A Letter to Alexandros on Homer:
By Pierre Grimes
Greetings to you Alexandros,
Your questions are good, Alexandros, and it is just like you to ask what few even wonder about. It has been some time since we last talked, and I do recall with pleasure the kinds of questions that had absorbed you. They gave me an opportunity to delve more deeply into these puzzles you were asking about. So, thanks for keeping me up to date with your search for answers to such puzzles. From what you have said it looks like you are continuing with your old questions in a totally new way.
In your letter your mentioned you decided not just to read, but to study Homer’s Iliad. I’d say that is a truly challenging work. So, you learned from those Jeffery Mishlove’s dialogues that the work has a hidden dimension about the nature of the Self. You say that it amazed you when you learned that from our dialogues. Jeffery is a thoughtful and mature thinker who added much to our dialogues. Well, it seems that it woke you up and now you are on the quest of seeking for profound insights into the nature of the Self in Homer.
You recall our old questions that we used to discuss about “Why is it so difficult to learn why we are here, and where are we are going after death?” And, “What reason can justify why we are ignorant of the answers to these questions?” We also discussed why do we allow the worst among us rule over us and join them in their selfish destructive wars? I recall your conclusion, which you used to repeat often, “If whatever Gods or spirits there might be have answers to these questions and fail to share them then they share in our faulted existence.” Now, from your letter, I see that you hope Homer’s work will also shed light on these questions as well as.
You say that before you plunge into your study of Homer’s Iliad that you wanted me to recommend a translation. You did say that you have several different translations and their differences surprised you. I can understand your predicament since finding a synthesis that includes such differences is likely to be an absurd way of going, especially if you truly want to master Homer. You mentioned that among the different translations you favor Latimore’s because it sings for you. As you know, my way of choosing a translator is to realize that each translator is guided by their own goals in translating so that it is good to discover what this understanding or vision is that they employ when they do their translating. I recall that you agreed with my approach and said that we should dismiss those translations that dummy-down a work and choose one that can match the integrity and wisdom, if any, in the work they translate. Your laugh turned on us both when we realized and joked that if they are translating wisdom literature the standard we just announced would mean not only the translator of a work of wisdom should be wise but the reader too, or the learning would only be as wise as what the translator can see in the work and the learner learn.
And, now you want to hold up on your reading of the Latimore translation of the Iliad because you awoke from your slumber to ask me why I consider Homer’s works belong in the wisdom class of literature. I admired your thought when you added that just because there is a priest class that expouses that a work is wise doesn’t make it wise any more than just because a cat gives birth to a dozen kittens in an oven makes them a dozen biscuits. So, you ask, “What puts a work in the class of wisdom literature?”
I’ll make a deal with you. If you accept my idea of wisdom then we can pick out a section of Homer’s Iliad that can disclose that kind of wisdom. For, if it is a masterful work it should be clear even from the beginning of Homer’s drama, and it should announce itself as the challenge of the work itself. Indeed, it should lay the cornerstone for the work and its fulfillment should demonstrate its internal integrity and wisdom. We will be able to judge the better translation in terms of which was best able to present that example and if it can be supported from the text, especially it should be supported from the Greek text and not be ignored. You might choose another passage to explore, but that’s the kind I would pick.
For starters, I’d say that your own question starts off Homer’s Iliad since it begins with the mystery we most want to find an answer to. For, that ruinous war between the Achaeans and the Trojans was said to be the unfoldment of the will of Zeus. The issue for us is whether or not we can find a justification for the war that can account for all the death and suffering spelled out in its aftermath. In the first chapter of the work we see that the ensuing war drama might not have happened.
Take a look. Before the forces of the Achaeans could launch their invasion against the Trojans they were beset by a plague that the God Apollo rained down on them in revenge for the refusal of the leader of the Achaeans, Agamemnon, to return the daughter of the priest of Apollo, Khryseis, whom Agamemnon had seized in an earlier conflict. In a bitter confrontation over this injustice the warrior Achilles challenged Agamemnon’s decision not to return the girl, and, in turn, Agamemnon, made it clear that if he had to give up his prize that in compensation he would take Achilles’ wife, Briseis. Achilles was furious, he started to draw his sword against Agamemnon, but the Goddess Athena, who was visible only to him, persuaded him to hold fast his sword and not to slay Agamemnon. Surely, we must ask, “What was so persuasive to silence the fury of Achilles and stop him from killing Agamemnon?” Achilles recalled that those words to end his passionate fury against Agamennon came from of Goddess Athena and it included the appeal from the Goddess Hera. This message came at that very time Achilles was himself provoked at heart over the possible awesome consequences of his intended actions. He reflects and says,
“For whoever will be persuaded by the Gods of Self do they especially attend.”
Would you not agree, Alexandros, that as the logos of these Gods expresses such a depth and power that those words would awaken one to the presence of the profound nature of the Self, and carries the meaning that the Gods will now play a decisive role in one’s life. Does not that quote, in turn, awaken us to prepare ourselves to watch and see just how the Gods will attend to the forthcoming events of Achilles and how the Self of Achilles will emerge?
If you turn to your Latimore translation you will see why it is called, not a translation, but a commentary or interpretation of Homer rather than an accurate account of the words in Homer.
I’ll wait for your answer and wonder what consequences follow for your study if you agree or disagree with my idea of wisdom and my understanding of Homer’s use of the idea of Self. It just might mean you will have to find a better translation or plunge ahead with your quest without any standard.
By the way, I should let you know that I am using the translation of Juan and Maria Balboa. It is not yet published, but I can manage to send you a copy if you desire it.
My best to you,