Saturday, February 20, 2010

Ideological Might in the Iliad

Let us meet one of these classes of proto-philosopher through visiting a scene from the Iliad of Homer.

A beleaguered man decked out in priestly regalia treks along a beach on the coast of Asia Minor. He carries a rod of solid gold, and is followed by a train of servants bearing a palanquin filled with bricks of gold. Through the tears obscuring his peripheral vision, he can see the great city of Troy towering in the distance. But his focus and his destination lies further along the beach: the military camp of Agamemnon and his Achaean forces. This man is Chryses, priest of Apollo. Previously, in an Achaean raid, Agamemnon abducted the daughter of Chryses, and took her as a concubine.

Chryses gains an audience with the great king, and begs for the return of his daughter, offering his great quantity of gold in exchange for his daughter's return. Especially as portrayed in this 4th century BC Greek vase, this might seen a rather pathetic scene, in which the power relation is completely one-sided. An unarmed priest (a vocation often seen as effeminate) in a completely supplicant attitude, while a great warrior-king looks down upon him in disdain.

Agamemnon is indeed likely much more formidable in personal combat than Chryses. But that is not where Agamemnon's true might lies. Might, in the Misesian sense, is not in the power of a man's limbs, but in the power of ideology. In Human Action, Chapter 9, Section 3, Mises wrote:

Might is the faculty or power of directing actions. As a rule one says only of a man or of groups of men that they are mighty. Then the definition of might is: might is the power to direct other people's actions. He who is mighty, owes his might to an ideology. Only ideologies can convey to a man the power to influence other people's choices and conduct. One can become a leader only if one is supported by an ideology which makes other people tractable and accommodating. Might is thus not a physical and tangible thing, but a moral and spiritual phenomenon. A king's might rests upon the recognition of the monarchical ideology on the part of his subjects.

He who uses his might to run the state, i.e., the social apparatus of coercion and compulsion, rules. Rule is the exercise of might in the political body. Rule is always based upon might, i.e., the power to direct other people's actions.

Up to this point in Homer's story, Agamemnon has demonstrated a prodigious degree of ideological might: sufficient to assert his authority over the kings of a great many city-states in Hellas, and thus raise the greatest ever military expedition, even for such a dubious goal as avenging the honor of his cuckolded brother. His sister-in-law Helen may have had the face that launched a thousand ships, but it never could have happened without the ideological might of Agamemnon.

But Chryses has potential ideological might of his own: for Chryses is a priest. The arsenal of a priest is much more purely ideological than that of a king. But it can be enormously potent. And Chryses brought with him not only a carrot, but a stick; not only a ransom, but a potential curse. Chryses warns Agamemnon to be reasonable, else he elicit the anger of Apollo. Thus does he try to use one of the chief ideological weapons of clerics: the perception of others that they are the vicars of powerful deities. But Agamemnon, for whatever reason, is unperturbed by this threat, and arrogantly rebuffs him:

Old man," said he, "let me not find you tarrying about our ships, nor yet coming hereafter. Your sceptre of the god and your wreath shall profit you nothing. I will not free her. She shall grow old in my house at Argos far from her own home, busying herself with her loom and visiting my couch; so go, and do not provoke me or it shall be the worse for you."

Chryses duly scampers off in terror. But as soon as he is out of earshot, he follows through with his threat, and calls the anger of Apollo down upon Agamemnon's hapless army. Of course, the Iliad is fiction, and in it Apollo is very real. Thus, Chryses' prayer is the mythological equivalent of calling in an airstrike:

Thus did he pray, and Apollo heard his prayer. He came down furious from the summits of Olympus, with his bow and his quiver upon his shoulder, and the arrows rattled on his back with the rage that trembled within him. He sat himself down away from the ships with a face as dark as night, and his silver bow rang death as he shot his arrow in the midst of them. First he smote their mules and their hounds, but presently he aimed his shafts at the people themselves, and all day long the pyres of the dead were burning.

The great Achaean warrior Achilles than calls for an assembly, at which he proposes that a diviner be consulted. The army auger, Calchas, steps forth, and confirms everyone's suspicion that the plague ravaging the army is indeed punishment for Agamemnon's pig-headedness. Agamemnon realizes the game is up, and returns Chryses' daughter along with a hundred head of cattle. In Calchas', another cleric in the service of Apollo1, we see another weapon in the ideological arsenal of the holy orders; the perception that they are not only representatives, but interpreters, of divine will.

Of course this is all very fanciful. But given the long record of real ideological might in the priestly office throughout human history2>, it is easy to imagine the following analogous real-life scenario, paralleling the mythical story. Chryses begs for his daughter, and Agamemnon refuses in front of all the men, just as in the Iliad. Then after the men see their king humiliate a priest, they happen to be struck by a real plague (not an uncommon occurence in an ancient war camp3). Soldiers are often a superstitious lot; so even without a diviner pointing the finger at the king, they might become restive at the belief that they are dying because of their king's impiety. To avoid a mutiny, Agamemnon, in real life, could very well have been forced to relent to Chryses' "spiritual authority."

1Were the episode not fictional, one would wonder if Calchas' divination was him merely looking out for a fellow member of an international Apollonian cult.

2A tradition that extends from the Egyptian priesthood's ultimate triumph over the heresy of the Pharoah Akhenaten to the "Walk to Canossa": Pope Gregory VII's humbling of Emperor Henry IV. 3 See the Athenians' harrowing experience in Thucydides' History of the Pelopennesean War.

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