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Death And Depiction In The Iliad And The Apology

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In Homer’s Iliad and Plato’s Apology, the central theme of death is intertwined through a variety of literary elements and topics. Defining factors that differentiate what death is in The Iliad versus its role in the Apology include setting, societal structure and culture, the gods, and the format of the texts themselves. Each author brings a unique style and set of morals that depict the value of death in society, but there is also a set of universal similarities between these two Greek texts, suggesting values that are sustained even through evolution.

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Although both authors give their perspective on the theme, Plato’s portrayal of death through Socrates’ case of defense in the Apology presents a realistic depiction of mortality, making the better argument for what death really entails. A key difference that differentiates these two ancient texts involves the main source of conflict driving the plot.

In The Iliad, the Trojan war consumes both sides of fighting and creates the backdrop not just for death, but a slew of emotions confronted with death itself. Vivid descriptions of battles emphasize the gruesomeness that comes with war. “Rammed his spearhead into the pit of his belly and all the way through. Patroclus fell heavily”. This depiction associates death with all the gory details, not at all pretty or desirable. Leaving little to the imagination, Homer’s writing neglects to take into account a death that doesn’t result from war or violence. Ignorance of a death from anything other than combat proves to invoke powerful emotions along with a ripple of effect of grief and animosity by the protagonists’ loved ones. “When I lose you, Hector, there will be nothing left, no one to turn to, Only pain”. Homer’s wife implies the idea that death can influence someone else’s journey in life. One death has a major impact on the life of another, begging the question of the purpose for fighting in the first place, if the result is almost inevitable. Homer focuses on these deaths, but not in the reality of a normal Trojan citizen, providing the reader with a falsified idea of how deaths were occurring and treated.

The Apology, in contrast, describes the tall task of Socrates attempting to convince the jury of his innocence, something seemingly insurmountable for the average person. Like any good philosopher, Socrates’ main purpose in life is to discover more by asking questions. Posing these hard-hitting questions to the jury, while hoping they will formulate a somewhat acceptable answer or idea, is nearly impossible. It becomes even more difficult when most Athenians view death as the problem solver for any societal issues. Death is not so much feared, but is more so unknown, even though the questions from Socrates try to coax from the mind the idea of death into more realistic and complex concepts. “What has happened to me may well be a good thing, and those of us who believe death to be an evil are certainly mistaken”.

A less intimidating situation from Socrates identifies death as so much more than the sad reality of its heavy existence in war, but gives the idea more depth, coinciding with a Greek reality. The role and setting of these stories have a huge effect on the portrayal of death, but the Apology gives death a more complex meaning compared to its black and white portrayal in The Iliad. The overall societal structure along with the culture of writing was not as prominent in the Trojan era compared to the Athenian, so as Greece progressed, its ideas of death and morals shifted along with it. Epic fermentation translated oral tradition to written text, passing down themes and morals that may have been far different from the original traditions themselves. This cultural change influenced the perceptions of death within each Greek society.

The period between Homer’s writing of The Iliad and Plato’s writing of the Apology is over three hundred years. During that time, the implementation of a government system moving from Aristocracy in Troy and Greece to Democracy in Athens was highly conspicuous. It is clear in The Iliad that there is a pecking order in battle. The elite have power and the prominent say, dictating any and all moves for the country, almost always on the warfront. With this system emerges conflict within classes, mainly affecting those lower on the totem pole with no authority to voice their opinion. Thersites, a commoner on the Aegean side, is angry with the cause of war, and decides to express his opinion. “It’s not right for a leader to march our troops into trouble…Let’s sail home in our ships and leave him here to stew over his prizes”. Thersites raises valid points about Agamemnon’s selfishness and the real problem of an aristocratic government. This situation can apply to how death is spread and viewed in an aristocratic system. The process of death is only understood through war, but there is no other emphasis on death than dying for one’s country, often considered the greatest honor. Agamemnon’s decisions arise from personal wants and personal conflicts, not necessarily what the majority desired at that time. Because of this fear of freedom, fear of things like death became a mental concern, often staying that way.

Fear and Death went hand in hand, and because societal and governmental restrictions forced many to keep their opinion silent, deaths understanding and portrayal stayed in the shadows. Aristocracy had a great deal of precedents, one being how death just simply happens in war. There is no raise for concern, and soldiers are almost expecting death to greet them in battle because they are not permitted to ask those hard-hitting questions, a stark contrast compared to a Democratic system in Athens. A Democracy allowed for middle-class individuals to believe they have a role of importance and value. In the case of Socrates, the implementation of Democracy became the catalyst for his eventual death. A jury of 501 Athenians, including many people that were once powerless but suddenly have a say, take the death penalty lightly and don’t mind executing one if it means that it will benefit the majority. The only stipulation in this situation is the conviction of Socrates using his freedom of speech, a right given because of democracy, to corrupt the young, to which the extent of corrupting is not clear. “I was the only member of the presiding committee to oppose you doing something contrary to the laws, and voted against it. The orators were ready to prosecute me and take me away…But I thought I would run any risk on the side of law and justice rather than join you”.

Socrates harshly accuses the jury of pulling stunts like this in the past, ordering to simply kill people because the majority says so, when the ignorance of people don’t provide them the justified right to decide who lives and who dies. His animosity toward the idea of Democracy demonstrates the discounting of death in the Athenian democracy, and acceptance of punishment by Socrates if he truly though he was guilty. Instead, he struggles to explain to those wise and unwise the lawful right of his actions thanks to the implementation of democracy in the first place. Although Plato showed the downfall of Democracy, his description of reality didn’t cover up any portrayals of death. This allows the reader to connect the dots and make an analysis of death, compared to the aristocratic democracy Homer describes without any alternative.

The different time periods and government structures changed the view of death within societies, but Plato’s description of Democracy emphasized a level or freedom in life and in death that was not applicable in Homer’s writing. In The Iliad, a variety of different God’s exist, each with a contrasting perspective and personality. They become heavily involved in the life of mortals, taking control of the reins for who dies and who lives. This gives the impression to mortals that they should live proudly, but understand when the God’s have decided it is their time to die. “I hear the God’s calling me to death…Zeus and Apollo must have chosen this long ago, even though they used to be on my side. Well, this is fate, But I will not perish without doing some great deed”. Although the Greeks respected the God’s decision, they still lived and fought every minute of life they had on earth for their legacy and honor. They never got to the point of questioning what death truly meant, or if there was another life after death itself. If they entrusted the Gods, there was no other questions to be asked. The closed minded-attitude from the Greeks results in the omission of real and accurate portrayals of death from Homers writing. This contrasts the Apology, where accusations were made of Socrates worshipping the wrong God’s and even worshipping no Gods at all. Because their existence and involvement in mortals is not really applied in Plato’s writing, the mortal world versus the immortal world is extremely distinct. There is no real contact with a higher power, showing the effect of philosophy on God’s existence, or lack thereof. “I go to die, you go to live. Which of us goes to the better lot is known to no one, except the god”.

There are a lot of unknowns about God’s in the Apology. Socrates even uses God singular, suggesting monotheism as a trending belief in his mind, and soon the minds of many other Athenians. Socrates’ mentality and testimony translates to the idea that there are a lot of unknowns about death itself, along with the existence of an afterlife that comes along with it. This idea of rejecting the majority and using personal beliefs to determine ideas like the God’s, the afterlife, and death are much more accurate as to what many were thinking in the Apology compared to The Iliad. Between both stories, Gods involvement and influence on what death really means and signifies is evident. Breaking the common beliefs of the majority and presenting a differing view of the God’s is just the start to what people thought about death and its alternate forms in the Apology. An epic poem involves an element of heroics from the protagonist, something Homer used to explain the Trojan war through an injection of metaphors and a chronological poetic story. The true irony and falsified connotations of The Iliad arise from how these deaths are presented. Homer utilized epithets to describe these characters more vividly and even more heroic than they seemingly were. Hector is described as one with a “bronze-strapped face”, which makes his death even more of a shock given his suggested nobility. Hector is one that shines from his expensive armor and powerful demeanor, but death comes upon him so quick, taking every reader and Trojan citizen by surprise. This deception in writing has an underlying theme with deception in war and in death. Even death can be unfair in its process, something highlighted by the epithets sharp contrasts.

Plato’s dialogues are not deceptive in any form of the word, usually involving an inquisitive setting with Socrates and one or two other civilians. In the Apology, the majority of dialogue is Socrates’ testimony, but it shows how imperative the role of questions plays in the back and forth of a conversation and the process of understanding death. “But if I believe in spiritual things I must quite inevitably believe in spirits. Is that not so?…if spirits are gods, this is what I mean when I say you speak in riddles and in jest”. Socrates utilizes philosophy to expose Meletus and his false claims about the Gods. The hammering and interrogation of questions from Socrates proves to be a useful technique and can aid in conjunction with how death can be question and understood. In Athenian society, it is too often put in a box and left untouched or undervalued. The questions find the underlying meaning of many things, including how death shouldn’t always be the answer to a problem, but can cause even more, a harsh reality, but one that helps readers develop a more accurate understanding of death.

Epic poems and dialogues are contrasting in their technique, but Plato’s dialogues seem to give a strong argument for death itself and it’s varying forms. Both ancient texts use a variety of themes to portray death, but there are several similarities in each text, one of these being the universal idea of death that transcends time and societies. The two stories present the idea that death is truly inevitable because humans are mortal. Both stories trust in God’s plan, along with his divine order. It encircles around the idea that you can’t escape your true fate, so why run away from it? Plato does a better job conveying that although death may seem inevitable, it can be looked at in a variety of ways, described in Socrates’ variety of questions during his trial. Homer conveys inevitability, but puts a harsh connotation on its portrayal. “After Zeus had brought Hector and the Trojans to the Greek ships, he left the combatants to their misery and turned his luminous eyes”. Death comes, but can involve abandonment by a country along with a great deal of suffering. Socrates says in the Apology, “A good man cannot be harmed in either in life or in death, and that his affairs are not neglected by the gods”. Socrates shows he is grateful for life, instead of resenting the God’s for death. The worry and grief that is often associated with death dissipates, as long as you stay true to yourself and a higher power. Another similarity includes the protagonists, who are both athletes at heart. Hector and Achilles are warriors, trained for battle and trained to fear nobody and nothing, not even death. Hector is a physical brute force, intimidating and loyal. Socrates is an athlete of the mind, trained to question all that exists and look at things from a bigger picture and an unimpeded position; which is what he does when it comes to the idea of death.

Death has many universal truths presented by both Homer and Plato, but an accurate and realistic portrayal is required to fully educate readers about death itself. Although Homer’s depiction of death through war and polarizing situations invoked strong emotions, it fell short on expressing the reality of death itself, removed from war and polarizing situations. When determining which text gives the most accurate portrayal, Plato’s persuasive writing allowed the reader to formulate opinions of death. These opinions manifested through the array of Socrates’s inquisitive questions. This more interactive approach makes sense, given it is a result of Plato’s learning and teaching background. Nonetheless, it is a brilliant way to give a more realistic approach on death when compared to Homer and The Iliad.

11 February 2020

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