The Human Condition In The Iliad By Homer
Homer’s The Iliad is an epic poem that talks of the Trojan War. Many similarities in behaviour between the gods and people are described in this epic. In Book 14 of The Iliad, “Hera Outflanks Zeus”, the book incorporates the disparity between the gods. At first, Hera shadily convinces the daughter of Zeus, Aphrodite, to make her irresistible. “Quick with treachery noble Hera answered, ‘Give me Love, give me Longing now, the powers you use to overwhelm all gods and mortal men!’ / Aphrodite, smiling her everlasting smile, replied, ‘Impossible — worse, it’s wrong to deny your warm request…’”. Next, Hera becomes allies with Sleep to betray Zeus, making it that Poseidon can help the Achaeans. Aphrodite power causes her to create a plan, in which Zeus is seduced and have him put to sleep as they make love. “’Sleep, master of all gods and all mortal men,… Put Zeus to sleep for me! Seal his shining eyes as soon as I’ve gone to bed with him, locked in love, and I will give you gifts…’”. We observe here that Hera tempts Sleep with bribes as people often do when they know something they want is difficult to obtain. These envious, deceitful, and other humanistic qualities of the gods inevitably produce disagreement amongst them, which is in turn manifested in the lives of mortals.
In polytheistic Greek cultures such as that of the world of The Iliad, the gods affect the lives of mortals based primarily on the gods’ whims. Each people have their own contingent of gods who support them, but also other gods who dislike them and whom they do not worship. This conflict between the influences of one god’s favor and another’s menace on the Achaeans is portrayed in the death of Patroclus, Achilles’ brother-in-arms. Hera and Poseidon help enormously to keep the Trojans from burning the Achaeans’ ship. Patroclus, no longer able to sit by idly as his comrades die, stirs to action and slays many Trojans; however, when he fights Hector, Apollo is angered at Patroclus’ zeal. “…Apollo knocked the helmet off his head and under his horse’s hooves it tumbled… / Disaster seized him — his fine legs buckling — he stood there, senseless… / Hector… came rushing into him right across the lines and rammed his spearshaft home, stabbing deep in the bowels…”. Patroclus’ death is devastating to the Achaean armies’ morale and, more central to the story, it further disrupts Achilles’ already unbalanced sophrosyne. The torment that Achilles endures here epitomizes the human condition. After reading Homer’s text, we realize that while it contains fine poetic history it is in fact about the human condition and how it affects people, Achilles primarily.
The reality for people in the world of The Iliad is that they live under many gods, and that they cannot please all of them; indeed, the gods are at odds with each other and to support one means to upset another. While the ideal condition for the Greeks is to possess sophrosyne, in reality there are too many uncontrollable external pressures to do so. Just as the gods who influence men are not harmonious, therefore, we find this quality also in the explanation of the human condition for Greek cultures. In the case of Christianity, we first consider how the human condition appears in The Book of Job, an exemplary text in this instance which tells the story of Job, a pious, righteous man who is relentlessly tormented by God. In several rounds of discussion with three of his friends, Job maintains that he has not sinned against God and that God is wrongfully punishing him. God finally appears before Job and his friends in “The Voice from the Whirlwind,” and forces Job to justify his assertion that God acted unjustly. “’Has God’s accuser resigned? Has my critic swallowed his tongue?’” Job responds and the conversation continues: “’I am speechless: what can I answer? I put my hand on my mouth. I have said too much already; now I will speak no more.’ / [God continues] ‘Do you dare to deny my judgment? Am I wrong because you are right? Is your arm like the arm of God? Can your voice bellow like mine?’”. While God acknowledges Job’s correct claim that he had not sinned, that does not mean that God’s actions were unjustified. The reason we find here for Job’s suffering is that God has knowledge far beyond any human’s; he is greater, and more powerful. On this basis, therefore, anyone can suffer regardless of how pious he or she is. Interestingly, the human condition here is like it is for the Greeks; while worshipping God will minimize one’s suffering as will worshipping the gods of whom one has favor for Greeks, God or the gods who do not favor an individual could just as soon intensify it.
Another form of the human condition is described in the Old Testament book Exodus, in which the God of Moses and the Israelites make a covenant with his people. The conditions of the covenant for the Israelites are clear in the Ten Commandments which he gives to his people. God’s reciprocity for their worship is told as follows: “’Worship the Lord your God, and his blessing will be on your food and water. I will take away sickness from among you, and none will miscarry or be barren in your land. I will give you a full life span. / I will send my terror ahead of you and throw into confusion every nation you encounter. I will make all your enemies turn their backs and run.’”Here, the human condition must then be the suffering that results when a person fails or refuses to worship God and no longer has his protection. Whereas for the Greeks the human condition was based on an external locus of control, for Christians it generally is internal. We note that God’s actions in Job are at odds with the covenant He made with the Israelites, but Job is not an Israelite and the covenant may not apply. In the epilogue of Job, however, God also admits that Job told the truth about Him and returns double what He took from Job during the trials. From this final perspective, God is benevolent rather than whimsical and the human condition is internally determined by a person’s piety. The human condition in Christianity we understand as being related to the reality of man by God’s creation of him. God is omniscient and omnipotent, and we find evidence of this (among other places) in Job’s dialogue. He says, “’Only God is wise; knowledge is his alone’”, and later, when speaking to God, “’I know you can do all things and nothing you wish is impossible. / I have spoken of the unspeakable and tried to grasp the infinite.’” God, therefore, did not create man out of necessity, but rather out of love so that man could rule other animals in the likeness of God and worship God for His perfection. When man sins against God, he refutes God’s infinity and does not receive His benevolence. The human condition, therefore, results from violating a personal obligation to one’s creator.
Plato also considered the human condition in The Republic as it applies to just and unjust persons alike. In his cave allegory, he describes four stages of cognition and how they represent the ascension from physical objects in the world to the true reality, composed of knowledge forms. His whole model is created to facilitate the exploration of the nature of justice; and, before probing knowledge as it applies to justice, Plato determines that justice must be the best quality to possess. “’Justice belongs in the most valuable category. It is the good that the happy man loves both for its own sake and for the effects it produces.’” We should intuitively value justice more than anything else because it is the greatest good; however, to explain what effects the Good have on people, Plato describes the hierarchy of cognition with his cave allegory. Plato’s cognitive model is separated by two distinct sources of perception: the sun, which governs the physical world of lower-order perceptions, and the good, which governs the true reality and of which are forms, the pure, highest order of knowledge. We are able to advance from the realm of the sun to that of the good through our observations of physical objects and subsequent belief that, though none of the objects we see are perfect replications of their natural forms, somewhere beyond the physical world the perfect form of every object resides. “’You know as well that [mathematicians] make use of visible shapes and objects and subject them to analysis. At the same time, however, they consider them only as images of the originals… / And all the while they seek a reality which only the mind can discover.’” Once an individual understands mathematically the principle object from which all its physical reproductions are derived, he or she can use that principle as a figurative step ladder to reach the reason behind it. That reason, or knowledge, is the mental perception of the corresponding form; it is truth, beauty, just, and good. After constructing his model for the good, just, and truth based on cognition, Plato realizes a problem in that even the most just people can suffer from physical ailments and lead difficult lives. His solution to this problem, however, is not elegantly derived through logical discourse, but rather is a mythological account of the reincarnation of the soul. Describing how man achieves his best state through the many physical incarnations of his soul, Plato writes, “’So [a man] will learn how to shun excess. He will choose a life that avoids the extremes both in this world, as far as that is possible, and in all life to come. For this is how a man will find his greatest happiness.’”
When we consider the belief of Plato and Socrates that the just person has internally (in his soul) reached his best state and that no physical suffering can change that state because it is independent of the physical world, this reincarnation model is reasonable. In it, the soul may at times stray from the good; however, the just souls always return to the good through reason because they understand there is no better quality to possess. In Platonism, therefore, the human condition resides completely within each person. The true reality is that the soul’s goodness is determined by the extent to which it (the mind, which is a function of the soul) possesses knowledge and is consequently able to exercise reason to maintain equilibrium. The human condition in the physical world is relatively unimportant, therefore, because it is not internal to the soul. Plato would identify internal imbalance as a much more serious type of suffering, and this is congruous with his model of the true reality because knowledge and reason are strictly functions of the soul, not the physical world. One should achieve the greatest good and maintain it through all life; then, the problem of physical suffering is trivial and, in that sense, resolved. While Islam and Christianity are similar, a significant difference is the source of evil for each. In Christianity people are predisposed to evil due to original sin whereas, in Islam, man is created good and later tempted by Satan to dissent from Allah. It is written of Allah, “I created the jinn and humankind only that they might worship Me.” As in Christianity, Allah’s creations are not necessary to him, but rather are created so that they may marvel at his infinity and his wonder. Man is created to hold power on earth over its creatures, and upon creating Adam, Allah commands his angels to bow to this first man. Satan refuses, saying, “’I am better than him. Thou createdst me of fire while him Thou didst create of mud.’ / [Allah] said: Then go down hence! / Lo! thou art of those degraded.’” Satan’s nature is degraded, and due to his feelings of superiority to man, he tempts him to falter in his loyalty to Allah – sin. In Islam, therefore, the human condition is the consequence of sin, which is based on an internal decision that is influenced externally by the temptation of Satan. The reality of humans in Islam again reflects the human condition: people are born good and their purpose is to worship Allah, for He is greatest; the human condition is the consequence of not fulfilling one’s purpose by turning from God’s greatness to the temptation of sin and putting oneself before God.
The relationship between the true reality, posited by each religion or philosophy, and its explanation of the human condition is significant because there are no two which are different and share the same view of reality. When two are similar but not identical (such as Christianity and Islam), this produces incongruities which cannot be resolved to satisfy the principles of each, much less those of other philosophies or religions which are not so similar. What, then, can we determine about the human condition? A person cannot consider the one explanation of the human condition which he or she prefers.
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