Homer’s Iliad, which tells the story of the Trojan war, reveals in clarity the devastation of a world at war. Having come to Troy to avenge the abduction or seduction of the Menelaus’s wife, Helen, and to reassert the principles of hospitality that are required for the security and prosperity of these seafaring communities, the Greeks wage a ten year war on the city of Troy. Whatever the ultimate justice of their mission, the long toil of the battle comes at remarkable costs, both to them as humans and of their humanity. Complicating matters are the often inscrutable actions of the gods who interfere in the fighting at crucial moments, turning the tide of the battle one way and then another, but always to the unavoidable end that is the destruction of Troy.
Although different in style, Plato’s dialogue The Statesman is similarly complicated. On the same day that Socrates had been called to court to hear the charges that the city of Athens has levelled against him, Socrates meets with several men, a group that includes a young man also named Socrates and a mysterious Stranger. Through the course of the dialogue, Stranger and the young Socrates explore the true nature of political leadership. This conversation, which takes place on the same day that Socrates is charged of impiety and corrupting the young, charges which eventually lead to his execution, becomes itself a question of justice and of piety. Addressing how humans should govern themselves requires that they address what it means to be human, a question that forces them to consider how humans are distinguished from animals and gods. By means of central image and the surrounding conversation, The Statesman offers a way of understanding Homer’s epic poems and, more importantly, the nature of justice.
Early in the dialogue the Stranger offers a strange analogy to explain political leadership. Statesmanship, he explains, is the art of nurturing ensouled, hornless herd animals who breed among themselves. As long as one has this art, she is the proper leader regardless, the Stranger suggests, whether she rules by force or consent, governing slaves or free people. While the young Socrates happily goes along with this, our own Socrates remains quiet and the Stranger, who has led us to this point, notes that something is wrong. Perhaps realizing that the youthful Socrates needs to be governed more gently, he says that they need to begin with “child’s play” and starts again – this time with an account of an myth.
The myth explains that at some previous point, the gods governed the heavens by directly guiding them in their revolutions. During this time, the gods ruled as kings and all that lived sprung from the earth, living in peace and prosperity. At some point, however, the gods withdrew, letting the heavens be governed by themselves. What had been ordered in accordance with the directives of the gods, began to spin of its own accord, and turning now in the opposite directions, the world and its inhabitants became independent, having only the reminders (295 b-c) left behind by our divine leaders as to how we should live, reminders that depended both on their being recognized or recollected and then properly interpreted.
In the myth, the Stranger describes the gods as both eternal and unchanging, but also, moving in time, both directing the motion of the heavens and then withdrawing until such a point as they retake the tiller. The Stranger’s myth points to the gods in the Iliad, specifically Zeus who orders that the gods withdraw from the battlefield and at key moments allows them to re-engage, decisions that lead to tremendous changes in the progress of the fighting, most notably when the Trojans advance against the Greeks until Patroclus is persuaded that he must join the fight, leading to his terrible death and the full manifestation of Achilles’s anger.
Gods such as these seem inscrutable. They are absolute but also in motion. As such they govern at will; our consent is not required and indeed not really possible as consent depends on understanding. Like Patroclus, a man who has sought only to do what is right for both his friend, Achilles, and his countrymen, but who is mercilessly struck down by Apollo, we submit but we do not understand. When it comes to the relationship between these gods and humans, it is not so much a matter of justice, but a matter of piety.
The Stranger indicates that the myth reveals the flaw of his previous analysis. The rulers he had described have been modelled directly after the pattern of divine rule as though our mere human leaders are gods. Upon these assumptions, our leaders become tyrants. Hence the discomfort a reader has with the first part of the Stranger’s account of leadership – a form of herd grazing that assume that fellow humans are akin to sheep and cows. Or the horror one has with the rage of Homer’s Achilles, who treats the body of Hector like a hateful object which he must destroy.
Recognizing that humans are neither gods nor mere animals, the Stranger turns to a new paradigm or image – that of weaving. The true political art, the Stranger says is not of grazing, nurturing or tending. Instead, it is the art of weaving together different, even disparate elements into a unified whole. From the perspective of the regime, the political art of weaving takes the absolutes, recollected images from the gods that have been written as laws, and weaves them together with the particular circumstances of a time and place. It thus takes into account both what is good in and of itself and what a particular political community might require. It seeks a balance between the absolute and divine and the finite animal – a just balance appropriate to the human. From the position of the the citizen, the political art seeks balance between those elements within us that are akin to the divine and those that resemble animals (309 c) – a balance that allows us to govern ourselves, achieving a virtue that makes us willing subjects to just laws because we recognize them as goods that we would choose for ourselves.
In many ways, the Iliad is the more dramatic and thus engaging of Homer’s poems. This, however, does not make it the most compete. Like the first part of the Stranger’s discourse, it points beyond itself to a more just conclusion. At the end of the Iliad, Priam, an old man who is desperate to see his son properly buried, with great danger to himself, visits Achilles to see if he can persuade the raging hero to return Hector’s body to him. Achilles, who has been acting as if he is a god, sees a father and is reminded of his own father. Descended of the gods, he remembers that he is not one himself, and is reminded of his human obligations to justice and piety.
The Iliad, we know, is followed by the Odyssey – a story that follows the Iliad chronologicallyand tells the story of Odysseus’s pilgrimage home after the war. While the gods of the Iliad are terrifying, the Odyssey relates another possibility. The goddess Athena and Odysseus are shown working in consort as she assists him make the journey home. Odysseus makes lots of mistakes along the way, for Athena is no tyrant. Instead, we are given an image of a man who, during the war, has learned what it is to live in the absence of the divine and as if he is a god. Now, however, Odysseus works to become merely human, recollecting the divine that is present to and within him, while attending to finite and mutable nature of his particular existence.
In Odysseus’s absence, we learn that Penelope, Odysseus’s wife, has been weaving and unweaving a tapestry, an Athena-like trick designed to keep suitors and usurpers at bay. While Odysseus does the work of reweaving the elements of his soul, Penelope assumes the work of the ruler, balancing both the divine art of statesmanship and the human work of desire and circumstance. She thus seeks to sustain both the monarchy of Ithaca and her own marriage until such time that Odysseus might return to resume his place. The cause of the Trojan War, is Helen that is taken from her husband, Menelaus – either abducted unwillingly by Paris or driven by her own desire. In either instance, she is shown as lacking in autonomy – the divine that might be present in her is overridden by animalistic impulse. In contrast, at the end of the Odyssey we are given a reunion between Odysseus and Penelope, a reunion that requires a reweaving of their souls, one which depends on a balance between the autonomy of both as well as the willing subjection of both to each other.