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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Patroclus, the Gods, and the Christ


I'm moved by a passage in Book 11 of the Iliad. Achilles, seeing the battle turn against the Greeks, sends Patroclus to the tent of Nestor to find out who has been wounded. Patroclus, his thumotic spirit moved by Nestor, is racing back to convince Achilles to let him join the fray. But he comes across the wounded Eurypylus working his way back to camp, holding his head high despite his gruesome wound:

ἔνθά οἱ Εὐρύπυλος βεβλημένος ἀντεβόλησε
810διογενὴς Εὐαιμονίδης κατὰ μηρὸν ὀϊστῷ
σκάζων ἐκ πολέμου: κατὰ δὲ νότιος ῥέεν ἱδρὼς
ὤμων καὶ κεφαλῆς, ἀπὸ δ᾽ ἕλκεος ἀργαλέοιο
αἷμα μέλαν κελάρυζε: νόος γε μὲν ἔμπεδος ἦεν.
(XI; 809-813)

There he met Eurypylus, Euaemon's gallant son,
wounded, the arrow planted deep in his thigh,
and limping out of battle...
The sweat was streaming down his face and back
and the dark blood still flowed from his ugly wound
but the man's will was firm, he never broke his stride.
(Fagles)

Looking at this good man and the suffering of the Greek soldiers, his friends, Patroclus is suddenly moved to cry out

δειλοὶ Δαναῶν ἡγήτορες ἠδὲ μέδοντες
ὣς ἄρ᾽ ἐμέλλετε τῆλε φίλων καὶ πατρίδος αἴης
ἄσειν ἐν Τροίῃ ταχέας κύνας ἀργέτι δημῷ.
(XI; 816-818)

"Poor men! Lords of the Argives, O my captains!
How doomed you are, look - far from your loved ones
and native land - to glut with your shining fat
the wild dogs of battle here in Troy..."
(Fagles)

Why is this so significant? Homer has already established that Patroclus is a better man than Achilles. The son of Peleus is petulant, juvenile, petty, cold-hearted and quick to anger. Several times characters in the book note that his cold-heartedness will leave him utterly alone. Nestor himself notes that

αὐτὰρ Ἀχιλλεὺς
οἶος τῆς ἀρετῆς ἀπονήσεται: τέ μιν οἴω
πολλὰ μετακλαύσεσθαι ἐπεί κ᾽ ἀπὸ λαὸς ὄληται.
(XI; 762-764)

"This Achilles -
he'll reap the rewards of that great courage of his
alone, I tell you - weep his heart out far too late,
when our troops are dead and gone."
(Fagles)

and Patroclus, the wisest and best friend of Achilles says of him that he is "...awesome and quick to anger... " (XI; 768) and he would "... leap to accuse a friend without a fault." (XI; 775)

Patroclus in contrast is humble, brave, powerful, noble, honorable, warm and generous. Homer says that he stands tall in the doorway like a god and that he is "godlike Patroclus". The son of Menoetius is a better man than Achilles by far. In fact, one could go so far as to say that Patroclus is better even than the gods themselves. Homer's gods are as juvenile, petulant, fickle, quick to anger and merciless as Achilles. They are not trustworthy nor worthy of worship. Consequently, Homer seems to be suggesting that men are better than gods in general and Patroclus in particular is better even than the gods. The gods even, at times, seem to envy humans.

What, then, is it about men that the gods should envy? The one thing that men can do and gods cannot. Like Achilles and Paris who live godlike lives, the Dodekatheon of Homeric gods live without care, pain, sorrow, loss, suffering - a life of constant partying and unbridled wealth. They are "the deathless gods." They are so pampered in their immortality that nothing seems to mean anything to them anymore; they are without care. Consequently they seem to be almost bored, falling into bickering and squabbling with each other just to pass the time.

That one thing that humans have which gods do not, then, which sets humans apart and above the deities, seems to be suffering itself. Only humans suffer. Our experience of suffering, pathos, gives us the opportunity to endure and survive, transforming into greater and nobler beings. Through suffering we learn to have sympathy, mercy, and true charity (charitas) toward other humans who suffer and die. Through suffering we learn to love. And real love, the ecstasy of knowing that the thing which moves us most must cease to be makes our experience and our nobility greater even than the divine.

If, in this, there is not a precursor to Christianity, a radical shift in the thought about the glory of the divine and the lowliness of us poor handmaidens, I would be quite surprised. Homer's suggestion seems to set the stage for the later development of Christianity - how, after all, can an omniscient and omnipotent and eternal set of gods or God ever really know what we go through? How can he show mercy without some element of fraud? How can he show generosity without some element of treachery? How can he show love without some element of selfishness? Only in an incarnate god can we claim that divinity knows the misery and the greatness of the human experience.

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