What Is The Most Vital Lesson of Homer’s Iliad?

It is 2021 and the world grows more dangerous every day. Free nations convulse themselves with hysterical, unreal ideologies on a daily basis. Meanwhile, a different group of nations, led by Communist China, grows in power. Governed by ambitious, savvy, and history-minded rulers, this modern-day Central Powers arrangement presents a formidable threat to Western civilization, which they see as weak and struggling with self-imposed illnesses. At a time like this, the most important lesson of Homer’s Iliad looms large. After viewing the lay of the land, let us turn to the supposedly blind poet, and see what he has to tell us about the arc of nations.

Homer’s Iliad begins in the tenth and final year of the Trojan War. Action once raged far afield, but has now settled on Troy itself. The contrast between the Greek camp and the Trojan city couldn’t be more stark. It paints in full relief the most vital lesson of Homer’s Iliad.

War’s Unconstrained Savagery

When Hector returns to Troy in book six of the Iliad, his wife Andromache shows us the naivete of those who think war can be contained:

Pity me, please! Take your stand on the rampart here, before you orphan your son and make your wife a widow. Draw your armies up where the wild fig tree stands, there, where the city lies most open to assault, the walls lower, easily overrun.

This is a plea for Hector to limit himself, to adopt a less-costly defensive strategy. Hector responds:

I would die of shame to face the men of Troy and the Trojan women trailing their long robes if I would shrink from battle now, a coward. Nor does the spirit urge me on that way. I’ve learned it all too well. To stand up bravely, always to fight in the front ranks of Trojan soldiers, winning my father great glory, glory for myself.

This show of valor is seen as admirable by all civilizations for a reason. It is what war calls for. Without such courage, victory is impossible. And victory is a necessity, not a luxury. Homer makes this lesson plain, because at the same time, we see Agamemnon and Menealaus telling us what their intentions for Troy are:

So soft, dear brother, why? Why such concern for enemies? I suppose you got such tender loving care at home from the Trojans. Ah, would to god not one of them could escape his sudden plunging death beneath our hands! No baby boy still in his mother’s belly, not even he escape – all Ilium blotted out, no tears for their lives, no markers for their graves!

This came in response to a prisoner that Menelaus had just captured, who pleaded for his life, reminding the Spartan King of the riches he could win by ransoming him. Menelaus obliges his brother and spears the prisoner then and there. Homer’s lesson could not be clearer. It is interspersed throughout the Iliad.

The most important lesson of Homer's Iliad

Homer often shows us Trojan prisoners pleading for their lives. They always offer riches for ransom. Yet, by the time of the Iliad, these pleas fall on deaf ears. At no point in the poem do we see the Greeks taking prisoners. Homer tells us through dialogue that this has happened in the past, but no longer. The Trojans still think they can buy their way to freedom and mercy. The Greeks are no longer interested. The best illustration of this comes in book 10.

Dolon’s Plea

The Iliad shows us a night operation when Diomedes and Odysseus venture out to spy on the Trojan lines. They volunteer out of a sense of bravery in front of comrades. Meanwhile, Dolon takes up the mission for the Trojans when Hector offers him Achilles’ chariot and horses. Homer is quick to remind us which side prevails:

Take me alive! I’ll ransom myself! Treasures cram our house, bronze and gold and plenty of well-wrought iron – father would give you anything, gladly, priceless ransom if only he learns I’m still alive in Argive ships!

After an interrogation, Diomedes’ response to Dolon reminds us of Homer’s most important lesson:

“Escape? Take my advice and wipe it from your mind, good as your message is – you’re in my hands ow. What if we set you free or you should slip away? Back you’ll slink to our fast ships tomorrow, playing the spy again or fighting face-to-face. But if I snuff your life out in my hands, you’ll never annoy our Argive lines again.”

With that, just as Dolon reached up for his chin to cling with a frantic hand and beg for life, Diomedes struck him square across the neck – a flashing hack of the sword – both tendons snapped and the shrieking head went tumbling in the dust. They tore the weasel-cap from the head, stripped the wolf pelt, the reflex bow and long tough spear and swinging the trophies high to Palls queen of plunder, exultant royal Odysseus shouted out this prayer: “Here. Goddess, rejoice in these, they’re yours! You are the first of all the gods we’ll call! Now guide us again, Athena, guide us against that Thracian camp and horses!

Wealth cannot buy off these men. Dolon found out the hard way in book 10.

Dolon Iliad
Diomedes kills the sleeping Thracian King Rhesus after dispatching Dolon.

Homer’s Biggest Lesson

What do we see from the Iliad? The late Bernard Knox simplifies it in the introduction to the Penguin version: Homer’s overarching lesson is that “no civilization can long survive once it loses the ability to meet force with equal or superior force.”

Homer shows us this lesson over and over again throughout the Iliad. He shows us that men like Achilles, Odysseus, and Diomedes have chosen to award Athena the apple. They value glory, wisdom, and strength. Meanwhile, we see that most of the Trojans, like Paris, have chosen Aphrodite or Hera. They value pleasure, or think that their wealth will buy off the Greeks. Seeing Homer’s depiction of Agamemnon and Menelaus would tell us otherwise.

And that is the lesson Homer teaches us today. The free world believed that history ended in 1991. This belief accelerated destructive attitudes and fueled terrible policy decisions. Western civilization believed China would give up its autocratic communism and imperial heritage. Wealth would moderate its temperament. Modernity would buy them and their eventual allies off. Alas, as Homer shows us in the Iliad, truly ambitious men think beyond money. They want glory. They want to impose themselves and their nations on history. Sometimes, this can be for the good of mankind, and at other times, it can be disastrous.

The degree to which destructive ambition can be contained depends on the amount of fear its objects can put into the aggressor, and, failing that, the ability to meet force with equal or superior force.

As China and its allies grow more ambitious and the free world descends into hysteria, we would be well-advised to remember Homer’s most important lesson. The decadence of a woke military would not last long in Homer’s world. These are nonsensical luxuries arising out of the arrogant belief that history has ended. But our world is still the world of Homer. We must relearn the lesson of Homer and act on it, or face a rude awakening indeed.

For more lessons on the impact that character and belief make on the arc of history, read Lives of the Luminaries.

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