RUNNING ON TRIBAL: "Tonight's the night that rips our ranks..."


The Iliad, Our Instincts, Ourselves: Did the headline on the David Brooks column overstate a point?

According to scholars, that's a matter of judgment. Last Friday morning, the headline in question said this:

Here’s the Mind-Set That’s Tearing Us Apart

Brooks' column defined a mindset in which we're inclined to form sweeping, negative generalizations about large groups of people, thus rendering them as Others.

Is some such mindset "tearing us apart" at this point in time? At this site, we'd be inclined to say that it is.  Indeed, we'd be inclined to say that mindset is hastening our society's widely-discussed impending demise! 

But when we read that headline last Friday, our thoughts turned to what may be our favorite scene in literature. We refer, of course, to the scene in Book IX of The Iliad where Nestor, the seasoned charioteer, tells the Achaeans this:

“Tonight's the night that rips our ranks to shreds or pulls us through.”

By now, the Achaeans (the  Argives) had been conducting their assault on the walls of Troy for a full ten years. But the headstrong young warrior, Diomedes, was threatening to break with the Argives' commander, Agamemnon, lord god of men. 

When that happens in the evening's council meeting, a tribal schism seems imminent. As we noted long ago, Nestor scrambles to his feet and offers this good, sound advice:

All the Achaeans shouted their assent,
stirred by the stallion-breaking Diomedes' challenge.
But Nestor the old driver rose and spoke at once.

“Few can match your power in battle, Diomedes,
and in council you excel all men your age
But you don't press on and reach a useful end.
How young you are—why, you could be my son,
my youngest-born at that, though you urge our kings
with cool clear sense: what you've said is right.

But it's my turn now, Diomedes.

I think I can claim to have some years on you.
So I must speak up and drive the matter home.
And no one will heap contempt on what I say,
not even mighty Agamemnon. Lost to the clan,
lost to the hearth, lost to the old ways, that one
who lusts for the horror of war with his own people.”

In Nestor's rendering, the headstrong young warrior was "lust[ing] for the horror of war with his own people.”  More specifically, Diomedes was encouraging a schism within his own vaguely national group. 

Scrambling to his feet, Nestor warned against this dangerous schism. Eventually, he scripted Brooks, telling the council this:

“Tonight's the night that rips our ranks to shreds or pulls us through.”

At present, our floundering nation's unimpressive ranks are being ripped to shreds by the routinely hapless behavior of various warring groups. 

Just as it ever was, each of these groups will point to the others, saying the misconduct is Theirs. According to experts, our human brains are wired to "reason" in this and similar ways.

We thought of Nestor when we read Brooks—Nestor, whose wisdom prevailed. ("He always gave the best advice," we're explicitly told in The Iliad.) This morning, we'll offer a controversial thought concerning the tribal warfare which is currently ripping our national ranks to shreds.

Our controversial claim would be this:

Everything we ever needed to know we learned from reading The Iliad. 

Everything we ever needed to know? What could we mean by that? 

We'll start by getting a bit more specific. Everything we ever needed to know about human behavior we learned from reading The Iliad.

Even as our nation seems to be dissolving, that's the claim we advance today. Can it possibly be accurate? 

We'll start by refreshing ourselves about what The Iliad is. We quote the leading authority on the subject:

The Iliad is an ancient Greek epic poem in dactylic hexameter, traditionally attributed to Homer. Usually considered to have been written down circa the 8th century BC, the Iliad is among the oldest extant works of Western literature...

Set during the Trojan War, the ten-year siege of the city of Troy (Ilium) by a coalition of Mycenaean Greek states (Achaeans), it tells of the battles and events during the weeks of a quarrel between King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles.

Although the story covers only a few weeks in the final year of the war, the Iliad mentions or alludes to many of the Greek legends about the siege; the earlier events, such as the gathering of warriors for the siege, the cause of the war, and related concerns tend to appear near the beginning. Then the epic narrative takes up events prophesied for the future, such as Achilles' imminent death and the fall of Troy, although the narrative ends before these events take place. However, as these events are prefigured and alluded to more and more vividly, when it reaches an end the poem has told a more or less complete tale of the Trojan War.

The Iliad is a poem about one of our species' many tribal / national wars.  The war in question is a ten-year war between two warring tribal or quasi-national groups—the Achaeans (Argives) and the Trojans.

Our species is wired for such tribal wars. According to experts, our "lizard brains" have instructed us to conduct such wars since we first crawled out on dry land.

In this case, the Argives were laying siege to the Trojans—to the towering walls of Troy. What lofty motives were producing the various conflicts found within The Iliad? 

More specifically, how did this ten-year war begin? In the shorter term, what was causing the conflicts now roiling the Argive ranks?

Surely, our storied ancestors went to war for only the loftiest reasons! Concerning the various disputes at issue here, the authority offers this synopsis. 

We offer this with our apologies. This is gruesome stuff:


Book I: After an invocation to the Muses, the story launches in medias res towards the end of the Trojan War between the Trojans and the besieging Achaeans. Chryses, a Trojan priest of Apollo, offers the Achaeans wealth for the return of his daughter Chryseis, held captive by Agamemnon, the Achaean leader. Although most of the Achaean army is in favor of the offer, Agamemnon refuses. Chryses prays for Apollo's help, and Apollo causes a plague to afflict the Achaean army.

After nine days of plague, Achilles, the leader of the Myrmidon contingent, calls an assembly to deal with the problem. Under pressure, Agamemnon agrees to return Chryseis to her father, but decides to take Achilles' captive, Briseis, as compensation. Achilles furiously declares that he and his men will no longer fight for Agamemnon and will go home. Odysseus takes a ship and returns Chryseis to her father, whereupon Apollo ends the plague.

In the meantime, Agamemnon's messengers take Briseis away. Achilles becomes very upset, sits by the seashore, and prays to his mother, Thetis. Achilles asks his mother to ask Zeus to bring the Achaeans to the breaking point by the Trojans, so Agamemnon will realize how much the Achaeans need Achilles. Thetis does so, and Zeus agrees.


Book III: The armies approach each other, but before they meet, Paris offers to end the war by fighting a duel with Menelaus, urged by his brother and head of the Trojan army, Hector. The initial cause of the entire war is alluded to here, when Helen is said to be "embroidering the struggles between Trojans and Achaeans, that Ares had made them fight for her sake." This allusion is then made definitive at the paragraph's close, when Helen is told that Paris and "Menelaus are going to fight about yourself, and you are to be the wife of him who is the victor." Both sides swear a truce and promise to abide by the outcome of the duel. Paris is beaten, but Aphrodite rescues him and leads him to bed with Helen before Menelaus can kill him.

With our apologies, this is horrible stuff:

As the poem begins, Agamemnon has stolen the daughter of a Trojan priest and is refusing to release her. When he finally agrees to let his captive go, he takes a woman stolen by Achilles as his compensation.

Achilles asks his mother to intervene; he then refuses to fight. By Book III, we learn about the larger cause of the actual war:

Paris, brother of the admirable Hector, has absconded with Helen. The Argives have spent ten years on the plains outside Troy attempting to get her back.

A few centuries later, Aristotle came up with one of his many ideas. "Man [sic] is the rational animal," he's widely said to have said.

Today, we know that Aristotle's claim, at least as commonly understood, basically isn't accurate. We know that we humans are in fact the tribal animal. 

According to credentialed experts, we're inclined to form tribal groups and to repeat hostile claims about The Others. We're inclined to repeat those sweeping claims as the prelude to the latest of our endless tribal wars.

In large part, that's what's happening within our failing nation today. You can see this process played out each night on cable TV, by the corporate priests and priestesses whose corporate salaries you aren't allowed to know or inquire about.

In part, these corporate players stir hostile feeling for the purpose of corporate profit. Experts say the larger impulse at play can be described as follows: 

Here’s the Deeply Imbedded Human Instinct That’s Tearing Us Apart

In the way Lincoln once described, each tribe will always be convinced that the fault lies with The Others. Within the walls of our deeply self-impressed Blue Towns, we're deeply convinced of this alleged fact.

Alas! The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but we liberals just aren't super-sharp. As Jackson Browne was once running on empty, our tribe is currently running on tribal, in a way which tends to hasten our own defeat.

In the summer of '61, the silly Southern boys longed for war with the Yankees. One hour later, the camera drew back to show us their coffins, filling the streets of their burning Atlanta. 

Each side lost the Trojan War, given the way it turned out. Our own tribe is currently playing the game in the manner described.

Like all tribes within our war-inclined species, ours is routinely very dumb. On balance, our tribe is simply too dumb—is simply too tribal—to be aware of this fact!

Each side lost the Trojan War. That's the nature of the wiring, disconsolate experts insist.

Tomorrow: Readers respond to Brooks

Friday: A very simple bit of advice with respect to Klein and Shor


  1. "Everything we ever needed to know about human behavior we learned from reading The Iliad."

    Ha-ha. This is very interesting, dear Bob, and it explains a lot.

    Are you familiar with Julian Jaynes and his book The Bicameral Mind? If not, perhaps you may want to read it, or at least the part related to Iliad.

    "Iliadic man did not have subjectivity as do we; he had no awareness of his awareness of the world, no internal mind-space to introspect upon. In distinction to our own subjective conscious minds, we can call the mentality of the Myceneans a bicameral mind."

    A very good description of you liberals, we must say.

  2. I don’t think our side has kidnapped any women or begged the Gods to intervene lately. This has to be one of Somerby’s odder essays.

  3. I KNEW it wasn't "economic anxiety".
    Thank you, Bob.

  4. Brooks is a light weight, an ideologue, who people mistake for an "intellectual."

    William F. Buckley was too.

  5. There remains some question about how much of the Illiad and the Odyssey are true. Somerby treats them as if they are verified history. What does that say about his powers of reason?

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