THE GUARDIANS FILE: Achilles needed the help of the gods!


We need the help of logicians:
Even the swift runner Achilles once called out for help from a guardian class—though in his case, the guardian class whose aid he sought was the Olympian gods.

As documented in Book XXI of The Iliad, Achilles had wandered far from the walls of Troy, slaying various Trojans. But he was discarding their bodies in the river Scamander, and the river god boiled with rage.

We offer the 1898 Samuel Butler prose translation, largely because it's available on line. Butler used the Roman forms of the gods' names, in which Zeus, to cite one example, appears as Jupiter/Jove:
HOMER (Book XXI): [N]ow that he had killed Asteropaeus, he let him lie where he was on the sand, with the dark water flowing over him and the eels and fishes busy nibbling and gnawing the fat that was about his kidneys. Then he went in chase of the Paeonians, who were flying along the bank of the river in panic when they saw their leader slain by the hands of the son of Peleus. Therein he slew Thersilochus, Mydon, Astypylus, Mnesus, Thrasius, Oeneus, and Ophelestes, and he would have slain yet others, had not the river in anger taken human form, and spoken to him from out the deep waters saying, "Achilles, if you excel all in strength, so do you also in wickedness, for the gods are ever with you to protect you: if, then, the son of Saturn has vouchsafed it to you to destroy all the Trojans, at any rate drive them out of my stream, and do your grim work on land. My fair waters are now filled with corpses, nor can I find any channel by which I may pour myself into the sea for I am choked with dead, and yet you go on mercilessly slaying. I am in despair, therefore, O captain of your host, trouble me no further."
As documented by Homer, Scamander had taken human form. He commanded Achilles to stop.

Achilles disregarded the river god's command. When he did, the river descended upon him in the manner reported below. Swift-running Achilles was forced to seek help from a mightier guardian class:
HOMER: Achilles sprang from the bank into mid-stream, whereon the river raised a high wave and attacked him. He swelled his stream into a torrent, and swept away the many dead whom Achilles had slain and left within his waters. These he cast out on to the land, bellowing like a bull the while, but the living he saved alive, hiding them in his mighty eddies. The great and terrible wave gathered about Achilles, falling upon him and beating on his shield, so that he could not keep his feet; he caught hold of a great elm-tree, but it came up by the roots, and tore away the bank, damming the stream with its thick branches and bridging it all across; whereby Achilles struggled out of the stream, and fled full speed over the plain, for he was afraid.

But the mighty god ceased not in his pursuit, and sprang upon him with a dark-crested wave, to stay his hands and save the Trojans from destruction
. The son of Peleus darted away a spear's throw from him; swift as the swoop of a black hunter-eagle which is the strongest and fleetest of all birds, even so did he spring forward, and the armour rang loudly about his breast. He fled on in front, but the river with a loud roar came tearing after. As one who would water his garden leads a stream from some fountain over his plants, and all his ground-spade in hand he clears away the dams to free the channels, and the little stones run rolling round and round with the water as it goes merrily down the bank faster than the man can follow—even so did the river keep catching up with Achilles albeit he was a fleet runner, for the gods are stronger than men. As often as he would strive to stand his ground, and see whether or no all the gods in heaven were in league against him, so often would the mighty wave come beating down upon his shoulders, and be would have to keep flying on and on in great dismay; for the angry flood was tiring him out as it flowed past him and ate the ground from under his feet.

Then the son of Peleus lifted up his voice to heaven saying, "Father Jove, is there none of the gods who will take pity upon me, and save me from the river?
I do not care what may happen to me afterwards. I blame none of the other dwellers on Olympus so severely as I do my dear mother, who has beguiled and tricked me. She told me I was to fall under the walls of Troy by the flying arrows of Apollo; would that Hector, the best man among the Trojans, might there slay me; then should I fall a hero by the hand of a hero; whereas now it seems that I shall come to a most pitiable end, trapped in this river as though I were some swineherd's boy, who gets carried down a torrent while trying to cross it during a storm."
Achilles begged for help from the ultimate guardian class, and his call for help was rewarded.

"It is not your fate to perish in this river," Poseidon (Neptune) instantly told him, having taken the form of a human himself. "He will abate presently as you will see."

When Scamander threatened to destroy him, even swift-running Achilles was forced to seek help from a guardian class. Within our own failing culture and society, we ourselves are badly in need of help from some guardians too.

As effects of climate change advance, we could certainly use some help from the gods of nature. But as our society continues to fashion a clownish, broken national discourse, we also badly need the help of a human guardian class.

We need the help of our logicians, and perhaps of our ethicists too. It wouldn't hurt if our political scientists came down from their lecterns now and then to stand on their hind legs too.

It isn't that professors of the types we've named don't exist, in profusion. The problem lies in their alienation from the daily events of this earth.

When Achilles cried out to the gods, Poseidon was quick to respond. But as our embarrassing national clown show has rushed upon us in recent decades, our mighty logicians have distinguished themselves by their endless silence.

It would make a great Bergman film. (Max von Sydow calls out for help, but the logicians are silent!) But it also makes for a dying culture, of the type we see around ourselves every day of the week.

Let's be candid! No one imagines that our "logicians" will ever intercede in our great societal mess. It isn't clear that our greatest logicians have any skills in what might be called the logic of everyday discourse.

As we've noted in recent weeks, our logicians have busied themselves, even over the past hundred years, in the logic of 2 + 2 equaling 4. Or in the logic of 1 + 1, as a favorite writer reminded us roughly one week back.

Regarding that favorite writer of ours, we will make this point:

This favorite writer often seems to assume that we say the things we sometimes say through a great measure of ignorance. On this occasion, he assured us that Godel's theorems really do turn on the logic of the (pseudo) statement, "This very statement is false."

He also assured us that Lord Russell and Alfred North Whitehead really did spend a hundred pages proving that 1 + 1 = 2. He seemed to assume that we didn't know such things—that our assessment of giants like Godel would change if we did.

In fact, we do understand that our "greatest logicians" have tended to spend their time on such pursuits. But from our perspective, such facts indicate that our greatest logicians have spent the past hundred years (or more) involved in utterly pointless pseudo-disputes.

In our experience, we trace this notion to the (highly inarticulate) work of the later Wittgenstein. We'll be exploring this idea in the weeks and months ahead.

Were our "greatest logicians"—great figures like Godel—successful logicians at all? In large part, it seems to us they were not.

Beyond that, it seems to us that, as they have wasted their time on disputes about "the perfect. timeless existence" of such "abstract objects" as numbers and circles, they have utterly failed their citizen's duty to this failing republic. They've left us shlubs, us average Joes, very much in the lurch.

As anyone with a TV set knows, our daily public discourse is largely scripted by clowns. But when we humans cry out for help from a guardian class, our great logicians fail to respond. Our ethicists seem to be on sabbatical in the south of France.

The result:

As a nation, we're thrown back on the manifest horrors of endless discussion-by-clown.

In part, this is a comical story, but it also points the way to possible death and destruction. Beyond that, every step of the way, it points to the question we'll continue to ask:

Was sacred Aristotle more nearly right with his widely-bruited alleged claim that "man [sic] is the rational animal?"

Or is Professor Harari more right in his recent claim that our triumphant species, Homo sapiens, is more accurately seen as a type of great ape which developed the ability to "gossip" along with the ability to invent and promulgate stirring group "fictions?"

In the weeks and months ahead, we'll keep asking that anthropological question. Eventually, we'll also return to Professor Horwich's street-fighting claim—his claim that our professors stopped teaching the later Wittgenstein so that they could continue to teach the earlier bullroar they like.

We'd joked about that possibility for years. Then Horwich came out and said it—in the New York Times, no less!

We'll get to Wittgenstein soon enough. Tomorrow, we'll briefly pause for an embarrassing trip through the rational animal file.

"Man [sic] is the rational animal," Aristotle is said to have said. In fairness, Aristotle didn't have cable TV or access to comment threads.

He'd never heard the things The Others say. Beyond that, he'd never heard Us!

Tomorrow: From the rational animal file, C-Span's first dozen callers


  1. Bob, is someone paying you by the word?

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  2. The Greek gods were not guardians of humans.

    Godel wasn't a guardian either.

    Somerby's longing for a guardian to protect us in these upsetting times seems natural, but his posts have become unreadable.

    Aristotle and Harari are talking about apples and oranges. Harari is talking about what enabled homo sapiens to survive when Neanderthals did not -- it was group cohesion. Aristotle is talking about what enables people to behave in civilized ways in Greek city-states. He may have claimed it was reason, rationality. I doubt rationality would have been helpful against the Neanderthals, and vice versa, gossip doesn't help law, drama, art, literature, politics, etc. But Harari didn't claim gossip enabled law or politics and Aristotle didn't claim that reason allowed early man to triumph over competitive subspecies in prehistoric times. He didn't know about such times. So Somerby current conceit is just plain ignorant. And tiresome.

    1. Hey, he's just inventing fancy ways of saying that political talking-heads shows and newspaper articles are mostly bullshit.

      Which is something everyone (who's not a zombie) knows anyway...

    2. Bingo Mao.
      Now watch them act like they can't believe Republicans would support treason against the United States of America. They'll be acting all incredulous that this could possibly be true, even though it's the least surprising thing to happen in my lifetime. I knew it the moment they called me a "traitor" for not supporting the Iraq War. It's ALWAYS projection with these Right-wing fuckers.

    3. Poor little traumatized dembot... me heart's bleedin' fer ya...

    4. 1;10,
      That's a perfect response from someone who works for Establishment Elites. No wonder "Donnie the Great" (Big Elitist) is your hero.
      Also, who's buying your phony empathy? You're a Right-winger for chrissakes.

    5. Are these all your confessions for today, dembot? Don't hold back...

    6. Now, that's one strong confession; you're so tough on yourself today, dear dembot. Hope you're feeling better.


  3. Somerby's CSPAN link says program not available

  4. The overture to Don Giovanni:

  5. It isn't true that Aristotle's (supposed) view is necessarily opposite to Harari's (supposed) view.

    Not that Somerby is trying to be a precise reporter of either view; he just wants to pit some supposedly opposing views against each other: are human beings rational or not? Of course, the obvious answer is that humans have elements of both.

    Aristotle never actually said "man is the rational animal." He claimed that the human soul consisted of an irrational part and a rational part; that the rational part needed the irrational "appetitive" part in order to produce anything of practical value; and that human beings should strive for the "golden mean" in their temperament. He did say that man is a "political animal", meaning that he needs the company of others.

    Harari doesn't say that human "group fictions" are "irrational". He says some may be good, some bad. As examples of fictions, he mentions religion, law (human rights, for example), economics (corporations, fiat money). He also doesn't judge "gossip" as necessarily a bad thing. It was the need or desire or ability to develop a language to be able to talk and share information about other members of the tribe or of other tribes that allowed human beings to cooperate in large numbers.

  6. What happened to Professor Wilentz?

    From Friday:
    "In our next report from the guardians file, we'll take a brief look at Professor Wilentz's recent attempt to play the guardian role in this matter. "

    (Wilentz' story: "Why Was Kavanaugh Obsessed With Vince Foster?")

  7. Georges Bizet's Carmen:

    1. Dang Caesar, you been saving those links up for just such a series, off the unbeaten and re-beaten path walked by Bob?

      I myself am enjoying the references to Greek and Roman mythology, I was a real fan as a schoolboy, which might explain my propensity for science fiction ever since. I think Bob’s metaphor of the Scamander is an interesting reference to Kavanaugh, however, and not necessarily to the guardian class Bob desires now, which resides in people like Chomsky. Which is why he’s blacklisted from the msm.

      “The Greek gods were not guardians of humans,” someone wrote, but the male gods sure did boff a bunch of babes, and apparently became quite concerned for the hybrids which sprang forth.

      As for your links, I’ll be visiting. Not sure about the opera link, though I have it on good authority that if you know the play beforehand, it helps quite a bit. Opera sounds to me like some of the links I’ve posted that sound, well, rather discordant to some.


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