Pitiless Force a Pitiful Possession

Simone Weil, The Iliad, or the Poem of Force (trans. Mary McCarthy):

Force is as pitiless to the man who possesses it, or thinks he does, as it is to its victims; the second it crushes, the first it intoxicates. The truth is, nobody really possesses it. The human race is not divided up, in the Iliad, into conquered persons, slaves, suppliants, on the one hand, and conquerors and chiefs on the other. In this poem there is not a single man who does not at one time or another have to bow his neck to force. The common soldier in the Iliad is free and has the right to bear arms; nevertheless he is subject to the indignity of orders and abuse:

But whenever he came upon a commoner shouting out,

he struck him with his scepter and spoke sharply:

“Good for nothing! Be still and listen to your betters.

You are weak and cowardly and unwarlike,

You count for nothing, neither in battle nor in council.”

Thersites pays dear for the perfectly reasonable comments he makes, comments not at all different, moreover, from those made by Achilles:

He hit him with his scepter on back and shoulders,

so that he doubled over, and a great tear welled up,

And a bloody welt appeared on his back

Under the golden scepter. Frightened, he sat down,

Wiping away his tears, bewildered and in pain.

Troubled though they were, the others laughed long at him.

Achilles himself, that proud hero, the undefeated, is shown us at the outset of the poem, weeping with humiliation and helpless grief – the woman he wanted for his bride has been taken from under his nose, and he has not dared to oppose it:

. . . But Achilles

Weeping, sat apart from his companions,

By the white-capped waves, staring over the boundless ocean.

What has happened is that Agamemnon has deliberately humiliated Achilles, to show that he himself is the master:

… So you will learn

That I am greater than you, and anyone else will hesitate

To treat me as an equal and set himself against me.

But a few days pass and now the supreme commander is weeping in his turn. He must humble himself, he must plead, and have, moreover, the added misery of doing it all in vain.

In the same way, there is not a single one of the combatants who is spared the shameful experience of fear. The heroes quake like everybody else. It only needs a challenge from Hector to throw the whole Greek force into consternation – except for Achilles and his men, and they did not happen to be present.

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