The Iliad: a parable

Joey was eleven and very precocious for his age. He loved to read more than anything, and gladly spent afternoons and evenings with his nose stuck in a book.

One day, soon after Joey had finished reading the Iliad, he and his mother were driving in the car.

“Mom?” Joey said. “If I ever have to go into battle, will the goddess Athena protect me?”

His mother’s eyebrows popped up in surprise — it wasn’t a question she’d expected. “What a strange thing to say, Joey. Why do you ask that?”

“Well, I just read the Iliad, and in it Athena is always helping people in battle.”

“But Athena isn’t offering to help everyone who goes into battle; she’s offering to help specific people. Her making a promise to them doesn’t mean she’s making a promise to you. And besides, Athena isn’t real in the first place.”

“Don’t be silly, Mom,” Joey said. “Of course she’s real. The Iliad talks about all sorts of real places and things, and there are lots of historians — ancient and modern — who will tell you that the Trojan War really happened. If you’d trust any other historical documents that had that much evidence for them, then why wouldn’t you trust the Iliad?”

“We don’t trust it because it talks about a lot of things that we known aren’t real, like the Greek gods. Since so much of it is about things that aren’t true, we really can’t trust the rest of it. We can’t even say we trust its author because we aren’t sure who wrote it.”

“But Homer wrote the Iliad!”

“Homer’s a legendary figure. The Iliad probably wasn’t written by him, but by a bunch of poets over many years.”

“He was too real! And he knew what he was talking about, too. He was an eye witness!”

Joey’s mother shook her head. “No, I don’t think so. I think Homer lived in the 9th century B.C., and the Trojan War was supposed to be around the 12th century B.C.”

“Well, people lived a real long time back in those days. There’s as much evidence Homer lived as there is that Julius Caesar lived! Plus, the Gods helped Homer write — he even says so at the beginning of the book. And there are a bunch of places in the book where there are prophecies that come true in the story but that are clearly also meant as prophecies for our time, and if you just open the book to any page and point to a sentence, it can tell you important things about your own life! It must be a magic book!”

Joey’s mother drove in silence for a minute, then said, “If the Greek gods weren’t real then the Iliad isn’t true, and I can prove that the Greek gods weren’t real. You’ve heard of Socrates, right?”

“Sure.”

“Well, Socrates was put to death for not believing that the Greek gods existed. If they did exist, then Socrates died for a lie. But nobody would willingly die for a lie, and Socrates drank the poison himself. Therefore it couldn’t have been a lie and the Greek gods didn’t — and don’t — exist.”

Joey thought this over. “I guess that makes sense,” he finally said. “The Iliad was really fun to read, though.”

“Sure! You can read a book and get enjoyment and even knowledge out of it even if it’s not entirely true. But you have to admit that lots of what’s in there is pretty silly — too silly to be real.”

“Yeah!” Joey gave a broad smile. “There’s even a part where Achilles’ horse talks to him! That’s dumb!”

“Right! Here, let’s make a deal. We’ll agree that from now on any books with talking horses are automatically not true.”

“What about donkeys?”

“No, let’s just do horses.”

“Okay, Mom. Talking horse equals not true.”

“Good job, sweetie. Now let’s be quiet for a minute. There’s traffic coming up and I have to concentrate. We don’t want to be late for church.”

Posted on October 6, 2010 at 6:04 am by ideclare · Permalink
In: Essay · Tagged with: 

2 Responses

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  1. Written by Clytia
    on October 6, 2010 at 5:44 pm
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    This was beautiful, thank you!

  2. Written by Andy
    on October 15, 2010 at 5:11 am
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    Nicely done. I think you hit most of ‘em. :-)

    “But nobody would willingly die for a lie.” This one always annoys me the most I think…

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