An Interesting Discussion of the Iliad

Edward Luttwak is a writer, strategy and security consultant, as well as historian.  I first encountered his work many years ago with “The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire from the First Century AD to the Third”.  He has generated no small share of controversy but he is always interesting.  He recently wrote a very good article about the history of the Iliad, its continuing relevance and why the new Mitchell translation has problems.  As much as I’ve enjoyed Mitchell’s other work, like his Tao Te Ching translation, I think Luttwak is on the mark here.

Since I look to the Homeric epics for a foundation of ideas I discuss, I found the article worth a read.  Aside from his comments on the translation, he makes some striking observations about the work itself.  Two paragraphs were particularly noteworthy to me:

“That is the supremely enhancing vision that has always been offered by the Iliad: human dignity at its fullest, undiminished by piety or deference to gods or kings. In recent centuries, the Iliad could also offer another kind of freedom, from the collective obligations levied on individual freedom by patriotism, and from the more intense compulsions of nationalism, both all the more destructive of freedom when entirely voluntary. Achilles is angry and therefore refuses to fight, and nobody tells him that it is his duty to fight for the Achaean/ Danaan/Argive cause because he is Achaean/ Danaan/Argive, nobody calls him a deserter because there is no presumption of any obligation to serve.”


“Spears cut through temples, foreheads, navels, chests both below and above the nipple. Even despised bows kill, and heavy stones appear as weapons. Joyful victors strip their victims of their armour and gain extra delight from imagining their weeping mothers and wives. Yet the Iliad is a million miles away from the pornography of violence offered by many lesser war books, battle paintings, martial sculptures and most obviously films, in which the enemy bad guys are triumphantly trampled or gleefully mown down, because the humanity of the victims, their terror and their atrocious pain, are fully expressed. The powerful affirmation of the warrior’s creed – we are all mortal anyway so let us fight valiantly – coexists with the unfailingly negative depiction of war as horrible carnage.”

You’ll form your own opinions on his thoughts but it is worth checking out.

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