Let’s flashback to your high school years when pimples were regularly popped and homework assignments were regularly turned in late. Everyone took an English class and I bet in that English class some sort of Greek Mythology was studied. I remember reading Greek poems in those huge textbooks and being assigned questions that went something like this, “Who are the main characters?…What did the God Apollo represent?…Why is this particular passage so boring?” I dreaded these questions and usually wrote BS answers with lists of adjectives to satisfy the teacher, “Apollo represents endurance, stamina, longevity, and perseverance.”
Fast forward to today and I am reading one of the most celebrated pieces of Greek Mythology of all time – the Iliad by Homer. The Iliad is a poem that doesn’t rhyme and takes up over 550 pages of text – it is the furthest thing from Dr. Seuss or a Haiku. I cringed when I saw that I had to read this classic and I really only had one happy memory from when I read similar poems in the past – recalling a sexy illustration of Aphrodite with a healthy amount of nakedness. This time around there were no juicy pictures but I did finally grasp the importance of this 2700-year-old text.
The Iliad is set in the 10th year of the war between the Greeks and the Trojans – Achilles is the great fighter for the Greeks and Hector is the great fighter for the Trojans. The gods – Zeus, Hera, Hermes, Apollo, Aphrodite, Athena, Ares, Poseidon, etc. – choose sides and constantly interfere with the happenings of the mortals. The main point of the plot is the journey of Achilles in his search for glory and his eventual victory over Hector – which is necessary for the final destruction of Troy.
Achilles is really a jerk throughout the book; similar to a big man-child who is mad about not getting his way – refusing to fight with his fellow soldiers because of pride. There are many symbolic points to this poem but the most pronounced involve the role of “rage;” rage controls the mortals and immortals – sometimes facilitating and sometimes handicapping. Achilles more than anyone wields rage like one of those dancing air guys at a car dealership – you never know which direction he’ll swing next. In the end, he loses his best friend, Patroclus, to Hector’s spear because of his rage – and subsequently wields its force to destroy Troy.
The question is, does rage hurt or hinder the greatest fighter? He looses Patroclus but gains all the glory for bringing down the great Troy. I think rage in our own lives, just like Achilles, is a force to be weary of. I know I have raged in the pursuit of being “right” to gain glory; that glory is important at the moment but what do we sacrifice – relationships, friendships, precious time? Pride, glory, and respect are a three-headed god which feeds on our selfish desires. Sure Achilles is remembered…but his rage and selfishness taint our view of his victories – his ultimate glory permanently smeared.
Growing up the biggest book in the house was always the Holy Bible. The Bible stood above all other books in its shear mass – the thinness of the pages, the small font, and the endless footnotes made it formidable. Of course the Bible is in a class of its own but my third classic, War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, gives it some competition in the size department: 1,400 pages of 19th-century Russian Literature. I always viewed War and Peace as the ultimate ego-trip – imagine some hipster guy walking down the street holding a copy while curling his mustache and listening to a Walkman. In all honesty, this book almost destroyed my sight; halfway through I bought a magnifying glass from Amazon that had in the description, “GREAT FOR GRANDMA AND GRANDPA.” It took me over three weeks to finish and I felt like a man waiting for his wife to give birth when the doctor says it will take all night – initial excitement, tears at the vending machine at 3:00 AM, and finally exhausted delirium at sunrise. Instead of a crying baby I was rewarded with a new found perspective of what art in the form of writing truly represents. War and Peace is not a novel but rather a philosophical treatise that has the added benefit of a great story. The general plot takes place in Russia from 1805 to 1820 and follows the family life of a few Russians during the Napoleonic Wars. So what makes this book so great? The complexity of the characters mix with the backdrop of war to form a multilayered cake of delicious metaphor, behavior, and historical understanding.
As the title suggests, War and Peace, is all about contrast. The characters juggle life’s myriad curve balls: young love transforms into mature friendship, an engagement fails after an unexpected affair, happy families suffer with untimely deaths, once bountiful fortunes turn to meager incomes. The backdrop to these life events is a war that sweeps up the individual characters and the nation as whole. War that once seemed so glorious becomes surreal as the years progress. The war symbolizes both destruction and birth: taking the lives of some while bringing together people who may have never met. The philosophical theme throughout the book aims to better understand the meaning of life and man’s ability to express free will. The purpose of life, which is best expressed by the characters who suffered the most, is simply to “live” – every expression is a manifestation and glorification of God. This conclusion is simple on the surface but hard to practice: people seek money, respect, power, and control as their purpose, while “just” living seems inadequate. This purpose is mirrored by man’s desire to express free will while simultaneously being drawn by others into actions that are counter to life – war. Tolstoy makes the point that free will is not an absolute, just as inevitability (no choice at all) is also not an absolute. Thus, Napoleon – with his genius – did not impact his soldiers and the battle’s outcomes as much as he or everyone else thought. The same is true of the individual soldier’s free will – time, space, history, and infinite circumstances swinging the pendulum of choice. History, is not decided by the powerful few but is decided by a irreducible power which is wielded by innumerable individuals – always susceptible to the curve ball of life.
“If everyone fought for their own convictions there would be no war.”
-Leo Tolstoy War and Peace