Yesterday’s school consisted of Titus and I reading and discussing the killing of Hector. The scene has really cool interactions between Athena and Apollo, the two most antagonistic deities in the Homeric world, as they each seek to confuse, and make vulnerable, the other’s hero. The most striking thing I noticed, though, is how their actions served to animate a system of values.
We see Agenor, a basically-anonymous Trojan who takes it upon himself to man the gates, allowing the retreating soldiers to enter the city. But the responsibility puts him at risk of being killed by Achilles. He ponders his options, until Apollo gives him courage to stand firm, and to disdain a “coward’s death.” We see Achilles tricked and mocked by Apollo, and then bolstered by Athena, and a similar situation befall Hector, as Athena tricks him into revealing himself, sealing both his and the Trojans’ fate, and Apollo giving him the resolve to face his death heroically.
Athena and Apollo both provide various forms of strength, courage, tenacity, defiance, and affirmation: the very instinctual and behavioral properties of the hero.
Nowhere in the scene, nor in Homer in general, are the gods the purveyors of truth, justice, life, or fate.
Instead they are the founts of the heroic traits, in effect they embody these traits (anthropomorphically) and dole a breath of themselves into the heroes they most admire. All the traits and behaviors coalesce in glory – and this is what the gods give.
But the bigger point is how this relates to the mortals who created these gods. Imagine valuing courage and strength, and rage and love, and tenacity and defiance so much that you gave them a divine source; and not only that but added them up to equal glory, and then made glory the highest possible human attainment.
It’s no coincidence that the progressive de-godding of our species (poly-mono-a) coincides with a de-heroing as well. From values such as strength, courage, tenacity, defiance, and affirmation we are now given meekness, fear, cunning, submission, and negation. Where once we had mystery we have truth. Where once we had active revenge we now have abstract justice. Where once we had chaos and pleasure we now have the plan of an all-knowing god. Where once we could die heroically now all death is to be feared (pride goeth …). Where once we could only act godlike (by in fact acting heroically human) we now get the gift of eternity (by acting slavishly human). Where once we were the glorious now all the glory goes to god.
It’s not that our modern lives are empty – far from it – but that they are lived in abject poverty. Our potentials are now expressed in an anti-heroic environment that serves the instincts and needs of the low and base. The distance between the hero and the slave is the same as the distance between the noble and base. We are not empty but full of ignoble values. Our highest ideals were once the lowliest. Beauty was once for the few, now it is only beautiful if available for all, as cheaply as possible.
I’m used to having to beat this point to death, but you fine initiates have already seen the distance between values and how they animate forms of life. You have seen what heroism and glory mean to a warrior versus what they mean to a slave.