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Homer and Heroic Freedom by Titus Techera

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Homer and Heroic Freedom

Achilles has a Dispute with Agamemnon (1776), a 69 x 84,8 cm oil on canvas by Johann Heinrich Tischbein (1722 - 1789), located in the Hamburger Kunsthalle.

This year, the Australian Open final was disputed by Russian Daniil Medvedev and Spaniard Rafael Nadal. Medvedev lost the final last year to the Serb Novak Djokovic, his best finish yet. Nadal, for his part, has lost two past Australian Open finals to Djokovic, and another to Federer; his last win there was in 2009. But in 2022, one of these losers got to win: Federer wound up injured, and Djokovic was deported. The two men who have dominated this Grand Slam tournament for almost 20 years were both out of the running. Since 2004, Federer has won it six times and Djokovic an unprecedented nine. Once you do away with the best, competition improves for everyone else, so the unprecedented event of deporting an athlete has not aroused comment (that would require professional honor).

Classically educated readers will immediately see what a funny situation we are in! The Iliad, our most ancient poem, a foundational source of our civilization, begins with Achilles, the greatest hero, refusing to fight after being dishonored by a most unwise king, Agamemnon. The conflict between the two is over whether the best warrior or the legitimate king is the true ruler, and the catastrophe that causes conflict is a plague—our situation is almost a caricature. Admittedly, we don’t have martial heroes here, but we admire the heroic quality of athletes, the Hellenic spirit of the Olympiads, and that, of course, is embodied by Djokovic, who was deported from Australia by unwise but legal authorities, on the occasion of this plague, precisely because he behaved like a free man. Come to think of it, the plague we’re facing itself is laughable compared to older plagues.

I’d like to show you that the connection between this event and the opening of the greatest epic is not accidental, and that we would benefit greatly from learning the lessons wise poets have tried to teach since the beginning of antiquity. First, notice that athletes have proved more reluctant than any other category of celebrity or public person to refuse vaccination. This is because they are manlier, thus more reluctant to obey orders. They probably know more about health than most of us, but they do not claim the scientific authority of doctors. They’re just defending themselves, in a way most of us aren’t.

Even people who are grateful for the COVID vaccines should also be grateful there are men left to defend their personal freedom, because in the process they will defend our political freedom, too. One lesson we learn from the Iliad’s opening conflict is that neither legal authority nor military excellence is enough to win a war, but the two have to be combined somehow. We also learn that any people, so long as they have laws, will defer to legal authority rather than manliness. We see in our times, too, that athletes are not rebelling, but in fact much more obedient than they should be. Probably, we should encourage and help some of these athletes to stand up for their freedom and ours. For his part, Djokovic has declared he will not take the vaccine, he will defend his freedom, however many tennis tournaments it costs him. This is an opportunity to stand with a man who has more to lose than we do and thinks of it less than we do.

We have a procedure to which we can appeal in terms of justice—we have our rights. Rights are legal protection, they are also a form of reasoning about justice, and they are also a potent form of political rhetoric. But someone has to assert rights—a man has to claim that being human has a dignity with regard to thought, speech, and deed which legal authority cannot violate without turning to despotism and inciting riots, to say nothing worse. Rights make it easier to make a heroic stand, because the man who stands up for our rights does not have to stand alone.

This is the second lesson Homer wants us to learn from Achilles’s trouble. There is no doubt that he is the greatest hero, the measure by which all others are judged. But this is not enough of a title to rule, because he is still mortal, and not above error, failure, and ultimately death. The other heroes won’t follow him against the king. He tries to appeal to their heroism, to what they have in common, but precisely because he is great, the distance between them is too great to bridge. Our laws, our claims in justice on each other are necessary to stop unwise authorities from causing a catastrophe.

The third lesson we should learn concerns King Agamemnon—he is arrogant precisely because he knows himself to be legitimate, incompetent because he is therefore too arrogant to deal with serious problems seriously, and resentful, even hateful because that incompetence cannot but hurt his men, who begin to doubt him and thus undermine his rule. Our authorities have also been spectacularly incompetent over the last two years, and this has only encouraged them to blame ordinary people, punish them in various ways, and continue in the attempt to replace ordinary life by occasional house arrest for entire nations.

In Homer’s poem, it is only because Achilles gives protection to those who know the truth about the plague that the problem becomes public and thus the army can compel Agamemnon to put the public good above his private pride. Achilles suffers a serious humiliation for his public-spiritedness. Presumably, such fears have prevented our own leaders from speaking up and acting publicly on our behalf, and not only in Europe. Accordingly, the harm and humiliation of unprecedented peacetime arrests, the shock of being treated by our governments as we would be by invading armies—all this has been opposed only very rarely, by protesters.

Protesting to assert our rights might give us a solution Achilles doesn’t have; he finds himself isolated from his fellow warriors when he contests Agamemnon’s authority. But we also lack something Achilles had—heroism, human greatness through striving, and so we find ourselves powerless. Rights are not enough without the manliness and the nobility to organize and find leaders who see the promise of greatness in helping us. Whoever is disgusted by elites who arrest the people must look for new elites—elites who understand what the ancients understood about daring thoughts and daring deeds.

In Homer’s poem, divine authority, the judge of the heroes, is divided. In fact, both Achilles and Agamemnon have different claims on the benevolence of Zeus. In our case, we are also divided, but the division is different. We are not sure we have God on our side—certainly, Christians have not made much of their faith and I have myself seen governments cancel the resurrection in more than a few countries in 2020. But our elites worship another authority by the name of science, which despises the heroism of Achilles as much as the wisdom of Homer. There, too, we are weak, since we cannot oppose science, but we are not sure if it treats us like human beings or rats to be experimented upon.

To call ourselves civilized means in a way to return to the origins of civilization and to learn these three lessons Homer teaches, that manly men are indispensable in politics, that only a close connection between the great and the ordinary can make political action plausible and desirable in frightening times, and that arrogant authorities become all the more cruel the more they are unwise. We have failed to act wisely and make use of our freedom because we have forgotten the fundamentals. To educate a new elite that cares about what’s good for the people, we should return to the fundamental teachings taught through poetry, history, philosophy. This will be the theme of my monthly column.

Titus Techera is a film critic and a writer on culture for Law & Liberty, Modern Age, and the Acton Institute. He is the Executive Director of the American Cinema Foundation.

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