Why the Iliad?

In an age when we see armed conflict, attacks, and suffering on nearly every screen – and even in those archaic print newspapers – why should teachers bother to have their students closely study an ancient book on war? Why not stick with the homecoming of Odysseus?

It’s a valid question, and one that ought to be asked – but like Troy, the beleaguered Iliad needs defending.

The easy answer, which is almost entirely superficial, is that the Iliad is the first great work of western literature, and it ought to be read in any study of classic literature.

A second point is its artistry. Lengthy similes, apt epithets, and vivid characters are all worth encountering for anyone seeking verbal genius.

A third answer would note that the book is not wholly about war. Key scenes include disputes among, and displays of power by, the gods; dialogues between the lovers Helen and Paris; and heated assemblies of the Greeks in which they demonstrate their rhetorical brilliance.

But none of these answers truly addresses the heart of the Iliad – Achilles’ heart – the heart that shows the dangers of a corrupt soul and the beauty of a well-ordered soul.

Far more than the Odyssey, or almost any other work of western literature – Dostoyevsky’s novels being some of the greatest exceptions – the Iliad shows, beautifully and vividly, how a corrupt soul destroys not only what it hates, but also what it dearly loves, and – most terrifyingly – itself.

Yet Homer was too great an artist and a philosopher to end with despair. This work of his serves as a pagan herald of redemption. There is a remedy for a corrupt soul, and that remedy is grace – the return of favor, and a feast, on Priam, the Trojan king whose ten-year resistance to the Greeks should ostensibly earn him death when he enters the tent of Achilles, his son’s killer, in book 24.

Certainly the Odyssey is more comfortable. Despite the gore that flies in book 22, and the eye that sizzles in book 9, the epic is easy to love because Odysseus finally reaches home and can be loved by his heroically-faithful wife Penelope and his now-manly son Telemachus.

But if happy homecomings and zany zigzags across the Mediterranean are all our students can be led to care about, what will they do when they face the severer circumstances of the Iliad in their own lives?

Like the Greeks, who viewed the greatest literature as a purification and elevation of the soul, our students can learn much from Achilles and the fearsome song of his heart’s journey from rage to rest.