Philosophical Messages in The Odyssey and the Iliad

The Odyssey and Iliad are timeless works of arts from Greece. Originating from a Mycenean oral tradition the works were written in the 8th century and attributed to the blind bard Homer. The Iliad and Odyssey are the foundation pieces of the story of trojan war. Despite their age, these works have remained relevant and applicable in culture over the millennia. These works depict the human condition, are an avenue for the exploration of society, and are a continued source of entertainment and storytelling. Their influence continues to affect the world even in the modern world. Contained within these works are universal stories of conflict, pain, forgiveness, the search for peace, hubris, reunion, and love that allows these pieces to connect with the minds and hearts of all who read them.

            The First book of The Iliad begins years into the Trojan war. A scene between the Hero Achilles and King Agamemnon sows the seeds of conflict and dishonor. Achilles has been wronged by Agamemnon and so Achilles refuses to fight:

“You Drunkard, you, with your eyes of a dog and heart of a doe! You never have the courage to arm yourself and go into battle with the men, let alone join the pick of the Greeks in an ambush – you’d sooner die. It suits you better to remain in camp, walking off with the prizes of anyone who contradicts you – a leader who grows fat on his own people! But then, you rule over nobodies: otherwise, son of Atreus, this outrage would prove your last (Matthews 31).”

This scene shows the important station honor held in Ancient Greece. Achilles refuses to fight because of the disrespect Agamemnon has shown him. In the modern world honor has lost sway, but the ideas of courtesy and respect are still powerful driving factors in all interactions. Disrespecting a fellow person will likely lead to a loss of allegiance and support in the current times.

Book Twenty-Two of The Iliad showcases the legendary fight between Achilles and Hector, the greatest warriors of the Trojan War. Achilles fights again to avenge the death of his beloved friend Patroclus at the hands of hector. Achilles wins the fight and Hector begs for mercy. Achilles’ reply is merciless. He believes that killing Hector will bring him peace from the grief he feels over Patroclus’ death:

“You dog, don’t entreat me by my knees or my parents. I only wish I could summon up the will to carve and eat you raw myself, for what you have done to me. Bit this at least is certain: nobody is going to keep the dogs off your head, not even if the Trojans bring here and weigh out a ransom ten or twenty times your worth, and promise more besides, not even if Dardanian Priam tells them to offer your weight in gold not even so shall your lady mother lay you on a bier to mourn the son she bore, but the dogs and birds of prey will divide you up, leaving nothing (Matthews 34).”

Grief and revenge are core to the human condition. Although slaying one who has wronged you or a loved one is both looked down upon and criminal in the modern world the anguish Achilles feels and the anger in his heart is something all people can empathize with. The desire to destroy what has harmed loved ones and to fill the emptiness one feels at a loss will never be driven out of mankind. Achilles’ brutal declaration and subsequent desecration of Hector’s corpse is the epitome of an improper reaction to grief and search for peace. Achilles’ is a cautionary tale of the limits from which grief can consume. Devolving from a proud and honor-bound man to an animal, Achilles shows the depths that man can sink to in any age.

After desecrating the corpse of Hector by dragging his body behind his chariot before the walls of Troy, Priam, King of Troy and Father of Hector goes to Achilles in the Achaean camp during the night and begs the man who has slain his son for the corpse of Hector:

“Achilles, respect the gods and have pity on me, remembering you own father. I am even more entitled to pity, since I have brought myself to do something no one else on earth had done – I have raised to my lips the hands of the man who killed my sons.” With these words he awoke in Achilles a longing to weep for his own father. Taking the old man’s hand, Achilles gently put him from him, and they were both overcome by their memories (Matthews 35).”

In the wake of Patroclus’ death Achilles searches for peace from the anguish he feels. He sacrifices to the gods, he kills trojans out of revenge, and fights a river deity in search for peace;  he finds no peace. In the concluding book of The Iliad the old King Priam comes to Achilles, kneels at his feet and kisses the hands that murdered his son, Achilles is moved. It is through returning Hector’s body to Priam that Achilles finally finds peace. By showing kindness, by relenting, by humoring an old man, and by showing mercy, the grief Achilles feels leaves him. This scene evokes Christian morality thousands of years before the birth of Christ and is an exemplary portrayal of sympathy and forgiveness. It wasn’t through violence, that Achilles found peace; it was through mercy. This speaks volumes to humanity’s attitude toward forgiveness. By forgiving the wrongs done to us, peace can be found. In the modern world where people grow more separated from one another with each year finding a common humanity in another person, by finding peace within another person, is a lesson that everyone should learn.

After defeating the Cyclops that has trapped Odysseus and his men by blinding the monster, Odysseus show his hubris, his deadly pride, by revealing his true name:

“But my temper was up, their words did not dissuade me, and in my rage I should back at him once more: Cyclops, if anyone ever asks you how you came by your blindness, tell him your eye was put by Odysseus , sacker of cities, the son of Laertes, who lives in Ithaca (Matthews 41).”

The Cyclops calls on his father Poseidon, god of the seas, to persecute and destroy the man who mutilated him. Poseidon obliges his sons request and for years Odysseus is kept from his home in Ithaca and from his family. Odysseus had defeated the Cyclops and was safely on his ship when he boasts to the monster his name. It is this action of hubris that prevents Odysseus’ return for so many years. If Odysseus had remained humble and had simply escaped, he would have escaped the wrath of the god of the sea. Similar to the cautionary tale of Achilles’ anger, Odysseus’ hubris is an example of how pride can cause one’s undoing. By seeing the results of Odysseus’ pride one can see the danger of hubris in all parts of life. Although one is likely to be cursed by gods due to pride, pride is shown to lead one into danger and trouble. By remaining humble one can avoid the anger and hatred of others.

After a ten-year journey on the sea Odysseus and his wife Penelope are finally rejoined. After proving to his wife that he is the man who left her twenty years prior they embrace:

“At his words her knees began to tremble and her heart melted as she realized that he had given her infallible proof. Bursting into tears she ran up to Odysseus, threw her arms round his neck and kissed his head. “Odysseys” she cried, “do not be angry with me, you who were always the most understanding of men. All our unhappiness is the due to the gods, who couldn’t bear to see us share the joys of year and reach the threshold of old age together (Matthews 42).”

For years the two were separated, and yet they are once again whole as they were before the Trojan War. Throughout The Odyssey both characters are shown be incomplete, yearning to be together. Penelope’s fortitude and Odysseus’ longing for Ithaca leave both wanting. They find completion in the enduring love for one another that has endured for two decades. Penelope and Odysseus show how love can endure and the importance it has in the world even to this day. Also, it shows the value of companionship and the incompleteness one feels when separated from a partner.

The Iliad and Odyssey teach the most important lessons in life. From reading these timeless works, I have learned about the worlds of the past, present, and future. The emotions felt by ancient characters are emotions I, have felt. I have learned from the mistake of Achilles, and Odysseus, and their journeys to find completeness and peace. Peace through forgiveness, the importance of respect, completeness through companionship, and the value of humility are all philosophies still relevant in my everyday life. The interactions in these works can be stripped of the ancient Greek and Mycenean context and placed in my romantic life, the world of business, and the everyday interactions I have between coworkers, family, and strangers. These lessons are old, but have endured for thousands of years because they teach the truest and most important lessons humanity has to learn.


R. T. Matthews and F. D. Platt, Experience Humanities, Volume I, 8th edition. New York. 2014

R. T. Matthews and F. D. Platt Readings to Accompany Experience Humanities, Volume I, 8th edition. New York. 2014