“Is there a right answer?” a student interrupted our discussion of Book XVI of the Iliad to ask me tonight. I really hate that question, which is usually a sign that students are tired of thinking. But tonight, the student was serious, and the conversation had been serious. But the topic was hard, “What is the relation between Zeus and destiny?” and he needed me to assure him that I knew there was a right answer.
The amazing thing was that he cared that much. In fact, the whole seminar seemed deeply interested in the question. Seven or eight gathered with me and another tutor after our two hour class discussion to pursue it for another 45 minutes. “I need to know!” said one young woman.
Now why would a group of college freshmen mostly from serious Catholic families “need to know” how Homer, a pagan author dealing with bloody, glory-seeking semi-barbarians, portrayed Zeus and destiny?
One reason could be that they had seen his story didn’t fit with the tidy picture they had of the Greeks, who thought fate was over everything. Or did they? “And the will of Zeus was accomplished,” opens the epic. Later Zeus tells Hera that Hektor and Patroklos and his own son, Sarpedon, will all die because he promised Achilles’ mother that he would bring honor to Achilles. Yet Zeus laments that Sarpedon is destined to die. He seriously considers saving him until Hera talks him out of it, and then weeps “tears of blood” as he leaves Sarpedon to his destiny.
The surprise element must be a big factor. But I also raised the question of whether this mattered to the story. Is the Zeus/destiny question really important or just a matter for maddening or scholarly curiosity? They thought it deeply important, for if Zeus were in charge of all, then he could give reasons for why he let terrible things happen even to those he loved. And maybe he could be supplicated, and could change his mind. But if Zeus is simply subject to destiny, then no reason can be given for why Patroklos, who wins our sympathy through the tears of pity he sheds on behalf of his fellow Achaians, must die. Another senseless death.
Patroklos goes to his death because he succumbs to the rage and fury that success in battle breeds. “Besotted!” Can battle really do this to a man? It seems so. But Homer continues, “But always the mind of Zeus is a stronger thing than a man’s mind.” Do men feel that, when they are overcome by passion in the moment that something divine is driving them? Is it a god? The God? Can it have a purpose even when it leads to disaster?
These are deeply human questions. As Catholics, we are blessed to have all the answers. But having all the answers from the time of your youth often means you never really face the questions. I hope that in part my students’ fascination came from seeing how marvelously Homer shows his world, a world for which the questions are deeply real, and is fueled by the hope that his “answer’ – murky, delicate, profoundly suggestive – might offer a window of wonder opening on the mysterious God whom they love and serve.