It's funny the way poetry pops up. I was sitting in our garden this morning talking to my wife. This summer I built a small flag-stoned patio under the redbud tree at the back of our lot. It's not a big space, just room for two chairs and a tiny table for a cup of coffee. It's pleasant to spend some time outside before the heat of day commences. Anyway, we were just sitting there discussing someone we know who's had her fair share of troubles: born into poverty, no education, too many kids, health problems. And we were lamenting the all-too American habit of equating success with virtue.
Had this wretched woman been born to some other set of parents--in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, say, or the tonier suburbs of Dallas--her fate would undoubtedly have been different. So it's hard work, yes. No one denies that. But it's also just a lot of dumb luck.
So immediately I started thinking about the end of the Iliad. I know, I know. Weird segue, but toward the end of the poem there's a scene between Achilles and Priam, the Trojan king who's come for his son's body. Achilles sees the old man weeping and is reminded of his own father, who will also soon be mourning a dead son. Priam has lost nearly all of his family and Achilles has only recently lost his best friend. The young man comforts the old man, speaking these lines:
Though we're both feeling pain,
we'll let our grief lie quiet on our hearts.
For there's no benefit in frigid tears.
That's the way the gods have spun the threads
for mortal men, so they live in pain,
though gods themselves live on without a care.
On Zeus' floor stand two jars which hold his gifts
one has disastrous things, the other blessings.
When thunder-loving Zeus hands out a mixture,
that man will, at some point, meet with evil,
then, some other time, with good.
When Zeus' gift comes only from the jar containing evil,
he makes the man despised.
In some translations the blessings and evils are likened to dark and light stones. I always pay a lot of attention to these lines whenever I teach the Iliad. They stand in such stark contrast to the Hebraic tradition in which our ills spring from unrighteousness or the failure to keep God's covenant. If there's any suffering in the Judeo-Christian worldview, it's because Adam and Eve screwed up, Sodom and Gomorrah got bent, Israel strayed and we are all black-hearted sinners. In other words, life sucks and it's our fault.
Not so in Homer's view. There's much that we can do; there are choices to be made and it's possible our actions can result in all manner of unforseen tragedy. Even so, sometimes--much of the time actually-- the gods are just bastards. Oddly, this view seems more humane and compassionate to me, even more merciful.
Those old pagans. Go figure.