Tag Archives: Achilles

Men and Women of Destiny from Helen of Troy to Cus D’Amato

Types of Individuals and Subtypes

In the Judgement of Paris, three goddesses vie for the Golden Apple. A mortal, Paris, decides who gets the Golden Apple. Not knowing what type of individual Paris is, each goddess bribes Paris according to the basic human drive she represents. Aphrodite offers sensuousness. Athena offers wisdom. Hera offers power. Three goddesses vie for the Golden Apple because there are three basic individual types: epicures, sages, and suits.

Epicures, sages, and suits: each person falls into one of these three broad categories of people. In each of these categories are various subcategories. Among the epicures there are different pleasures. Among the sages the branches of knowledge are various. Among the suits, power take on different faces. There is the face of a CEO, the one wearing cuff links on a crisp shirt. There is the face of a mob boss with the clean shorn head. There is the face a Queen who plays one suitor against another. These are the faces of temporal power. But there is yet another, rarer, face of power. There is the atemporal face of power, the call of destiny. This is power in the dative case. It is in the dative case because it is power to those for whom the world is not enough. Whereas the industrialist, the boss, and the politician project their power for reasons they grasp, those to whom destiny calls project their power for reasons they do not fully grasp. It calls. They follow. The results are larger than life.

Achilles and Agamemnon

If Paris were the first epicure of the Western world, then Achilles and Agamemnon were the first suits. But they were suits of different types. Agamemnon wore the temporal face of power. The sceptre he carries is a visual analogy of his face of power. Achilles power is different. Like Agamemnon, he is a fighter and a nobleman. He is greater as a fighter and lesser as a nobleman. But this isn’t what differentiates them. The power he projects is atemporal. He is more a mystic. Achilles understands something that Agamemnon and the other warriors can hardly comprehend, and that is the call of destiny:

My mother Thetis the goddess of the silver feet tells me
I carry two sorts of destiny toward the day of my death. Either,
if I stay here and fight beside the city of the Trojans,
my return home is gone, but my glory shall be everlasting;
the excellence of my glory is gone, but there will be a long life
left for me, and my end in death will not come to me quickly.

We know the other heroes can hardly comprehend Achilles because Homer records their reaction:

So he [Achilles] spoke, and all of them stayed stricken to silence
in amazement at his words. He had spoken to them very strongly.

Then, as now, people are wary when individuals start talking of a destiny. Those to whom a higher task was not vouchsafed have only heard the distant rumour of destiny, most often spoken by fools and lunatics.

Achilles’ words can be read literally, or as an allegory. Read literally, his twin destinies provide the pivot of the poem. When he comes back to the field, the poem will be sung forever, but he will die quick. Read allegorically, his words speak to those whom destiny has called. His words say to them that destiny comes at a great price. Achilles will pay the price, and so will those who follow him.

Helen: Woman of Destiny

It is a shame Achilles and Helen never meet in the Iliad. They would have much to talk about. Besides Achilles, Helen is the only other character who understands the weight of destiny. During one of the fifty-one or so days in the Iliad, the tide (as it so often does) turns, this time against the Trojans. Hector goes back to fortress Troy to placate the gods. While inside, he runs into his brother Paris and his sister-in-law Helen. Helen, seeing Hector gore-covered and weary–weary of war and weary of worry–placates him:

Yet since the gods had brought it about that these vile things must be,
I wish I had been the wife of a better man than this is [Paris],
one who knew modesty and all things of shame that men say.
But this man’s heart is no steadfast thing, nor yet will it be so
ever hereafter; for that I think he shall take the consequence.
But come now, come in and rest on this chair, my brother,
since it is on your heart beyond all that the hard work has fallen
for the sake of dishonoured me and the blind act of Alexandros [an alternate name for Paris],
us two, on whom Zeus set a vile destiny, so that hereafter
we shall be made into things of song for the men of the future.

Her strategy of placating Hector is fascinating. First, she denigrates herself and Paris, for whom many excellent Trojans have died. Then there is the epic cop-out, similar to the one Agamemnon uses when many excellent Achaeans die because he slighted Achilles, their best warrior. Agamemnon blames Zeus as well for blinding his wits the moment he slighted Achilles. So too, Helen blames Zeus for their “vile destiny.” But then–and this is the fascinating part–she adds a metaphysical justification for why Zeus had set a vile destiny: he did so to make them “into things of song for the men of the future.” Why is this fascinating? Helen could not have known that Homer, centuries later, would memorialize their lives in the Iliad. How then was Helen able to make this statement? She was able to because she felt destiny calling her forwards.

While Achilles’ sense of destiny highlights the sacrifice that destiny demands, Helen’s sense of destiny highlights two separate facets of destiny. First, destiny takes place within a tradition. No one feels destined to do something that has never been done before. Destiny calls you to take your place in a long line of others who have had the same calling. In the case of Helen, she understood that the Trojan War was a great war, and, just as the bards in her day recounted the wars of old, the bards of the future would recount her story. Destiny is seeing beyond the present day. It is a higher awareness. While the others can only see the day-to-day contingencies of war, destiny calls Helen to join the great ones in the days of yore. What is more, we can see another aspect of destiny in the example of Helen. Those who hear destiny’s call are not for their time: they are born posthumously in the future times when their destiny is fulfilled. Every time Troy is sung, Helen lives. Such is the destiny of those made into things of song for the men of the future. Destiny is not a phenomenon of this world and this time, but a thing for another world in the times to come.

Philip II of Macedon, Olympias, and Alexander the Great

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “destiny” as:

The predetermined course of events; that which is destined to happen; the fate of a particular person, country, etc.; the ultimate condition; a person’s lot in life.

If destiny is “predetermined,” a “fate” hurtling toward “the ultimate condition,” it would seem that it is congenital, something written in the stars or woven by the Fates, and not something learned. Or is it? Could destiny be a learned asset? The case of Alexander suggests the feeling of destiny can, like the assets of emotional intelligence or geometry, be taught.

Alexander, from a young age, was told by his mother Olympias that it was his destiny to conquer Persia, the reigning world-power. So too he was told by his father Philip: “My son, ask for thyself another kingdom, for that which I leave is too small for thee.” From the iron sense of destiny imparted on him by Olympias and Philip, we can see why he would rebuke his soldiers, exhausted from his never-ending campaigns: “Go home, and tell them you left Alexander to conquer the world alone.”

In Alexander it is possible to see how destiny can be taught. Destiny is like that unattainable peak. We may never get there, but destiny is also the belief that we can. Alexander never achieved the kingdom he sought. But by believing in destiny, he went much further than could be expected or even imagined.

We are held back so often from our true capacities from our own beliefs. Destiny in the Alexandrian sense is a belief in oneself that allows one to transcend what was thought possible. Destiny as a tool to achieve the impossible reminds me of the story of martial artist and movie star Tony Jaa. Have you seen the staircase fight scene in The Protector, the one where Jaa ascends a series of grand staircases in leaps and bounds, all while taking out a small army or martial arts mercenaries? Well, the whole four-minute sequence was done in one shot, and it includes some serious gravity defying leaps that were done without wirework. How was this possible?

While growing up, Jaa watched wuxia wire fu shows such as The Legend of the Condor Heroes. In these shows, the old masters practised a gravity-defying discipline called “quinggong.” They could ascend sheer rock faces in a bound, run across lakes, and jump over fortress walls. In the movies, actors achieved these effects with trampolines and wirework, hence the name “wire fu.” Jaa, however, wasn’t aware of this. He thought quinggong was for real. And he practised his leaps and bound every day. He never got to the point where he could fly. But, if you watch The Protector, he gets halfway there. That is the advantage of destiny. By believing the impossible, you may not get there, but you will go further than how far people tell you is possible.

Incidentally, if you found it unlikely that a child could believe in quinggong, I believed it was possible until my mid-teens. To “practise” quinggong, I would jump off all sorts of things, stairs, balconies, and, in one case, a second storey window (fortunately my legs are robust!). I never got to Jaa’s level, but one time, in grade ten, they tested the basketball team’s standing vertical jump. In this test you stand with both legs planted on the ground and jump as high as you can. Your vertical jump or “vert,” as we called it, was the distance between the ground and your feet as maximum elevation. Most of the guys had a vert between 12-18 inches. My vert at age 15 was 24 inches. The average standing vertical (e.g. stationary, not running) jump of adult NBA players today is 28 inches. This was quite an impressive result. Even if you don’t believe in destiny, belief is a game changer. The feeling of destiny is belief multiplied by infinity.

In the case of Alexander, we see that destiny can be a learned attribute. Not only that, we see that the men and women of destiny have an affinity for one another. On visiting the grave of Achilles, Alexander said: “Oh fortunate youth, who found a Homer to proclaim thy valour!” Out of a hundred people, there is likely less than one who feels the call of immortality. It is looked on by others as a strange aberration. Perhaps it is for this reason that we can see how intrigued those who feel destiny’s allure are with one another.

Julius Caesar: “The Die is Cast”

The Rubicon, a small stream 300 kilometers north of Rome, marked the point where returning governors would have to take leave of their legions. Governors could roam with their legions north of the Rubicon. In Italy proper–the area south of the Rubicon–only elected officials could maintain armies. So it was in the dying days of the Roman Republic.

When Caesar was 31, he saw a statue of Alexander. Seeing the statue put Caesar in to a state of reflection. At 31, all Caesar had to show for himself was a quaestorship while at that same age Alexander had conquered the known world. Like Alexander, Caesar also wanted immortality. Later on, he would one up Alexander. While Alexander could only marvel how Achilles had a Homer to write of his deeds, Caesar would become his own historiographer, writing both The Gallic Wars and The Civil War. Such is the call of destiny. If help is not forthcoming, one must go at it alone.

Through Caesar we can see the incredible appetite for life that makes the man of destiny: the lavish games he put on, the unending wars of conquest that he brought home after all the enemies had been conquered, the massive feats of engineering he took on. But the one element of destiny with Caesar that fascinate me most is in 49 BC when he took the thirteenth legion across the Rubicon and started the Civil War. In particular, the thing that interest me most is what Caesar said as he crossed the tiny stream: alea iacta est “The die is cast.”

When Caesar says that the die is cast, he refers to the moment one offers oneself, almost as a sacrifice, to destiny. Destiny transcends the natural processes of this world, it is a metaphysical mood. Who, in the final examination, knows the difference between the call of destiny, madness, and megalomania? When one hears destiny’s call, one must, like Caesar at the Rubicon, either accept or reject the call. And if one accepts the call, one gives oneself up to higher and indeterminate powers. One becomes thrall to the unknown. Caesar, in a brilliant image, equates this unknown quantity to the randomness of the die.

There is some magic in destiny. It may call you to immortality. But, even though it calls, you may or may not get there. And whether or not you get there is beyond your control, no matter how great your resources and ingenuity. This is Caesar’s contribution to our discussion of destiny.

The Jews: A Destined People

For thou art an holy people unto the Lord thy God, and the Lord hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto himself, above all the nations that are upon the earth. Deuteronomy 14:2

With the Jews, we can see the effect of destiny on an entire people. God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah establishes the Jews as a people chosen for a greater destiny. Having a greater destiny is awesome, but we can also see that with great power comes great sacrifice: as soon as God chooses the Jews as his people, he also tells them how they must comport themselves. To be the people of destiny, there are many commandments and restrictions to follow. From the history of the Jews, we can make a general inference regarding destiny: destiny declines when discipline decays. To have a destiny means to comport oneself to the highest standards.

Because the covenant includes a whole race of people, we can see the effect of destiny on many people, many of whom we don’t typically see as being involved with destiny. Sure, we see Alexander and Caesar as people of destiny, but the covenant also involves Joe the plumber in the conversation. The first thing we notice in the history of the Jews is that it is extremely hard to live up to the demands of destiny. The nation would rather live free, would rather live under the golden calf than bear the burden of destiny. Destiny is an incredible weight.

The second thing that we notice, however, is that despite its weight, destiny compels those who feel its allure–if they don’t destroy themselves–to outperform. How many Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites, or Jebusites do you know today? And how many Jews do you know today? Of the tribes living in the Promised Land, only the Jews trace an unbroken line from biblical times to the present day. We can see from the history of the Jews how destiny makes it believers robust so that, against long odds, they prevail.

In the history of the Jews, we can also observe a third facet of destiny: to have a destiny sets you apart from others. The effect of professing that one has a destiny is to be, by others, sometimes misunderstood, sometimes scorned, and at other times persecuted. If one has a destiny, one searches out for others that are also marked by destiny. At the same time, if one has a destiny, one is marked as an object of contempt by the ones who are without their own destiny. There is something of human nature in this.

Nietzsche: A Philosopher in between Destiny and Madness

From the 1870s, Nietzsche knew that his task (die Aufgabe, as he endlessly referred to it) would be all-consuming, and that it would involve him exploding the boundaries of his professional credentials as an Altphilologe, a classical philologist of ancient Greece and Rome. From the early 1880s, his destiny became ever clearer: he would change the world forevermore with his revaluation of all values. Writing to Paul Lanzsky in 1884, he claimed that Thus Spake Zarathustra was “the most significant book of all times and of peoples that ever existed.” In 1887, although he was still (and would be until long after his death) a nobody, when an earthquake struck Nice on February 23 and the hotel where he was staying had collapsed, he observed: “It will be an advantage for the posterity to have a pilgrimage less to make.” These statements go beyond the sorts of statements made by most people. In Nietzsche we see the relationship between destiny and madness. For many, destiny calls, and madness comes running up. These anecdotes, by the way, are from philosopher and psychiatrist Karl Jasper’s introduction to Nietzsche, which I reviewed here.

For many years, it was thought that syphilis drove Nietzsche mad. That diagnosis is now disputed. The current belief is that he succumbed from a slowly growing right-sided retro-orbital meningioma, or, in other words, a brain cancer behind the right eye. Left untreated, the tumour displaced his right frontal lobe giving him a frontal lobotomy. A meningioma on the right side can lead to headaches on the right side, blindness in the right eye, visual disturbances, mania, and paranoia, all symptoms which Nietzsche experienced. Consider this report from Resa von Schirnhofer who visited Nietzsche in August 1884 at Sils-Maria:

As I stood waiting by the table, the door of the adjacent room on the right opened, and Nietzsche appeared. With a distraught expression on his pale face, he leaned wearily against the post of the half-opened door and immediately began to speak about the unbearableness of his ailment. He described to me how, when he closed his eyes, he saw an abundance of fantastic flowers, winding and intertwining, constantly growing and changing forms and colors in exotic luxuriance, sprouting one out of the other. “I never get any rest,” he complained, words which were implanted in my mind. Then, with his large, dark eyes looking straight at me he asked in his weak voice with disquieting urgency: “Don’t you believe this condition is a symptom of incipient madness?”

There is a biological foundation to destiny’s call. In Nietzsche’s case, we can see how, in the months leading up to his collapse in January 1889, even as he felt more certain that he would complete his task and assure his place in the pantheon, the biological factor–the cancer that would lobotomize him–was also growing. It is easy to speculate that his euphoria and his madness have a common physical root: the meningioma displacing his frontal lobe. The feeling of the certainty of destiny may be the results of a physical aberration of the brain rather than a metaphysical call from a higher power. It may even be that, one day in the future, the sociobiologists will identify a gene behind destiny’s call. We will see.

Cus D’Amato and Mike Tyson

It took the oldest heavyweight champ to make one of the most insightful comments on the youngest heavyweight champ. At 45, George Foreman defeated Michael Moorer in 1994 to take the crown. At the other end of the age scale, at 20 years of age Mike Tyson knocked out Trevor Berbick in 1986 to become the youngest champ. Although they were both active at the same time, they never fought. Years later, when asked why the fight never happened, Foreman said he wanted nothing to do with Tyson and Cus. That was a great comment as it shows how Foreman recognized so much of Tyson’s legacy was the product not of Tyson, but of his trainer, manager, and foster parent Cus D’Amato. Despite how often–to this day–Tyson talks up Cus, including writing a book Iron Ambition: My Life with Cus D’Amato, so few understand that there could be no Iron Mike without Cus D’Amato.

D’Amato lived life for a singular purpose: to train heavyweight boxing champions of the world with the peek-a-book style of boxing he pioneered. Like Bruce Lee, it was more than about the fights. It was a way of life in which the end goal is to be remembered forever. To this end, D’Amato studied the ancient classics and history–Homer, Achilles, Alexander, and Caesar–and applied their limitless ambition to the sphere of boxing, the sweet science. He immersed himself in psychology, arguing that the ring is where the superior character prevails. He also took up philosophy to increase his odds, familiarizing himself with the works of Nietzsche and Machiavelli. D’Amato himself knew no limits. He fought the mob, and the mob backed down. He took his peek-a-boo style, disparaged for its mechanical soul and awkwardness in attack, and produced not one, but three heavyweight hall-of-famers: José Torres–the first Latin American light heavyweight champ–Floyd Patterson–the champ between Rocky Marciano and Ali–and Mike Tyson.

D’Amato felt that he had a destiny, and this feeling drove him to perform, and to get his fighters to perform (from Mike Tyson’s recollections):

Cus was a believer in destiny. Even as a young boy, he felt that he’d be famous someday; he always had a feeling that “there was something different” about him. I had the same exact feeling. So it felt right that I would move in with Cus and Camille. Cus was so happy. I couldn’t understand why this white man was so happy about me. He would look at me and laugh hysterically. Then he’d get on the phone and tell people, “Lightning has struck twice. I have another heavyweight champion. He’s only thirteen.”

One of the first nights that I stayed over at the house on one of the home visits, Cus took me into the living room, where we could talk alone. “You know I’ve been waiting for you,” he told me. “I’ve been thinking about you since 1969. If you meditate long enough on something, you get a picture. And the picture told me that I would make another champion. I conjured you up with my mind and now you’re finally here.”

Like the previous examples, we can see in the case of D’Amato that destiny involves appetite, a belief, and a euphoria going beyond reason that borders on lunacy.

In the life of D’Amato, we can see how all-consuming the call of destiny is. Though he managed three heavyweight world champs, when he died, all that he had to his name was his station-wagon that he used to drive his fighters to the gym. This reminds me of the story of another fighter, one from the ancient times:

When he [Alexander the Great] divided his revenues among his friends, while preparing his Asian campaign, and Perdiccas asked him what he retained for himself, he answered, “Hope.”

To those whom destiny calls, money is not legal tender. Glory is legal tender. In another anecdote, D’Amato uses money to get Tyson’s interests, and, at the right time, tells him it’s not about the money, but about a greater purpose: immortality:

I used to ask Cus, “What does it mean being the greatest fighter of all time? Most of those guys are all dead.” “Listen, they’re dead, but we’re talking about them now, this is all about immortality.” That fucked me up. It changed the whole game. I just thought it would be about riches, the big cars, the big mansions he used to point out to me. But now he was taking it to a whole other level. He got me hooked with the riches, but now he suddenly said, “You’re going to be a god.” This was the real deal, and the real fucked me up real good. Then he said, “Forget that money.” Once he told me that shit, it blew my mind. He was talking immortality and I’m figuring out what that is.

D’Amato met Tyson when Tyson was thirteen. Tyson could hardly read at the time. He had just started learning how to read as a precondition of weekend boxing sessions with Bobby Stewart, his juvenile detention counsellor, a Golden Glove champ who had fought on the undercard in the infamous “Rumble in the Jungle.” Stewart was a Cus D’Amato fighter and the link between Tyson and D’Amato. Once D’Amato took on Tyson, in addition to the physical training, he kindled Tyson’s interest in history and philosophy and got Tyson reading about Achilles, Alexander the Great, and Nietzsche. By sixteen, Tyson got it:

Even at sixteen years old, I believed that all the heroes and gods of war–Achilles, Ares, and all these gods, and all the old fighters–were watching me and I had to represent them, I had to be bloodthirsty, and gut-wrenching. I realized through Cus that we were fighting for immortality. Nothing else mattered than being worshipped by the entire world. When Cus talked to me about immortality he wasn’t just talking about me, he was talking about himself too. I wasn’t just fighting for my glory, I was fighting for his too. Nobody loved boxers and boxing more than Cus. He devoted his whole life to service, first to the poor Italians in his neighborhood in the Bronx and later to all the wayward kids like me, and Patterson and Kevin Rooney and Joe Juliano and on and on and on. We trained hard, we fought hard, but it was worth every minute.

Looking back decades later, many years after the belts and the limelight, Tyson would look back at it all from a retrospective position and say:

Cus’s friend the CBS boxing consultant Mort Sharnik wanted to do a program about Cus before he died. In one of the interviews for the show, he asked Cus if he thought about his legacy and the whole point of his life. Cus said, “All I want to do is make one small scratch on this big rock before I go. I want them to know that Cus D’Amato was here.” You got it, Cus. Now there are two scratches on that rock, side by side. And whenever anyone remembers Mike Tyson, they’ll know the name of Cus D’Amato too. Until the end of time.

People think of Mike Tyson as a savage. And he is. Recently, when Tyson went back into the ring at age 54 to face Roy Jones Jr., Joe Rogan interviewed Tyson. Rogan was so intimidated by Tyson’s physical presence, that he had a new table made up for his podcast, one which placed another two feet between him and his guest. In this way, Tyson is like one of his idols: Achilles. Achilles was also a savage, but also capable of the highest poetic expression: while Diomedes and Odysseus speak with power, only when Achilles talks is the audience stunned into silence. Tyson’s words on fulfilling D’Amato’s legacy are among the most beautiful I have read, in any language.

The story of D’Amato and Tyson shows the social side of destiny: it’s not enough to go at it alone. Destiny is a combination of drive, character, luck, and, above, all, love. Their story is the story of a young boy learning from the old master. As a fan of Homer, I’m so happy to see how the old stories continue to inspire–in places where one would have least thought.

The Faces of Destiny

These are the faces of destiny. From Achilles, destiny is about the price that you pay. From Helen, destiny is a higher level of awareness. From Philip, Olympias, and Alexander the Great, destiny is a sense of wonder that can be passed from generation to generation. From Caesar, to accept destiny is to place yourself in the hands of a higher power. From the Jews, destiny is an intolerable harness that allows believers to go further than the rest. From Nietzsche, destiny is a mental state with a biological foundation closely related with madness. From Cus D’Amato and Mike Tyson, destiny is the love between two driven individuals. And from all these types, destiny has always been appetite for life.

Through these portraits of destiny, we can see how the people of destiny are intrigued by one another, and learn the trade of destiny by researching one another. If you are touched by destiny, learn from the others the lightning has struck. Make yourself indispensable to the heritage within which you work, and your odds of being remembered increases. Today, no one can study Jack Dempsey, Battling Nelson, Joe Gans, and others without going through Tyson’s interpretation of them. Tyson has made himself indispensable. So too, no one can study Schopenhauer, Plato, or Hegel today without going through Nietzsche’s interpretation of them. Nietzsche has made himself indispensable to the tradition.

Those who do not feel destiny will look at those struck by destiny as aberrations. But those who have been struck will look at them as the greatest models. “If I were not Napoleon,” said Napoleon, “I would be Alexander.”


Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.

sine memoria nihil

Review of THE ILIAD OR THE POEM OF FORCE – Simone Weil

pages 182-215 in Simone Weil: An Anthology, trans. Mary McCarthy, ed. Sian Miles, Penguin, 2005

The Classics

In the Greek and Roman studies, I had two loves: Homer’s Iliad and tragedy, particularly those of Aeschylus and Sophocles. I admired the Iliad for Homer’s look of distance. He tells the story of a great war. Each of the combatants realizes the war is a zero-sum game ending in death, yet they persevere. The point?–to exchange the commodity of honour on the battlefield by killing, or being killed. The purpose of such a life?–to become immortal, become an object of song for future generations of singers to sing. The funny thing is by dying they succeeded.  I admired Aeschylus and Sophocles’ tragedies for a similar reason. Though their protagonists suffer terribly, they understand suffering to be a natural part of existence. There was never a need to explain suffering away. We are not gods. Therefore, we suffer, and terribly. Attempts to justify suffering and evil seemed to me contrived. In Homer, Aeschylus, and Sophocles, I found a beguiling theodicy: suffering and misery transform mortals into immortals. We are not remembered for our happiness.

In my student days up to the present day, I would read all the secondary material on epic and tragedy. In later years, I would be fortunate enough to add to the material myself: a new theory of tragedy based on risk and an article on fate and free will in epic. From time to time–not often, but often enough–the footnotes and bibliographies in this secondary material would mention an essay with a most curious name: L’Iliade ou le poème de la force (The Iliad or The Poem of Force). At the time, I never sought it out to read, but the name haunted me. What did Simone Weil mean by ‘poem of force’? So intriguing…

The idea of force fascinates me, and many others. Nietzsche turned force into a fundamental drive behind all other drives in his will to power. Bob Dylan devoted an album–Love and Theft–to examining force and power. Rush did the same in their album Power Windows. Last month, I ran into another article mentioning Weil’s The Iliad or The Poem of Force. It was time. I ordered a copy of a Penguin anthology of her works. I’m glad I did.

When Writing about Force, One Must Have Force

One of my complaints in the classics was that I’d read or hear so many people without force talking about some the most forceful personalities the world has known. I remember one time there was a presentation on Caesar. It was delivered in this monotone and uninterested voice, completely devoid of passion. I remember wondering why someone would study and research Caesar who was so devoid of the spirit of Caesar. The eye sees the sun because it has in it that spark that is the sun’s fire. How can one see Caesar who doesn’t have in their eye the gleam of fire lighting up Caesar’s eye? Reading Weil, there was no danger of this. From the first sentence, force permeates her essay. Her concentration of power is amazing. To read Weil is to be in the presence of greatness. Consider her opening paragraph:

The true hero, the true subject, the centre of the Iliad is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away. In this work, at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relations with force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to. For those dreamers who considered that force, thanks to progress, would soon be a thing of the past, the Iliad could appear as a historical document; for others, whose powers of recognition are more acute and who perceive force, today as yesterday, at the very centre of human history, the Iliad is the purest and the loveliest of mirrors.

In a tripartite construction (hero…subject…centre), the first sentence boldly announces force is the protagonist in the Iliad. It is not Achilles. It is not war. It is not rage. It is force. There is no buildup to this discovery. It is stated point-blank in one sentence, and the opening sentence. The second sentence, in another tripartite structure, provides examples of force. The language is direct and ornate at the same time. Then the third sentence slips into the passive voice, a construction frowned upon by writing experts who prefer the active voice, the voice of doing rather than being done to. In the third sentence the human spirit is ‘shown to be modified’. But here too, there is a reason. The passive voice shows the overpowering force of force over the human spirit, which, in the passive construction, is being held in thrall. The passive construction highlights the helplessness of the human agent in the face of force. Brilliant. Then the concluding couplet: ‘For those dreamers…’ and ‘For others, who powers of recognition are more acute…’. In the closing couplet, Weil makes it plain that she is aware that there is another way to look at the work, an opposing reading. She also makes it clear, in most forceful language, where she stands. Force, for those with the eyes to see, is the eternal mover upon which a philosophy of history can be built. She died, I think, too young to fulfil her destiny. Who has the greatness to take her up where she left off? Do such people still exist today?

Her power blew me away. On my first reading of The Iliad or the Poem of Force, I had been working on a paper. Reading her essay made me throw my paper out and start anew. It was embarrassing how she could say in hundreds of characters what I needed hundreds of words to make clear. It is seldom that I encounter such a powerhouse. The last encounter I had with greatness of the highest level was five years ago reading Edward O. Wilson’s Consilience.

Force is Simplicity

Though the essay is short, Weil picks her examples for maximum effect. Her familiarity with the Iliad comes through in how effortlessly she comes up with the perfect example to describe each of the faces of force. To Weil, a religious-anarchist thinker, force is the motivating power shaping history. She once told Trotsky once that he was mistaken. It was not class struggle, but force that would decide the future. I’m also reading Karl Jasper’s critique of Nietzsche right now, and I can’t help but wonder if Weil was familiar with Nietzsche’s will to power. For Nietzsche, the will to power was the underlying drive. For Weil, however, force is something that comes and goes. It is with us one moment, and gone the next:

Still more poignant–so painful is the contrast–is the sudden evocation, as quickly rubbed out, of another world: the faraway, precarious, touching world of peace, of the family, the world in which each man counts more than anything else to those about him:

“She ordered her bright-haired maids in the palace
To place on the fire a large tripod, preparing
A hot bath for Hector, returning from battle.
Foolish woman! Already he lay, far from hot baths,
Slain by grey-eyed Athena, who guided Achilles’ arm.”

Far from hot baths he was indeed, poor man. And not he alone. Nearly all the Iliad takes place far from hot baths. Nearly all of human life, then and now, takes place far from hot baths.

Weil accomplishes so much with so little. So too Homer. Andromache pour Hector a bath. We don’t know what’s going through her mind. Then the narrator interjects: Hector’s already dead. The effect is not unlike something Dylan pulled off more recently in ‘Cross the Green Mountain:

A letter to mother came today
Gunshot wound to the breast is what it did say
But he’ll be better soon he’s in a hospital bed
But he’ll never be better, he’s already dead.

Both poets step back and let the readers weigh the human impact of death. Weil’s genius is in her short turn of phrase ‘then as now’. It is a poignant reminder that she is critiquing a poem of war during a time of war–the first year of the Second World War. When the world gives you force, it is a good time to examine force.

Why We Read the Greats

Weil doesn’t make for the easiest reading. So why read Weil? It’s worth it reading the greats because they can give you insight into unrelated problems you’re working on that you can’t think through. The greats have a different perspective. Whether you agree or not, to follow along their argument, your mind is working on a different pitch, sometimes just trying to keep up and other times contorting itself to unravel the strange intellectual knots. As the mind goes through these motions, sometimes it can catch a glimpse of something else that it’s been working on from this new angle, and from this new angle, find a breakthrough.

One of my interests has been the relation between fate and chance. In a paradoxical way, they seemed to me to be two sides of the same coin. Fate is chance with the benefit of hindsight (thank you AB for that catchy turn of phrase). I’ve been writing about how chance and fate are intertwined in Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes and Shakespeare’s Macbeth. I hadn’t, however, figured out how chance and fate in the Iliad was intertwined. I had a feeling it might be, because, to me, chance and fate is invariably linked in tragedy, and, the Iliad, although classified as epic, is also understood by some–including Plato–to be the prototypical tragedy. But, the Iliad thus far had defeated my attempts to unify the two forces of chance and fate. They just seemed too far apart. In the Iliad it was like how Weil described: force is the ruling power, and determinate force could allow no room for chance to function. Even in Patroclus’ funeral games, where several of the contestants slip, the slip is shown not to be accidental (e.g. by chance) but is, to those in the know, caused by the gods.

While I was reading Weil, part of my brain must have been thinking about chance and fate. But her writing was making me think hard, and when she quoted this passage, the answer came to me:

Even to Achilles the moment comes; he too must shake and stammer with fear, though it is a river that has this effect on him, not a man. But, with the exception of Achilles, every man in the Iliad tastes a moment of defeat in battle. Victory is less a matter of valour than of blind destiny, which is symbolized in the poem by Zeus’s golden scales:

“Then Zeus the father took his golden scales,
In them he put the two fates of death that cuts down all men,
One for the Trojans, tamers of horses, one for the bronze-sheathed Greeks.
He seized the scales by the middle; it was the fatal day of Greece that sank.”

By its very blindness, destiny establishes a kind of justice.

In a flash it came to me: Zeus may have rolled dice to determine the fates of the Greeks and the Trojans. Chance and fate in the Iliad are intertwined as well. Even though I’ve known the passage with Zeus and his scales for a long time, I needed to read Weil to think it through. It must have been her words bringing together “blindness” and “destiny.” It’s moments like this that make reading the greats worthwhile.

The Loveliest of Mirrors

The Iliad is a poem of force. Force makes all those who fall under its dominion things. But the Iliad is beautiful because, in the process of becoming a thing, the people of the Iliad remember friendships, think of moms and dads faraway, and contemplate what life that could have been. Despite the go-fever of war, every so often, they recover the soul. There is a spattering of these precious moments, moments where the war-machine Achilles and Priam, the king of kings, come together to cry, Achilles for the father whose son he has slain and Priam for his son who Achilles has slain. And that, to Weil, is what makes the Iliad that poem the poems among.

In Weil’s own time, factories and war too would sap the soul and turn people into things. But Weil too in her own time would see souls, for an instant, break free of force. And in these moments, she would see again Andromache drawing a bath for Hector, already dead. And in these moments, I am sure, she was drawn back to all that is the Iliad, the loveliest of mirrors. We are the creatures of force, yet, in that great moment, for an instant, we rise above before force reasserts its crushing power. Weil’s mirror too, is also the loveliest in that she was writing on a poem of war during a time of war, and it may be, that we will never understand the Iliad like how she understood it, until we find ourselves looking at it, like Weil, from a time of war. Today, critics like myself living in Canada, are only peacetime critics.

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong, and I do Melpomene’s work.

Author Blurb

Simone Weil was one of the foremost thinkers of the twentieth century: a philosopher, theologian, critic, sociologist and political activist. This anthology spans the wide range of her thought, and includes an extract from her best-known work ‘The Need for Roots’, exploring the ways in which modern society fails the human soul; her thoughts on the misuse of language by those in power; and the essay ‘Human Personality’, a late, beautiful reflection on the rights and responsibilities of every individual. All are marked by the unique combination of literary eloquence and moral acuity that characterized Weil’s ideas and inspired a generation of thinkers and writers both in and outside her native France.

The Harmony of Fixed Fate and Free Will in the Iliad

How many assiduous readers have read Homer.s Iliad? If you have, you might remember Achilles and his peculiar fates: if he continues the fight at Troy, he will die an untimely death yet live on in song forevermore. But if he returns home, he will live to a ripe old age but his fame will be forgotten. He chooses to fight the good fight. But what sort of choice is this if it.s fated? And really, if he takes off, we wouldn.t have the story of the Iliad–surely that.s not allowed! That.s not the only peculiar instance of fate and free will in the Iliad. Readers with good memories will also recall Zeus’ predicament when Sarpedon.s fated moment to die arrives: does he save his son or can he circumvent fate? Like a wily politician, Zeus sidesteps the issue: he pulls out his golden scales. Sarpedon.s lot sinks. So he dies. But hey, it.s not Zeus’ fault–the scales did it! Zeus says that he could have averted his son.s death. But really, could he have?

These, and other scenes where fate and free will come to head lead to two questions. First: how fixed is fate? And second: how free is free will in the Iliad? I examine these questions in the piece The Harmony of Fixed Fate and Free Will in the Iliad, published by Antichthon in 2002. Ultimately, the conflict between fate and free will is likened to a chess endgame. The article is in PDF form so I.ve downloaded a plugin called ‘PDF Embedder’ so that it can be embedded into the post. Scroll down, it should be visible. Second option is to click on ‘iliad.fate.free.will’ below and see if the PDF downloads. Then you can just read it in your PDF viewer instead of the Mickey Mouse viewer built into the blog. It seems WordPress doesn.t like to play nice with embedded PDFs all the time, so if you.re still having hard time viewing, send me an email and I.ll attach the PDF in the happy reply.

Special bonus: for those of you who like to play chess, check out the the last page. There.s an endgame scenario that can be played out illustrating the harmony between fixed fate and free will using an actual chess endgame mapped onto Hector.s last stand with Achilles! Here.s a sneak preview of the endgame scenario, full instructions and blow-by-blow commentary in the article:

Endgame Iliad

Endgame Iliad

Publishing this article was an extremely positive experience, as the editor of Antichthon at the time, Harold Tarrant, happened to be a chess aficionado!



Until next time, I.m Edwin Wong and I am, as always, Doing Melpomene’s Work. Happy reading and may the fates be with you!