Keely's Reviews > The Iliad

The Iliad by Homer
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Jun 30, 09

bookshelves: epic, reviewed, greece, favorites
Read in June, 2009

Pablo Picasso spent his entire life trying desperately to do something new, something unique. He moved from style to style, mastering and then abandoning both modern and classical methods, even trying to teach his trained artist's hand to paint like a child.

In 1940, four French teens and a dog stumbled upon a cave that had lain hidden for 16,000 years. Inside, they found the walls covered in beautiful drawings of men and animals. When the Lascaux caves were opened to the public, Pablo Picasso visited them, and as he stared at the prehistoric hunting scenes, was heard to remark in a despondent tone: "We have invented nothing".

The Iliad is equally as humbling to a writer, as complex, beautiful, and honest as any other work. The war scenes play out like a modern film, gory and fast-paced, the ever-present shock of death. Though some have been annoyed at how each man is named (or even given a past) before his death, this gives weight to the action. Each death is has consequence, and as each man steps onto the stage to meet glory or death, Homer gives us a moment to recognize him, to see him amidst the whirling action, and to witness the fate Zeus metes.

The psychological complexity and humanism of this work often shocked me. Homer's depiction of human beings as fundamentally flawed and unable to direct their own lives predicts existentialism. The even hand he gives both the Trojans and the Argives places his work above the later moralizing allegories of Turold, Tasso, or even Milton.

Of course, Homer's is a different world than theirs, one where the sword has not yet become a symbol for righteousness. In Homer, good men die unavenged, and bad men make their way up in the world. Noble empires fall to ravenous fire and the corpses of fresh-limbed young men are desecrated.

Fate does not favor the kind, the weak, the moral, or even the strong. Fate favors some men now, others later, and in the end, none escapes the emptiness of death. Though Homer paints some men as great, as noble and kind and brave, these men do not uphold these ideals for some promised paradise, but simply because they are such men.

There is something refreshing in the purity of the philosophy of living life for yourself and yet expecting no entitlement for your deeds. A philosophy which accepts the uncontrollable winds of fate; that when the dark mist comes across our eyes, no man knows whence he goes.

Later traditions make other claims: that the righteous will be rewarded, that the lives of good men will be good and the bad will be punished. In thousands of years of thinking, of writing, of acting, have we gained nothing but comforting, untenable ideals? Then Picasso was wrong, we have invented something, but it is only a machine which perpetuates itself by peddling self-satisfaction.

I read and enjoyed the Fagles translation, which may not be the most faithful, but strikes that oft-discussed balance between joy of reading and fidelity. He makes no attempt to translate the meter into English, which is a blessing to us. The English language does a few meters well, and Homer's is not one of them.

The footnotes were competent and interesting, though I could have stood a few more of them; perhaps I am in the minority. I also thoroughly enjoyed Knox's introductory essay. I would normally have had to research the scholarly history of the book myself, and so Knox's catch-me-up was much appreciated.
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Comments (showing 1-22 of 22) (22 new)

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message 1: by Alex (new) - added it

Alex I like what you said about Picasso.

Your anti christian sentiment is remarkable when so many of your comments and ideas could have come from Solomon himself.
See;
(Y)You(quoting another)- "We have invented nothing".
(S)Solomon- what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Y - Homer's depiction of human beings as fundamentally flawed and unable to direct their own lives
S - Since no man knows the future , who can tell him what is to come? No man has power over the wind to contain it; so no one has power over the day of his death.
Y - 'good men die unavenged, and bad men make their way through the world.'
S - In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these: a righteous man perishing in his righteousness, and a wicked man living long in his wickedness.
Y - accepts that when the dark mist comes across our eyes, no man knows whence he goes.
S - Mans fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; a man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust return. Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?'
Y - 'Fate does not favor the kind, the weak, the moral, or even the strong. Fate favors some men now, others later, and in the end, none escapes from death.'
S - The race is not to the swift
or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
or wealth to the brilliant
or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all.
Moreover, no man knows when his hour will come:

I am aware of your opinion of the Bible but it seems that the writing of Solomon had some impact on you. Subconsciously his thoughts seeped into the ocean of your conscious and leaked out again unexpectedly now.

So if there was nothing new under the sun in Solomons time when the one God was known, why then are you so sure that these modern traditions(christianity) based on the one God are lies and self satisfaction. Are you indeed wiser then Solomon?


message 2: by Keely (last edited Jul 03, 2009 09:32AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Keely Interesting that you marked my analysis of 'romanticism' as Christian, when I never state that it is. The later epic authors I reference are Christians, but show me a later epic author of romantic ideals who isn't.

The Hebraic traditions are indeed old, and contain both romantic, idealized notions, and pragmatic, skeptical ones. The Bible is a wealth of imagery and philosophy so thickly laid that one could find any opinion represented, if they only look for it.

The romantic notions I criticize here do relate to a Christian tradition, but that is partly because these ideals were being promoted in cultures that were almost wholly Christian, and the authors used the Bible and the power of the priesthood to lend pertinence to their works.

I do not find fault with Christianity in particular, but with any tradition which suggests that humility can be righteous, and which presents its heroes as wholly good and its villains as wholly bad. This kind of moralizing ignores the depth and complexity of human beings and trains its audience to live for a world that never existed.

This kind of story is often appealing, both to those in power and to those who daily slave away. It creates the myth that success is its own proof, like Lancelot maintaining his innocence through the might of his arms. This righteousness serves the powerful.

It also gives the slave class a false value, in that they may believe that their very meekness makes them worthy. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with humility, meekness, or morality, but these cannot exist without careful reflection and a great deal of information, which the lower classes are almost always without.

Recognizing one's own faults and limits is the foundation of wisdom, but claiming humility overcomes those faults is merely an affectation.

Any man, whether secular, Christian, Confucian, New Age, or all and sundry may place all their value on these same ideals. Much of modern 'fantasy' fiction stems from this kind of extremist, romantic morality. Homer's work would indicate that this self-serving hyperbole has grown up since his time.

We cannot separate the Hebraic religions from the social, political, and economic forces that have shaped the world and religion since Homer's time. I cannot blame religion any more than I can blame politics. Each one affects the other.

However, if you see Christianity in what I have written, no one can fault you. Many of these ideas have been adopted, supported, or even invented by Christian authors, philosophers, and apologists. However, we cannot say that Christianity is any one man's opinion of it, or any ten.

However, arguments often boil down to one man's faith against another. Here, I have attacked an idea, and you have arrived to defend a religion; a religion I never here mention.

You quote The Bible to show me that my critique fails to deconstruct the entirety of this faith yet that was never my intention. Criticizing a faith is almost always a fruitless exercise, since faith often has nothing to do with a man's philosophies.

I know not all Christians are romantic idealists, nor does the whole of the Bible support this philosophy. Many of the more popular sections do, but this may easily be chalked up to the nature of power dynamics.

So, perhaps the thoughts of Gilgamesh or of Homer have passed through the 'ocean of consciousness' and made it into Solomon's mouth, or into mine. Whoever said these ideas, or whatever book they were presented in does not change their effect.

If I have said "Homer's humanism makes him more realistic and philosophically complex than later idealistic, moralizing authors" and you accuse me of anti-Christian sentiments, whose philosophical hang-ups are we really discussing?


message 3: by Alex (last edited Jul 03, 2009 10:23PM) (new) - added it

Alex :)
I like reading your reviews because they make me think. I was not trying to argue for or against faiths. I was merely pointing out how similiar a number of your sentences were to Solomons. I am also puzzled by your certainty of the spuriousness of the Bible.

I read your review on the Bible and I just carried on those thoughts to this review.

The most appealing thing I find about Christianity is that it is centered on Humility. Pride destroys love, creates competition just for the sake of beating others and leads to every other vice. A humble man need not be a weak man. He can be extremely strong of spirit and body, and capable of doing great acts, the difference is that he does not do these acts for himself, for the feeling of being better than others he does it for other reasons outside himself.

"but these cannot exist without careful reflection and a great deal of information, which the lower classes are almost always without." How can you say that a virtue is worthless without extra education? All lasting wisdom is simple. You are mususing the virtue in the same way that proud powerful people have in the past. It need not be this way.


You previously said 'There is something refreshing in the purity of the philosophy of living life for yourself...'
I dont understand what is pure about this

To live a life were by you pursue advantage, wellbeing or pleasure for yourself without regard to others is not pure. The very philosophy is not even practically pure, but is tainted with weakness, for who will pick you up when you fall down. Even the Greeks pursued that which was outside of themselves - honour, respect ect.





message 4: by Alex (new) - added it

Alex Having said all this I can't wait to buy the Iliad, the translation you talked about really sounds fascinating.


Keely Ah, my review of the Bible. I've gotten a surprising amount of attention over that. It is one of my more light-hearted reviews, but there are also some philosophical and theological observations in there. Mostly, I was curious how the book might be received if it were found or written today, without the heavy preconceptions.

* * *

The curious thing about humility is that it often shows up not as a recognition of one's faults, but as a source of pride. To be proud of being humble immediately negates the purpose of humility. Anyone who says "my strength and perseverance comes from my humility" has missed the point, entirely.

Recognizing and acknowledging one's own faults is a difficult thing, it is an ongoing process requiring thoughtful self-reflection. Most people have neither the time, the knowledge, or the inclination to pursue a road where the rewards are so few.

Many people claim they seek to be humble and wise by acknowledging their faults, but most of them do this primarily because they like to see themselves as self-searching, not because of an actual commitment to honesty or change.

What inspires personal humility is not the need to identify as 'humble', but the need to search and discover, and to develop a more accurate picture of the world and the self. This is no a simple process, and neither is the wisdom that comes from it simplistic or easily gained.

Scholars and moralists, whether Christian or otherwise, have spent their entire lives trying to see the world more clearly, and none of them were ever satisfied that they achieved their goal. From Plato to Aquinas to Descartes to Nietzsche, thinkers have shown us that our struggles are not with the goal, but the search.

What is easy and simple is always ignorance. You accuse me of pride by asking if I think myself wiser than Solomon, and then you state that wisdom is simple and requires no teachers. Solomon had teachers; in fact, the whole Hebraic system is based on teachers educating the masses.

Unfortunately, it is as easier for those in power to misinform and rile up the masses instead of educating them. It is easier for people to act from fear and ignorance than to act from thought.

The purity of living for the self, a life which is unfettered by ideals, is that it focuses on living itself, on feeling and thinking. Who is the more worthy man, the Christian who is good because he seeks paradise, or the Atheist who is good without reward?

Some of the faithful have made the argument that without a religious basis for morals, the world would devolve into an anarchy of murder and rape. Perhaps if those people didn't have religion, they would start raping and killing people, but most people wouldn't behave any differently.

Acting for myself and my interests doesn't mean disregarding the interests and feeling of others. Indeed, achieving most anything require carefully considering the role of other people in our lives.

You say it yourself: friendship is useful to us because it means people will pick us up when we fall. That is a self-centered thought process. You aren't suggesting we make friends because its inherently good, but because it is socially useful to us.

Likewise, honor and respect are ways that we ensure others trust us and are willing to deal with us and to help us. Helping ourselves and helping others aren't usually mutually exclusive actions.

I hope some of that made sense. Thanks for your thoughts and I hope to hear what you think about the Iliad if you do happen to read it.


message 6: by Clare (new) - added it

Clare Great review! Thanks for your insight on particular translations, I'm hoping to pick this up again but having to choose between so many different versions is so daunting!


Keely I know precisely how you feel. Every time I want to read a book in translation I have to wade through scholarly reviews until I find which one seems the most accurate and enjoyable. It takes a while, but it's worth it when you get down to reading.


message 8: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell Beautiful review. I really like the Fagles translation, too.


Keely Thanks so much, I'm glad you enjoyed it.


message 10: by Will (last edited Aug 08, 2012 06:39PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Will IV Great review. For some reason I read The Odyssey first and, being on book 18 of The Iliad, I find The Odyssey to be vastly superior storytelling. There are some transcendent moments in the Iliad, but it is mostly just "___, son of ___, thrust his spear into ____, son of ___, and darkness befell him." I mean, I don't think I would be exaggerating in claiming that a good 3/4ths of the text is a counting of who is killing who, with a lot of "glory" thrown in there, and very little story. Basically, lots of action, little plot.

The Odyssey, on the other hand, is almost the opposite. Very little descriptive violence, and a phenomenal plot. Full of twists and turns, moments of pure human emotion, humor and folly, love and desperation. I just find the Odyssey to be on a whole other level.

That said, the great moments in The Iliad are almost unbelievably evocative, e.g. The pain Achilles endures when Patroclus is killed. It has just been a lot of drudgery getting to those truly great moments in The Iliad, while The Odyssey I found started strong, and consistently delivered with a more mature style of writing throughout.

Just my two cents.


Wilcott This is an amazing story, truly amazing. But Homer is a cruel poet. He ended it too soon (which is quite a funny thing to say considering how long this epic is). I long to hear what happened to Troy and Achilles. I'm told that this is mentioned in another great and long adventure, but the old writer, now resting in the halls of Hades, will focus on another hero.

My favourite scenes were of Hector's wife, her urging him not to go into the heat of battle or risk his son losing a father, and she to become a widow. I saw much of the psychological complexity and humanism in which you speak of through her, and many characters too. Believe it or not, I saw a lot of humanity in the Greek gods, which is what makes them worth mentioning til this day I believe.


Keely "I long to hear what happened to Troy and Achilles."

Well, there are many other works that deal with events before and after Homer's story--of course, he was retelling a well known historical event, so it makes sense that there were many versions of the tale besides Homer's, and many expansions upon other parts of the myth. Indeed, in reading Homer, I was surprised at how much of what we think of as 'his story' actually never appears in the text, but was added on by later writers. For example, in Homer's story, Achilles is not impenetrable--he even gets wounded and bleeds at one point.


Wilcott Keely wrote: " Indeed, in reading Homer, I was surprised at how much of what we think of as 'his story' actually never appears in the text, but was added on by later writers."

Yes, I read that too, after completing the poem. It annoyed me at first--I wished I knew it sooner so I wouldn't have been flipping through pages to see if I had daydreamed past something. It doesn't take away from the story or lose Homer any credit, but leaves room for others to add to his story or create their own; which, I guess, is a good thing since we have so many great works that are an inspiration from this text.

Anyway, a wonderful and thoughtful review as always.

Your quote, 'living for yourself and expecting no entitlement for your deeds' is a great philosophy for life, and I think that many misinterpret it because they have a different idea of what the self actually is. Is it possible that they forget that other people play a role in defining who we are, every time they hear those words, 'live for yourself'?

Furthermore, it seems that we are told at a young age to place a great deal of value on ourselves, missing the part where everyone else could be just as valuable too, which leads to us thinking that we will be rewarded in life or after it. We begin to overvalue ourselves if you will.


Jeremy Fagles is very inclusive: my 11 year old daughter found no problem with him and really enjoyed the read. It's great to have a real English open-verse translation vibe.


message 15: by Keely (last edited Feb 07, 2013 08:23AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Keely Wilcott said: "Your quote, 'living for yourself and expecting no entitlement for your deeds' is a great philosophy for life, and I think that many misinterpret it because they have a different idea of what the self actually is."

Yes, many people definitely seem to. I've gotten a few comments about that line from religious folks who took offence, but then, I tend to think a lot of religious types are living much more selfishly than others (in the pejorative sense).

After all, they claim to be living for God, that they humbly follow his will, but of course, God's will is unknowable, and so they are just following their own preferred interpretation, which means they are just following their own prejudices and calling it 'God' (which is a rather fine act of hubris), and then declaring themselves humble for it. Rather twisted if you ask me.

Conversely, I tend to think that in most situations, the best thing you can do for yourself is also the best thing for those around you. Humans are stronger as a community than as individuals--after all, how long could most of us could survive isolated in the wilderness? Sure, a person might achieve a temporary gain from betraying, back-biting, and burning bridges, but overall they've just succeeded in alienating those around them.

Jeremy said: "It's great to have a real English open-verse translation vibe."

Agreed, for me, reading Fagles was exciting and accessible--some parts felt as brisk as an epic action movie, what with all the blood and conflict.


message 16: by Wilcott (last edited Feb 07, 2013 02:57PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Wilcott Keely wrote: "...I tend to think a lot of religious types are living much more selfishly than others (in the pejorative sense)."

I understand. I think that many have read or witnessed moments of self-righteousness from a number of so called humble religious folk, usually ending with them saying or doing something extraordinarily selfish.

"Sure, a person might achieve a temporary gain from betraying, back-biting, and burning bridges, but overall they've just succeeded in alienating those around them."

Haha, yes, that sounds like the inevitable thing that would happen if one were to take that course of action, which is not exactly what I have in mind when I think of living for ones self.

I think it's down to what lens one uses to interpret such a philosophy. Interpreting it through a religious perspective, which require much interpretation themself, can lead to a distorted view, and I guess that is where part of the problem lies.


Keely Yeah, definitely a concern for people--religious or no: what perspective are we using to view the world, and is that perspective ultimately accurate, or delusional?

I find it curious that if you put a Muslim, a Christian, and a Jew in the same room, they'll all say "I know I'm right, and the other two are wrong, because I know in my heart that what I believe is true." But of course, that puts the authority in man, not god, since it is man's heart upon which they rely.

The fact that they all carry the same conviction, the same passion, and yet condemn the other two for doing the same strikes me as a rather selfish and hubristic way to go about life. At that point, I tend to see it like an SAT question: A, B, and C are all the same, but you can only pick one answer, so it must be D: None Of The Above.


message 18: by Wilcott (last edited Feb 09, 2013 03:03AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Wilcott Keely wrote: "But of course, that puts the authority in man, not god, since it is man's heart upon which they rely."

Yes, that makes a lot of sense. I wonder why they miss that? Sometimes I think that they let their passions get the best of them when it is time to prove their point.

"The fact that they all carry the same conviction, the same passion, and yet condemn the other two for doing the same..."

If my thoughts are correct, then this level of argument will start a fight to prove who is the most humble, which of course, is a deceptive way to prove that you are right, and as you say, selfish and hubristic.


Keely Yeah, not a pretty thing to witness.


Wilcott Tsk, tsk, mmhmm.


Wilcott Interesting: to my amazement, it's only been five months since I commented on this review and yet it appears that who I was then is a lot different from who I am now. The opinions I wrote before haven't changed, but, with the need to search and discover myself, what I wrote before appears much more shallow to what I would write now--it's like looking at a poem you once wrote as a child and realising how limited your understanding was of what you were expressing.

One must question the validity of their own beliefs, forcing them to seek more evidence that will prove or disprove them, to continue that ingoing search for truth, and to continue shaping who they are. If one quits questioning their beliefs, then it is not truth that they are seeking anymore--such a person could be afraid of finding something new and discomforting, and possibly something they do not desire to be true about themself.

Keely wrote: "Many people claim they seek to be humble and wise by acknowledging their faults, but most of them do this primarily because they like to see themselves as self-searching, not because of an actual commitment to honesty or change."

I guess that for the seekers of humility and wisdom, acknowledging your faults is less painful than understanding why you have them to begin with--we seek and we find, but sometimes what they find can stop stop us from ever seeking again.

Anyway, I just stopped by here because there is something about the philosophy of 'living for yourself and expecting no entitlement for your deeds' that seems to strike right at the heart of living. Why wasn't I taught this before? Hmm, maybe it's time that I start reading the Odyssey.


Keely Well, I'm glad to hear that in five short months, you've found yourself in such a different place. Sometimes it feels like we're languishing for months or years in one spot, barely moving forward--but then, suddenly, we can come across something transformative that alters our perspective in a week, or even in a day.

"I guess that for the seekers of humility and wisdom, acknowledging your faults is less painful than understanding why you have them to begin with--we seek and we find, but sometimes what they find can stop stop us from ever seeking again."

Yeah, I know that fear all too well--the idea that I might 'go to far' and somehow injure my search. Doubt isn't always bad, but you do have to be able to break out, try things, and make mistakes if you want to keep moving forwards--even though it can be a very difficult thing to take those risks.


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