Homer -- Was the Blind Bard a Poetic Activist for War or Peace?
Homer is a poet of war, namely the war between the Greeks and Trojans, and later in his "Odyssey," of the war between Odysseus and the gods whom would bar him from his trajectory homeward. He is a poet of war in the sense that war provides the narrative structure of how he outlines how a moral human being lives in a violent, conflict-based society. However, Homer also chronicles in his works with what might seem to the modern reader, a distinctly anti-war literary sentiment and tone. This is perhaps best embodied in the example of Odysseus himself as a character. Homer's most famous anti-hero initially attempted to simulate madness to avoid being a participant in the Trojan wartime events, because they were far away from his beloved home of Ithaca and wife Penelope.
However, Homer's anti-war message is not entirely consistent with the modern pacifist's view of war as a willed, futile action upon the part of humanity that must be circumvented. Rather, Homer views war and conflict as an ultimately negative, but unavoidable act of fate, because of the nature of humanity and the nature of the gods.
This aspect of war can first be seen in the attitude of the gods towards the golden apple, the recounted act that spawned the Trojan War. This initial conflict is only alluded to over the course of the "Iliad," and takes place before the specifically explicated parts of the narrative. According to this 'back story' the gods were at a banquet and famously became enraged by the presence of an apple ascribed to the fairest. The subsequent dispute over which goddess was most deserving of this title spawned the war itself.
But even during the Trojan War, as depicted by Homer, the gods themselves war over whom to support and whom not to support over the course of the battle. There is no good and evil, rather there is only partisan antagonism and petty jealously upon the part of the divines. This petty jealousy upon the gods is mirrored in the human behavior of Agamemnon and Achilles, where Agamemnon uses strong-handed techniques and his place in the military hierarchy to exercise possession over the slave-girl Briseis, the concubine of his most competent general. He does this because, in the chain of command of human and divine, Agamemnon's own prized concubine was repossessed by her father, in the name of Apollo. Apollo sent a plague upon the Greeks until she was returned to her father, a priest of the god.
Achilles, in a fit of pique, refuses to fight on behalf of the Greeks, because of Agamemnon's actions. Homer depicts a situation where the Greek cause is compromised, militarily, because of personal squabbles amongst the general. Thus, in Homer's depiction, war is not necessarily spiritually enriching, as both the god's banquet and this initial personal battle between Agamemnon and Achilles illustrates. War is not about valor. Rather, individuals and the gods themselves can become personally abased, morally, because of a desire for enrichment and a sense of personal ire. Agamemnon, it is insinuated, was wrong in taking away Achilles' beloved female 'spoil' of war, because of Achilles' fondness for the girl, and her fondness for him. But Achilles is equally wrong, it is also implied, to forgo fighting and put his fellow soldiers in danger, merely because he feels personally slighted and in a state of "wrath."
This parallel in the world of Olympus and the world upon the fighting fields of hatred in the face of armed conflict, however, does not mean that Homer believes all wars should or at very least, can be eschewed. The only individual whom advocates a complete end to fighting in the middle of the conflict is a deformed and twisted man. Unlike our modern advocacy of tolerance, Thersities is not commendable for his triumph over his physical infirmities or his willingness to advocate an end to the foolishness of fighting for a runaway woman. Instead, he is seen as a rabble-rouser who deserves to be beaten, and soundly. Similarly, Achilles' refusal to fight for his beloved Greeks is a sign of moral blindness and stubbornness, not pacifism and a hatred of war. The end result of his refusal is the death of his friend Patrocolus. Ironically, in protest of losing the spoils of war, his beloved Briseis, Achilles loses an individual even more dear to him.
What to make of Homer's attitude towards war, in light of this? Clearly, Homer was not anti-war. War is viewed as a necessity of life. To attempt to opt out of conflict would be to put all of society in danger, as Classical Grecian society was dependant upon war, to an almost constant degree, to enable city-states to remain in a state of mutual safety and stasis. If men refused to fight, society would have come to a virtual collapse, or be overtaken by neighboring foreign powers, a terrible thing for the xenophobic Greeks. However, the necessity of war in such a consistently warlike environment simultaneously encourages Homer as the poet to advocate honoring one's military obligations, but also not to take an overly valorous view of conflict because of his constant exposure to the varied moral nature of soldiers and wartime situations.
In other words, in Homer's view, to simply stress the greatness of wartime glory, as does Ajax, is absurd. To refuse to fight in a society that demands it, after making a promise to defend one's territory, or even one's woman, is to let down other's extracted obligations, to undo the glue of society. As ridiculous as it might seem to go to war because Helen cuckolded Menelaus, to refuse to honor one's wartime obligations to him would mean a breakdown of sense of spoken and unspoken treaties cohered all of ancient society. To refuse to fight like Achilles does, because a commanding officer abuses his power and one feels denied one's proper female 'spoils' is also a weakness, even if essentially Menelaus has demanded others fight to return Helen to him out of a similar sense of female-provoked ire. Instead, one must view war in an appropriately negative, sorrowful context, yet accept the interconnection of fate and the will of the gods, however capricious, that brings one's society to the battlefield. The gods may take away one's woman, but one should not turn in revenge upon one's fellow officers, as does Agamemnon. One's officer may take away one' woman, but one should not endanger one's people, as does Achilles.
Thus, in Homer, there is a sense of correct attitude and action towards war, but one that is not necessarily commensurate with modern, anti-war sensibilities. It is Hector, ironically, who embodies the values of the ideal Homeric hero to the most perfect extent over the course of the "Iliad." The irony lies in the fact that Hector fights for the Trojans, not the Greeks. Hector, rather than believing his nation's cause to be just, sees the entire war as foolish, for the sake of a "whore," a term that Helen herself sorrowfully calls her own condition. Hector, in contrast to his brother-in-law Paris, is loyal to his wife Andromache, but he also exhibits personal valor, and actively fights to preserve his city, despite his personal views. Despite his outward, military actions, he distains the reasoning that spawned the war, yet he honors his obligations.
Hector is also notable as a hero for his sense of fatalism. When speaking to his wife for the last time, he knows that he is doomed. But, again in accordance with Homer's value of acknowledging and submitting to one's fate, rather than resisting it, he goes along with his destiny. Even Achilles, although a more imperfect hero,…