Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Deathless Gods

The ending is always the same.

I’d been under the impression that the Iliad is the story of the Trojan war, but that’s not quite true.  The story of a war would presumably begin with its beginning and end with its end: the Iliad does neither.  Instead, it begins with the wrath of Brave Achilles and ends with the burial of Hector and knowledge of Achilles’ impending death.  But it’s not about Achilles either.

Most of us know the basic plot points of the Iliad.  We know why the Trojans are fighting the Achaeans; Helen left her husband for some hotter, younger guy.  It’s a bit like going to war over your neighbor’s divorce. 

But, as Werner Jaeger points out in his Paideia, the reality of the situation is actually much worse.  Helen didn’t decide to leave her husband Menelaus because she was in love with Paris, but because of the Gods.  Aphrodite pretty much forces the entire thing from behind the scenes.  In fact, nearly everything that happens in the Iliad--from sudden bursts of courage to pivotal plot points to battles won and lost--come about because of the Gods: their whims and uncontrollable actions.

Sometimes things just happen.

Speaking of things just happening, it’s been two years today since the suicide of a person I was in love with.  I’ll call this person Walter, though many of you know his real name.  It’s a long story culminating in fighting, dysfunction, a breakup, an accusation, and a death.  The message he left was oblique and indirect, but we’d been close friends for six months, then together for a year: the note was written in our internal language.  Walter's last act before he murdered himself was to blame me for his death.

The first month or so after it happened consisted of me hemorrhaging grief: dysfunctional, disoriented, drunk.  Eventually, this morphed into anger—fury—and an obsession over a second loss: the death of who I was before.

Every event influences you, but some events shatter you irreparably. You can’t go back.  You’re changed, forever.  You can never be the person you used to be again, and you’ll never be the person you would have been either.  Paths that were open close off forever, the end.

The first therapist I saw about this encouraged me to come to terms with this change by embracing it.  How had this improved me?  How am I better for this suicide and this accusation?

This is the wrong way to look at it, though.  Even if the suicide had given me bona fide superpowers, I wish it hadn’t happened.  I’d rather be who I was before, with Walter alive. 

Fucking duh.

Before he killed himself, Walter knew what it was to be shattered in a worse and more irreparable way.  When he was 11 years old, he was sexually abused by an older stranger. There is no coming back from that, not entirely.  He was changed, forever, and could never be the person he might have been, would have been, if he hadn’t asked the wrong guy for a ride home

Sometimes, for better or for worse, the Gods descend upon you.  Mighty Aphrodite decides your time had come, Eros shoots an arrow into the heart of that man in the car.  Até showed Walter visions of helium tanks and plastic bags, spiteful Eris guided his hands over the computer keys to type his final message.  

I’m not saying that Walter lacked free will or that the man in the car was a slave to impulses beyond his control: I’m saying that from the perspective of the victims, the source of these actions might as well have been a deathless Greek God for all the control they had. 

Sometimes life bears down on you and, knowing only what you knew then, there was no escaping it.  It came from Outside, and it changed you forever, and regardless of what you call it, luck or fate or Gods, it all serves as a way of expressing the Outside-ness of it all: how little any of it had to do with you.


I tried to deny the existence of the Gods at first.  I catalogued the ways that this was my fault, ignoring my ignorance, pretending I’d had the facts.  Over and over again, wearing a circular path in my thoughts.  I could recite for you today a list of a thousand things I’d change if I could.  Jaeger points out that the epic poetry of the Middle Ages is largely this way: focusing on the experiences and decisions of the character without much nod to fate. 

Modern thought has continued in this vein.  As a child I was explicitly taught, as most of us are, that I am never a victim.  Since every situation involving me and another person involves me by default, my own actions obviously contribute to every situation.  Rather than focusing on the other person’s actions, I was encouraged to focus on my own: reflecting on ways that my own actions had contributed to the bad outcome and working on ways to change them.  This was supposed to foster a sense of responsibility, and it certainly worked.

In day-to-day situations involving reciprocal interactions with other human beings, this method of living works wonderfully and I support it.  Like many rules of living, however, this one has limits.  Sometimes interactions are one-sided enough that there are victims who cannot and should not accept blame.  Taken to its logical extreme, rape victims are all asking for it.  A lot of people in our society believe that: have you seen the internet?  Here’s a slightly (but only slightly) less horrible example: google “cancer power of positive thinking”.  I’ll wait.

There’s a reason that this way of thinking is endemic in our culture, and it’s a simple one: believing that misfortunes are punishments connected in some way to our own behavior restores a sense of control that is utterly lacking in the Greek model of things.  For example, if Walter is dead because I killed him, I am wracked with grief but I am still in control, I did this to myself, I deserve this.  There is horrible, self-destructive comfort in this worldview [1].   I may be depraved, but at least I’m not helpless.

By the way, in case anyone is wondering where that path leads: emergency psychiatric appointments and 20mg Prozac 1x per day, .5mg clonazepam as needed for anxiety.  The Gods do not like to be ignored.

So what’s the alternative?  What would Achilles do?

Jaeger points out that the Iliad is fundamentally different not only from modern Western culpability but also from many traditional Asiatic beliefs.  For the Greeks, human beings were not simply pawns washed out to sea by divine forces beyond human comprehension. 

Homer does not urge passive acceptance and a rejection of the material world in the face of forces beyond our control.  Instead, he urges excellence despite them.

Reading the Iliad for the first time about six months ago, I became increasingly irate with Homer.  The poet glorifies both Achaeans and Trojans, yet glorifies their mutual slaughter as well.  These brave heroes die in droves, violently and horribly—for what?  The caprices of the gods?  Powers beyond their control?  How is this bravery?  How is this noble?

The answer is the brilliance of the Iliad, and why people care three thousand years later

The heroes of the Iliad are heroic because they embrace excellence in the face of everything the Gods decide to throw at them.  The Homeric Greek ideal of excellence mostly revolves around bravery in battle; the heroes of the Iliad display this virtue in the face of horror and slaughter and despair despite the hopelessness and pointlessness of a struggle with origins beyond their control or understanding.  No matter what new miseries the Gods inflict, the brave heroes fight on.

And who am I to question their plight or their decision?  This is the human condition, on or off the battlefield.  We are all going to die someday: it is pointless and hopeless no matter how many MGs of Prozac they give you, sorry.  The end of the story is the same whether you sit in your tent or charge out to battle to meet it. 

When the Gods descend upon you, there are really only two options.  You can surrender: withdrawing inside yourself and wanting nothing; you can weep at your inevitable demise or your shattered self or all the doors that are now closed to you, you can curse the Gods and yourself and wallow in your lies of complete control and comforting acidic guilt.

Or you can strap on your armor and charge into battle: once more into the breech.  You fight as you are, who you are—accepting what is and striving for what could be.  The story ends with your death either way, but one of those stories is a lot more interesting and noteworthy and excellent than the other.  

If you can accept the world as it is, and yourself as you are, and continue to fight anyway, if you can work to transform yourself every day into something glorious and noble even while knowing that you cannot change the end of the story, if you can love yourself enough to fight despite knowing you will not last forever, you can be noble and worthwhile today.  


[1] Concept blatantly stolen from Nietzsche’s second essay in On the Geneology of Morality, which for the record is awesome and worth reading.


  1. Thank you for this post, I really appreciate the clarity of your point of view. I hope that someday you are able to rest, your armor cast aside, not in surrender, but in peace. It sounds like you may be well on that path. In the meantime, I am glad to hear you out there fighting the good fight.

  2. "If you can accept the world as it is, and yourself as you are, and continue to fight anyway, if you can work to transform yourself every day into something glorious and noble even while knowing that you cannot change the end of the story, if you can love yourself enough to fight despite knowing you will not last forever, you can be noble and worthwhile today."

    You can only change the world and/or yourself if you DO NOT accept the world and yourself as they are. Would you then say that personal growth is a bad thing void of glory and nobility? Not sure if I'm interpreting it right...

    1. I see what you're saying, but I think that's only part of the story of change. The starting point for change is seeing and accepting what is. For example, the Wright Brothers did not refuse to accept gravity: I'd argue the first thing they had to do is accept that gravity exists. Only then could they start exploring other laws of physics and developing ways to fly in spite of it.

      Your comment made me realize that this entire post is basically the first line of the Serenity prayer: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change". The second part can--the courage to change the things we can--can't start until the first part is established.