On Might and Right

Most people plot all things with reference to wherever they are, interpret all things from the little realm they occupy. We craft entire false narratives for the meaning of the artifacts we come across through the lens of the history that is familiar to us; thus, we misinterpret the word “good” when we read it in our earliest sources, plastering over it senses that are more familiar to us, and forget that we occupy a history, a world that began, and that will end.

Historical consciousness may be one of the characteristic features of the Secular Modern, but we are quite adept at parochial amnesia. This is a threat to what we have achieved, and obscures the principles that emerge in the reasons for the transition from the early aristocratic ideas about  “the good” to the more social and cooperative ideas about “the good”.

Without understanding the role of power in the aristocratic ideals of the earliest rulers, we cannot understand the problems that Plato addressed when he narrates Socrates’ interactions with Meno or Thrasymachus, nor can we understand Augustine of Hippo’s presentation of what lies at the heart of the civitas terrena, the earthly (rather than divine) city.

–but what is this model of power and authority, and more specifically, what was this earliest sense of “goodness”?


I am reading through the Iliad with some highschoolers, and not long ago we finished Book 15. The Trojans and the Argive (Greek) forces are at war, and the gods are divided as to their interests and sympathies, though Zeus’ power keeps them from open rebellion. Earlier, in Book 14, the goddess Hera had seduced her husband Zeus so as to trick him into sleep (with the aid of the god Sleep), so as to thwart his plans. At the beginning of the Iliad, Zeus had vowed to grant the Trojans the victory over the Argive forces only until Achilles would be begged by the Argive leaders to rejoin the fighting; Zeus had sworn that, at that time, Achilles would acquire glory meet for him by defeating the Trojans. Not all of the gods are sympathetic to this plan, and they take different sides.

At this point (Book 14), Achilles remains out of battle, skulking in his camp on the beach near Troy, while the Argives are losing to the Trojan troops led by Hector. Some of the gods are plotting to aid Poseidon in support of the Argives. Zeus, however, mighty as he is, will never allow such aid — so Hera seduces him, and then Zeus sleeps, while Poseidon fights the Trojans together with the Argives.

In Book 15, Zeus wakes from this sleep brought on by Hera’s craftiness, enraged that his design is being ignored, and that Hector is near death. After questioning and threatening violence upon Hera, he is satisfied by her deceptive excuse (that she did not intend to seduce him into sleep for this purpose, effectively distracting him from the battle), and sets about to put the affairs of the battle back into proper order. Hera returns to Olympus, and addresses the gods:

What fools we are, storming against Zeus — we’re mad! / And still we engage him, trying to block his way /  with a word or show of force. But there he sits, / off and away –with never a care or qualm for us– / claiming that he among the deathless gods on high / is first in strength and power, none in the world his rival. / So each of you here must take what blows he sends. [Iliad XV. ca.100ff., Fagles’ translation, 391]

Hera did not say that Zeus’ will was evil, she merely sighs and notes the folly of trying to overcome Zeus’ superior might. When Ares (Battle) summons Rout and Panic to go and avenge the death of his son (who died in battle), he is stopped by Athena, who does not tell him that his disobedience is evil, but censures him for not being mindful of the effects his choice will have (“You’re planting the seeds of endless trouble for us all!”), because “Zeus will come to batter us on Olympus”, both “guilty and innocent routed all together”. [Fagles, 392] Zeus is not evil, but he is powerful, and thriving cannot be had by resisting this power, which will simply crush each and all. Resistance would not be evil, but it would be folly, and we can even suggest that it would be bad, given the undesirable nature of the consequences (the distinction between evil and bad we shall deal with below, piecemeal). Similarly, when the messenger goddess Iris simultaneously goes from Zeus to Poseidon, Zeus warns him that “if you will not obey [my] orders, if you spurn them, [I] threaten[…] to come here in person, fight you down, power against power.” [Fagles, 393] Zeus, it should be remembered, defeated “twisting Chronus”, and brought order.


After we read the above scene involving the gods’ grudging submission to Zeus in Book 15, one of the students shot up and felt he had an epiphany. (It was of a theological nature, concerned with the identity of a particular religious tradition, but I include it here because it illumines an historical and ethical issue of universal concern.)

“In the Iliad,” he began, “good and evil are whatever Zeus wills them to be, and whatever is good or evil is either good or evil only because Zeus wills it, even though he’s separate from them, and isn’t necessarily like or unlike them.” He went on, “but for us [Orthodox Christians], God himself is good, and so what he declares is good. He sets good and evil to be what they are because he is good. He doesn’t choose to be good, but…” he trailed off, I suspect unsure of the precise content of his epiphany, unsure of what to make of much of what he’d said, and unsure of this Homeric material.

It should be said here that the gods we worship generally reflect the foundations of the social order we inhabit. (There is a reason why “Zeus who marshals the storm clouds” and who has “stormy brows” as he thinks finds analog in Agamemnon’s “stormy brows”, a case of mirroring.) We should otherwise slide over the theological issues the student raised, treating them another time (traditionally, in the developed reflection of most philosophically-active religions that I know, God does not possess ‘goodness’ as a quality, which would make the quality ‘goodness’ over-and-above God as a form determining him; rather, God is not a being with qualities, but is the Good, without form, quality or content, simple and simply, yet unfolding in and as all things).

It is worth noting that this student was mistaken particularly about a distinction that seems very elusive, elusive because it is so far down in the foundation of our common life and individual psyches. This is the distinction between good and evil. I contend that there is no such thing as evil in the Iliad, and so the good-evil distinction must be dropped, for, as labels, they will not help us understand the world of the Iliad or its characters. What there does seem to be is the distinction between good and bad. The Homeric good is not the same as our good (that seems to begin not long after Homer, as is indicated by Hesiod’s use of “good” in roughly our sense, seemingly because of changed social and economic conditions).

It should be noted that nowhere in the poem do any of the kings ever describe any of their enemies as evil (even when they seem manifestly so to us –such as the sons of Antimachus in XI.ca.120ff, Fagles 300-301– it seems to be an outrage against custom and the gods and good form/etiquette, and so real strength, that is the cause for offense).  Indeed, very few of their enemies can even be described as bad. Bad men do not bring one glory when one defeats them on the battlefield, only good-strong fighters can. This is why it is unusual to find character-assassinating animosity in the narration of one side against the other. Strength on the battlefield, power in speech, beauty in physical form, and authority over men: these are what make one good (agathos), and their opposite makes one bad (kakos), or slave-like, menial, low-born. So when the Trojan Antenor is surveying the battlefield from the walls of Troy, speaking with Helen about Menelaus and Odysseus, he tells a tale:

Once in the past he came our way, King Odysseus / heading the embassy they sent for your release, / together with Menelaus dear to Ares. / I hosted them, treated them warmly in my halls / and learned the ways of both, their strategies, their traits. /  Now, when they mingled with our Trojans in assembly, / standing side-by-side, Menelaus’ shoulders / mounted over his friend’s in height and spread, / when both were seated Odysseus looked more lordly. / But when they spun their appeals before us all, Menelaus spoke out quickly — his words racing, / few but clear as a bell, nothing long-winded / [136] or off the mark, though in face the man was younger. / But when Odysseus sprang up, the famed tactician / would just stand there, staring down, hard, his eyes fixed on the ground, / never shifting his scepter back and forth, / clutching it stiff and still like a mindless man. / You’d think him a sullen fellow or just plain fool. / But when he let loose that great voice from his chest / and the words came piling on like a driving winter blizzard — / then no man alive could rival Odysseus! Odysseus… / we no longer gazed in wonder at his looks. [Fagles, 135-136]

Odysseus’ mannerisms were at first taken to be other than noble, other than strong, other than good. The power his words had earned him Antenor’s praise of him, which Antenor repeats, even as Odysseus is now busy setting siege to the walls of Antenor’s Troy. The relation between good and strong should be reiterated (likewise between bad and weak — I repeat again that there is no category for evil, only weak/bad). This is why there is so much fuss about cowardice, and why cunning is not bad when it is not cowardly, or foolhardy (Pandarus in Book 4). When, in the Odyssey, Odysseus says

Thanks to Hermes, / the Guide, who lends grace and glory / to all that men do, when it comes to serving / no one can touch me, in splitting firewood, / building a fire, roasting meat and carving it, / or in pouring wine, or in any of the things / lesser men [χέρηες — “the weaker” (see the Abridged Liddell & Scott, 781)] do when they wait on nobles [ἀγαθοῖσι — by contrast, “the strong”]. [Odyssey, transl. Stanley Lombardo (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2000), 232]

it is clear that “goodness”, nobility, and strength are contrast terms to the weak and the menial. A. W. H. Adkins offers one parsing of this distinction as “the ‘best specimens’ of human being and the ‘inferior specimens’ of human being” [A New Companion to Homer ed. Ian Morris & Barry B. Powell (Boston: Brill, 1997), 699]. So also Herder:

In the times when arete, virtue, still meant only braveness of body and spirit, only a brave man counted as agathos. Thus in Homer the heroes know no better word for their dignity than when his Agamemnon says, often enough, agathos gar eimi [“for I am brave/strong”]. Just as little as the word agathos means moral goodness here, at a time when bravery counted above everything else, equally little would this age put up with kalous k’agathous [good and beautiful] in Shaftesbury’s refined sense [i.e., a virtuoso, a gentleman]. The word kalos [beautiful] had this origin as well, and was applied to the andrasin agathois [brave men] who fought eu [well] and kalos (bravely) in battle. [Herder, Philosophical Writings, ed. Michael N. Forster (New York: Cambridge, 2002), 45]

and, finally, Nietzsche on where “the judgment ‘good’ ” originated (who ends on a note that begins its approach to something more fantastical and rabid than the cautious Herder, his near-contemporary):

it was the good them[26]selves, that is to say, the noble, powerful, high-stationed and high-minded, who felt and established themselves and their actions as good, that is, of the first rank, in contradistinction to all the low, low-minded, common and plebeian. It was out of this pathos of distance that they first seized the right to create values and to coin names for values […]. [Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals & Ecce Homo, transl. by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 25-26]

This relationship between good and strong on the one hand, and between weak and bad on the other, can be illustrated one final time by two related texts.


These two texts are, perhaps, the most fitting to end on, they may be the best pair to illustrate the absence of the category evil and the presence of the category bad or weak. These are two parallel speeches, one by Achilles in Book 1, the other by Thersites in Book 2, which echoes the speech of Achilles, but is a parody of it from one who is weak or bad.

The conflict that opens the Iliad is the contention between the king Achilles and the king Agamemnon (whose burial mask is the banner of this post). Agamemnon, together with his brother Menelaus, rallied the many kings who traveled with them to take back Menelaus’ wife, Helen. They have been at war for nearly a decade, away from their homes. Armies need resources and incentives. The men take treasure and women from the cities they plunder, the choicest going to the kings, who are the most eminent fighters (or such is the logic of the reward system), the remainder being divvied up by the common soldiers in the various regiments of the kings. Apollo has just ravaged the Argive (Greek) camp outside the walls of Troy, and the kings are told by a prophet who has traveled with them that the reason for this is that Agamemnon took a girl who is the daughter of Apollo’s priest, Chryses. Chryses had already approached Agamemnon with Apollonian ritual regalia, asking for his daughter to be returned; Agamemnon refused. Now Agamemnon must give the priest’s daughter back for the plague to cease. Yet he consents only so long as he gets another female prize to replace it — naming Achilles’ female prize, Bryseis, as an acceptable substitute. As a flourish to his insult, he even suggests that perhaps Achilles himself will return Chryses’ daughter (after Agamemnon has taken Bryseis from Achilles, of course).

Below is Achilles’ response to Agamemnon, after the latter makes the above suggestion:

Shameless / –armored in shamelessness– always shrewd with greed! / How could any Argive soldier obey your orders, / freely and gladly do your sailing for you / or fight your enemies, full force? Not I, no. / It wasn’t Trojan spearmen who brought me here to fight. / The Trojans never did me damage, not in the least […] No, you colossal, shameless –we all followed you, / to please you, to fight for you, to win your honor / back from the Trojans– Menelaus and you, you dog-face! / […] And now you threaten to strip me of my prize in person –the one I fought for long and hard, and sons of Achaea / handed her to me. My honors never equal yours, / whenever we sack some wealthy Trojan stronghold –my arms bear the brunt of the raw, savage fighting, / true, but when it comes to dividing up the plunder / the lion’s share is yours, and back I go to my ships, / clutching some scrap, some pittance that I love, / when I have fought to exhaustion. No more now — back I go to Phthia. […] / […] I have no mind to linger here disgraced, / brimming your cup and piling up your plunder. [Fagles, 82-83]

Achilles’ argument has two points: one, Agamemnon is preying upon the honor, and thus spoils, of those who have marshaled to regain his (did he really come here to regain honor, or to prey upon the work of others for greedy gain?), while he stays back from the chief’s share of the fighting, and two, that Achilles is doing the lion’s share of the fighting, and Bryseis was his by honor and victory, and awarded justly and by the acclaim of the people, contrary to the dishonorable and lawless greed of Agamemnon. Achilles is portrayed as making a just claim, because he is strong, and noble, and so good, so his complaints are not those of a weak and bad servant — they are not whining, but full of power. He is capable of enforcing his claims then and there, for not being recognized for his goodness/strength/nobility. Achilles’ complaints have weight because he pulls his in a fight. Note the absence of perseveration on either the shiny nature of gold or bronze treasures or the sexual pleasures of taking female captives.

Malcolm Willcock notes that there is a parallel speech in Book 2, from one Thersites. Indeed, “Thersites’ arguments are like a parody of those of [Achilles] in Book 1.” [Malcolm M. Willcock, A Companion to the Iliad (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976), 20] Willcock thinks Thersites is a common man (the only one named in the Iliad, if this is the case), whereas G. S. Kirk thinks he must be minor nobility, for he is ransoming Trojans — a feat for nobility, “front line” fighters; also he “would not be permitted to open his mouth in assembly if he were a common soldier, except to roar approval or occasional dissent” [G. S. Kirk, The Iliad: A Commentary: Volume I: Books 1-4 (New York: Cambridge, 1985), 139]. Either way, Thersites is bad, weak. His name comes from θερσος [thersos], which means, in this context, rashness [Kirk, 138]. He is represented as rather ugly (“the ugliest man who ever came to Troy” [Fagles, 106]), with poor posture and physical features.

Bandy-legged he was, with one foot clubbed, / both shoulders humped together, curving over / his caved-in chest, and bobbing above them / his skull warped to a point, / sprouting clumps of scraggly, woolly hair. [Fagles, 106]

Kirk notes that “he was a monstrosity by heroic standards.” [Kirk, 140] This is not the “evil-is-ugly” trope: Thersites’ physical ugliness matches the ugliness even of the Greek prose used to describe him matches the ugliness of his argument’s tone, which is not made from power/goodness, but is poisonous, designed to malign the stronger. Indeed, “he was always abusing both chiefs” and the “Achaeans were furious with him, deeply offended.” Thersites mocks Agamemnon, one of the main leaders of the Greek armies, and assassinates his character.

Still moaning and groaning, mighty Atrides — why now? / What are you panting after now? Your shelters packed / with the lion’s share of bronze, plenty of women too, / crowding your lodges. Best of the lot, the beauties / we hand you first, whenever we take some stronghold. / Or still more gold you’re wanting? More ransom a son / of the stallion-breaking Trojans might just fetch from Troy? — / though I or another hero drags him back in chains … / Or a young woman, is it?–to spread and couple, / to bed down for yourself apart from all the troops? / How shameful for you, the high and mighty commander, / to lead the sons of Achaea into bloody slaughter! / […] Home we go in our ships! /  Abandon him here in Troy to wallow in all his prizes — / he’ll see if the likes of us have propped him up or not. / Look — now it’s Achilles, a greater man he disgraces, / seizes and keeps his prize, tears her away himself. / But no gall in Achilles. Achilles lets it go. / If not, Atrides, that outrage would have been your last!

This is hardly a well-crafted, noble, powerful speech. In its skill-less crassness, in its taunt-like nature, it lacks any power — it is as ugly and bad and common as Thersites. Oddyseus beats him until welts form on him, and Thersites squats, tears in his eyes from the pain, and the low morale of the troops increases as they laugh at Thersites, praise Oddyseus for his blows, and call Thersites “foul-mouthed”.

Thersites argument has very, very similar content to Achilles — but Achilles, Homer tells us, “despised him most”. Thersites almost approaches a pornographic fixation in his reiteration of the same themes, coming back to them again and again, and seems not to note anything about desiring to restore Menelaus and Agamemnon’s honor, nor can he cite his own distinctive achievements (except from what he might share with other heroes — ransoming Trojan sons to get access to the gold of Troy).

On earth as it is in heaven — even the god Hephaestus, lame and limping, pouring wine out at the end of Book 1, is laughed at by the gods. Pouring wine is for the “comely” [Kirk, 113], not for the limping.

One could write more, but this is enough. The theme continues in Plato’s The Republic (or as the title should be translated, The Polity), where Thrasymachus comes out and says that “justice is the interest  of the stronger”, or in Augustine’s City of God, where the earthly city is built atop a tamed system very much like this, and having roots in it. Augustine and Plato are not saying the same thing, nor is the appearance of this Homeric aristocratic idea of goodness-as-strength-and-health identical in either case to the way it is present here. Here, nonetheless, it starts, and is relatively (relatively) clear.

3 thoughts on “On Might and Right

  1. Pingback: “All Things are Full of Gods”, and Homer (and Hans Jonas) | Into the Clarities

  2. Pingback: Poetry, Power, and the Arrest of Thought (Part One) | Into the Clarities

  3. Pingback: Excerpt #13 — Larry Siedentop on Reason, Authority, and Will from Homeric Greece through the High Middle Ages | Into the Clarities

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