Homer’s Iliad concludes with a singularly affecting scene of reconciliation. Priam, king of defeated Troy and father to dead Hector, makes his way to the enemy camp and surprises all-powerful Achilles by falling to his knees and kissing the hands “that were dangerous and manslaughtering and had killed so many of his sons.” (XXIV. 478-480). No one can quite believe it.
“As when dense disaster closes on one who has murdered
a man in his own land, and he comes to the country of others,
to a man of substance, and wonder seizes upon those who behold him,
so Achilles wondered as he looked on Priam, a godlike
man, and the rest of them wondered also, and looked at each other.” (XXIV. 480-484).
The Trojans and the Greeks have fought a cataclysmic war – one which promises to be remembered for thousands of years. Out of anguish at the loss of his beloved Patroclus, Achilles has killed the best Trojan warriors, among them their champion, Priam’s son – a favourite of Zeus – Hector. Still unable to come to terms with his loss and unable to sleep:
“in longing for Patroclus, for his manhood and his great strength
and all the actions he had seen to the end with him, and the hardships
he had suffered; the wars of men; hard crossing of the big waters…”
Achilles, crying, further desecrates Hector’s corpse, to punish the already dead murderer of Patroclus: dragging it around his campsite in a chariot. It is unclear what Achilles is thinking as he does this, it seems a mindless act of grief. Homer describes it as a “standing fury” (XXIV. 23).
Priam has lost his dearest son and his city is destroyed: his “wish is to go sooner down to the house of the death god.” (XXIV.246). Achilles too has lost everything in Patroclus. He is in a state of blind fury, capable of anything, all-powerful in the narrative. Imagine how much you have to have lost to be ready to supplicate the murderer of your son. Not just any murderer but Achilles, the greatest of the Greeks.
Narrating this scene, Homer adds wonder upon wonder. Everyone looks at each other in shock at the sight of the aged Priam on his knees like a servant to Achilles. Once Priam finishes his opening speech, Achilles breaks into tears and weeps “for his father, now again for Patroclus” (XXIV.510-511). They cry so loudly that “the sound of their mourning” moves through the house (XXIV.512). Achilles calls on Patroclus to forgive him for returning Hector and thus pardoning him in some way. Priam and Achilles are holding hands and crying out loudly for their dead comrades. A deep sympathy holds them close and they tenderly care for each other. Achilles reminds Priam to eat, and the two great warriors dine together after having earlier lost a taste for food in their grief. As they finish, they continue to look at each other in silence, admiring each other’s bravery, listening to one another’s words (XXIV.632-4).
Priam knows well – as Hector mentions in book VI to his wife and child – that the Trojans will soon be taken captive and the city itself will be lost, doomed to be remembered solely in the form of verse. But of Achilles, the greatest of these victorious Greeks, he gently asks for a bed to get some rest (XXIV. 637-8). Achilles, in turn, promises Priam that he will hold back his people for as many days as is necessary for an honourable burial of Hector (XXIV. 657-658). Another moment of wonder for the listener. A truce that is offered by the one who insulted Hector’s corpse to honour the very same man himself? An enemy king being offered a bed to sleep in and guaranteed safety in a hostile camp?
It is striking that the one of the greatest war epics ends with the funeral of the slain antagonist. It is even more striking that the funeral is made possible by a touching and extraordinary, indeed divine, reconciliation between the victors and the vanquished – between the all-powerful and the powerless, between Achilles and Priam. Achilles needed to grieve with Priam so that he could mourn appropriately his own loss. Seeing Priam’s grief for Hector mirrored in his own grief for Patroclus made him recognise the importance of a fair burial for his enemy. He came to see the importance of letting something go so that he and his enemy’s family can continue to live. The wrath which is sung in the opening lines is finally laid to rest in Achilles’ relinquishing of Hector’s corpse. It is only in mourning with a wise and powerless king who similarly is distraught at losing his loved-one that Achilles’ wrath subsides and he is able to rest once more. Taking Priam’s wrist to give him comfort, reminds Achilles of the comfort of loving again. Shortly after doing so, he goes to bed, Briseis at his side (XXIV. 671-676).
Why did Homer end his magnificent epic with such a remarkable scene of reconciliation? When Troy is about to be smashed apart, why did Homer give such a voice, and such indispensability to Priam – as the singular mediator, the only possible event, that could give Achilles succour from his grief? I can’t possibly do these questions justice in a brief post, but I think he caught onto something it is well worth keeping in mind as we consider the happenings in the EU today. Concluding the Iliad this way, Homer reminds us that power exercised in pure vengeance, without regard for the humanity of the antagonist is worthless, shameful. Just because the Trojans were defeated and Priam was unarmed does not mean that he deserves to be killed on sight. Achilles treats him with the respect he would give his own father: he relents on his unreasonable demand to continue to desecrate this enemy corpse, he offers him shelter, offers him terms which allow a glorious burial for his loved-one’s murderer, takes the hand of Priam. Achilles, the greatest of the Greeks, acts not to eliminate the possibility of Trojan dissent once and for all in killing Priam there and then – but treats him nobly, as family.
If I have any advice that might be worth heeding by the Eurogroup’s democratically elected leaders and their electorates, it is this. Read book XXIV of the Iliad. Please understand that punitive power will do no good, and that the humanity of your putative antagonist is well worth respecting at whatever trivial costs or adjustments that you will have to make. See Tsipras with the affection and sympathy that Achilles grants Priam. It sounds unreasonable and impossible. How hard do you think it would have been for Achilles at the height of his grief to see the father of his loved-one’s killer?
Priam, king of a soon-to-be-devastated land, only asks for dignity and some say in how the devastation shall proceed. Since 2010, the austerity imposed on Greece – and not just Greece, but also the United Kingdom, Spain, Portugal, Latvia, many of the EU member states – has been the equivalent of dragging a corpse around by a chariot to satisfy an overpowering grudge. I understand that many are uncomfortable with the war metaphors used by Syriza and other commentators. I use them because like wars, they describe unnecessary collective suffering and death imposed by the good will and intentions of the few.
Austerity has failed comprehensively. This is easy to see in Greece where a quarter of the people are unemployed. Government cuts on all public healthcare have led to a resurgence in malaria. Greece has lost 25% of its GDP under the governance of the Troika. Writing in The Nation, Sarah Leonard reports the following:
“A third live below the poverty line; 300,000 are without electricity. About 800,000 people lack health coverage. Infant mortality shot up 43 percent between 2008 and 2011.”
On the Troika’s own terms, with its plan to reduce Greece’s debt, “the debt-to-GDP ratio has increased from 115% to 165%”.
Unlike Achilles, who understood that he needed to relent in his punishment of Hector’s corpse, the Troika refuse to take responsibility. As Waldman notes:
“When the levee broke, instead of acknowledging errors and working to address them as a community, Europe’s elites — its politicians and civil servants, its bankers and financiers — deflected the blame in the worst possible way. They turned a systemic problem of financial architecture into a dispute between European nations.”
The Troika has made no plausible economic argument for the conditions that they seek to impose on Greece. Commenting on the variety of economists from different schools who have thoughtfully criticised the Troika’s policies, Munchau in today’s FT notes that: “there is no reputable economic theory according to which an economy which has experienced an eight-year-long depression requires a new round of austerity to bring about adjustment”. To turn to another moderate Greek political economist, Aristotle, this lack of plausible argument fails the necessary conditions of a human community.
“Speech is for making clear what is beneficial or harmful, and hence also what is just or unjust. For it is peculiar to human beings, in comparison to other animals, that they alone have perception of what is good or bad, just or unjust, and the rest. And it is community in these that makes a household and a city-state.” (Politics I. 2. 1253a15-18).
The European leadership more generally, the heads of states and their respective political parties, have imposed a rather foolish austerity on their own electorates, and the possibility of a better deal going to one of their fellow peoples (the Greeks) has caused a kind of resentment against Syriza which is quite out of proportion to the situation (suggested to me here: ). This is a systemic problem and will require a fundamental change in economic policy not just for the Greeks, but for all of Europe.
The Greek vote for OXI (No) today has not been for an exit from the European community, much less the European Monetary Union. It has been a rejection of a failed and largely incoherent economic agenda. The Greeks have bravely demanded that Europe can collectively work out a settlement that can simply ensure some kind of sustainable economic growth across the board. Syriza is a coalition composed largely of former Communists and other radical-leftist groups in Greece, but its demands are quite capitalist, and in that sense, quite conservative. It does not want to leave the Euro; it merely wants an economic plan which stimulates economic growth rather than needlessly depress it. If you listen closely to Varoufakis’ last interview before his resignation this morning, you will note that he only seeks proposals that are viable, not redistributive. No rational business can invest in Greece if the threat of default hangs in the near-term future. Tsipras’ insistence and promise of a new deal within 48 hours, a time period that has already begun, signals his willingness to “save capitalism from itself” (as Varoufakis put it in a famous talk).
The clock is ticking. The intellectual bankruptcy of the EU leadership’s economic argument is evident to everyone but themselves. Aware of its weak bargaining position, Syriza has repeatedly proven itself willing to make significant concessions to ensure some kind of moderate-Keynesian deal. A lack of prudence and statesmanship, a lack of awareness of the nobility that must be exercised by the powerful has prevented the Troika from acting justly and also successfully, handing Syriza easy ideological and moral victories in its cartoonish intransigence.
Socrates’ wager in the Republic was that:
“no one in any position of rule, to the extent that he is a ruler, considers or enjoins what is advantageous to himself, but what is advantageous for his subject- that on which he practices his craft….” (Rep. I. 342e6-10).
It is for the enterprising reader of the Republic to determine whether he succeeded. Inasmuch as he wished for the city that he made in speech to be taken as a model for anyone “who wishes to look at it and to found himself on the basis of what he sees…” (Rep. IX.582b2-5), perhaps the current crop of politicians can find a rather old model. May they learn from the Greeks the necessity of collective deliberation for successful democratic politics, the respect and dignity accorded to one’s antagonist which makes one whole, the prudence and intelligence to be a statesman who delivers prosperity on the basis of truth rather than a demagogue and rhetorician who offers flickering shadows in a cave.
Postscript: This was written on July 5, in the heat of the moment shortly after the referendum. A week is a long time in politics and if the leaked document linked here is correct, and if I am understanding it correctly (both rather extravagant premisses that the charitable reader must grant) it appears that Syriza’s proposal to the Eurogroup is a rather comprehensive capitulation to the demands of Ordoliberal austerity: privatisation, breaking trade unions, and cutting already meager pensions. This is not what the Greeks voted for. Unlike Priam of Troy, perhaps they had not realised that they were defeated. Tsipras will bring about an honourable burial just yet, and Merkel herself might allow him to do so with a generous “humanitarian aid” package. An Iliadic ending would be just this: a funeral.