Friday, September 25, 2015

Ain't Nothin' But A Sandwich

With Heroes Reborn debuting last night (haven't watched it yet), by coincidence somebody sent me an essay by Mark Tapson about heroes: "How Have Our Heroes Changed?"  It's actually a discussion of Tod Lindberg's new book The Heroic Heart--which I haven't read--where he looks at the meaning of heroes in ancient and modern times. I don't think there's much question that our view of heroes have changed as our morality has changed, but I wonder if Tapson, or Lindberg for that matter, haven't bitten off more than they can chew.

We can see major changes in our heroes in just the last century, but do we need to go back to the ancient world, and if we do, are we shortchanging those people?  Here's Tapson:

The model hero in ancient times was of the conquering, killing sort, a warrior earning renown by slaying piles of enemies on the battlefield. Think of Homer’s Achilles, whom Lindberg examines at length: a self-centered, petulant demigod, perhaps, but a warrior of superhuman caliber.

Achilles was certainly seen as heroic in ancient texts, but the opening line of the Iliad lets us know we're going to hear about Achilles' anger and how much trouble it causes his own people.  This is not how you normally praise a hero.  Achilles was the greatest warrior of his time, but he does come across as a jerk, and it's intentional.  It's easy to read the Iliad not so much glorifying war as showing how horrible it is.

In general, the Greeks don't come off that well in the Iliad. Their leader, Agamemnon, is a moron.  The guy who started the whole mess, Menelaus, is weak but well-connected. Ajax is a dolt.  Odysseus is smart but sneaky.  And so on.  Considering they're the "good guys," is Homer telling us something?

And then at the end, Achilles, who has given up everything to win honor in war, discovers how much he's lost.  King Priam begs Achilles to return his son Hector's body for a proper burial. (If there's a noble hero in the book, it's probably the Trojan Hector.) Achilles relents.  So what he's learned, perhaps, is everything he wanted, especially glorious victory in battle, may be hollow--at the very least it's perhaps not what he thought it was.  Achilles may have been a hero to the ancient Greeks, but he's a complex one.  And just because we're all sophisticated modern people doesn't mean we should assume the Greeks were less sophisticated.


Anonymous Denver Guy said...

I am not a philosophy scholar, having had only a handful of classes in the subject over the years, but it seems the slogan "nothing new under the sun" is quite applicable when discussing philosophical precepts. Newer philosophers ultimately end up debating, extending or restricting the ideas of Plato and Aristotle, Budha, and the Bible (Old and New). Application of these ideas to modern situations of course yield interesting discussions, but are there really entirely new ideas being born?

3:09 PM, September 25, 2015  
Blogger LAGuy said...

There's an old line that Western Philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato. And certainly there have been many times I've read an old text only to find an idea I thought was modern.

Still, what's often exciting about history is how different it is. Real people living real lives, but not necessarily sharing the assumptions that we do. When confronted with this, we can either try to understand them or dismiss them as fools. And it's not like you have to go back to ancient history. Just looking back a few generations in the West and you'll see how certain things were widely believed that are today opposed, even reviled. The good thing about studying old thoughts, in addition to the wisdom, is it can give you a sense of perspective. It gives you a place to stand from which you can question modern beliefs, rather than accept them as obvious truths.

5:42 PM, September 25, 2015  

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