Understanding that we do not understand

“[Agamemnon] has sent the best men to you to supplicate you, choosing them out of the Achaian host, those who to yourself are the dearest of all the Argives. Do not make vain their argument nor their footsteps, though before this one could not blame your anger. Thus it was in the old days also, the deeds that we hear of from the great men, when the swelling anger descended upon them. The heroes would take gifts; they would listen, and be persuaded. For I remember this action of old, it is not a new thing, and how it went; you are all my friends, I will tell it among you.” Iliad 9.520-528, trans. Richmond Lattimore

Working with the Iliad this week, I’ve been wrestling with the seemingly endless little moments that may pass unremarked by modern readers but that can be quite telling, even crucial, for our understanding. This is one such passage. Phoenix implores Achilles to let go of his anger, appealing to the example provided by heroes of old whose deeds are sung about—κλέα ανδρών ηρώων in the Greek text.

It seems that Phoenix recalls these deeds not because he was there to witness them himself but because they have been woven into a song that weaves in those who participate in that song, a verbal version of an infinity photo. Phoenix believes the men in his company will understand this song, its relevance, its meaning because they are his “friends,” his φίλοισι, meaning also your people, those who are part of you and whom you are bound to and responsible for.

How can we hope to understand this song/poem standing, as we do, outside its frame? What can we hope to understand about it? These are genuine questions. I welcome your thoughts.

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