For the past three weeks, I’ve been dusting off the one of the West’s oldest thrill rides: the Iliad. I’ve looked at the best, the worst, and the bloodiest parts of what it means to be a hero in the legendary war stories of Homer. This week, I’d like to put it all together and see if I can’t find some of Homer’s heroism wrapped into the ideas that made this country, our country, what it is. In short, I’d like to make the case for why democracy is the government of heroes.
The Greeks invented democracy, but their bible was a poem about kings. To read the Iliad, you’d think the common man shouldn’t be trusted to tie his own shoelaces, let alone make complex political decisions. Homer composed the poem in the 700s BC, and it’s about a war between bronze-age monarchies. In it, kings are the god-appointed rulers of men. Everyone else is born to obey. That’s what the Athenians were reading when, for the first time in Western history, they handed the government over to the people. So where on earth did they get that idea?
There’s no question of equality in the poem. The royals are the main characters, kings and princes and generals with names you’ve heard like Hector and Achilles. They’re statuesque, with washboard abs and gleaming armor — Abercrombie and Fitch models who can decimate troops of lesser men and probably make a perfect omelette, too. Most importantly, they’re “beloved of Zeus” or even “fed by the gods”: they’re divinely appointed from birth to rule.
But every king needs subjects, and in the Iliad they’re a dime a dozen. Homer’s foot soldiers are the ancient equivalent of cannon fodder: slack-jawed, usually unnamed lemmings who move as a herd. Their poster child is Thersites, a sniveling, balding hunchback with a club foot, as ugly as his superiors are dashing. That’s the world of the Iliad: some men are worth more than most. There were no participation trophies given out at the Trojan war.
To a modern ear, this sounds like a pretty raw deal. We like to believe every kid can grow up to be president — the idea that some men are born better sounds backwards, barbaric even. But imagine what the alternative was. Greece in the early bronze age was mostly a collection of illiterate tribes ruled by raw violence. Disagreements were settled by beating the guy next door into submission; if you did that enough times, you became king. Then, slowly, visionary civilizations — the Minoans, the Mycenaeans — began developing complex systems of art, language, law. From out of nowhere, as if divinely inspired, rulers learned to talk things out.
That’s exactly what Homer’s kings do. They hold council; they can “put together a clever plan” and discuss it with one another (2.55). Early on in the poem, nearly the entire Greek army breaks rank, and King Odysseus sets about restoring order. When he meets “a king and a man of distinction,” Odysseus politely asks the fellow to see reason — it wouldn’t do, he says, “to intimidate you as if you were a low-life.” But when he sees a “man of the people,” Odysseus clobbers the poor schmuck and tells him to listen to his superiors “because they’re stronger, and you’re a sissy unfit for war” (2.188-206). It’s appalling, but it’s also telling: for Odysseus, what sets a king apart is his intellect. Most of the men, he assumes, will only respond to threats of violence. The kings are the ones who can be made to see reason.
No wonder Homer called that a gift from the gods. In the middle of centuries-old tribal violence, intellect and logic must have seemed like divine blessings, granted like a bolt from the blue to leaders who could defend their tactics with logical arguments rather than violence. In fact, that’s exactly what Homer’s gods do: they hold meetings, “taking their seats on the golden council-floor” to debate (4.1-2). The kings in the Iliad are semi-divine because they’ve been chosen to imitate what the gods can do. They’ve been blessed to think.
Now, that’s a far cry from democracy. Homer’s heroes are still royalty — they’re bred for their positions, not asked to earn them. But they aren’t chosen at random, either: their exceptional skills and gifts set them apart from other men. At the heart of Homer’s monarchy is the kernel of a democratic society, the makings of a meritocracy. It’s the stirrings of a new world order.
That new order came to Athens in the 400s BC. Praising Athenian democracy, the iconic statesman, Pericles, proclaimed that “each man is honored . . . not according to his class but according to his valor.” Just like Homer, Pericles believed in recognizing excellence and achievement — he called them the basis of public honor. From there, he went one step further: poverty and obscurity, he declared, “won’t hold a man back if he can do something good for the city” (Thucydides, Peloponnesian War 2.36). The days of men born as kings were over.
The Athenians idolized Homer — they recited his poetry like a national anthem and memorized it in school like Shakespeare. They grew up learning from Homer that being a king meant more than just being born — it meant distinction on the basis of merit, leadership founded on exceptional courage and intelligence. The founders of the original democracy had been taught, not that all men are equal, but that some men are excellent. From there they made the radical assertion that those excellent men can come from anywhere, and that anyone can distinguish himself, regardless of his birth. It was a revolutionary idea, but its roots were as old as the Iliad.
These days, in our own democracy, we say “all men are created equal” — as in, the law treats everyone equally. Pericles said the same, that “equality is established for everyone in the eyes of the law” (2.36). The reason we say that, though, is the same reason Pericles said it, or should be: it creates a chance for the best of the best to rise to the top. Our modern danger is in translating “all men are created equal” to mean “all men are the same,” or worse, “everyone is special.” That’s not just provably untrue, it’s undemocratic — it strikes against the foundational ideas of Western democracy. Those ideas come from Homer, who celebrated the fact that not all men are the same: some men, he knew, are heroes.