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Category Archives: by A.P. David

The Mysterious Mr. Homer

by February 27, 2013

No one knows exactly when the Greek poet Homer lived. Herodotus, the father of history, guessed around 850 BC. Other ancient sources proposed that he was conjuring up transcendent imagery as early as the 12th century BC. Modern researchers, however, appear to place Homer in the 7th or 8th centuries BC.

The dates, as you can see, vary wildly. All we do know is that his compositions are considered the oldest works of western literature and have had an enormous and incalculable influence throughout the history of the written word.

Bust of Homer

Homer as imagined in the Hellenistic period

But the “Homeric Question” goes deeper than just dates… Historians aren’t even sure he existed at all. His works may be the culmination of generations of storytelling, all grouped under a fictitious name and nothing else. Could one man have written both The Iliad and The Odyssey?

At the same time, the stylistic similarities between the two mammoth stories are overwhelming, suggesting that, yes, it was the result of single author. But to throw another wrench into the mix, most scholars agree that the books underwent a process of standardisation and refinement in the beginning of the 8th century BC. Any wonder then that the styles were so similar…

We also can’t be certain that Homer was even a man, presuming he or she once lived. Samuel Butler, an important 19th century translator, argued that based on literary observations, it was a young Sicilian woman who wrote The Odyssey… but interestingly enough, not The Iliad.

So what do we know about Homer? How are we to learn anything about this ancient poet, if he or she did indeed walk this earth? Where do the clues lie to this ancient puzzle?

The answer may be obvious: We have to look at the poetry itself and piece together what we can. Unfortunately most of us do not have the time, nor the ancient greek skills to delve into the mystery ourselves…

For this reason, Classical Wisdom Weekly spoke with Ancient Greek expert A.P. David for insights into who Homer was and how we can better understand the monumental works of The Iliad and The Odyssey. A scholar and a gentleman, A.P. David also presents some alternative views on the subject… ones that might make you question everything you thought you knew about the epic poet and his (or her) writings.

Click on the play button to watch the video:

The Woman of Phthia

by February 7, 2013

by A.P. David

Unlike Socrates, Plato wrote—and wrote and wrote. This was a man who said, on a rare occasion in the first person, that his theories could not be expressed in writing. Just as inner contradiction is a key to effective drama, where we call it ‘conflict’, contradiction appears to be the fount and foil of philosophy. This is likely a reason why Plato was obsessed with the daimonic, galvanic impact of one peculiar man on the sophistic/philosophical movement that came to a head in fifth-century Athens. It was a man whom Plato had probably known all his life… it was none other than Socrates himself.

Athens was the birthplace of tragedy and comedy, and Plato was supposed to be a successor to Euripides and Agathon in tragedy. Instead, he fell victim to that indescribable pull of Socrates.

Plato and Socrates

Plato and Socrates

After that, only one person could be dramatized by Plato and it certainly wasn’t the traditional, mythic figures posed as Trojan horses. It could only be Socrates, who died for his sins. The man who sent Plato and his crowd into despair at his death would be the focalizing agent for Plato’s dramatic instinct.

Only with Socrates as reagent did the real drama happen for Plato, and consequently real thought could be dramatised.

Let us consider the passage from Crito about Socrates’ dream. Crito walks in on Socrates sleeping so peacefully that he does not wish to wake him up, despite the urgency of his business. We soon find out that the dream is about a gorgeous woman (though it was not likely an erotic dream in any embarrassing sense).

The woman was dressed in white, and καλή καὶ εὐειδής, ‘beautiful and shapely’. She came up to Socrates and called to him, saying, ὦ Σώκρατες, ἤματί κεν τριτάτῳ Φϑίην ἐρίβωλον ἵκοιο. ‘Socrates, on the third day wouldst thou come to fertile Phthia.’

‘Bizarre dream’ says Crito, Socrates’ wealthy age-mate and a man who seems to care more about Socrates as a human person than as a mentor or guru. ‘Seems pretty clear to me, Crito,’ says Socrates in response.

Well, what is clear about it? The beautiful woman is also a motherly figure who seems to know Homer’s works well.

The lines she recites come straight from Achilles, in his response to Odysseus in Book IX of the Iliad:

‘You will see, if you want, and if such things could concern you
At early dawn upon the fish-filled Hellespont sailing,
My own ships, and men in them eager to row;
If he should give us fair voyaging, Glorious Earth-Shaker,
On the third day I would reach deep soiled Phthia.’

Does this mean Socrates is identifying himself with Achilles? On his way to Phthia?

In some ways the Crito, depicting a private conversation that Plato must only have imagined, seems to show the public bravado that Socrates exhibited in his defence at the trial. He there associated himself with Achilles, which was surely not a winning thing to do, when he was ugly, old, and irritating. Was this in fact a genuine fantasy on Socrates’ part?

In the speech at the end of the Crito, Socrates connects himself to Achilles in the context of not deserting his post. Socrates, like Achilles, will stick to his life’s mission under fire. This is because Socrates is a servant of the Laws.

But wait a minute… Achilles actually was fantasising about returning to Phthia. Achilles was looking forward, in the form of a passive-aggressive threat, to deserting his post.

Whatever Socrates may have said at the end of the Crito, he has, in fact, had a dream of wish fulfillment. He has managed, while sleeping, to express his desire to escape the bitter degradation that he has suffered by submitting to Athens. Is it the same dishonour that embroiled Achilles who capitulated to the Achaean army?

No one knows where Achilles’ Phthia really was, but Phthia in historical times was a region of Thessaly. Thessaly, of course, is the ‘lawless place’ where Crito would like to smuggle Socrates. Does Crito understand Socrates’ wish, when he hears about the dream? Is that why he appears to ignore Socrates’ statement that the dream is clear, and presses his suit? Does Socrates want to go to Thessaly?

Achilles and Thetis in the Woman of Phthia

Achilles and Thetis

Context suggests that the woman in Socrates’ dream corresponds to Thetis, Achilles’ divine mother. This further proposes that we should be thinking about the alternative paths to death that Thetis presented to Achilles, in the Iliad. There is a long anonymous life at home, or a short but glorious life at Troy. This also is clear: going back to Phthia, for Achilles, to work on the farm, is the path not chosen.

How does this work in the dream analysis? Socrates wins eternal glory (Plato is the poet to thank for this) by sticking to his post and obeying the Laws. Does the clarity of his dream suggest that this is all a sham? That he would rather desert his thankless army and be received in the arms of a shapely woman, who is his original mother?

Socrates’ own reading of the dream is that it signifies something about the day he will die—the third day. Then Phthia becomes a kind of Hades. Is it possible that Socrates’ conception of the afterlife allowed him, at different times, to fulfill both of Achilles’ fates?

Perhaps it is only this aspect of the number of days that is clear to Socrates. The woman is a mystery. What sort of comfort or reward is her beauty? If you want to take in all of what is in front of you, do not forget her as you contemplate the speech of the Laws, and Socrates’ obligation to the state that is executing him. The ‘argument of the dialogue’ only emerges if you ignore her. Plato included her. Thus there is created a drama not of action but of thought. To resolve it is, is to kill it; meanwhile, Socrates lives.

Homer the Poet and Fate – Part Two

by December 26, 2012

by A.P. David – You can Read Homer the Poet and Fate – Part One by A.P. David HERE:

The problem with a budget is that it cannot be changed mid-stream. In the period prior to its passage, a budget is a field of endless conflict and negotiation. Anything is possible at that point. But once it is passed, nothing can be changed. Once the government offices or UN bureaus have received their annual allotment, they cannot ask for more. They can only petition for next year. I think that this is the key to the power of fate. It is like this year’s budget.

Conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon

“La Colère d’Achille” (“Wrath of Achilles”) by French painter Michel Martin Drolling

Consider how deeply the anxiety about this problem goes in the Iliad; it is in fact expressed in the opening conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon, which is essentially a problem of re-allotment once the division has already been made. The case is doubly poignant and humanly challenging because the commodity in question is a woman. Apart from the question about the value of a woman (how many hecatombs is she worth?) it is not possible to return a woman. She has become ‘used’, to put it crudely. It is essential, in regard to the possibility of reconciliation with Achilles, that Agamemnon claims he has not, in fact, slept with Briseis… although this stretches credibility.

The whole narrative problem of the Iliad, which is also Zeus’s problem, is how to stitch in a certain sequence of events, within a framework that has already been determined. He already knows that Troy is going to fall and when it is going to fall. But Thetis has called in a favour; and he must deliver in such a way as to work within the confines of a fate that has already been budgeted. To some extent, I believe he makes things up as he goes along. He is shown doing this when he wonders whether Patroclus should die right there at Hector’s hands, over Sarpedon’s body, or whether he should get to rage on some more. (He decides on a little more action for Patroclus.)

Zeus and Hera on Mount Ida

Zeus and Hera on Mount Ida, 1775 by Andries Lens

The flexibility here is striking. In Book VIII we find out from Zeus’s own mouth, for the first time, that Patroclus has to die as part of this favour for Thetis. Just because Zeus expresses it as a fated thing, does not mean that he had ever seen this before: he speaks in the modus of a prophet. But Zeus himself, the supremo, does not know precisely when the necessary death must occur. Similarly, in Book XV, when he wakes up from Hera’s embrace, he announces for the first time, to us and presumably to himself, that Hector also must die. His son Sarpedon will fall at Patroclus’ hands, and Patroclus at Hector’s, so that Achilles will finally be roused from the ships to seek revenge. This is the way that Thetis’ favour will be completed. There will be a reversal, a παλίωξις, driving back from the ships to Ilium, to neutralize the retrogression in fate that was initiated by Thetis’ request.

It is false to the letter and to the spirit of the story to say that Patroclus’ and Hector’s deaths were fated from the beginning. No such things were on the horizon until the quarrel of Achilles and Agamemnon, and Thetis’ visit to the knee of Zeus. Fate unfolds before us, at the very moments that Zeus sees the pieces fall into place, and Homer himself glimpses at the horizons of his story. Perhaps we even feel a sense of achievement here. Zeus’ successful negotiation within the confines of fate is at the same time a narrative achievement. As we are also swept onward into the real-time mortality of Patroclus and Hector, the pathos of Achilles’ surrogates.

At certain moments Zeus holds up the scales, and a man’s fate tips in the balance. I am open to suggestions about the meaning of this, but it strikes me as a ratification rather than a decision. Judges do not like to feel like perpetrators of any kind, but as agents of justice. Zeus is no exception. Holding up the scales is a way of turning the messy motives that produce what is fated, into a matter of masses and weights. There is a distance in the gesture that perhaps is a comfort to judge and jury. It seems to be a way of objectifying a decision, rather than an event in itself.

Zeus and Thetis

Is Zeus like Bill Clinton?

So, is the most powerful figure in the universe a kind of hen-pecked American president, with Hillary in the wings, and Monica asking favours, who has to pass a budget through an unruly congress and then live with the consequences? Yes. I think this is Homer’s idea. What I don’t understand is what experience Homer could possibly have had of this post-Enlightenment kind of government: for that is what Homer depicts in his Olympians, a government, of a kind very familiar to us.

The question to ask is about the truth and the reality. Which of the competing stories that purport to take us ‘behind the scenes’ actually works, so as to answer to our experience of reality? Is what is behind the appearance of our will and agency a reality of impersonal forces, masses, energies and elements, whose implacable laws are the true determinants of what is real? Or behind the scenes is there a purpose or intelligence of some kind? Or is there a loving god with a personal stake in our welfare? Or rather, does the world actually work as though its strongest power were a compromised president, where things happen as though they had been decided by a corruptible parliament, and the divinity of sex can overthrow the most stable fantasies of well-meaning people? It would be good to separate these answers, between the ones that are wishes, the ones that comfort, and the ones that are true. As always, open eyes and an open mind are what move us forward.

Homer the Poet and Fate – Part One

by December 21, 2012

by A. P. David

What is the role of ‘fate’ in Homer’s Iliad? My late teacher David Grene used to say that fate in ancient Greek usage was only ever about 95% certain. That is to say, there was always that little bit of wiggle room, and hence a feeling of possibility and choice. Without this 5%, it would not be humanly possible to conceive of a worthy life or a meaningful, interesting narrative. Hence it is absurd to say that we cannot discuss a character’s choices simply because everything was fated for ‘the Greeks’. What then, considering the above, is the role of fate in Homer the poet’s plotting and in the lives of his protagonists?

Zeus and Hera

Zeus and Hera

It is quite clear that Zeus is the most powerful figure in the world, but not even the father of gods and men is free to alter fate. Let us consider the nature of the pressures on him. When he realizes that his dear son, Sarpedon, is about to be killed by Patroclus, he mourns out loud in the most personal way, and wonders whether he should spirit him away alive.

Hera’s response is worth mulling over. It is not, ‘hey Zeusy, that’s nice, but you know it’s IMPOSSIBLE.’ It is, rather, ‘well well well … all this fuss for a mortal … okay, go ahead. But the rest of us gods aren’t going to be too happy about it.’ She goes on to point out what chaos would result if each of the gods decided to help out their particular favourites, protecting their lives from some kind of prearranged fate. ‘There are so many sons of immortals fighting around Priam’s town!’ She suggests, instead, that Sarpedon be allowed to die, but also that arrangements be made for the body to be returned to Lycia, where his family could prepare it and mourn properly.

Zeus is eager to acquiesce. It is the thought of what a bureaucratic mess would be created that prevents the supreme power in the universe from saving his son. We all know this feeling of the bureaucratic nightmare. (It is quite a puzzle to me how Homer the poet knew this feeling, without the direct experience of modern politics and infrastructures.) Is it really this mundane, bureaucratic inertia that preserves the machinery of fate? Yes, apparently.



Let’s look at Book II in the Iliad. After hearing the false dream, Agamemnon declares to the troops that the army’s cause is hopeless. It is said that the Achaeans would have returned home in their ships ὑπέρμορα, ‘beyond fate,’… unless a chain of command from Hera through Athena to Odysseus had not reined them in.

This notion that something would have happened ‘beyond fate’ but for some intervention, recurs through the poem. I would connect it to the affect of the ‘brink of destruction’, a feeling of the tension that something that is not supposed to happen is almost coming to pass. One feels, almost bodily, the force that keeps what is fated on its proper track. Nothing ever happens in the Iliad beyond what is fated, despite the reality of the threat. It is as though there is a contract established between poet and audience, which allows him to draw on this effect in a state of peculiar epic pleasure.

Next question then is: How can we have a free will if there is such a thing as fate? The modern question is about the coexistence of will and fate (or determinism), but to Homer the poet it is the relation between, say, Zeus’ plan and the anger of Achilles. On the one hand, these actions are directly juxtaposed, but on the other hand, this looming notion of fate emerges with a steady persistence.

Triumph of Achilles

Triumph of Achilles

At first it seems that the Homeric question is as intractable as the modern one, but I believe there is important information in the Greek. It is found in the word most often translated as ‘fate’. This word is μόρος and properly it means ‘part’ or ‘portion’. Sometimes the notion is figured as a piece of string that is cut by the three mythological spinners. But I think it is best served by an image that expresses the finitude of the available string—and really a cake or a pie works better. It is as if there is one big pie baked of the stuff of life, and each of us is allotted one share. This notion of the share, it seems to me, is a key to understanding Homer’s conception, in the way that it adds content to the notion of a predestined terminus to a string-like line of life.

What I would like to suggest is the notion of a ‘budget᾽, in its political and modern sense, which gives context to the notion of a share or portion that is the Homeric ‘fate’. Just as in the case of a modern congress, everything that ultimately becomes a part of the fateful budget begins life as an object of desire on the part of an agent, however broad-minded or craven the politician.

I think it is fair to say that everything that comes to be fated in the Iliad began life as an object of desire, in the person of some god. To be sure, there is a Freudian over-determination in Homeric events; it is not that there is no explanation for why something happens, but rather, that there are too many of them. The anger of Achilles did all those terrible things, and also the will of Zeus was being accomplished, and oh, by the way, the whole thing was fated anyway.

To Read Homer the poet and Fate – Part Two, click HERE