We construct the notion of an esthetic as the basis, perhaps implicit as a formal doctrine, but surely conscious as a set of rules of thumb, of an artist’s esthetic judgment concerning his attempt to generate a new esthetic experience in a potential spectator.

It does not seem useful to attribute to the myths, tales, songs, and works of plastic art from pre-Homeric times an esthetic independent of the “institutional” scene of representation inherited from the originary event. Culture at this stage is not distinguishable from ritual; objects of plastic art are cult objects; songs and dances are rites; folktales are sacred myths. The cave-paintings of Altamira and Lascaux suggest the existence of craft traditions and the sense of formal beauty that they cultivate, but not of a desire to generate a distinct esthetic experience. The absence of frames separating the esthetic space from the world or the individual paintings from each other is a useful indication of this. Nor can myth-narratives such as those collected in Lévi-Strauss’s mythologiques be said to have an esthetic form distinguishable from the narrative material itself.

The clearest sign of the absence of a fully developed esthetic even in ancient Egypt is its lack of true literature, which, given the linguistic sign’s maximal independence from ritual, elicits in its audience most unambiguously of all the arts a specifically esthetic relation to its creator. The conscience that presides over a work of literature and to which the reader or listener subordinates his own is “authorial” no less when the epic bard calls upon the goddess to sing his song. The gods’ understanding of the language of human desire is revealed esthetically by the construction of the world of gods and men through the literary sign rather than as an account of the prior ostensive revelation of the sacred. The crucial difference is whether the art object is designed to produce the effect of being intentionally created for the experience of the spectator, from which experience we are to derive our understanding of the relation of the human world to the transcendental, or whether this act of representation is intended to remind us of a prior, determining event.

In plastic art, centuries before the appearance of the humanizing element of the “Greek smile,” we find a different, death-oriented humanism in Egyptian “naturalist” sculpture. The Egyptian obsession with individual immortality gives rise to a deviation rather than a break from ritual art, more comparable to Christian tomb sculpture than to anything of the Greek classical era. As noted in The End of Culture, a similarly incomplete liberation from ritual is visible in the most literary of ancient Egyptian narratives, the 20th century B.C. “Tale of Sinuhe,” whose protagonist’s independent narrative existence in the interregnum ends happily when the new pharaoh invites the exile to return and occupy at his death a magnificent tomb, a conclusion that is effectively an apotheosis.

Resentment, the first word of western culture

The Iliad, the oldest literary work of Western culture, is the best introduction to the classical esthetic. Those who labor to reveal the Homeric heroes’ naïve lack of self-consciousness from their placing the seat of intelligence in the lungs or the life-force in the belly should reflect that this first epic begins as an anti-epic, the story of its hero’s absence. Achilles inaugurates the scene of literary culture by withdrawing from it. The epic action centrally dependent on Achilles’ prowess begins with the narrative deferral of its exercise.

At the outset, Homer does not ask the muse to sing of Achilles, but of Achilles’ “rage.” As I pointed out in The End of Culture, the poem’s first word, menin, refers specifically to Achilles’ resentment of Agamemnon, who, as we soon learn, has arbitrarily (if not altogether without provocation) appropriated Achilles’ captive, Briseis, to compensate the loss of his own, whom he was obliged to return to her father, a priest of Apollo. As leader of the Greek expedition, Agamemnon must respect the gods but can command his human subordinates. The Iliad’s point of departure is the necessarily imprecise nature of the ruler’s power over the best of his warriors, the undecidable conflict between order and value. Achilles remains resentful because the organization of the war party under Agamemnon’s leadership does not allow him to challenge the latter in personal combat, where he would surely prevail. Human hierarchy, invented long after humanity dethroned the alpha-beta pecking order of animal society, no longer operates through one-on-one challenges. On the counsel of Athena, Achilles subordinates his superiority in combat to Agamemnon’s leadership role.

Homeric society has reached, at least insofar as war is concerned—war is, to quote The End of Culture, “the first market,” in which value/valor/valeur is created and measured—a stage of complexity at which the scene of representation is no longer the locus on which sacred objects simply manifest their essence. The classical scene, often misunderstood as a showplace for human godlikeness (perhaps not altogether coincidentally, in line 7 Homer applies to Achilles the commonplace epithet “divine,” dios Achilleos, in opposing him to “the son of Atreus, leader of men”—anax andron), is in the first place the locus of the agony of self-limitation.

As if to emphasize the resentful constraint of human as opposed to divine rage, line 75 also begins with menin, referring to Apollo’s wrath at Agamemnon’s refusal to return Chryses’ daughter. As a god, Apollo need not, indeed, cannot remain resentful; in response to the king’s act of disrespect, he sends a plague that kills many Greeks, forcing Agamemnon to return his captive and take Achilles’ instead. The word menos is used throughout the Iliad in the sense of anger or simply ardor; but these usages only accentuate the significance of the opening line, where it designates the impotent rage of resentment.

Just as Apollo’s violence obliges Agamemnon, if only indirectly, to rescind his impious act, Achilles cannot refuse Agamemnon’s order, however unjustified, to deliver Briseis to him. Even Nestor, whose sage advice to leave Briseis with Achilles Agamemnon rejects, admonishes Achilles not to show disrespect to his superior, whose decision to pull rank by requesting Achilles’ captive takes its original motivation from Achilles’ insulting epithet “the most covetous of all” (philokteanotate panton) in line 122, commenting on Agamemnon’s reluctance to give up the priest’s daughter.

But Achilles pulls rank in his own way, going above the king’s head by asking his divine mother Thetis to request of Zeus that he give the Trojans the advantage in battle during her son’s absence. Although aware of his wife Hera’s fondness for the Greeks, including both Achilles and Agamemnon, Zeus grants this request. The gods expect humans to respect the laws of hierarchy, but their ultimate concern is to bring about a just apportionment of good and evil. Despite his superiority in battle, Achilles is obliged to defer to the king’s authority in accepting a lesser tribute, but he did not merit the insult of losing his captive. Agamemnon’s formal authority cannot guarantee his army the battlefield success that would be achieved by Achilles’ participation. The Greeks will suffer for his absence. It is only when their suffering reaches the point of endangering the divinely approved Greek expedition itself that the gods will invade Achilles’ own personal realm by sanctioning the death of Patroclus.

That Achilles’ resentment is originally approved by the gods is not a gratuitous addition to the story; it is the very mark of the secular-cultural, the sign that ritual hierarchy does not suffice to organize society. The participants submit in good faith to the transindividual values of this order in the awareness that its injustices can be appealed to the gods. Justice, Dike, refers in the first place to an equal/equitable distribution of goods and honors. The “equal feast” of the Homeric warriors recalls primitive ritual equality, even if we assume that the first has a larger share than the last. Unequal shares are compatible with the universal reciprocity of the moral model to the extent that their operational value can be justified to those lower down. When it cannot, the gods may be called upon to intervene.

The often comical “humanity” of Homer’s gods reflects their awareness and acceptance of personal resentments as an essential element of a hierarchical social order. Among the gods themselves, these disputes are settled without serious consequences; the divine order survives the conflicts that destroy the lives of mortals. Zeus recognizes Achilles’ grievance against Agamemnon because the Greek war party as a model of “modern” society is not a ritual order, an “Oriental despotism” like Pharaonic Egypt, whose ruler is himself a god.

Thersites’ complaint in Book 2 is the classical Homeric illustration of the limit of the non-heroic. Thersites’ condemnation of Agamemnon’s greed is superficially identical to that of Achilles, but as Odysseus contemptuously reminds him, he lacks the status to make it. And whereas Achilles simply points out that he has no personal quarrel with the Trojans, Thersites’ denunciation of Agamemnon’s personal motives leads him to reject the divinely approved mission at Troy. He exemplifies popular resentment in its indiscriminate conclusion from the leaders’ inadequacies to the invalidity of the social order itself.

The irony of the Thersites episode is that his defeatism is provoked by Agamemnon’s falsely claiming he intends to abandon the siege and return home in order to test the Greeks’ resolve. In response to Thetis’ request, Zeus has sent the king a deceitful dream encouraging a rash attack on the city by making him think that Hera has persuaded Zeus and the other Olympians to let the Greeks have an easy victory. As always, the “kingdom of heaven” provides a well-apportioned solution. Agamemnon has failed to appreciate Achilles’ importance, so Zeus encourages him to put this lack of appreciation into practice by attacking the Trojans in Achilles’ absence. Hera indeed wanted an easy Greek victory, but Zeus’ solution points up the contradiction between her support for the Greek cause as a whole and her refusal to take sides in the conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon. As the rest of the narrative will show, a balanced resolution of this conflict must be reached before the gods’ original plan for the war can be realized.

Can we imagine the Homeric world without the gods? Cannot their interventions in the lives of the characters be reinterpreted as emanating from within them? When Athena stops Achilles from drawing his sword against Agamemnon, is this more than a figuration of his better judgment telling him to refrain from attacking his commander-in-chief? Or should we adopt instead the perspective put forth by Julian Jaynes in a book that made quite a splash a few decades ago, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1976), according to which Achilles himself would have experienced what we think of as moral reflection as a conversation with a deity inhabiting the other “chamber” of his “bicameral mind”?

We ask these questions because we are reluctant to read the Iliad as a religious narrative in which the gods dictate the action rather than as a story of human conflict working itself out, as things do in real life, without direct evidence of divine intervention. What is naïve about such questions is that they take for granted that the Homeric authorial subject will continue to carry out his transcendent role, whether or not narratively attributed to the gods, of administering poetic justice. Whether or not Athena is present in either Achilles’ imagination or our own in preventing the latter from drawing his sword, we know that “Homer,” the authorial subject, is responsible for the decision. The latter both is and is not free to tell the story any way he likes. If we find it appropriate that Achilles not draw his sword, it is because we know Homer could have had him do it, although had he done so—had he not deferred this act of violence—the story would have been ruined. The limit of narrative deferral depends on the rejected possibility of its negation. Similarly, the emission of the sign in the originary scene could have, had its violence not been deferred, been an act of appropriation, but then it would not have become a sign. Homer attributes his narrative judgment to the gods as he attributes to the goddess the voice in which the story is told. But when the bard sings those thousands of hexameters, we hear his voice, not that of a goddess; and when Athena counsels Achilles we hear his voice once removed, for even if he imitates the goddess’ voice, it is he who invents her words.

As for Jaynes’ theory, aside from its lack of parsimony, it accounts only for a limited portion of the appearances of the gods in the Iliad. Most of the time, the gods are either conversing among themselves on Olympus or acting on their human protégés rather than speaking with them, as when Apollo shoots his plague-arrows at the Achaeans or Aphrodite whisks Paris away from his single combat with Menelaus in Book 3. Are we to imagine that not only Achilles’ conversation with Thetis (and what does it mean to have a goddess for a mother?) but hers with Zeus take place in Achilles’ mind?

To sum up: the classical narrative, as we encounter it in the Iliad, is generated by the deferral of purposeful activity through resentment. “The greatest warrior,” man in his highest form, is originarily resentful. Resentment arises in hierarchical society, given its inevitable tension with the reciprocal moral order and its extension to an “equal” system of distribution. But the originary source of our resentment is directed not at a human usurper of the sacred center but at the center itself.

Were the purpose of the epic merely to display Achilles’ “godlike” action, it would realize only the oneiric esthetic of Agamemnon’s dream. The author, like the gods, can do what he wills, but we entrust ourselves to him, as to them, because we know justice will be done. The deferral of action is not a mere postponement, but an ontological revelation: before we act, we must restrain our desire; when it does occur, our action is no longer an expression of desire but of duty. The military narrative culminates in Achilles’ defeat of Hector only once Achilles’ human resentment has been recognized and transcended. Thus the narrative climax of the Iliad, Achilles’ final act of mercy toward Priam in allowing him to carry out Hector’s funeral, affirms the solidarity of all mortals in the resentment that defines the human, directed not at a hierarchical superior but at the transcendent Other:

ὧς γὰρ ἐπεκλώσαντο θεοὶ δειλοῖσι βροτοῖσι,
ζώειν ἀχνυμένοις· αὐτοὶ δέ τ᾽ἀκηδέες εἰσί.

For this fate the gods have spun for miserable mortals:
to live in pain; yet themselves are without care. (24, 525-26)