Emily Katz Anhalt, a professor of Classics at Sarah Lawrence College, New York, argues that ancient Greek myths can help us tackle our most pressing problems today.
Enraged: Why Violent Times Need Ancient Greek Myths describes its homely origins (“my husband…suggested that I turn my repeated dinner-table conversations into something more constructive”), but also stems from the context in which Katz Anhalt works: the “mythology course” is a key element of US liberal arts education and usually involves making the case for classical literature to the uninitiated. In both subject and style, the book reflects this: “Maybe you are familiar with some ancient Greek myths. Maybe not. In this book, I retell a few of them in the hope that they can help us, as they helped the ancient Greeks, to see the costs of rage and violent revenge and to cultivate more constructive ways of interacting.” In short, the project is reader-centred. It asks: what have the Greeks ever done for us?
We may, of course, also ask what we, in turn, do for the ancient Greeks – specifically, in the case of this book, to what extent it promotes a new or better understanding of ancient Greek mythology. At the heart of the exploration stands a key insight: “When we are enraged, we easily mistake anger for moral correctness; we think, ‘I’m really angry, so I must be right’.”
Greek myth, in the reading offered by Katz Anhalt, helps to expose the problems and pitfalls of this moral confusion. “Rage”, the first word of the Iliad, announces a grand poem about a very specific issue. Achilles, the strongest Greek warrior, is angry with Agamemnon, the leader of the expedition against Troy. Their quarrel, we are told, was caused by the god Apollo, who in turn felt “rage” at Agamemnon.
At the beginning of the Iliad, Achilles and Apollo feel and behave in the same way. When Agamemnon refuses to return a slave girl to her father, who is a priest of Apollo, the god sends a disease that decimates Agamemnon’s army. Pressure mounts on Agamemnon to return the girl; Achilles is especially vocal about it; and Agamemnon eventually agrees, on condition that he take possession of Achilles’ favourite slave girl instead. This enrages Achilles, who withdraws from the fighting, thus ensuring that the army continues to suffer heavy losses.
It is when Agamemnon tries to persuade Achilles to relent that we see how the mortal hero differs from the god. When Agamemnon returns the first slave girl, Apollo is appeased. When he offers to return the second, Achilles is driven to even greater anger – and for more profound reasons than Agamemnon’s insulting manner. He will not risk his life for Agamemnon, he insists, because life is more precious to him than anything that the commander can offer. Besides, the Trojans have done him no wrong; they did not steal the woman he loves.
Achilles refuses to be appeased because he knows that he must die. It is only when his closest friend is killed by Hector, best of the Trojan warriors, that he changes his position. Now revenge matters to him even more than his feud with Agamemnon. He returns to the battlefield, kills Hector and continues to defile his body for days on end. Hector’s father eventually begs him to let go of Hector’s corpse and allow it to be buried, and it is only then that Achilles finally relents: he sees in the old man an image of his own father. The Iliad ends with the funeral laments for Hector, performed by the women who depended on him for their survival and well-being. They express something that Achilles could hardly grasp, in his great anger: that people need to look after each other in order to thrive.
Sophocles’ Ajax, the second text discussed in this book, is set towards the end of the Trojan War. Achilles is dead and Ajax expects to inherit his armour, since he is now the best of the Achaeans. Odysseus, however, persuades the army to give him the armour instead. Mad with anger, Ajax slaughters an entire herd of cattle, thinking that he is actually murdering Odysseus, Agamemnon, Menelaus and all the Greeks who slighted him. When he realises what he has done, he kills himself in shame – despite the fact that his slave Tecmessa tries hard to dissuade him from doing so, also in the name of the child they have together. Offended and horrified by Ajax’s actions, Agamemnon and his brother refuse to bury his corpse, but now Odysseus uses his rhetorical skills to persuade them to do so. The funeral of Ajax ends this enigmatic play.
Finally, Euripides’ Hecuba stages the fury of the former Queen of Troy, who has not only been defeated, bereaved and enslaved by the Greeks, but betrayed by an ancestral friend, the King of Thrace. She had entrusted to him her youngest child in order to ensure that at least one of her sons would survive the war, but the king killed the boy. Despite her own enslavement, Hecuba manages to exact her revenge: the king ends up blinded and his two children dead. “In this play, as so often in our own violent times,” concludes Katz Anhalt, “ruthless, unnecessary killing masquerades as moral correctness.”
Taken as a whole, the book traces (and advocates) a development from “primitive, private rage” to empathy and rational deliberation. Katz Anhalt rightly insists that the Trojan War belonged to the mythical past even for the earliest, 7th-century audiences of the Iliad, let alone 5th-century Athenians who watched the plays of Sophocles and Euripides in the theatre. For the latter, thinking about the great heroes of the past was also a means of reflecting on their own political and institutional progress: Athenian citizens were used to debating and voting on all major political decisions, in what was the first direct democracy in history. Katz Anhalt suggests that ancient historical developments should inform our own individual psychology – that we too should “set anger aside” and engage in empathetic thinking and rational decision-making instead.
This seems sensible, especially as a message to students, but I have two reservations. The first is moral: it seems important to acknowledge the possibility of righteous anger and its political usefulness. Take the undereducated and poor: they may be angry (and even target their rage at, say, female professors in privileged institutions, such as Katz Anhalt, myself or, more likely, Mary Beard), but the problem is not the anger. Surely, the problem is the poverty and the lack of education. Rational thought should not always or necessarily be presented as a substitute for anger but, in some cases at least, as a means of ensuring that it is well directed and effective.
My second concern is aesthetic. Perhaps because she insists on calling the works of Homer, Sophocles and Euripides “mythology” rather than “literature”, Katz Anhalt tends to turn them into stories with rather clear morals. In antiquity, these works were appreciated by the rich and the poor, the educated and the illiterate – and yet, in their original form, they made greater moral and aesthetic demands on their audiences than the versions offered in this book make on readers today.
Barbara Graziosi is professor of Classics at Durham University and is currently working on a book about homecoming.
Enraged: Why Violent Times Need Ancient Greek Myths
By Emily Katz Anhalt
Yale University Press, 288pp, £25.00
Published 3 October 2017
Emily Katz Anhalt, professor of Classics at Sarah Lawrence College, was born in New York City. She studied ancient Greek at Dartmouth College, followed by a master’s and PhD in classical philology from Yale University.
Studying philosophy and ancient Greek at Dartmouth, Katz Anhalt recalls, “I was taught to read like a philosopher, with one eye on the text and one eye on the world. My work focuses on the way that stories – literary, historical, political – shape our conscious and unconscious goals and decision-making.”
Asked about her political commitments, she says that she “spend[s] much of [her] time in ancient Greece, and emerge[s] intermittently to a 21st-century reality of violent conflict in places both far and near. Ancient Greek myths, told and retold over centuries in epic and tragic poetry, accompanied and promoted a historically unprecedented movement away from tyranny and tribalism and towards broader forms of political participation, exemplified most famously by the Athenian democracy of the 5th century BC, the first democracy the world had ever seen. Today, we risk reversing this trajectory, as many people remain unaware that the Greeks’ political evolution required not merely the implementation of specific institutions but a transformation of attitudes and values.”
So what do we gain by adopting Greek epic and tragedy as a resource in addressing today’s problems?
“Ancient Greek myths expose tyrannical behaviour as short-sighted and self-destructive,” replies Katz Anhalt. “They remind us that violence promotes violence, and brutality breeds brutality. They promote intellectual inquiry and verbal debate as more constructive alternatives. Although the ancient Greeks never fully lived up to the ideals of humanity, equality and justice that their own stories introduced, we ignore or abandon these ideals at our peril.”