Morality and virtue in poetry and philosophy: a reading of Homer's Iliad XXIV.

Author:Yan, Hektor K.T.
 
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It is apt for Plato to describe the quarrel between poetry and philosophy as an 'ancient' one (Republic 607b). Art and poetry reflect on our humanity; so does philosophy. Perhaps the affinity between poetry and philosophy is most clearly seen in the domain of human conduct or ethics. Both disciplines offer means for the enhancement of understanding, but this also leads to competition and tension. This article will examine what a poetic work of art itself can say about morality and ethics, and how morality in poetry can differ from morality in philosophy. (1) My example here is the final reconciliation of Achilles and Priam in the concluding book of the Iliad. The moral philosophies of Aristotle and Kant will provide some examples for the comparison. But first more needs to be said about moral motivation in philosophy.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant raises the question of what constitutes the moral worth of an action. He seeks to discover under what circumstances an action becomes a moral one. He then puts forward a moral philosophy which emphasises the importance of rationality in morality and argues that inclinations and impulses contribute nothing towards moral worth. Instead, moral worth consists in one's following a rational, a priori moral law which binds all rational beings.

I am not going to examine the question of how a purely rationalistic moral theory can adequately guide our behaviour. (2) What is noteworthy is that Kant's moral philosophy has a reductive character. As its aim is to discover the essence of moral worthiness itself, the supposed essential element of moral worth excludes other elements in moral motivation. Note the example of a kind action done out of compassion which is claimed to have no moral worth while a kind action done for the sake of duty, despite the absence of any personal inclination to engage in such an action, does have moral worth. (3) Kant argues that actions done out of impulses or inclination can lead to very different results; therefore, the good or bad consequences of the action itself cannot form the standard of moral evaluation. He also thinks that, although one's inclination can lead one to perform a kind or benevolent act, inclination itself is too contingent to be the guide of one's behaviour.

In this sense Kant's picture of morality seems to be in sharp contrast to Aristotle's. While Aristotle stresses the importance of upbringing and the development of virtuous character, Kant argues that morality is a matter of the exercise of one's freedom of will, which is autonomous and independent of any desire, feeling or impulse. (4) One may reply that Aristotle and Kant are actually addressing two different issues in human life, the ethical and the moral. Basically, the ethical is concerned with how to live a good life and eudaimonia (flourishing or well-being), while the moral is restricted to judgements of right and wrong, which are by definition more narrow than the ethical as well as more abstract. However, there are certain overlaps between the inquiries of the two philosophers, and it seems that we cannot distinguish sharply between the moral (in the Kantian sense) and the ethical, for the ethical encompasses the moral.

It is unnecessary at this point to decide which philosopher gives a better picture of morality or ethics, but it is against this background that I propose to examine the final book of the Iliad in order to see how a literary work of art can provide a different perspective that can well accommodate the complex nature of morality and ethics.

It should be emphasised that the interpretation of the Iliad given here does not show that the Iliad is a work on moral philosophy. The moral or, in a wider sense, the ethical is a concern of ours that is present in different areas and activities. The moral or ethical can enter the literary or artistic sphere, and there we can find an alternative treatment of morality that is different from that of philosophy.

Also it must be noted that the discussion here is not concerned with what the poet means in the Iliad, i.e., the meaning of words or the organisation of the text. My aim is to discuss the poem in relation to certain ethical questions and to see what relevance it has for us. In other words, the significance of the text, rather than the meaning, is the focus of my concern. Our understanding of Homer, in this sense, was not available to his ancient audience or readers.

The following discussion will focus on the final book of the Iliad, though references are made to other parts of the poem. As Aristotle states that our ethical character as individuals is formed by our choice of actions over time, the ethical disposition of the characters in the Iliad and of the poet himself will be most transparent if the behaviour of the characters and the plot of the poem are considered as a whole. This means that the investigation of what a hero says, what ethical terms he uses, may not reveal much of his character. As the ethical perspective of the poem emerges from a holistic interaction between speech, actions, style and plot, its ethical character can be seen at one level as above poetic description and speech, yet at the same time the particulars of the poem ultimately constitute its ethical outlook. (5)

The first contrast between a poetic work of art like the Iliad and a treatise on moral philosophy is that the former is set in highly specific circumstances. The poet brings us to the final year of the Trojan war, which has already lasted for nine years. (6) The long series of events that has led to the present situation is not recounted, for the poet assumes that the audience is already familiar with the story. The question concerning the origin of the war is not raised and the reality of war seems to be something given.

The warriors in the Iliad display a kind of morality, despite its dissimilarities to some modern notions of morality. Their behaviour is guided by the heroic code of glory and shame. Simplistically stated, a warrior's worth is defined by his ability to fight in battle, in which victory brings fame and glory and defeat brings dishonour and shame. (7) The battlefield is a public domain where one's performance and ability can be seen directly by others. As a result, the warriors gain glory from winning in front of others. Avoidance of fighting is regarded as cowardly and most undesirable. Hector is the character who best exemplifies adherence to this code. (8) It would be an oversimplification for the Homeric society of warriors to be conceived solely as competitive, since co-operation between members of the same group or tribe is also valued as a model of behaviour, (9) but the reality of constant battle does colour our image of both the Greeks and the Trojans.

Before we are actually presented with any fighting scene, the cruelty and harshness of those involved are already quite vividly portrayed. At the beginning of book I we see an offer of ransom from an old priest violently rejected by the Greek commander, Agamemnon. And this eventually leads to the intervention of Apollo and the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon. Hope for a peaceful settlement occurred when both sides agreed to have a truce (see book III), but it proved transitory. As the fighting begins, the brutal deaths of warriors signify waste and loss: (10)

There Telamonian Aias struck down the son of Anthemion Simoneisios in his stripling's beauty, whom once his mother descending from Ida bore beside the banks of Simoeis when she had followed her father and mother to tend the sheepflocks. Therefore they called him Simoeisios; but he could not render again the care of his dear parents; he was short-lived, beaten down beneath the spear of high-hearted Aias, who struck him as he first came forward beside the nipple of the right breast, and the bronze spearhead drove clean through the shoulder. (IV 473-81) (11) Such deaths are repeated again and again in the Iliad, and often the poet reminds us that it is actual individuals with their histories who died, as if he is saying that all deaths have their own individual significance. As the narration goes on, the fighting becomes more and more brutal. The pledge for one's life by ransom, though once a possibility, is seen to be no real option when facing the stronger in battle, as Agamemnon and Menelaus show in book VI 37-65. (12) Blind destruction reaches its height when Hector, though an inferior warrior, is forced to confront Achilles, but the Trojan leader is fighting on behalf of the whole community of Troy, whose survival depends on him alone, as he tells Achilles: 'And indeed the war would be a lighter thing for the Trojans / if you were dead, seeing that you are their greatest affliction.' (XXII 287-88) The heroic code of honour itself is also put to the test by the poet as the exemplar of the code, Hector, is seen to have undergone certain changes from being a responsive, caring leader to a mere warrior lost in the midst of battle. (13) The animal similes employed by the poet are apt descriptions of the warriors, for, in fighting, their nature as cultured, sensitive, moral beings is lost; what is left are just brute forces opposing each other. (14) After Achilles kills Hector in revenge for Patroclus and maltreats his body in triumph--of all the events in the poem, the act of utmost barbarity and cruelty--both the victor and the loser seem to be dehumanised, one as beast and the other as mere object. Symbolically, the fate of Troy is sealed, since Hector is portrayed as the sole defender of the city. As a warrior, Achilles proves his excellence in battle and gains great fame (kleos) in his killing of the Trojan champion. The story of Achilles as a fighter is completed here (at least in the Iliad) but the poem goes on, for the poet seems to be implying that excellence in battle is not the only good worthy of attention.

After Achilles' vengeance for his companion, funeral...

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