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Arethusa 35.2 (2002) 203-235

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The iliad as Ethical Thinking:
Politics, Pity, and the Operation of Esteem 1

Dean Hammer

Plato's banishment of Homer from his philosophic republic is well known. The problem with the Homeric epic for Plato is that it imitates phenomenal appearance (phainomena) as it depicts the shadowy world of human action. Unlike Homer, whose art can tell us nothing about how to live because it merely imitates what we already do, the philosophic craft, as it draws its inspiration from the contemplation of truth, is capable of producing political judgments about what conduct makes individuals better or worse (599d). Overlaying this Platonic argument in modern times is a Kantian distinction between "pure moral philosophy" and other precepts that "may be only empirical and thus belong to anthropology" (Kant 1959.5). Moral philosophy is seen as derived from abstract and universal principles that impose a categorical duty on humans. Empirical precepts, such as norms of behavior or even ethics, 2 are seen as culturally grounded and, thus, not critically reflective.

Applied to the Homeric world, this distinction underlies a view, still very much a part of scholarship, of Homeric individuals as conforming [End Page 203] to external cultural norms rather than acting and reflecting upon internal motivations of what is morally right and wrong. In Snell's influential formulation, Homeric man lacks consciousness of himself as making moral choices and an ability to reflect on those choices. 3 For Fränkel, no encounter occurs between an outside world and an "inner selfhood." 4 Homeric individuals possess only an "elemental vitality" with which they live in the joys and sorrows of the moment and act according to the "forms" of society. 5 Dodds 1957 employs a now famous anthropological distinction between "shame" and "guilt" cultures to describe the operation of the Homeric value system in which an individual's sense of right and wrong is governed by what the community will think of him or her rather than an internal sense of moral guilt. Redfield, in his anthropological reading, suggests that Homeric man "has no innerness" and is "incapable of development" because he "responds fully and uncritically to each situation" (1994.21). And Adkins, in seeking to reconstruct the value system of the Homeric world, argues that a sense of right and wrong does not exist, only a calculation of how to maximize one's honor through the outward display of "skill and courage." 6 From these perspectives, neither personal decision nor judgment are possible because no image exists of oneself apart from the norms of society. 7 Homeric man functions unreflectively as an expression of the external standards of society.

Yet, these formulations make it impossible to understand who or what is doing the conforming and how the conforming even takes place. Even Redfield, who rejects any innerness in Homeric individuals, notes that, in the "shame culture" of Homeric society, the "expressed ideal norm of the society" is "experienced with the self, as a man internalizes the anticipated judgments of others on himself" (1994.116). Honor is not just the value of a person "in the eyes of his society," but, as Pitt-Rivers notes, it "is the value of a person in his own eyes" (1974.21). Honor, and its sanction of shame, provide "a nexus between the ideals of a society and their reproduction in [End Page 204] the individual through his aspiration to personify them" (Pitt-Rivers 1974.22). The recognition of how one's actions might damage or enhance one's status, suggests Cairns, requires "a subjective idea of one's own worth, an ideal self-image which is placed under threat, and an awareness of the standards under which one is liable to be criticized" or praised (1993.142). The claim by an individual that he or she was inappropriately dishonored, for example, rests upon a particular image and valuation of oneself as deserving honor. I follow Cairns in his characterization of this valuation of oneself as "self-esteem." 8

This notion of esteem, as Ricoeur has argued in...


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