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.