A Loss of Humanity under the Control of Force in Trojan Women, War and the Iliad, and Survival in Auschwitz

June 22, 2022 by Essay Writer

When people are thrown into the harshest environment in which they are faced with hopelessness and certainty of death, their most distinguishing trait is revealed: determination to keep going. One’s power of perseverance is essential since it indicates whether the result will be positive or negative. These harsh environments are created by force which is the motive of why and how we do the things we do. Simone Weil defines force “as that x that turns anybody who is subject to it into a thing” (Weil, p. 3). This is clear when force kills and makes the person a corpse or thing. However, when a person is forced to live life as if a thing, this definition becomes less clear. Of this, she says: “The idea of person’s being a thing is a logical contradiction. Yet what is impossible in logic becomes true in life, and the contradiction within the soul tears it to shreds” (Weil, p. 8). She conveys the dehumanizing aspect and threat of force through the context of war. Weil’s definition of force does not only strip one’s humanity, but it takes away all natural abilities, specifically the ability to respond to war. The power of force does not fail to prove that we not only have a soul, but actually are a soul which is illustrated in the agonizing way described by Simone Weil (Weil, p. 7).

Once someone is under the control of force, they are living life as if they were a thing, but as a thing that suffers from this condition as a suffering, conscious being. This is the central idea when understanding the tragedies in the texts Trojan Women by Euripides, War and the Iliad by Simone Weil, and Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi. It is evident that in these texts people under the control of force experience a loss of humanity while trying to find ways of life that can be sustained. In the play Trojan Women, when Troy is destroyed, the women are forced into slavery. The play portrays one’s competence to survive when faced with hardships and a part of that survival is hope which is shown by the protagonist, Hecuba. She uses hope as a mechanism for her grief as all she can do is lament the loss of her husband, children, and city: “What can I to help you from this harsh fate? I can beat my head and breast, that much I can do. I have that much power. O child, O city – what’s left to suffer? How much further can we fall into complete destruction?” (Euripides, p. 58). When Hecuba says “Whose slave shall I be…stooped, mechanical, a less-than-Feeble token of the dead?” (Euripides, p. 37), she shows that the misery has obscured her humanity, living life in the painful way described by Simone Weil. However, Hecuba shows that there is always anticipation for a better future, even when force takes away everything on which she pins her hope. This is initially shown when Hecuba says “You must bear it…sail with the hard current of the strait, sail with destiny, don’t steer your life’s prow back into the heaving winds” (Euripides, p. 35). By comparing her misery to the heavy winds, she portrays her bravery and endurance against everything she has lost. Additionally, when her daughter is forced into serving Agamemnon, Hecuba still believes that her daughter will prevail against this devastating incident. She tries to strengthen her so that she can endure the slavery as says “My child, my child, hurl down your holy laurel branches/And strip your body of the sacred wreaths you wear” (Euripides, p. 40). Although her daughter, along with the other Trojan Women have lost hope, it does not restrain Hecuba from looking for ways of life that can be sustained. For example, when Andromache announces that Hecuba’s daughter, Polyxena is dead, Andromache explains how the dead are happier because they are no longer suffering: “To me there is no difference between death/And never being born again, and death is better/By far than living in a life flooded with pain” (Euripides, p. 53). In contrast, Hecuba says that “life means hope, death is nothing at all” (Euripides, p. 53). Despite the death of her daughter adding onto her suffering, she holds onto her values which she uses to empower herself, as well as the other women. Hecuba’s desperation for hope becomes more evident when she urges Andromache to make the best of her subjugation. She suggests that she should keep her son alive, as well bear more children in her captivity so they can help rebuild Troy when she says “Bow down to your new master…this way you’ll help us all…you’ll see my grandsons safely into manhood…bring the city back to life” (Euripides, p. 55). In the end of the play, Hecuba’s condition as a slave becomes ever clearer, but she still rises and shows the desire to continue one last time as she says “time to go, you trembling unsteady limbs, go forward now into the day of slavery” (Euripides, p. 78).

Moreover, Bespaloff in the text War and The Iliad, portrays Hector as a “Homeric” man whose happiness exists in his family and country. His loyalty to his country is shown when he argues against his wife as she desperately pleas him to stay and resist the force. Unlike Hector, Achilles values glory and vengeance. Bespaloff paints a cowardly and uncivilized image of Achilles as she argues “without him, [men] would sleep on frozen, boredom, till the planet itself grew cold” (Bespaloff, p. 42). For Weil, Hector suffers from the almost loss of his humanity which he wants to persevere faced with the force of Achilles. In the context of war, Hector is forced to overlook the pain which is created by taking another person’s life. As all emotion disappears, Hector deteriorate his humanity. This is evident when Hector kills Patroclus and threatens that he will drag his body back to Troy, and feed it to ravenous dogs. As he fails to treat Patroclus’ body with respect, he loses a sense of balance of equity, thus, he too turns himself into a thing. In the end, Hector gathers courage to fight Achilles which ultimately leads to his own death. This force turns him into a literal corpse, dearer now to ferocious dogs than to his wife. When Hector puts on Achilles’ armor, he becomes as cowardly as Achilles. In the act of survival, he begins to abuse his power and refuses to back down when necessary, ultimately no longer portraying characteristics of an “Homeric” man. During their final duel, Hector is isolated from his community physically and symbolically. Before he is turned into a corpse, Hector begs for a proper burial, however, he dies without the assurance that he will get one as Achilles responds “There are no covenants between men and lions…it is not permitted that you and I should love each other” (Bespaloff, p. 36). In contrast, to Bespaloff’s mind, it is worth it to Hector because he knows that death means giving up all power to protect his family and country from humiliation and punishment: “it coincides with the true meaning of life” and “worth defending even with life itself, to which it has given a measure, a form, a price” (Bespaloff, p. 27). She believes that Hector’s defeat is caused by his “capacity for happiness” and Achilles, the force, lacks this capacity for happiness which drives him “on toward his prey and fills his heart with an infinite power for battle (Bespaloff, p. 32).

Throughout his struggle in Auschwitz, Primo Levi tries to organize himself to survive the state of enslavement longer. Upon Levi’s arrival, he begins to question his life as he endures many obstacles. Like the other prisoners who had been so dehumanized that they had no remaining hope for survival, Levi had no faith in the world he once knew before Auschwitz. Throughout his memoir, Levi shows how the misery of their oppression portrays the dehumanization of the prisoners. This is initially evident when Levi says “we had reached the bottom. It is not possible to sink lower than this; no human condition is more miserable than this” (Levi, p. 21). When it is time for the prisoners to fill their bowls with soup, Levi compares them to animals by stating “we have an animal hurry to swell our bellies” (Levi, p. 69) This suggests the prisoner’s animalistic behavior since their mental and physical state is being deteriorated by the Germans. Another example portraying the prisoner’s loss of humanity is after a fight happens in the camp and Levi describes Elias’ punch as “powerful and accurate as a catapult” as this infers that Elias is “cold and rigid” due to their subjugation (Levi, p. 96). He shows how majority of men give up hope in struggle for survival, even himself when entering the camp. When Levi tries to adapt to what is being done in the camp, he completely loses any remaining hope he has for survival. This is proven when he has no desire to clean himself since he is so demoralized by the work. He argues “Why should I wash?… Would I live a day, another hour longer…We will all die, we are all about to die (Levi, p. 40). However, as time passes in the camp, Levi begins to adapt and regains his faith in order to survive. In doing so, Levi finds that there are two different responses from living in the camps: those that are “saved” and those that are “drowned” (Levi, p. 87). Levi uses this perspective to motivate him to resist the enslavement and avoid becoming a part of the drowned. Through the comparison of a “mussleman” and successful prisoner, he recognizes that the ability to adapt and develop skills are vital in order to survive, not one’s physical endurance. Of this he says, “Man’s capacity to build around himself a tenuous barrier…is based on an invaluable activity of adaption, partly passive and unconscious, partly active” (Levi, p. 56). As a result, he begins to learn the unstated and stated rules of the camp, and acquaints himself with the other prisoners. They share their food, stories, and most importantly, their struggle which ultimately helps Levi regain a sense of his humanity. By conforming to the ways of force, Levi shows his means for survival. An example of this is when he earns a place in the laboratory which gives him the opportunity to an easier life: “I can save myself if I become a Specialist, and that I will become a Specialist if I pass a chemistry examination” (Levi, p. 103). He takes advantage of this situation by stealing soup and other items that improve his life. It is apparent that even in the end, during the final ten days of struggle, Levi attempts to rehabilitate the morals and values that the camp took away from them. He says “For pure propaganda purposes I gave everyone nasal drops of camphorated oil. I assured Sertelet that they would help; I even tried to convince myself”, using the drops as a symbol hope to improve the mental state of the prisoners (Levi, p. 168).

Through these texts, it is evident that people under the sway of force experience a loss of humanity while trying to find ways of life that can be sustained. For example, Hecuba constantly searches for a sign of hope as her condition as a slave becomes clearer in the course of the play, Hector suffers from the almost loss of his humanity which he wants to persevere faced with the force of Achilles, and Primo Levi tries to organize himself to survive the condition of slavery longer. Although these characters make attempts in resistance to force, ultimately force triumphs. When Troy is burning in flames, Hecuba recognizes that “[her] sacrifices counted for nothing” since she is ultimately subjected to the force: slavery (Euripides, p. 74). After accepting her defeat, she runs into the fire, but is stopped by Odysseus’s men. In War and The Iliad, Hector meets Achilles in the final battle where he finally conquers himself, turning into a literal corpse. In end of Levi’s memoir, he shows signs of the “drowned” when he says “The Russians can come now: there are no longer any strong men among us… they will not only find us, the salves, the worn-out, worthy of the unarmed death which awaits us” (Levi, p. 177). Levi feels that him and the other prisoners have died inwardly and morally, and although the camp was designed to force the prisoners into living life as a thing, in the very act of trying to survive, they too turned themselves into a thing: “even if we know how to adapt ourselves, even if we have finally learnt how to find our food and to resist the fatigue…now we are oppressed by shame” (Levi, p. 178). All in all, it is difficult for people to find ways of life that can be sustained when force takes away everything, including their humanity, ultimately, leaving them as a breathing corpse.


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