Whenever their lives were set aflame, through desire or suffering, or even reflection, the Homeric heroes knew that a god was at work. They endured the god, and observed him, but what actually happened as a result was a surprise most of all for themselves. Thus dispossessed of their emotion, their shame, and their glory too, they were more cautious than anybody when it came to attributing to themselves the origin of their actions. “To me, you are not the cause, only the gods can be causes,” says old Priam, looking at Helen on the Scaean Gate. He couldn’t bring himself to hate her, nor to see her as guilty for nine bloody years’ fighting, even though Helen’s body had become the very image of a war about to end in massacre.

No psychology since has ever gone beyond this; all we have done is invent, for those powers that act upon us, longer, more numerous, more awkward names, which are less effective, less closely aligned to the pattern of our experience, whether that be pleasure or terror. The moderns are proud above all of their responsibility, but in being so they presume to respond with a voice that they are not even sure is theirs. The Homeric heroes knew nothing of that cumbersome word responsibility, nor would they have believed in it if they had. For them, it was as if every crime were committed in a state of mental infirmity. But such infirmity meant that a god was present and at work. What we consider infirmity they saw as “divine infatuation” (átæ). They knew that this invisible incursion often brought ruin: so much so that the word átæ would gradually come to mean “ruin.” But they also knew, and it was Sophocles who said it, that “mortal life can never have anything great about it except through átæ.”

Thus a people obsessed with the idea of hubris were also a people who dismissed with the utmost skepticisim an agent’s claim actually to do anything. When we know for sure that a person is the agent of some action, then that action is mediocre; as soon as there is a hint of greatness, of whatever kind, be it shameful or virtuous, it is no longer that person acting. The agent sags and flops, like a medium when his voices desert him. For the Homeric heroes there was no guilty party, only guilt, immense guilt. That was the miasma that impregnated blood, dust, and tears. With an intuition the moderns jettisoned and have never recovered, the heroes did not distinguish between the evil of the mind and the evil of the deed, murder and death. Guilt for them is like a boulder blocking the road; it is palpable, it looms. Perhaps the guilty party is as much a sufferer as the victim. In confronting guilt, all we can do is make a ruthless computation of the forces involved. And, when considering the guilty party, there will always be an element of uncertainty. We can never establish just how far he really is guilty, because the guilty party is part and parcel of the guilt and obeys its mechanics. Until eventually he is crushed by it perhaps, perhaps abandoned, perhaps freed, while the guilt rolls on to threaten others, to create new stories, new victims.

This Issue

April 22, 1993