Nature and Culture in the Iliad: The Tragedy of Hector
A Companion to the Iliad (Based on the Translation by Richmond Lattimore)
It is a remarkable testimony to the fierce vitality of the literature which has survived from ancient Greece that no interpretation of it, however magisterial, goes unchallenged for very long; each new generation sees its own problems reflected in the ancient mirror and brings to the formulation of that vision the insights and terminology of new sciences, new critical vocabularies. Sometimes these reevaluations are attempted from the inside, by Greek scholars whose fresh, understanding of the material in the light of modern psychological or anthropological insights is based on mastery of the Greek language and control of the vast scholarly literature which has increased in volume year by year since the Renaissance. E.R. Dodds’s epoch-making The Greeks and the Irrational is such a book, and G.S. Kirk’s work in the field of Greek mythology presents the same stimulating combination of professional expertise and new perspectives.
But often, too, the attempt is made from the outside, by social scientists whose knowledge of Greek is minimal or nonexistent and whose erratic maneuvers in the wilds of classical bibliography resemble the frantic struggles of a June bug trapped behind a window. Some malignant daimon always seems to guide these unfortunates to the most incompetent translations and the most diluted and vulgar popularizations of the subject. The results are all too like the familiar volume produced by the anthropologist or social scientist who has spent his sabbatical year with an African tribe or in a modern Greek village and, totally ignorant of the language, comes back to present to the world a series of pompous generalizations based on information supplied by the local English speaker, who is, by that very fact, a tainted source. Rhetorical balance demands, at this point, some names, but charity forbids; any Greek scholar can think of at least one recent production of this kind which, imposing itself on the unsuspecting public by the arrogance which cloaks its ignorance, proves once again that P.T. Barnum was a profound student of human nature.
James M. Redfield, who describes his book as “an essay which stands between the humanities and the social sciences,” is a professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the College at the University of Chicago. He is not, in the professional sense, a Greek scholar, but one who comes to Homer from the outside; in fact he uses the image of the social scientist in the field: “I have lived with these Homeric heroes so long that I have come to think of them the way an ethnographer thinks of his tribe: as ‘my people’ and”—he adds disarmingly—“I find much wisdom in them.”
His claim to have lived long with them is fully vindicated by his performance. He knows Greek; the literal translations (sometimes of long excerpts) are his own and they are, with some minor exceptions, accurate. (One interesting exception is his version of XXII, 496, where he has mistaken for a feminine genitive form, with the sense “flourishing …