Big Questions: Is Life a Battle or a Journey? - February 9, 2015

Western culture has been graced with two wonderful literary answers to the question, “What is life all about?” In The Iliad the answer is, a battle; in The Odyssey, a journey.

Well, so what, you may say. Aren’t there other possible answers to this question, e.g., life is a game, life is a repetition, life is a dream, life is a collection, life is a recollection, or any number of other answers, answers that have been suggested by writers or philosophers or prophets or oracles? Well, sure, there are lots of answers to the question, but only a few good answers, answers that will stand up to scrutiny, answers that the greatest minds have pondered. The greatness of Homer goes far beyond his style or his plots; it goes directly to his themes. For no other pair of answers to the question of what life is about has so captured the mind or viscera of mankind.

Here are the opening lines from the two works (Richmond Lattimore translations):


Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
since that time when first there stood in division of conflict
Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus.


Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven
far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.
Many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of,
many the pains he suffered in his spirit on the wide sea,
struggling for his own life and the homecoming of his companions.
Even so he could not save his companions, hard though
he strove to; they were destroyed by their own wild recklessness,
fools, who devoured the oxen of Helios, the Sun God,
and he took away the day of their homecoming.

We in the West should find this dichotomy inbuilt into our religious backgrounds. The central event in Judaism is a journey (the Exodus); in Christianity, the central event is a battle (Jesus’ battle with Satan is a model for ours with our natures).

I don’t remember when this battle/journey dichotomy first occurred to me, only that it did occur to me, that it wasn’t taught to me or mentioned to me by someone else. Probably it occurred while I read and reread the Iliad. But, having occurred to me, it filled the interstices of my mind in the knowledge that something came to me in the first place, that this thought, which I knew not only couldn’t be original with me but must have occurred to thousands for millennia before me, shouldn’t be original with me, because this thought was a big idea, and thus one that I shared in silence with all humanity, and, of course, nothing unique ever came about through sharing. It was a much bigger thought than other ideas that have occurred to me without professor- or peer-prodding, like, for example, the fact that Ayn Rand isn’t really a philosopher. Such thoughts constitute a sloughing off of the kind of innocence one must be rid of in order to advance. (There are, I contend, innocences we should maintain all our lives. My father once told me, when I asked him, rather indignantly, since I was then about twelve, why he had just given money to a panhandler, that we were supposed to be taken advantage of . . . now that was an innocence we might well cultivate. That day I learned well and forever that giving is supposed to help the giver as well as the recipient.) But the idea of the battle/journey dichotomy was much bigger than the little discoveries that take place in all of us as we grow and become educated.

Later, in grad school, I learned a bit about India’s classic literature, which wonderfully confirmed the truth of the battle/journey notion. Indian literature has an identical situation in, respectively, The Mahabharata, which is about a battle, and The Ramayana, about a journey, though these two works are much more central to the intellectual and spiritual history of India than Homer’s works are to the West. The Mahabharata (which has one of India’s most famous works, The Bhagavad Gita, contained within it) is more than ten times longer than the Iliad and Odyssey combined, and both of India’s works, we are told, have what seem to be semi-divine origins.

I won’t go into the Mahabharata or the Ramayana except to say that any time devoted to reading portions of them is time well spent.  But, since the audience for this book is Western, I return to the Iliad and the Odyssey.

The two Homeric works connect to the each other in time and characters; this is especially the case for Odysseus, who has a small part in the Iliad and the central one in the Odyssey. But the two works could not be more different in their themes and story lines.

The Iliad concerns a war of honor, brought about to return an errant wife. The story begins toward the very end the ten-year Trojan War. The entire twenty-four books of the Iliad take up but sixteen days, with Book One alone taking up the first twelve of these sixteen days. The Odyssey, on the other hand, takes place after the end of that Trojan War, when the Achaians go home. It is not about honor, but about returning home, specifically about Odysseus’ travels, an adventure that takes up a full ten years, the equivalent in time of the entire Trojan War.

Whereas the Iliad does not refer to time in any way, despite the fact that it deals with a real event in history, the Odyssey centers around specific events and the time it took to complete those events. A journey by nature is concerned with time because it is concerned with the movement of things. As such, it is like music or any auditory sound because it involves waves rather than points, continuousness rather than continuity, series rather than story.

Time is central in the Odyssey; indeed, the entire work is held together by the labor of Odysseus’ wife Penelope, who is pursued by a bevy of suitors and to stave them off says she must complete a tapestry she is making, but each evening, in the quiet, she unravels the work to keep the time going. The Odyssey is a work of history about events that never occurred.

It is passing strange that stories about battles and stories about journeys tend to be rather separated. Of course, if you read a shoot-‘em-up nowadays, there will always be a little sidebar that hints at “moving on,” as though that were the equivalent of “journey.” In the end, battle and journey are two separate categories of stories and rarely can coalesce. The two great exceptions to this, in my thinking at least, are Dante’s  Divine Comedy and Cervantes’ Don Quixote, perhaps the two greatest novels ever written, though I am personally very partial to Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Both Divine Comedy and Don Quixote are battles within journeys (Karamazov also has small battles within individual journeys of the sons). Perhaps we can see just from this point how big the world must be to cover both battle and journey.

But there is more to Homer’s great works than interesting stories. Both have stories within stories. The Iliad, for example, is a battle within a battle, perhaps even battles within a battle. Despite the fact that the very nature of the story would indicate that the battle is between the Achaians and the Trojans, right from the beginning of the work, it appears that the main battle is within the Achaians themselves, specifically between Achilleus and Agamemnon. Soon, however, it becomes evident that the real battle is not that at all, but within Achilleus himself.

As a side bar, this brings me back to a long time ago, when I was a soccer coach for my sons’ high school. After being around them and learning more about the game and the players, I wrote a little article about what I called the Three Levels of Competition. In the first, the player is new and sometimes scared. He is playing one-on-one, and it is his natural tendency to be concerned about one thing only . . . not to screw up. His aim is to outplay his single opponent or at least not be outplayed by his opponent. Later, especially after he learns more and plays better, he sees the game in larger ways and enters the second level. It is a game of teams, not simply of individuals. He looks to play a part to help others on the team rather than just being concerned about his own play. Not all players get this far; some remain single-players forever. Fewer still enter the third and last level, the level that goes beyond the team, when the player does not aim only at winning. On the third level, he plays, in effect, against himself, to improve himself, to ask more from himself, to excel for the sake of himself, for his teammates, and for the game itself. Very few high-schoolers get this far; in fact, many if not most professionals, I think, do not get this far . . . because what he asks of himself is not that others will love him, honor him, admire him, but that he does that to and for himself.

This is what happens in the Iliad. At first Achilleus argues with Agamemnon on a point of honor. Perhaps the reader will think Achilleus is in the right, but in his manner with Agamemnon he forfeits his right to have sympathy. He is fighting the one-on-one, against an opponent with far more power, even if with lesser talent as a warrior. Achilleus then pulls away from the fight. He retires from the field and refuses to return until he is honored, which cannot happen because Agamemnon cannot afford to lower himself in this way. Here, Achilleus has reached the second level, the team portion, even as he has failed miserably to be a team player. In fact, he has eschewed the team, led by someone who had shamed him. When Achilleus retires from the battle, the Achaians noticeably feel the pinch of his loss. Others beg Achilleus to return to the fight, but even their pleas and praise are not enough for him. He remains adamant about not returning. But then his dear friend Patroklos feels shamed not to be in the fight, and so asks Achilleus for permission to engage the enemy. Achilleus relents and gives him his own armor to wear. Patroklos enters the fray and fights with the greatest leader of the Trojans, Hektor. In their fight, Hektor kills Patroklos and, as is customary, strips the armor from him and puts it on himself. Now comes the third level, the area where few are able to arrive at. Achilleus finds out that his dearest friend is dead; he runs to the top of the mount and bellows his anger and anguish at the death of Patroklos. He is without armor, naked as a warrior, but his very presence is enough to throw violent fear into the hearts of the Trojans, who quit the field despite their being close to completely vanquishing the Achaians. Achilleus then demands to fight Hektor, who would prefer not to enter the field with such a man, but his loss of honor to do such forces him to agree. He enters the field in Achilleus’ armor, the armor he stripped from Patroklos, and since armor is the defining synecdoche in the Iliad, Achilleus finally faces himself. In this final, terrible fight, Achilleus lays waste to his enemy. In facing Hektor, he faces himself, slaughters himself, desecrates himself, alienates himself, and it is only in the denouement, facing Priam, who pleads for the body of his son Hector, that Achilleus releases himself, returns to himself, becomes himself.

And just as the Iliad is a battle within a battle, so too is the Odyssey a journey within a journey. After leaving Calypso, Odysseus recounts the entire story of his journey, so the whole of the ten-year journey is told and retold. While the Iliad concerns only a few days at the end of a ten-year war, without reference to what went before or after, the Odyssey is itself a ten-year journey, full of amazing adventures and even more amazing characters, monsters such as Scylla and Charybdis, nymphs like Circe, sirens, deities, the Cyclops Polyphemus, and others.

The word Iliad means poem about Ilium (i.e., Troy). Odyssey, Webster says, is “a series of adventurous journeys usually marked by many changes of fortune.” One is about a place (one that existed) and the other about a constant change of places (none of which existed). One involves a choice, then a reaction. The other is an action against something that you did not choose.

If we think in terms of a play, we see the Iliad as a tragedy and the movement is down. It concerns honor, courage, arête (virtue, excellence). The Odyssey is a comedy, and the action is up. It hallows not honor but shrewdness, desire to experience all that the world has to offer.

Journey, because it is intimately connected with time and flow, is framed in history. It does not engage the environment, it reacts to it. Despite its seeming to be active in the sense of “doing something,” it is essentially passive (cf. the Sirens’ song in the Odyssey).

Battle, on the other hand, is proactive. It is active, tragic, normative. And despite all the hopes and dreams and plans everywhere, battle seems hard-wired into our psyche; it is about our nature. (No one can say that about journey; if it were so, what happened to the life of the first ten or twenty thousand years in the life of homo sapiens?) Battle existed before the epiphany of God (either in the thorn bush or the manger). Perhaps it is part of what Augustine meant by original sin. The Church has always sought to expunge it, has in modern times condemned battle irrespective of either [OT] righteousness or [NT] charity, as a moral evil.

Whether we speak of what Arjuna learned from Krishna on the plain of Kurukshetra in the Bhagavad Gita or what Achilleus learned from Priam, despite terrible warfare, the world we sense is real . . . and not only real, but good. The lessons in both are similar: the battle that rages on within us or without us has a real purpose, i.e., a real end, for our souls.

And while you may not fight a Cyclops as a moment in your journal or stand atop a mount to engage a new world in battle, what is left for us is greater than all of that. As St. Paul said, “So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). Journey is about hope; battle I believe concerns faith. And both, in their less-than-perfect explanation, give us the possibility of love.