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The System of Values Homer Imposed on The Readers in The Illiad

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Humans are complex beings, each with individual traits, and an individual set of traits that they value in others. Despite this individuality, cultures are formed, in part, by the values they possess and nurture in their society as a whole. In the Homeric society, two qualities in particular are appreciated in men, as they lead to honor: The rhetoric to connect with others in the society and the strength with which to carry out courage and strong words, while only one truly reigns as most important in women, as this will allow the man in possession of her to be honored by her in front of others: beauty.

The Homeric society seems to admire glory and other similarly vain things based off of the opinions of others. Success and honor run side-by-side. All other values bridge off of this need for it, including what people value. Men view women as possessions to be had and trophies to be won, and even though a wealthy and beautiful woman is intrinsically worth no more than an ugly one as far as her ability to complete her duties go, there is more distinction in owning a beautiful ‘prize.’ Achilleus shows this need when he considers it to be a dishonor for a woman won in war to be taken from him, not because of any love for her, but because she venerates his ego (The Iliad 1.161-71). After all, even the elders consider the Trojans and Achaeans to be blameless “if they suffer hardship for a woman like this one” because of Helen’s great beauty (The Iliad 3.156-60). But if men value women for vain and useless reasons, so, too, are men valued for qualities that will not matter past this life, though they are aware that there is more required of them to a good afterlife than beauty and honor.

People admire men for any trait which brings them success in war, especially strength and rhetoric. People often glorified the powerful and rich. Men used strength to determine the outcome of contests, depicted in The Iliad as Helen was forced to marry to the man who won the duel- not the smarter man, the better man, or the man whom she chose, but the stronger, as this was what truly mattered to the people (The Iliad 3.136-8). When asked by Priam to speak about the men of her own city, Helen does not define them by their personalities or deeds, but again by their strength, as both her and Priam care about this in particular and so expect that type of response from the question, even without specifying (The Iliad 3.225-40). Valor is an important trait which Paris does not possess and Helen calls him out on for the absence of, but can be easily made up for out of the public eye by charm and power (The Iliad 3.447-8). This appreciation of charismatic speaking goes well beyond just Helen. It proves to be a necessary skill to have in order to command, and is valued throughout as skill in war leads to honor.

People sought after honor, and so what must be done to achieve it is to win. To do this, one must be able to speak well in order to encourage troops to do well, to get them to follow orders, or to rise in the chain of command. People strive to be liked, or at least respected, as they greatly value the opinions of others. The public sees Odysseus as an admirable and cunning public speaker, as seen when he gives respectful messages to those of power, asking them to not run away from the war, while belittling those below him to give the same message. The people see one of his later speeches, degrading an old man, to be the best thing he has ever accomplished, over even “bringing forward good counsels and ordering armed encounters” and the other “thousands” of “excellent things” he has accomplished (The Iliad 2.272-7). The persuasive speaking used by Odysseus brought him honor, but those speaking in public without such a skill, authority, or thought are looked down upon. When Thersites spoke out against Agamemnon, Odysseus greatly rebuked him and beat this ugly, old man for what he had said, leaving him wiping away his tears on the ground (The Iliad 243-69). Had the use of persuasive speaking not been viewed as important and able to change things, surely he would have been disregarded and not publicly humiliated by those in power there, no matter how “disorderly, vain, and without decency” he may have been (The Iliad 2.212-5).

Homer shows throughout The Iliad the value of strength, the effectiveness of speaking, and the destructive power of beauty when used to further oneself. He shows that these are the main qualities valued in humans, whether truly beneficial to society or not: Strength, power, wealth, or charm with which to act upon courage, however far that may take the one acting. Rhetoric, the speaking and convincing others of personal beliefs as propaganda, motivation, and a way to bring together a community. And lastly, beauty as a means for gaining pride and honor from those around when people view beauty as a possession. The people from the Homeric society value these, and have built their cultures around such.

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