Why the Iliad?

We begin our study of the humanities with The Iliad for three reasons:

1.  It is of foundational significance for our culture.
2.  It is one of the most famous stories of war.
3.  It is a poem.

I begin with (2), for it is the easiest to explain.  Our theme for the year is war, and perhaps there are no more famous tales of war than The Iliad.

As for (3), one might wonder, "why poetry?"  That's a good question.  Poetry challenges us because it is a challenging use of language.  Most of what we read uses language as a medium to convey information.  News stories, emails and messages from friends and teachers, this very blog post, all share a common trait in that they use language to point to information and events beyond language (i.e., stuff about the world!).  Literature often uses more elevated language than these forms, and part of its effect is achieved through the rhythm, lyricality, and beauty of its prose.  But overall, I want to claim that literature is still more similar to the news than it is to poetry when it comes to its use and treatment of language.  Literature uses language to tell you a story, to paint an image in your mind.  Now, what of poetic language?  Poetry uses language for more than conveying information, or a message.  This is not to say that it doesn't do those things, but just to say that it does more with language than those things.  Poetry is meant to be performed aloud.  Poetry is created with attention to how it will sound.  It aims to please the ear.  Thus, poetry is a form of art.  It aims at beauty.  Works of art are fundamental to the humanities because they require interpretation, and interpretation is the fundamental task of the humanities.  One could argue that news stories and blog posts also require interpretation, but I am claiming here that if they do then they require much much less interpretation than works of art.  And yes, literature is art too, but we set that aside here.  Art is interesting and speaks to the human condition precisely because its meaning is not immediately clear.  It challenges the viewer to find meaning within it, or in relation to it.  The Iliad is no different in this regard.  We must interpret its meaning, and thus it makes for an excellent starting point in our introduction to the humanities.

(1) is related to everything I just said about (3).  The Iliad challenges us as a work of art that requires interpretation.  What sort of interpretation should we give it?  Well, lots of people think that the meaning of The Iliad  resides in what it tells us about values.  Values structure our lives at both the personal and societal level.  You might value family above work, and thus you make sure you set aside time to go visit your grandparents every week.  Our society values free speech, and thus we must tolerate some speech that we don't like in order to preserve our commitment to people's right to say things that might be controversial or even distasteful.  So what does The Iliad teach us about value? Well, some have argued that The Iliad has "foundational significance for our culture" because it provides a kind of template, or blue-print for the basic values we find in western democratic societies.  Others have said it goes deeper than this, for The Iliad helps us see not only what societal values we have inherited from the Greeks, but also what is fundamentally human.  Perhaps the defining trait of humans, as opposed to other animals, is our awareness of our own mortality.  The characters and events in The Iliad constantly reckon with death.  Being aware that one will die and thus living one's life a certain way is the central meaning of this text, and should force us to confront our own awareness of death.  Still others claim that The Iliad teaches us about how society can be set up in order to encourage or suppress certain basic desires that we all have as humans.  The desire to conquer, dominate, and be powerful might be diverted or suppressed in our current society through athletics, consumerism, and education; whereas in Homeric society they were nurtured and shaped in order to create a society of warriors and those who supported warriors.

The Iliad does not have a fixed meaning.  We make meaning out of it in our encounter with it.  This is the interpretive task of the humanities, the challenge posed by great works of art, and something we will work on all year in relation to another seemingly fundamental feature of the human condition: war.

No comments:

Post a Comment