The ‘Glory' of War


Since the dawn of Western literature, going all the way back to Homer and his sanguinary epics of men in battle, war has captivated poets. And yet the Iliad and the Odyssey, though they cover traditional heroic materials, are strangely ambivalent regarding their central heroic subject: the striving for glory through warfare. Homer’s poems, to be sure, recreate the melodrama and gory details of ancient battle-fear and courage, loyalty, treachery, trickery and daring. But beyond their skillful plotting and vivid depictions of ancient life, they transcend mere entertainment to achieve the nuance and complexity that mark any sensitive understanding of the human condition. They become resonant with our deepest human sensibilities. They become art.

One important dimension of this resonant ambivalence in Homer lies in his refusal to affirm, unequivocally, the conventional equation of glory with skill and courage in battle. Many centuries later, a Prussian general would remark that men are never so noble as when risking death in the heat of combat. Homer’s attitude is considerably more complicated. Meeting the ghost of Achilles in the underworld, and expecting the famed warrior to relish his posthumous glory, Odysseus tells him, “we Argives / honored you as a god, and now down here, I see, / you lord it over the dead in all your power.” The hero’s response surprises him with its dismissal of temporal glory in war: “No...

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About the Author

John Savant, professor emeritus at Dominican University of California, lives in San Rafael, California.