Sunday, May 22, 2005

The Heroic Age



Starting on my light summer reading I've been at Thomas Cahill's pop history of Greece, Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea.

Cahill begins with a rhapsody on the Illiad including quotes of the juiciest passages. It's hard not to be moved by Achilles rage and Hector's death, the pathos of Priam begging for his body and the tragedy of Troy.

But what is really going on here? Essentially gang warfare over a woman--blood and guts tricked out with burnished helmets and shields, violence and plunder in the name of honor, Iphagenia sacrificed like a child caught in a drive-by shooting. This is East LA in the high literary style. Homer worked with the materials at hand, and what he had was a brutal slave society that glorified violence and waste.

I understand it and am moved by it, this world of high drama at high stakes, honor, achievement, sacrifice and revenge. I can see myself in the fight. But the story under the literary surface always intrudes: butchery and waste.

Nowadays most people have better things to do and satisfy that yen for honor, violence and romance in art and sport. The Heroic Age only survives on the margins, in urban ghettos and the Third World--the global slum. We can read about in in detail and see it in high definition--suicide bombers, ghetto youths, white supremists: these are Homer's heroes.

There's no mystery why people do violence--it's what people like to do, and will do if there are no opportunity costs. The idea that their behavior has to be explained by reference to ideology, religious zeal, poverty, nationalism or even tribal loyalty gets it exactly backwards: these are rationalizations after the fact. I suspect that people who think senseless violence demands an explanation have never read Homer or else that they're so denatured or self-deceived that they don't recognize the impulse in themselves.

People want to fight, and that is what they'll do unless they have something better to do.

3 comments:

WildMonk said...

Brilliant! It is civilization that needs explanation, not the lack thereof.

Boofykatz said...

I thought this might be relevant.
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2-1626794,00.html
It seems to me that you are going along with the idea of original sin. I think this is a bad over simplification. Civilization and savagery exist side by side. What is perhaps most interesting is that people rationalise their savagery, but seldom feel the need to rationalise their civilization. Or is that a tautology?

H. E. said...

Mebbe. But I can guarantee that if there's a yob gene I've got it. The difference between civilization and barbarism is that in barbaric societies yobs are rewarded, monopolize positions of prestige and power, and institutionalize their practices as the social norm.