Friday, June 20, 2014

Simone Weil on the Iliad

Weil reads the Iliad as being all about force and suffering. Force turns people into things; when force is held back, there is the possibility that human traits like justice, reasoning, and prudence may intervene in the gap. She connects the Iliad to the suffering of the Gospels, maintaining that both texts understand the way in which suffering changes and marks the one who suffers.

I think her analysis is insightful in the sense that it captures the way in which war affects everyone negatively: violence, when engaged in, is ubiquitous; no one is saved from it. And honor seems to be empty at the end of the day. War is the great equalizer--at the best, someone is temporarily the conqueror; he, too, eventually falls. (And women and slaves, too, are at the mercy of force.)

On the other hand, she doesn't really analyze honor, and it’s striking to read an interpretation of the Iliad that neglects this central element. She gives us no basis, for instance, on which to evaluate as better or worse different uses of force. All are equally problematic. Perhaps she’s right. 

While emphasizing the continuities between the Iliad and the Bible, she doesn’t attend to the disjunction: what has changed in the eras between the two (and then from the time of Christ until now)? We certainly don’t value honor in the same way that Achilles did. Are our uses of force just as problematic as those in the Iliad? In fact, is all politics a use of force, as Weil sometimes seems to imply? Or can we have a politics that involve and yet transcend force? Perhaps politics is inextricably connected to violence, at least for those who violate the law.

Perhaps what she’s implying is that the foundation of such a politics must be a recognition of the common humanity of the ruler and the ruled.

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