What, exactly, is this flaw? Why does the worldview of The Iliad lead to such despair? What, if anything, does Christianity offer to the characters of The Iliad?

The problem becomes evident in the 6th line of the poem. Homer says that the violence and death caused by the rage of Achilles was “the will of Zeus…moving toward its end. (1.6)” From the outset the poem is set in light of Zeus’ final plan. What happens is ultimately due to the orchestration of the gods.

But as the rest of the poem displays, this is not new information to any character. Greek and Trojan culture has a fatalistic outlook. The characters toil and fight for their cause all the while knowing they are subject to the whims and wishes of the gods. Agamemnon is forced to retreat during a rampage because, “Zeus who rules the world/forbids me to battle Trojans all day long. (11.324­–11.325)” Glaucus before plunging into battle, declares,

“Ah my friend, if you and I could escape this fray

and live forever, never a trace of age, immortal,

I would never fight on the front lines again

or command you to the field where men win fame.

But now, as it is, the fates of death await us,

thousands poised to strike, and not a man alive

can flee them or escape… (12.374–12.380)”

Neither Glaucus nor Agamemnon hope to escape the fate of the gods. They do not hope because they cannot. Zeus’ plan will be accomplished regardless of their actions, and fate will have its way. Though they yearn for peace and life they can have none because they are trapped by their mortality. Their lives–with all their hopes, dreams, fears, and joys–are mere pawns in the hands of the gods.

Perhaps this is nowhere more poignantly evident than at the death of Hector. Athena deceives him into believing that a Trojan warrior, Deiphobus, is by his side as he charges the raging Achilles. She disguises herself as Deiphobus and claims to have come to help him because “the heart within me broke with grief for you. (22.288)” She urges him on, promising to fight side by side against Achilles. Emboldened by this promise Hector charges, but when he calls to Deiphobus for another spear to throw at Achilles, Deiphobus is nowhere to be found.

“yes, and Hector knew the truth in his heart

and the fighter cried aloud, ‘My time has come!

At last the gods have called me down to death.

I thought he was at my side, the hero Deiphobus–

he’s safe inside the walls, Athena’s tricked me blind.

And now death, grim death is looming up beside me. (22.349–22.354)”

Why can’t Hector simply turn and run? He answers the question.


this was their pleasure after all, sealed long ago–

Zeus and the son of Zeus, the distant deadly Archer–

though often before now they rushed to my defense.

So now I meet my doom. (22.355–22.359)”

The moment is charged with despair and tragedy. Hector all alone, the bloodthirsty and near-unstoppable Achilles approaching, is deceived by the gods he worships. He has no chance of escape. Death surrounds him, and his only prayer is that his battle with Achilles will be remembered.

John’s gospel begins similarly to his first letter. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (John 1:1)” The characters in The Iliad would share this idea. There are gods who exist immortally. There is something beyond the here and the now. But the Greek and Trojan worldview lacks what comes next.

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. (John 1:14)” Their worldview lacks any hope that they can transcend the present moment, or that they can be rescued from the fate that controls their every move. As Auden says, in this world “one is happy, one is unhappy, one wins, one loses, finally one dies. That is all. (Auden 18)” Within the Homeric worldview mortals are locked in their mortality. They cannot escape it. They must fight with everything in them to be remembered for there is nothing more that they can do. The immortals are comfortable to watch at a distance without offering a way of escape. While the gods work within the here and the now, they never enter it, so to speak. They never subject themselves to it. The eternal and the temporal remain two separate realms. One does not enter the other.

Homer scholar Margo Kitts points out the small comfort offered by this worldview. Commenting on the death of Hector she says, “Hector immediately grasps that he was tricked by Athene and that the gods are calling his death (22.297 – 299), but he heroically faces his fate, at least briefly (22.303 – 305).” In the face of this fatalism Homer offers “divine and human care as some small compensation for the lack of human autonomy and for the constraints of fate.”

But this is fickle hope. Divine care is no more than a whim, as another writer observes.

“For while men often petition their gods for favor, few mortals actually confidently expect their god’s beneficence. A man is happy to receive the kindness or protection of the gods, but is not surprised if the gods do not respond, or indeed if those same gods choose deliberately to harm him.”

The Iliad itself reveals that human care is no better. When Hector speaks to Andromache after returning from the battle she pleads with him to stay within Troy. Hector refuses, knowing first that he must defend his wife and son, but also that he has no hope for victory or survival (6.481–6.600). All too soon his care will pass away.

This is the flaw in the nature of existence that leads to such unbearable tragedy. To return to First John, the Greek gods are “from the beginning,” but they have not been heard or seen or touched, and they certainly offer no word of life to complete the joy of mortals.

This is not to say that Greek culture is deistic. On the contrary, the gods are extremely involved in everyday life. But the gods never subject themselves to the here and now. They are bemused spectators who, at best, jump into the fray for fun. Even proud Achilles understands this: “the Immortals spun our lives that we, we wretched men/ live on to bear such torments–the gods live free of sorrows. (24.613–24.614)” This is a worldview devoid of lasting hope. The eternal sits comfortably to the side, and no temporal being can ever transcend the present.

Christianity offers an antidote to this despair because it declares that the eternal has entered the temporal. Current circumstances are not the sum total of human existence because the Word has offered the words of life. Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. (Matthew 11:28)” Mortality is not an inescapable trap within Christianity. There is no need to fight to be remembered because eternal life can be gained.

The Iliad recounts a terrible war. The Homeric worldview offers no hope to anyone within the war. If they do not win glory they will be forgotten. They cannot transcend this moment of battle. Christianity offers a radically different hope. It declares that eternity has entered history and a greater war has been won. Now, for those who follow Jesus, there is hope beyond this moment–hope that tragedy will give way to joy, that suffering will be conquered by happiness, that death will surrender before life.

The Lights Must Never Go Out

imageedit_2_4769243068One of my favorite stanzas in W.H. Auden’s famous poem “September 1, 1939” echoes Pascal’s argument that we avoid thinking about our true selves out of fear. I’ve found it to be a helpful explanation of the idea. Perhaps you will too.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

We Need Another Atticus

It was kind of a big deal, and people really weren’t happy. News had broken about the revision of Atticus Finch.

Now before I go any further I need to say that I haven’t read Go Set a Watchman. At some point I do intend to, but I’m reading several other books at the minute and I’d prefer not to add yet another novel.

But I want to talk about something that I don’t think requires reading the novel. As many of you may know, shortly before Go Set a Watchman released, it came out that Atticus Finch–the champion of racial justice in To Kill a Mockingbird–was rewritten as a racist. The reaction was immediate and angry. Phrases like, “my hero was destroyed,” or, “my role model has been taken away” were common. Reviews described the book as “the toppling of idols.” Critics speculated about Harper Lee’s intentions.

In short, people weren’t happy.

The whole thing struck me as quite intriguing. To Kill a Mockingbird has been an extraordinarily successful book, and the characters are near and dear to many people. As evidenced by the reaction, many looked up to Atticus Finch and his staunch, unflinching defense of the humanity of Jim, the accused African-American. His ultimately unsuccessful fight for justice was inspirational and heroic.

Others, commenting on the controversy, have taken a different approach. They’ve argued that people need to move on and realize that it doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. “He’s just a character,” the argument goes. “He isn’t actually a champion of racial justice. We need to focus our attention on real issues, not on fictional characters. Let’s be angry about real injustice and support real heroes, not fictional accounts of injustice or fictional heroes.”

I think that argument betrays a bit of a misunderstanding about the importance of literature. The argument assumes that literature isn’t true, that stories are just myths, cleverly devised lies. At best, they’re escapist fantasies. But as I’ve argued before, stories are true. While the literal details of To Kill a Mockingbird might not be, the larger story is. There is a champion for the oppressed and the needy. There is someone who will fight for justice in the face of a society intent on looking the other way. He may not be named Atticus Finch, but we all long for this person.

Maybe that’s what caused all the outrage. People wanted a champion of justice, and they got one in Atticus. When that champion was taken away, their longing came right back to the Atticus Finchsurface, betraying the fact that Atticus never fulfilled their longing, he merely papered over it.

But to say that the reaction to Atticus’ rewriting is insignificant or silly is, I think, mistaken. What it shows is a fundamental desire people have. We want Jim to be given justice and set free and when he isn’t we’re heartbroken. Our longing for justice wasn’t fulfilled. We want Atticus to fight for those who can’t fight for themselves, and now that he isn’t, people are heartbroken.

It displays a simple fact. That deep down, at the core of our being, we know the world isn’t how it should be. Some part of us longs for something better, for something beyond the evil and injustice around us. We want another Atticus.

“A Sense of Sorrow Filled Him”

I’m rereading Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings The Yearling, and I came across this passage about halfway through the book. For some reason, I found it quite powerful and thought I’d share it.

To set the scene, young Jody’s father, Penny, was just bitten by a rattlesnake and Jody doesn’t know if he’s going to make it. He falls asleep while the doctor watches Penny.

“Jody moved through a tortuous dream. With his father beside him, he fought a nest of rattlesnakes. They crawled across his feet, trailing their rattles, clacking lightly. The nest resolved itself into one snake, gigantic, moving toward him on a level with his face. It struck and he tried to scream but could not. He looked for his father. He lay under the rattler, with his eyes open to a dark sky. His body was swollen to the size of a bear. He was dead. Jody began to move backward away from the rattler, one agonized step at a time. His feet were glued to the ground. The snake suddenly vanished and he stood alone in a vast windy place, holding the fawn in his arms. Penny was gone. A sense of sorrow filled him so that he thought his heart would break.”

Penny recovers later in the chapter, but in one scene Rawlings has wonderfully reinforced Jody’s love for his father. At this point, we can’t stop reading. There’s a lot I can learn from this passage, and I thought you might find it as moving as I did.

Do Moralists Make Bad Novelists?

A few days ago, in the New York Times, Alice Gregory wrote a short piece on the question, “do moralists make bad novelists?” I commend the article to you, not because I necessarily agree with it, but because it’s a well-expressed and thoughtful answer to the question.

In short, she argued that there are two kinds of moralists: didactic moralists and ambivalent moralists. Didactic moralists are those who write pamphlets disguised as novels, while ambivalent moralists are those who deal with moral questions without forcing them into a novel. I find the distinction helpful, but I want to suggest an additional nuance.

Andrew Peterson, speaking a few years ago at a conference, talked about a particular way to read the Bible. Before searching for a lesson in a Biblical story, he argued, we should let the story be a story. Let the reality of what we just heard sink in. That God split a sea in two, that a blind man saw again, that a dead man came back to life. These are miraculous realities. They contain a lesson, but they are realities nonetheless.

I’m not certain, but I think Gregory expresses this same sentiment about fiction when she says:

“For [the ambivalent moralist], ethics are measured and expressed in nonliteral units: the sorts of people to whom she chooses to extend her theory of mind, the small details upon which her characters disagree, the extent to which they are willing to forsake integrity for social graces. She does not inject her fiction with moral content, but moral content is there nonetheless.”

If by this she means that moral lessons ought not be crammed into novels where they don’t fit, I agree. However, a bit later, Gregory throws a wrench in this understanding.

“We live in an era of constant online castigation and unequaled opportunity to judge and be judged. We are unceasingly exposed to our friends’ and enemies’ real-time (and seldom flattering) calibrations in self-presentation, and novels should offer a relief from that.”

This seems to imply that novels are supposed to be an escape from constant moral judgement. But how can a novel deal with moral content without making some sort of moral judgement? Gregory seems to suggest that it is through “moralism with the intent to question,” in contrast to “moralism with the intent to teach.”

If we take Flannery O’Connor’s advice, however, that distinction might run into some trouble. O’Connor says that, “for the writer of fiction, everything has its testing point in the eye.” If I understand her correctly, she means that the writer must first observe before he writes. He must write about real people, and real worlds. That’s not to say that a writer can’t write fantasy, but that fantasy must be believable. In some sense, it has to be real. Stories must begin by expressing something concrete, not abstract, like an idea.

This leads to Gregory’s point about “moral content.” If we’re writing about concrete things, like actions, we’re going to write about morality because many concrete things carry a moral value. Stealing a cookie from the cookie jar is an action, but it is not a mere action. It is a wrong action. Portraying it as a wrong action is a moral judgement, even though it’s a commonly accepted moral judgement.

This makes me wonder if writing about reality without making moral judgements is, in fact, not writing about reality. Gregory’s distinction may be helpful, but I’m not sure her assertion that novels are an escape from judgement is workable. If we are to have “moral content,” it seems we must make moral judgements. It would simply be dishonest to portray, say, an attempt to slander a friend as amoral simply because we don’t want to make a judgement.

Again, I’m not sure that Gregory is arguing against this–there are some comments in her article, however, that make me wonder if she is.

Perhaps this question–do moralists make bad novelists?–is best answered by O’Connor. O’Connor is all for a distinction between a novel and a sermon, but while she agrees that a story is not a mere statement, statements will inform our stories. Or, as she puts it:

“Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing.

Off-Topic: The Contradiction of Man as Merely an Animal

“Those who most despise men and regard them as the equivalent of animals still want to be admired and believed by them, and contradict themselves by their own feelings, their nature, which is stronger than anything, convincing them more strongly of man’s greatness than reason convinces them of their vileness.”–Blaise Pascal

Don’t Forget to Tell a Story

I walked out of Tomorrowland thoroughly disappointed. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect coming in, but I hoped it would, at the very least, be enjoyable. I had enjoyed all of Brad Bird’s movies so far, and Damon Lindelof, the writer, has written several good movies.

Yet Tomorrowland was neither interesting nor enjoyable. And it wasn’t because of some super technical story error. It was because the movie, in my opinion, forgot something basic–movies need to be about something.

Tomorrowland had plenty of good ideas but what it didn’t have was a plot. It was honestly surprising because it isn’t like the director and writers don’t know how to tell a story. They’ve both done some great movies. Bird did Iron Giant, The Incredibles, Ratatoullie, and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. All of those were good. Lindelof wrote Star Trek Into Darkness and World War Z, both very enjoyable films.

Tomorrowland forgot to tell a storyWhy, then, did Tomorrowland not have one of the basic story telling elements? I don’t pretend to have the answer to that, but I was reminded of this: I can’t ever forget the basics. Just because a story has a cool structure and great ideas doesn’t mean it’s good.

I have to remember that I’m not telling stories to impress people with the originality of my ideas or the cleverness of my structure. I’m telling a story, and if it isn’t a good story no one will care. When I’m developing story ideas I often get caught up in constructing an interesting format, with refining complex systems in the world of my story, or with developing a miniscule aspect of one character.

In the midst of all that it’s very easy to forget to tell a story. Get the basics down. Then worry about the more complicated aspects. That’s a reminder I needed to have.