When David Cameron, the UK prime minister, stood up to speak before colleagues in the British parliament on Wednesday to argue in favour of air strikes on Syria, he was initiating a political activity – debate – that’s familiar to all democratic societies. He was also stepping into a role that stretches all the way back to Achilles, the hero of Homer’s epic poem the Iliad.
In a critical passage of that epic, Homer’s hero “calls the Achaeans to assembly” to find a way out of a crisis engulfing the Greek army at Troy. One solution is found (they must make sacrifice to the gods) while another crisis erupts (Achilles withdraws from the fighting). Literature and politics alike haven’t been the same since.
Had Cameron and company realised that they were in fact walking in Achilles’ footsteps, what lessons might they have taken from Homer?
Well, first of all, that war is brutal. As Simone Weil forcefully recognised, the Iliad’s interrogation of conflict extends far beyond the Trojan War to encompass all and any wars. Homer’s depiction of Achilles raging through battle details the personal effects of that brutality, the trauma and loss experienced by aggressor and victim alike.
Indeed, Achilles is ultimately destroyed by war’s cruel twists, as his initial political manoeuvres set off a chain of events that claim the life of his friend, Patroclus, and ultimately his own life too. War has an uncanny way of escaping attempts to control or limit it: as one later author, Thucydides, puts it, “war is a violent teacher”.
Less at the front of Cameron’s mind would probably have been the idea that simply by setting up a debate he was acting in an ancient heroic tradition – especially given his bald admission that he would only bring the motion to the house for debate if he could be sure of a majority.
As the Iliad begins, the Trojan War has already been going on nine long years. It opens not with a scene of battle against the Trojans, but with an impromptu gathering among the Greeks, and not with the voice of a major hero but the appeal of an old man, a priest from a neighbouring community desperate for his captive daughter’s return.
When Agamemnon, the Greek leader, dismisses the old man and with him the fantasy of political consensus (“for all the Achaeans had shouted their assent”), the god Apollo sends a plague on the Greek soldiers’ camp.
This is the context for the assembly Achilles convenes, where he addresses fundamental questions of what political debate is actually for. He invites whoever knows what ails the community to speak up, and pledges support should they be threatened with violence – just as Jeremy Corbyn is now being implored to do for MPs facing online bullying for their votes.
Not only does Achilles enshrine the principle of speaking freely to power a millennium and a half before Magna Carta, critically, he also weighs the value of dissent – and the limits of that value.
Here, Homer offers no easy answers. In the next assembly, master politician Odysseus violently polices who can speak by beating up the perpetual dissenter Thersites. But whether he does so because he is a man of the commons or because he doesn’t take dissent seriously enough isn’t clear. As Homer sees it, there have to be limits to debate, just as there have to be limits to free speech, if it is to mean anything.
This chimes all too well with a perennial criticism of contemporary politics: that it doesn’t engage with the concerns of ordinary citizens, even as political debate is taking place everywhere, not least online.
How is this diversity of opinion to be represented in an institution such as the House of Commons, that has ways of debating that are enshrined in (and limited by) its adversarial layout? And where do you draw the boundaries to online debate, to keep those on the fringe from mistaking and blurring the message?
Us and them
Cameron didn’t help matters by framing those opposed to the air strikes as “terrorist sympathisers”, all too reminiscent of the “with-us-or-against-us” grandstanding that George W Bush embraced in his own “war on terror”. There, the comparison with the Iliad is unflattering indeed: taunting the dissenting Achilles to return home. Agamemnon similarly claims he has others who will follow him.
If Homer’s Achilles has anything to teach the UK’s parliamentarians, it is to resist such extravagantly polarising strategies and to think much harder about how to manage dissent – a particular concern for the Labour party’s embattled leader, serial dissenter Jeremy Corbyn. Reports that he was struggling to contain dissent in his own ranks were borne out when 66 of his 231 MPs voted in favour of air strikes. Chief among them was his own shadow foreign secretary, Hilary Benn, whose rousing speech in favour of intervention has dominated political post-mortems of the debate.
It’s easy to dismiss this division as a failure to get the art of politicking right. And yet, as Homer might see it, perhaps we ought not to be so damning. Homer’s valuation and critique of dissent is a challenge to both politicians’ and the media’s fetish for total consensus over reasonable and reasoned accommodation of disagreement.
Starkly demonstrating, as he does, both the importance and the difficulty of free speech and debate, Homer makes it clear that he sees institutional dissent not as a hurdle, but as a means to facilitate the political participation that is critical for his people’s salvation.
And he clearly also understood that that political imperative would long outlast the age of heroes.