Tag Archives: Iliad

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!

Rules for Renegades by Comaford-Lynch

This book was sitting at the library in a little display on the second floor. There was a bunch of business and investing type books that the librarian must have assembled for display. During a writing break, the green and black cover caught my eye as well as the longish subtitle: Rules for Renegades: How to Make More Money, Rock Your Career, and Revel in Your Individuality. Wow, what more could you ask for than to make mega money, rock the career, and revel in individuality! And, it stood out being written by a woman as well, Christine Comaford-Lynch (the last name is as long as the subtitle!). Most of the other titles were by guys. Either they did not catch my fancy (Derek Foster.s titles, no thanks) or I had read them before (When Genius Failed, great book on the explosion called LTMC that resulted when you mix together nobel prize winners and 100:1 leverage). Well, flipping through it, it looked like it was a collection of stories from Comaford-Lynch.s experiences that allowed her to, well, make money, rock the career, and revel in individuality! I wasn.t looking for a self-help type book, but Rules for Renegades is also set up like a juicy tell all tale with stories of dating Bill Gates and Larry Ellison thrown in for fun. I decided to read it.

As diligent readers have come to expect, here.s an image of the title:


As well as the blurb from the back:

From high school drop-out, to monk, to multimillionaire, Christine has lived the Rules for Regnegades.

Wow, you don.t say?

You want a fabulous career. You want to succeed without sacrificing your personal life. Your path is different than mine, but I’m guessing we have things in common. I wrote this book for you. Signed, Christine Comaford-Lynch.

She wrote this for me? Awww, how kind!

Already from the back blurb you can see where Comaford-Lynch is coming from. The first thing I notice is a self-promotional bias. But that.s sort of offset because she.s put herself in the customer.s shoes,ie she.s self-promotional to gain your trust so that she can help you. So the self-promotion isn.t based on vanity but a desire to do something for others. Very clever. It strikes me that too often we don.t mention the advantages of our actions for their recipients. It takes a special mindset to be able to see the transaction from the other party.s perspective. And when one is able to convey to the other party that we are ‘thinking as if we are in his shoes’, there.s an opportunity to win trust, even during periods of intense negotiations.

Rules for Renegades is a business book–or really a collection of business anecdotes. But there.s something she shares with writers as well. And I want to share it with fellow writers because it.s so true:

An honest self-assessment based on answers to the questions above will help you determine if it’s time to be a quick-change artist. One of my friends, Walter, is a talented and prolific writer. He often moans about the publishing industry, about how it feels closed to newcomers, how first-time authors have such a slim chance of getting published. I asked him how he saw the industry and his position in it. He said, he sees the publishing industry as this enormous mansion, with manicured grounds. He’s not even working in the garden–he’s a farmhand way out on the South 40. The impressive entrance is barely visible from his distant field. As an indentured servant, he’ll never even get near the publishing mansion.

I blurted out, ‘But everything’s an illusion–so why not pick one that’s empowering?’. Walter asked how I, also new to the publishing scene, saw it. I said that to me the publishing world is a complex software system, and I am a talented hacker. Every day I make more progress navigating the system and getting closer to understanding how it works. It’s a cool adventure, and I know I’ll figure it out. Walter was silent for a moment, then said, ‘Wow. No wonder you have a terrific agent and a book deal’. He took this to heart. Walter is changing his self-image and illusions of the publishing world, an dI know one day soon he’ll sell his first novel.

‘Everything.s an illusion–so why not pick one that’s empowering’. That.s pretty good advice because it.s easy to lose confidence along the way. Just look at my recent blogs: in quite a few of them, the issues of a writer.s self-doubt crops up. Again and again. And the message from this book and the recently read Buffet Speaks is that self-doubt is a negative quality that successful people just don.t seem to have. ‘I.ve never doubted myself’, says Buffett (or something similar). What struck Comaford-Lynch about Bill Gates when they hit it off was his complete lack of self-doubt–he would frequently express surprise when she pointed out the risks: ‘What do you mean it.s risky?–of course it.s going to work. And work PERFECTLY’. If this point of view can be put into an aphorism, it.d go something like this: better to aim for the stars and miss than shoot for the gutter and hit.

There are those without self-doubt: Gates, Buffett, and probably Elon Musk. They are the world changing industrialists. There are those with too much self-doubt. A lot of writers fall into this category. Did you know the brilliant theorist Bakhtin used his manuscripts to roll cigarettes, such a low estimation he had of his writings (and no doubt being penniless). And then there are those in between. Perhaps yours truly falls into this category. Here.s my campfire story.

Back in the early 2000s, I was thinking about free will, fate, consciousness, and things like that. These are the things I like to think about. They are the sort of thing you can ponder while looking into the expanse of the sky at night. I was also reading Homer.s Iliad. The Iliad asks questions such as: is Achilles’ free although his death foretold, how ‘fated’ is it for Troy to fall, and so on. The idea occurred that fate and free will are not necessarily antithetical concepts. At least in literature. It could be conceptualized as a chess endgame. Endgames have certain properties which make them interesting. Players are free to move their pieces. But to a knowledgeable observe, the ending is already predetermined: either White or Black will win and this is known during an endgame scenario. In the endgame scenario, you could, therefore, see a harmony between fixed fate and free will working simultaneously. I wrote the article and sent it off to academic journals. I even mapped the final confrontation between Achilles and Hector (including the surprise twist when Hector realizes Deiphobus isn.t really there and Athene has duped him) onto a chess endgame. To do so involved going through hundreds of endgame scenarios to find an endgame where Black thinks he.s going to win by a power play in which he takes White.s queen. But by taking the queen, Black actually seals his own defeat.

Rejection after rejection. And since the refereeing process is anonymous, some mean rejections as well. ‘Don.t bother wasting our time’, ‘Give your head a shake’, and so on. Just poisonous. There must be some disgruntled academics out there. But anyway, I believed in myself. I don.t know how, but I thought the article deserved to be published. It was a simple workaround to a long standing debate. To go back to Rules for Renegades, I put on the illusion that I had something to offer. I was a hacker who would game the system. Eventually, that.s what I did. I noticed that the editor of Antichthon at the time, HT, also served as president of a national chess federation. I sent the manuscript to him. I got back a reply, ‘It needs some work but I like it. Make x,y,z revisions and we.ll go from there. And by the say, I enjoyed the chess analogy’. Bingo!!! ‘The Harmony of Fixed Fate and Free Will in the Iliad‘ came out in volume 36 (2002) of Antichthon: Journal of the Australian Society for Classical Studies.

The moral of the story? Oft-times nothing profits more than self-esteem grounded on just and right. Do something well, and believe in yourself. Instead of creating a mental structure biased to your limitations, create a mental structure biased for success. Instead of being burdened by the system, game the system to make the most of your chances. Carry on soldier, tomorrow.s another day.

To close out, Rules for Renegades offers a viable psychological strategy for success. Even if you.re already successful and there.s no shadows of self-doubt clouding the sun of your ambition, read it for the colourful anecdotes: the stories of Gates’ mom running his life with sticky notes posted all over his furnishings, how Ellison tried to show off to his date this new thing called the ‘internet’ and how it crashed…  So, dear read, until next time, I am Edwin Wong and I am revelling in my individuality by Doing Melpomene.s Work. May you also make more money, rock your career, and revel in individuality! *mental note* in some future blog I should talk about the cult of individuality these days as opposed to looking at things from a communal perspective.