Why read The Iliad?
Updated: May 4
Why do we bother to read old books like The Iliad—this particular one coming out of an oral tradition of untold generations and written down around 2750 years ago? What in The Iliad can possibly be relevant for us in our own time and place, so far from this ancient world? Why use up any hours of our short days on a work written in a dead language portraying a dead world so far in the past? Perhaps we trust a tradition that says it's good to read the "Great Books," that to be properly educated we must read the "classics." But still, why is it good to read these so-called "classics"?
Families can be complicated. This is understandable given that we are each a mystery to ourselves, prompting that Greek exhortation written across the Temple of Apollo in Delphi: Know Thyself. Self-knowledge is a life-long challenge. As soon as two or more individuals are together, misunderstanding, miscommunication, injustice, hurt, and anger are inevitable. A family free of hurt and anger is, I expect, rare. In my own family, one of my brothers was hurt by perceived, and perhaps real, injustice of our dad.
For decades, anger possessed my brother. Unforgiving, destructive anger. The passing years and decades did nothing to loosen the grip of anger on my brother's heart. The illness of my father, his growing frailty, did not soften my brother's heart. Then something happened that shocked me. My brother made plans to visit our dad and referred to him as "Dad"—instead of using his first name—for the first time in many years. When my brother returned from his trip, he explained to me what had happened. He said simply, "I reread The Iliad. If Achilleus could feel compassion for Priam, thinking about his own father, I thought surely I could feel compassion for Dad and forgive him." Reading The Iliad had lifted the terrible burden of anger from my brother's heart.
The Iliad is worth reading, and rereading, because—like all great works of literature—it portrays in a powerful way the most central experiences of human life, like anger and forgiveness. A great work of literature is like the wisest of friends, piercing our hearts if we let it, helping us know ourselves, helping us see where our hearts need healing. It can be, like a friend, a mirror to see ourselves and become who we are meant to be.
p.s. For those who have not yet read The Iliad... This epic poem may be the most intense portrayal of anger in any work of Western literature. Divided into 24 books, each book with about 654 lines of dactylic hexameter (6 units of long, short, short syllables), The Iliad opens with the word rage. For nearly the whole poem, we see the destruction resulting from Achilleus' extreme anger, the destruction of those who are its object, and more deeply, the destruction of the one possessed by anger. Then, in its final unfolding, the story presents an astonishing scene of compassion and forgiveness, balancing all the anger and destruction that has come before. I won't say more, or even quote from Book 24. Read and you will experience for yourself the power of Homer's story.