If you’re paying attention to the current vitriol happening in the culture wars, you will notice that the same kinds of distinctions exist: aims of war, methods of war, strategy of war, and motivation for war. Let’s call these features of war. To be sure, there are more than just these four features, but these are the most important for our purposes in this brief article.
In any given camp, or even within any given person, there can be a mixture of these features. I may agree with a man’s aim for war while disagreeing with his method or strategy or motivation. I may agree that a man’s war strategy is sound while disagreeing altogether with his motivation. These features can be found by varying degrees in a person, and they are even more numerous when looking at a group of people, like a political party.
As you can see by these features, nuance is required in order to distinguish and judge these features, even in one’s self. Nuance is necessary for distinctions and differences, and they are necessary for considering the ethic of the feature. However, one of the dangers in wartime is the loss of nuance, often the loss of detailed thinking, especially at a time when emotions run high in the battle. In the current culture wars, especially those dealing with race and the historicity of race relations in the United States, there has been an over-individualization of the matter. There has likewise been a polarizing and politicization, by all sides. These sweeping and tornadic tones have created a context where sound and detailed consideration is not possible. That is, the vilification of one’s perceived enemy is so quickly expected today, there is no room to consider the kind, quality, or degree of a man’s enemy. Today, if another man is marked as my enemy (because of race or skin color or political affiliation or something he said once on social media), then he is my sworn enemy through and through, and it would almost be a cowardice thing to not look at everything he says and does through those eyes of hostility. He is over there. I am over here. And with every interaction the gulf between our battle lines thickens with hate. Bloodthirsty hate.
Let us rewind a couple thousand years, back to 8th century BC, Ancient Greece. The Greeks and Trojans are in the ninth year of a ten-year war, the first major war recorded in Greek history, set down for us in one of the most important pieces of literature, composed by one of the most important poets, the world now tries to forget: Homer’s Iliad. Of Homer and his Iliad, notable historian H. D. F. Kitto states,
- “The Iliad and the Odyssey have been called the Bible of the Greeks. For centuries these two poems were the basis of Greek education, both of formal school education and of the cultural life of the ordinary citizen…Homer held and nourished the minds and the imaginations of Greeks for generation after generation –of artists, thinkers and ordinary simple men alike. Painters and poets turned to Homer for their inspiration and for their actual subjects…” (The Greeks, p.44)
- “The Iliad does not describe an episode in the war, colouring the description with passing reflections about this or that aspect of life; rather, the poet has taken the ‘subject’, this phase of the war [the ninth year], as so much raw material, to be built into an entirely new structure of his own devising. He is not going to write about the war, not even about part of it, but about the theme which he states so clearly in the first five verses. What shapes the poem is nothing external, like the war, but the tragic conception that a quarrel between two men should bring suffering, death and dishonor to so many others.” (Ibid., p.47)
- “The Greeks then, who for a thousand years turned to Homer for the education of their young and for the delight and instruction of the mature, were not turning to mere venerable relics or patriotic historical sagas or charming fairy-stories, but to poems which already possessed all those qualities which made the Greek civilization what it was.” (Ibid., p.55)
- “It is an interesting, though idle, speculation, what would be the effect on us if all our reformers, revolutionaries, planners, politicians and life-arrangers in general were soaked in Homer from their youth up, like the Greeks. They might realize that on the happy day when there is a refrigerator in every home, and two in none, when we all have the opportunity of working for the common good (whatever that is), when Common Man (whoever he is) is triumphant, though not improved—that men will still come and go like the generations of leaves in the forest; that he will still be weak, and the gods strong and incalculable; that the quality of a man matters more than his achievement; that violence and recklessness will still lead to disaster, and that this will fall on the innocent as well as on the guilty. The Greeks were fortunate in possessing Homer, and wise in using him as they did.” (Ibid., p.64)
The Iliad opens in the ninth year of the war, on the plains outside of Troy, during a squabble in the Greek camp. In general, the war is at a time of relative peace. There has been a truce called, in hopes that a simple combat between two fighters, Paris for the Trojans and Menelaus for the Greeks, can have their duel and decide the outcome of the war, once and for all. The gods intervene. A few important things happen. And a bit later a fool from the Trojan camp is divinely incited to launch an arrow at the Greek side. It hits Menelaus in the leg, and his brother, Agamemnon, launches the Greek side once again into blood-thirsty battle. Into the battle, Diomedes, a Greek fighter, is unleashing his own fury on the Trojans, winning with every arrow and sword stroke. Trojans are falling. Greeks are falling. Spears are piercing skulls. Swords are cutting into bowels. And then we have this scene:
And now Glaucus
son of Hippolochus and Tydeus’ son Diomedes
met in the no man’s land between both armies:
burning for battle, closing, squaring off
and the lord of the war cry Diomedes opened up,
“Who are you, my fine friend?—another born to die?
I’ve never noticed you on the lines where we win glory,
not till now. But here you come, charging out
in front of all the rest with such bravado--
daring to face the flying shadow of my spear.
Pity the ones whose sons stand up to me in war!
But if you are an immortal come down from the blue,
I’m not the man to fight the gods of heaven.
Not even Dryas’ indestructible son Lycurgus,
not even he lived long…
That fellow who tried to fight the deathless gods….
…No, my friend,
I have no desire to fight the blithe immortals.
But if you’re a man who eats the crops of the earth,
a mortal born for death—here, come closer,
the sooner you will meet your day to die!”
The noble son of Hippolochus answered staunchly,
“High-hearted son of Tydeus, who asks about my birth?
Like the generations of leaves, the lives of mortal men.
Now the wind scatters the old leaves across the earth,
now the living timber bursts with the new buds
and spring comes round again. And so with men:
as one generation comes to life, another dies away.
But about my birth, if you’d like to learn it well,
first to last—though many people know it--
here’s my story…
There is a city, Corinth,
deep in a bend of Argos, good stallion-country
where Sisyphus used to live, the wiliest man alive.
Sisyphus, Aeolus’ son, who had a son called Glaucus,
and in his day Glaucus sired brave Bellerophon,
a man without a fault. The gods gave him beauty
and the fine, gallant traits that go with men.
But Proetus plotted against him. Far stronger,
the king in his anger drove him out of Argos,
the kingdom Zeus had brought beneath his scepter.
Proetus’ wife, you see, was mad for Bellerophon,
the lovely Antea lusted to couple with him,
all in secret. Futile—she could never seduce
the man’s strong will, his seasoned, firm resolve.
So straight to the king she went, blurting out her lies:
‘I wish you’d die, Proetus, if you don’t kill Bellorophon!
Bellerophon’s bent on dragging me down with him in lust
Though I fight him all the way!’
All of it false
but the king seethed when he heard a tale like that.
He balked at killing the man—he’d some respect at least--
but he quickly sent him off to Lycia, gave him tokens,
murderous signs, scratched in a folded tablet,
and many of them too, enough to kill a man.
He told him to show them to Antea’s father:
that would mean his death.
So off he went to Lycia,
safe in the escort of the gods, and once he reached
the broad highlands cut by the rushing Xanthus,
the king of Lycia gave him a royal welcome.
Nine days he feasted him, nine oxen slaughtered.
When the tenth Dawn shone with her rose-red fingers,
he began to question him, asked to see his credentials,
whatever he brought him from his in-law, Proetus.
but then, once he received that fatal message
sent from his own daughter’s husband, first
he ordered Bellerophon to kill the Chimaera--
grim monster sprung of the gods, nothing human,
all lion in front, all snake behind, all goat between,
terrible, blasting lethal fire at every breath!
But he laid her low, obeying signs from the gods.
Next he fought the Solymi, tribesmen bent on glory,
roughest battle of men he ever entered, so he claimed.
Then for a third test he brought the Amazons down,
a match for men in war. But as he turned back,
his host spun out the tightest trap of all:
picking the best men from Lycia far and wide
he set an ambush—that never came home again!
Fearless Bellerophon killed them all.
when the king could see the man’s power at last,
a true son of the gods, he pressed him hard to stay,
he offered his own daughter’s hand in marriage,
he gave him half his royal honors as the king.
And the Lycians carved him out a grand estate,
the choicest land in the realm, rich in vineyards
and good tilled fields for him to lord it over.
And his wife bore good Bellerophon three children:
Isander, Hippolochus and Laodamia. Laodamia
lay in the arms of Zeus who rules the world
and she bore the god a son, our great commander,
Sarpedon helmed in bronze.
But the day soon came
when even Bellerophon was hated by all the gods.
Across the Alean plain he wandered, all alone,
eating his heart out, a fugitive on the run
from the beaten tracks of men. His son Isander?
Killed by the War-god, never sated—a boy fighting
the Solymi always out for glory. Laodamia? Artemis,
flashing her golden reins, cut her down in anger.
But Hippolochus fathered me, I’m proud to say.
He sent me off to Troy…
And I hear his urgings ringing in my ears:
‘Always be the best, my boy, the bravest,
and hold your head up high above the others.
Never disgrace the generation of your fathers.
They were the bravest of champions born in Corinth,
in Lycia far and wide.’
There you have my lineage.
That is the blood I claim, my royal birth.”
When he heard that, Diomedes’ spirits lifted.
Raising his spear, the lord of the war cry drove it home,
planting it deep down in the earth that feeds us all
and with winning words he called out to Glaucus,
the young captain, “Splendid—you are my friend,
my guest from the days of our grandfathers long ago!
Noble Oeneus hosted your brave Bellerophon once,
he held him there in his halls, twenty whole days,
and they gave each other handsome gifts of friendship.
My kinsman offered a gleaming sword-belt, rich red,
Bellerophon gave a cup, two-handled, solid gold--
I left it at home when I set out for Troy.
My father, Tydeus, I really don’t remember.
I was just a baby when my father left me then,
that time an Achaean army went to die at Thebes.
So now I am your host and friend in the heart of Argos,
you are mine in Lycia when I visit in your country.
Come, let us keep clear of each other’s spears,
even there in the thick of battle. Look,
plenty of Trojans there for me to kill,
your famous allies too, any soldier the god
will bring in range or I can run to ground.
And plenty of Argives too—kill them if you can.
But let’s trade armor. The men must know our claim:
we are sworn friends from our fathers’ days till now!”
Both agreed. Both fighters sprang from their chariots,
Clasped each other’s hands and traded pacts of friendship. (Book 5)
My father, upon first speaking with someone, almost always finds some kind of familial or social relationship with them. We used to make fun of him, saying that “if you talk with dad long enough, he will eventually find out you are his third cousin, or that he went to high school with your second cousin’s first wife.” When we were young, we found the habit burdensome, because it happened often, and it happened quite early in the conversation, which means the conversation dragged on. As I’ve gotten older I have now observed him, almost in admiration, at his questions, and how quickly he gets to know someone, not just know about them. I have somewhat adopted the habit: I like asking people where they are from, about their past, where their family lives, etc. I’m not as good as my dad, but about one in every four or five conversations I’m able to find some deeper relationship I have with this person that I otherwise may never have known. Maybe it’s a mutual friend, or maybe it’s mutual interest in a book we once read, or maybe it’s only that we’ve visited some of the same places and had some of the same experiences at those places.
My dad is not a man with many enemies. Of course, he is not a perfect man, but he is the kind of person who “never meets a stranger.” And by this virtue alone he has been able to live mostly at peace with his neighbors. My dad is from a small Louisiana town, where he still lives. But when he goes into the world, he ensures the rest of the world stays just that small.
This is at the heart of the Iliad scene. In the midst of the battle, in the heat of the war, we see a deep humanity which remains, which turns the tide of hatred, which keeps the vitriol at bay. That deep humanity is filled with story, lineage, empathy, speaking, listening, hospitality, gifts, mutual humanity, and pacts of friendship. In the center of this scene is one of the most important Homeric words, indeed one of the most important concepts for Ancient Greek society: xenia (meaning hospitality, or guest-friendship).
How are we doing with these deeply human artifacts? How is our habit of talking to people until we no longer vilify them? Is anyone stopping amidst the fighting long enough, with enough humanity, to ask these kinds of questions: Where are you from? What have you seen? Who is your family? Who was your father’s father? Do we have a historical pact, an objective bond, we must keep, before we commit ourselves to conflict?
I suspect if we took the time for such consideration, we would often find reasons to seal pacts of friendship before entering into diabolical conflict. And the times we do not find bonds which need to be kept or alliances which can be formed, we would at least find enough ambiguity and empathy to keep the deep bitterness, the irrational and unhuman venom, at bay. In those moments, where consideration comes before the sword, we are asking that we and our neighbor commit to our common humanity, even in our conflict. We are asking that our conflict be couched not just in the fullness of human emotion, one emotion keeping another in balance, but even in the fullness of previous generations. Where Diomedes began is not where he ended, “Here, come closer,” he began, “the sooner you will meet your day to die!” And he ended with, “Let’s trade armor. The men must know our claim.”
Where is your enemy willing to trade armor with you? Where is your enemy willing to tell the others of your agreed claim? Where is your enemy willing to trade hospitality with you, a feature of Greek society which they believed most honored Zeus, the father of gods and men? Where is your enemy for whom, as Christ commanded, you would dare to die?