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  • The Cultural Construction of Chance in the Iliad*
  • Dean C. Hammer

Jean-Pierre Vernant (1990a, 1990b, 1990c) argues in a series of essays that the tragic sense of responsibility that develops in fifth-century Athenian drama arises at a point at which individuals are developing sufficient autonomy to begin making choices for which they are responsible, but are still tied to an inscrutable divine order that binds, even traps, individuals by their decisions. In the case of epic, Vernant continues, there is no action since “man is never envisaged as an agent” (1990c.44), that is, as “a responsible and autonomous subject who manifests himself in and through actions that are imputable to him” (1990b.50).

Vernant, in making this argument, draws on a formula that is Kantian in its modern expression but has served to define the terms of the debate about the nature of agency in the Homeric epic. Stated in its most general form, agency rests upon a particular conception of the will, one that is free from such external controls as contingency or luck. Given a more ethical cast, agency requires the existence of morally autonomous individuals guided by their own rationally determined and freely chosen values. Only with such autonomy of the will can there be the responsible subject to which Vernant refers.1

Though variously conceived in Homeric scholarship, this tradeoff between agency and contingency has received its most prominent expression [End Page 125] in the juxtaposition of the human and divine world. Simply stated, the gods in the Homeric epics, the Iliad in particular, are everywhere. They watch, take sides, devise plans, appear in dreams, provide counsel, interfere in the physical universe, and even engage in fighting. In short, the gods act and appear as forces originating outside the human will: as chance, or contingency, or luck. We can see the problem immediately: agency in the Homeric world can be purchased only by a corresponding diminution in the role of the gods.

It is the purpose of this article to challenge the nature of this tradeoff by way of a rather unconventional route: namely, by rethinking the almost axiomatic conception of chance as having an essentially objective and universal existence. We can understand chance definitionally as an unanticipated occurrence, but that does not take us very far. For that does not help us understand why, from the myriad unanticipated events that occur each day, we single out for attention some, but not others. My suggestion is that we can better understand chance as a cultural construction. Which events we pay attention to and the meaning we assign to these occurrences are determined by the culture in which we live. What ties chance to culture is a notion of risk: cultures, as they consist of shared beliefs and values, provide biases about what is dangerous, in general, and what is threatening about chance, in particular.

In the warrior culture of the Homeric world,2 chance is perceived as having its most pronounced effect, and elicits the greatest reaction, when it disrupts the status hierarchy. Viewing chance as culturally constituted will allow us to identify a pattern of response of Homeric characters to the unpredictable, seemingly incoherent actions of the gods. Simply stated, the warriors respond to chance by seeking to maintain (or, if need be, restore) their status in the community. Chance, thus, reveals both issues of community maintenance and the nature of human agency, as individuals, through their deliberative and willful actions, seek to maintain a cultural equilibrium. This leads to a more integrated conception of human action: [End Page 126] not one in which agency exists apart from chance, but one in which chance has both a cultural foundation and, somewhat ironically, is integral to, and integrated into, a conception of human action. Agency and chance, thus, do not exist apart but, as they are mediated through culture, serve to define each other.


Though it is impossible to do justice to the nuances of different arguments, we will not be overstating the case to point to a guiding assumption of Homeric scholars that a tradeoff exists between human agency and divine intervention. On...


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pp. 125-148
Launched on MUSE
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