This picture shows King Odysseus, hero of the ancient Greek poem Odyssey by Homer, conversing with the swineherd Eumaios. It is an engraving and etching on paper by John Flaxman. From 1805. So, Homer’s poetry proved to be still an inspiration after thousands of years.
This blog has mentioned Flaxman’s younger contemporary and fellow Englishman, the poet Shelley, and the question of his relationship to socialism and specifically Marxism.
Shelley had many ideas similar to Marxists and other socialists. Yet, I cannot call him a 100% socialist or Marxist: as he died, at 29 years of age, in 1822, ten years before the word socialist was first used and when Karl Marx was still a four-year-old toddler.
Now, a still more bold question. Was Greek poet Homer, considered to have lived 2500 years before Flaxman’s, Shelley’s and Marx’ nineteenth century, a Marxist?
To many people this may seem an absurd question. And my short answer is no. We don’t know anything about the life of Homer. We don’t know whether a poet called Homer really lived. We don’t know whether the famous poems Iliad and Odyssey, ascribed to Homer, were by the same poet or by two or more different poets.
The society in which Homer is said to have lived, ancient Greece about 750 BCE, was a class society, like Shelley’s and Marx’ nineteenth century capitalism. But a very different class society: based on slavery, without money, without nineteenth century machines, etc. In different societies, different kinds of ideas arise.
But does Homer at least have one idea in common with modern socialists?
According to Marxism, various phenomena in society have, sometimes directly, sometimes very indirectly, causes in the economic and social substructures in which humans live. Among these phenomena, the phenomena of the superstructure, are religion, politics, ideas to write poems, ideas to start political parties, ideas to start wars, etc.
Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht wrote: ‘Food first, then morality.’ That concise quote might give the impression that the economic substructure causes the superstructure one-sidedly. It is not that simple. Human ideas, in their turn, once they have arisen, may influence economic and social superstructures thoroughly. If some powerful people get the idea of starting a war and practise that idea, that war will change economy and society drastically.
So, to Marxists, wars, eg, have economic causes. Sometimes directly, like when United States President Donald Trump recently attacked Syrian government soldiers and civilians with Raytheon missiles while being himself a major Raytheon shareholder profiting from that attack. Sometimes very indirectly. Not only Marxists think that by the way. A recent study found that wars, proclaimed by NATO countries’ politicians to be ‘humanitarian’ wars, are very often oil wars.
What, according to Homer, causes war? In the Iliad, Homer describes the big Trojan war, said to have happened about 1200 BCE. The warring parties were the kingdom of Troy, in present day Turkey, against a coalition of kings of Greek city states; led by King Agamemnon of Mycenae, then the most important Greek city.
As causes of that war, Homer in the Iliad names mainly two factors: the supernatural, divine; and human ideas of what is proper and decent.
The original cause of the war is a conflict between Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty, and other goddesses. Aphrodite promises a son of the king of Troy, the judge in that conflict, that if he chooses her, then the most beautiful woman in the world will fall in love in him. Trojan Prince Paris then proclaims Aphrodite to be the winner. Aphrodite keeps her promise. However, the most beautiful woman turns out to be Helen, the wife of the king of Sparta. Helen, made by Aphrodite to fall in love with Prince Paris, elopes with him to Troy. That, to ancient Greeks, was a grave violation of how wives should behave. And it was an insult to her husband King Menelaos, Agamemnon’s brother, as well. Helen should go back to her husband. That goal, restoring Menelaos’ marriage and saving his honour, according to Mycenaean Greeks as depicted in the Iliad, was worth ten years of bloody war killing thousands of Trojans and Greeks.
So, that does not sound like economic explanations at all. Was there really a war between Trojans and Greeks? Possibly, according to archaeologists. Personally, I suspect that, if that war happened, the real cause was economic. The city of Troy was close to the Dardanelles strait. A good position for the kings of Troy to demand toll from ships trading from Greece to Black Sea regions. Probably, the Greek kings did not like having to pay so much.
However, a war about economics does not make as good a poem as a fight about beautiful Helen, caused by beautiful goddess Aphrodite; Homer (if he lived) may have thought.
The Iliad’s explanation of the Trojan war sounds similar to later explanations of later wars.
Let us first look at supernatural, divine explanations.
The battle cry of the medieval Crusades was: Dieu le veult. The war is because the Christian God (not pagan Aphrodite) wants it. In fact, there were economic and social causes of the Crusades.
Later, both George W Bush of the USA and Tony Blair of Britain claimed that they had started the Iraq war because the Christian God had told them so. Plus fictional tales on non-existent Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, Iraqi non-existent involvement in 9/11 terrorism, and non-existent wishes to bring democracy to Iraq. In fact, the Iraq war made both the Bush clique and Tony Blair rich because of Iraqi oil.
Now, let us look at explanations in terms of what is proper and decent among humans. In the eighteenth century, Britain and Spain fought the War about Jenkins’ Ear. British war propaganda said that a Spaniard had cut off an ear of British Captain Jenkins. And the honour of the king of England, Scotland and Ireland demanded a declaration of war against Spain for dishonouring Jenkins. In fact, the issue in that war was that British slave traders demanded permission to sell slaves to Spanish colonies in the Americas.
Adolf Hitler started World War II by invading Poland. As reason he said that armed Poles had dishonoured Germany by attacking Gleiwitz radio station. Like eloping with ancient Greek Queen Helena, a violation of what is proper and decent among humans. In fact Poles had not attacked Gleiwitz. The pseudo-attack had been stage managed by Hitler’s SS. Polish resources, and using Poland as a stepping stone to still bigger Soviet Union resources for the nazi Reich, were Hitler’s real motives.
Like women’s rights in Iraq, in Afghanistan, etc. are now named as propaganda for ‘humanitarian’ wars which are in fact wars about resources.
However, the supernatural and restoring a royal marriage are not the only motives Homer names for war.
In the Odyssey, book XVII, King Odysseus is disguised as a beggar. He tells his companion, the swineherd Eumaios, that he can stand lots of trouble. However, now he is hungry. Odysseus then says (lines 285-289; my translation),
“But one thing no one can deny is ravening hunger, a cursed plague bringing people much trouble. That is why people launch oared ships for faraway expeditions across the harvestless sea, to bring evil and death to enemies.”
Here Odysseus, and Homer, in fact say wars are about economic resources. They sound like Bertold Brecht on eating and morality. Homer did have at least one idea in common with modern Marxists and socialists.
But that did not make Homer a Marxist. However, extreme right people might call him a ‘cultural Marxist‘. A term of abuse among ‘alt-right’ neonazis for everyone opposing their inequality, their misogyny, their wars, etc. The 1967-1974 Greek colonels’ junta dictatorship banned many modern authors like Brecht, and ancient Greek authors, like the author of comedies Aristophanes. They might have banned the Odyssey if they would have read lines 285-289 of Book XVII.