How others study and learn is a mystery to me. Unfortunately, for me, I study and learn by fits and starts.
When I read a book, and it is like watching a torch burn, watching it catch fire and watching as its knowledge lights another torch in turn. One day recently, I was reading an essay by the great Spanish philosopher, Ortega, Mediations on Hunting, and he made remarks about Polybius, a Greek historian writing about Rome, and I began to read him, and soon I was finishing The Iliad and began to read Greek plays that I haven’t read in 50 years.
Like everyone, I am often guilty of saying to myself that I read such and such a book in college or high school. Unfortunately, I often cannot remember what they said. Simply recalling titles is hardly praiseworthy, so when I began to study the Greeks again, I once again discovered that the Greeks are incredibly good!
Why? They are full of vital force. They don’t age. Their voices remain alive with strong and tumultuous life. They aren’t uselessly theatrical. Homer, at the beginning of The Iliad plunges us immediately into a near-violent quarrel. The king of the Greeks is Agamemnon, and while powerful, he is very self-willed and stubborn and ruinously touchy. He is known as the “wide-ruling king,” but his pride overpowers his ability to reason fairly or clearly. He is always insisting tediously that his is the greatest of all the Greeks. They grow weary of hearing it.
Here is the beginning.
The god Apollo is angered by an insult and sets loose a plague among the Greek warriors fighting on the shores of Troy. When it turns out that a woman captive, a prize of war, must be returned to her father to quell the plague, King Agamemnon begins to fidget and stew. His attitude is bratty, and it is grade-school bratty: If I have to give up a woman won by war, why shouldn’t someone else give up his? His chief champion and the greatest of the Greek warriors, Achilles, has little respect for the king calling him, “the most profit-loving man,” and warns the king that if he lost his prize, it is tough luck. Achilles, growing very angry, asserts, “We have no common store” of prizes available, but Agamemnon, always the brat says, "Will you tell me to give my prize up, and am I to be without one, while you keeps yours?” The king is going to pick another prize from his fighters, and he warns, “Angry will he be to whom I come.”
Achilles bridles in fury at this. “What do I care about you and your anger?” This infuriates Agamemnon who says, that if the god Apollo is taking away his prize, “…I will come to your hut and take away your prize of honor, the fair-faced Breisis, so that you jay see that I am much greater than you. Then others, in times to come, may be slower to match themselves with me.”
Immediately this is done. The mind of Achilles is divided “between taking out his sword and killing Agamemnon or controlling his anger.” He does the latter, but he spurns fighting and lapses into a huge sulk as the Trojans begin to rack up a record of battlefield successes. He only forfeits his grudge and is only goaded into fighting after his beloved companion, Patroclus, is slain by the Trojan hero Hector, called, “the tamer of horses.”
But before he leaves the first scene, Achilles lets loose a final flood of insults at his king, “You full wineskin, you; you with the face of a dog, and the heart of a fawn,” and he warns, “in that day, you will bite on your own heart in anger because you did this wrong to the best of the Greeks.”
Why is this so good? Because it is vivid, concentrated, and telling. Because it is real, authentic in mood and tone, and the words come from living, breathing and deeply feeling characters. I.A. Richards, who produced a wonderful translation of the Iliad, equal to that of Richmond Lattimore, said, “Countless people have lived and live by the (Greek) culture, who have never heard of The Iliad. (But) fundamental things in their behavior and attitudes in what they do and how they feel and how they give up for what and how they see themselves and others…can be studied economically and profitably through The Iliad.”
He also asserts that reading The Iliad is a thing of “permanent value” because every action is rooted in people’s characters. Clearly there is a profound tragedy that occurs when Achilles resolves to kill Hector, knowing unmistakably that this his own death will soon follow Hector’s.
They are breathtaking.
Hephaestus, the Greek god who makes armor, is described in a passage, “He got up, the great, hard-breathing mass of him, uneven in his walk,” – the god has a lamed foot like Lord Byron or Talleyrand.
He is also called, “The great artist of the two strong arms.”
There are also brilliant touches. When Patroclus is killed, angry though he is, Achilles knows that he has failed his friend. “I was not with him in his need,” he says in sorrow.
Then there are things like this: describing the aftermath of a terrible battle, Homer says,
“The wall was wet with blood of men from both sides.”
Another description of battle is described, “And when the Greeks and Trojans fought, like the East and South winds fighting in a mountain wood, shaking the trees until you could hear the branches being broken.”
When the grief-stricken Achilles returns to battle and kills Hector, he pulls the spear out of Hector’s body, lays it aside as he takes his armor, "…the other Greeks ran up to wonder at Hector’s beauty.” A truly wonderful touch.
The whole poem has great scope and a plot of great complexity. All the episodes have been combined to produce a startling unity of action that ponders the meaning of valor, struggle, and death. The tale is a heroic struggle to obtain outstanding, imperishable honor by means of unmatched prowess.
There is nothing dead about the classics.