Before philosophy: Homer’s world

Following up on the question of why philosophy begins with Thales, we are stepping back to the pre-philosophical world of Homer.

homer_british_museum-100x126Homer is thought to have lived 800s-700s BCE, a century or two before Thales (born around 624 BCE). Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey are magnificent expressions of archaic Greek culture and of incalculable importance to the Greek way of thinking about human life and its place in the universe.

I want to focus on one major event in The Iliad to illustrate a pre-philosophical, yet sophisticated, view of reality.

Why did Hector die?

We can imagine his father Priam in anguish, asking this question. And his wife doing the same. And his son later when he grows up.

Hector died because Achilles killed him.

Why did Achilles kill him? The broad context is that the Greeks were at war with the Trojans. The specific context is that Achilles wanted revenge for Patroclus’ death. In each case, we can trace back a causal chain.

On the broad context: Why were the Greeks and Trojans fighting? Because Paris and Helen fell in love, Menelaus became a vengeful cuckold, Agamemnon had great ambition for power, Achilles wanted glory, and so on. In Homer’s world we have key motivations that drive human action — Love, Revenge, Power, Glory — played out through these key representative individuals.

On the specific context: Why did Patroclus get killed? Because he was a young man who wanted to prove himself, Achilles was sulking in his tent, Agamemnon had stolen a girl, and so on.

So far all of this is naturalistic explanation in terms of human agency. In a complicated interplay, human desire and motivation and action and reaction cause major events like the Trojan War and specific events like the death of Hector.

But Homer’s story is more complicated, because the gods are also an important part of the causal matrix.

As the great battle between Achilles and Hector is looming, Homer turns our attention to the gods and goddesses, all of whom are watching with great interest. Zeus sees Achilles chasing Hector, and he is torn between love for Hector and admiration for Achilles. Whom should he favor? Zeus finds the tension unbearable and calls upon the others for advice:

“Come you immortals, think this through. Decide.
Either we pluck the man from death and save his life
or strike him down at last, here at Achilles’ hands” (22:206-209)

Athena protests, and Zeus agrees with her that Hector should die, telling her:

Do as your own impulse bids you. Hold back no more.”
So he launched Athena already poised for action —
down the goddess swept from Olympus’ craggy peaks. (22: 200-223)

Athena then tricks Hector by impersonating his brother Deiphobus, causing Hector to stop running and allowing Achilles to catch him and kill him.

What are the metaphysical lessons of Homer’s world, then?

First, naturalistic human agency alone does not cause events on earth. The gods and goddesses are active participants, and their desires, decisions, and actions are important: Zeus could have decided differently, Athena could have switched her affections, and, consequently, Hector’s fate and the outcome of the Trojan War could have been very different.

Second and closely related: In Homer’s world, the supernatural are the more powerful and important causal force. If the gods decide against something, it is not going to happen. And if the gods decide something is going to happen, it will. Human agency is a lesser power.

A third theme in Homer is that the gods and goddesses are often whimsical and divided among themselves. Zeus is often driven by his changeable passions. He gets into quarrels with Athena and the others. There is, consequently, no stable and predictable causal order in the natural world. (There is a notion of Fate operative in Homer, but it’s not consistent and its role is not clear — at least not to me.)

A fourth point worth mentioning concerns ethics in Homer’s world: humans worship the gods not because they are moral but because they are powerful. The gods are far from morally admirable and given to a wide range of vices and foibles. So what is the source and purpose of justice and other morally important realities? Concepts of right and wrong are not foreign to the gods, but the gods are not ethically clear or consistent, either in word or deed. And since humans are also not ethically clear or consistent, the place of morality in the universe is at best tenuous. Amoral power seems to rule both the natural realm and beyond.

Abstractly put, we have five implicit metaphysical and ethical theses in Homer’s worldview:

*Supernatural causation is part of the explanation for natural events.
*Supernatural causation is more powerful than natural causation.
*The supernatural is personal.
*Consequently, supernatural causation is sometimes whimsical and so inconsistent and so makes long range prediction unreliable.
*Consequently, ethics is a matter mostly of power — revere gods and kings not because they’re just but because they’re powerful.

thales-bust-50x60Now we’re ready for the revolution initiated by Thales (ca. 624 – ca. 546 BCE). What if we denied some or all of those five points? What would our account of the world look like?

9 thoughts on “Before philosophy: Homer’s world

  • September 30, 2009 at 7:33 pm

    You’re definitely taking the right tack here. The Milesians were innovative for their time and culture in offering naturalistic explanations of phenomena. That doesn’t mean they necessarily disbelieved the traditional gods, any more than a 17th century physicist had to be an athiest — they just demarcated a realm of physical phenomena which ran automatically, in a sense, according to some sort of physico-naturalistic principles (condensation, rarefaction, seeking of natures, etc.) (And I believe it was Aristotle who called Thales the first philosopher, so others who have done so are just following his lead to some degree.)

    Re: The Gods: One of the most original (and on-target) interpretations of the Greek Gods can be found in Jonathan Shay’s _Achilles in Vietnam_. Shay describes them as cultural metaphors for socio-political forces and powers, forces and powers that strike particularly hard on (say) footsoldiers or the poor in society. To make a modern translation: A man murders his wife this week in rural Pennsylvania and then kills himself. Why? Because the bank just foreclosed on his house and he had nothing left. Why? Because a bill passed in Congress six months ago changed some obscure banking rule. Why? Because six months and a week ago three or four old men were sitting at a fancy dinner table in the temple-like precincts of Capitol Hill bargaining with each other: “I’ll vote for your Michigan manufacturing subsidy, but only if you agree to the banking rule change my donor in New York is asking for.” “Throw in language that will help my Michigan donor as well and you’ve got a deal.” And so six months later a man murders his wife in rural Pennsylvania.

    It’s not much different from the Olympian conclaves of Homer.

  • October 1, 2009 at 8:38 am

    I like your analogous story, RJO. I will check out Shay’s book. Thanks.

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  • February 6, 2010 at 6:16 pm


    If I may, I’d like to suggest the work of Eric Voegelin. In a section in his World of the Polis, from the Order and History series, Voegelin analyzes Homer’s view of the gods in detail. I would strongly recommend that you take a look at his work, especially his conclusions on pp. 101-110, as this section addresses the issues you bring up specifically. Here is a taste:

    “The Homeric problems of order originate in the uncertainties concerning the nature of man….Homer’s difficulties in dealing with these problems, as well as the importance of his partial solutions, can be understood only if we place ourselves in his position. If, on the contrary we interpret the epics under the assumption that he knew already what gods and men were, his specific achievement in clarifying the nature of man and the meaning of order will be obscured.” (Eric Voegelin, World of the Polis, p. 103)

    I know the quote is lacking context. But, hopefully, it will raise a few questions in your mind, impelling you to take a look at the larger work. Voegelin’s complete analysis in this book leads from Homer and Hesiod directly through the pre-Socratics.

  • February 8, 2010 at 9:18 pm

    Hi Neal:
    Thanks for your intelligent comments. Voegelin has crossed my horizon, so to speak, a few times, but I haven’t followed up. What book of his would you recommend as the best short introduction?

  • February 10, 2010 at 3:35 pm

    Most people would direct you to his essay “Science, Politics and Gnosticism.” But I think new readers of this work, lacking certain preparatory study of Voegelin, can misunderstand his concept of “Gnosticism,” which he intends as a scientific concept as opposed to the historical term describing a heretical sect of Christianity.

    So my recommendation would be to start with his “Autobiographical Reflections.” You can find this by typing “voegelin autobiographical reflections” in Google. Then go to the Google Books link at the top of the search results and start reading.

    Although much of the personal stuff at the beginning can be skipped, it is critical to understand his entire intellectual project as being a “response” to the political disorder created by “modern ideologies,” specifically Marxism and National Socialism.

    He was an intellectual enemy of the Nazis while at the University of Vienna, prior to the Anschluss. As a counter to the modern ideological misuse of language and science, his philosophy is an attempt to rediscover the true “ground” of reason through comprehensive historical and psychological analysis. Good stuff.

  • March 21, 2010 at 7:40 am

    I apologize for being off topic. I just listened to your video presentation “Nietszhe and the Nazis”. What do you make of the current ongoing confrontation between what has been characterized as “Islamo-Fascism” and the U.S. and other “liberal” nations/philosophies? Do you have plans for presenting an extended opinion on the subject?

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