The Case for Resurrecting Homer’s Iliad

It is time we restore Homer’s Iliad to the heart of American education. Most schools today do not include the epic on their reading lists. This is a terrible loss. Homer is a great teacher, and his passing as the foundation of humanities education is a terrible loss. Let’s resurrect him and his Iliad for the sake of our students.

Typically, the first line of apology offered for reading Homer’s Iliad is an historical one: Students need to absorb the Western tradition, so the argument goes, and any curriculum that places a high premium on understanding the West will see their way to Homer first. Because Homer’s Iliad is the wellspring of the entire tradition, every student ought to read it. Among the relatively small but growing number of classical liberal arts schools, that historical argument is often advanced. 

I love the Western tradition. Unfortunately, there is a growing disregard for that cultural patrimony. Even skeptics who are willing to engage a genuine argument over the matter charge those who argue from Western tradition with begging the question: Why regenerate that culture? Why foster that kind of education?

A better rationale for the Iliad has to do with its great humanity. Homer takes past human experience, recreates it in the form of poetry, and, by drawing us into the epic, illuminates our own present experience. In other words, Homer speaks not just of ancient humanity, he presents all our humanity, alive and life-giving. The Iliad opens up for us what the modern poet Seamus Heaney found in the recollections he held of his forefathers working the land: Through those memories, he wrote, full of all the sensual details that a poet works up for his readers, “living roots awaken in my head.” Homer bridges the gulf between his time and ours. With its expansive take on humanity that situates us in the world by illuminating human experience, Homer’s Iliad offers us a way across our own divisions today. In other words, we can all find in Homer a common light.

What specific human experience does Homer illuminate? I think it can be summed up as longing. 

The longing for purpose and meaning

There is a real sense in which the Iliad develops around a great upending of purpose and meaning. Achilleus is dishonored by Agamemnon, a man who holds a higher place of authority yet is a lesser man. This galling experience triggers a mounting sense of meaninglessness and enervates whatever purpose Achilleus finds in the war on Troy. Later, when he returns to battle and avenges the death of his beloved Patroklos, it seems not to matter that he has slain Hektor nor that he indulges his rage for several days by desecrating Hektor’s body. He cannot find satisfaction. 

On the Trojan side, Hektor does not believe in the war—not the cause with Helen as its center. As a cause, it holds no meaningful purpose for him. Rather, he fights because he is loyal to his family and to his city.  

The experiences of Achilleus and Hektor especially impel young readers to ponder competing claims on the human heart, opposing motivations for human, even heroic, action. 

The need for respect and justice

Early on in the story, Achilleus departs the field of battle. This will, of course, lead to devastating losses among his fellow Achaians. His motivations here are a complex mix and warrant careful attention by the young reader. On the one hand, he abandons the Achaian cause because Agamemnon dishonors him. Yet, while he has some rightful claim against the offense, there is no doubt that he is terribly proud; and from the beginning of the epic, we learn of his unmatched anger. At the same time, his repulsion at public shame and his desire for honor are real human responses. 

In what is the most political scene we witness in Troy, the elders of the city question the rightness of the war, perhaps sensing their city’s impending doom or recognizing that after ten years the war has reached its limit in cost. In either case, they ask Priam, their king, to return Helen; but he refuses. The king chooses Helen over the good of the city. Had Priam listened to the elders’ counsel, Hektor’s life and the city itself would have been spared. By keeping Helen behind the walls of Troy, he fuels the Achaian resolve to vanquish his city. Perhaps Priam does so out of pride, or perhaps he is moved by paternal affection for Helen. Either way, his decision proves fatal. 

The yearning for immortality in the face of death

The immediate consequences of losing the war are great enough. The lasting consequence of losing one’s life poses another layer of burden, a burden best expressed by Achilleus—first, during the time in which he has temporarily withdrawn from the war, then later when Patroklos dies. After his withdrawal, he weighs the options a warrior has under the pall of death: “Fate is the same for the man who holds back, the same if he fights hard. We are all held in a single honour, the brave with the weaklings. A man dies still if he has done nothing, as one who has done much” (Book IX, 318-321). In the wake of his friend’s death, he reflects, “Even in the house of Hades there is left something, a soul and an image, but there is no real heart of life in it” (Book XXIII, 103-104).

The careful reader sees that those are human considerations, reflective of human limitations; they move us as humans ought to be moved; their work on us stirs genuine sympathy and forms understanding of the human condition. We find in Achilleus’ longing an expression of the human longing to die well and to live on as ourselves. It is one of the great experiences young readers need to ponder as part of an education in what it means to be human. It is not the final word on death, but it holds a place among what is real and true.

The desire to be remembered and loved

Of course, we also remember Homer’s warriors for the way they die—courageously, sometimes sacrificially. To see that and, at the same time, to sensitively consider the characters’ thoughts on death is to move further into the complexity of Homer’s world—and of ours. 

The warriors’ courage is not merely a matter of steely nerve. It is precisely because Hades holds little or nothing for them, and precisely when the very existence of family and city stands in dire jeopardy if they die, that the threat to their lives is a total one and, therefore, heightens their courage, fires their achievement on the battlefield, and stirs their longing to be remembered. In the face of that ultimate threat, the Iliad’s warriors rise to the title of hero. No god can wear that crown; only the warriors earn that accolade. Thus, the first great work of imaginative literature is also the first great expression of human greatness: It is, in one respect, a fulfillment of the warriors’ desire to be remembered.

At the same time, Homer portrays another, less violent but equally powerful kind of death: the relenting of Achilleus to Priam’s supplication for Hektor’s desecrated body. Priam’s appeal is no moral argument, no rightful claim; rather, it is an appeal to memory and recognition: “Achilleus, remember your father.” In the aged king’s face, the warrior sees his aged father; and, recalling Peleus’ love for him, Achilleus feels the love Priam has for Hektor. So moved is Achilleus that he weeps deeply. Priam joins the cathartic mourning, and the two enemies put aside all anger, all bitter hatred, and merely grieve. 

This scene is remarkable for its contrast with the rage and carnage that precedes it. It is moving for its tender humanity. How far we have come in the epic from its opening where Homer cries, “Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians, hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades.” Such is the powerful sweep of the Iliad, the first great drama of humanity, played out among Homer’s ancient characters and now awakening living roots in our minds today. Homer can do that for us. We should resurrect him and his epic and let our students rediscover the power of his light.

Andrew J. Zwerneman serves as a master teacher and president for Cana Academy.