In the tapestry of human history, one recurring thread stands out – the need for limited power in leadership.
As far back as the 7th century B.C., Homer explored this theme with remarkable insight in his timeless epic, "The Iliad." In modern-day America, where today’s leaders often assume too much power, Homer's lessons about the imperfections of inflated authority offer valuable insights. Recognizing the perils of excessive control, he creatively described what could be key to combating pressing issues today.
In "The Iliad," the gods of ancient Greece held dominion over justice and politics, not wholly unlike today's political leaders. Yet, Homer masterfully portrayed the limitations and imperfections of these gods, revealing that even the mightiest beings are not immune to human-like foibles.
These divine beings often acted out of self-interest. They were susceptible to basing actions on desires or petty grievances, making them appear more human than celestial. For instance, Zeus, the king of the gods, is reluctant to help the Trojans because of his disapproving wife, Hera, who strongly favors the Greeks. Zeus acts to maintain harmony, which is seen in Book IV of "The Iliad," when he contemplates helping the Trojans in battle but ultimately refrains from directly interfering. His hesitation reflects his complex role as the ruler of the gods, the upholder of fate, and his desire to manage the divine politics within Mount Olympus.
When not hoping to maintain marital harmony as Zeus did, the other gods often behaved out of concern for personal honor, which was highly valued in ancient Greece. The discord between Agamemnon and Achilles exemplifies this theme.
As the leader of the Achaean forces, Agamemnon believed he deserved the highest prize, Briseis, and was willing to oppress Achilles, a crucial warrior in the Trojan battle, to claim her. Achilles, in turn, prioritized his claim to Briseis over aiding the war efforts. Both placed their honor and pursuit of what they believed was rightfully owed to them above the collective well-being, jeopardizing the battle’s victory.
In one instance, Apollo admitted that his intervention wasn't driven by compassion for the Trojans but by a desire to protect his favored hero, Hector. This acknowledgment underscores the willingness of the gods to manipulate events for personal gain as opposed to the greater good.
The parallel between the gods of "The Iliad" and contemporary leadership is their susceptibility to act in self-interest. While the gods may seem all-powerful, their actions often reveal a profound concern for their agendas and favored heroes.
Although not as strong a principle today, personal honor preservation reveals itself in modern leaders through rent-seeking behavior. We see elected officials sometimes prioritize their agendas, party interests, or re-election prospects over the welfare of their nations and citizens. Just as Zeus was more concerned with appeasing influential people, politicians may succumb to surrounding pressure, foregoing long-term goals of improving the country.
Today's America faces numerous challenges, from mounting national debts to housing affordability, inflation, and stagnant wages. These issues often stem from government overreach and misguided policies, reminiscent of the interference of the gods in "The Iliad." It is crucial to recognize that unchecked government power can lead to a loss of personal liberties and economic prosperity.
In contemplating the lessons from Homer's "The Iliad," we discover that unchecked power carries inherent risks, whether in the hands of gods or modern leaders. Pursuing self-interest, personal glory, and re-election can overshadow the well-being of nations, leaving citizens to bear the consequences of misguided decisions. We must limit government power, embrace free markets, and prioritize the greater good derived from individual gain to mitigate these risks.
As the characters in Homer's epic grappled with the consequences of self-interested gods, we, too, must seek to promote paths that seek to empower the people and limit the government as our forefathers intended.
By doing so, we can create a world where the lessons of "The Iliad" guide us toward better governance and a brighter future. In heeding these ancient warnings, we can navigate the complexities of contemporary leadership and secure a more prosperous future for all.
Originally published by Online Library of Liberty's Banned Books series.
Vance Ginn, Ph.D.