THE ILIAD (POEM)
The two books I have chosen tell the truth about people, by connecting the abstract with the particular. The Iliad is the most human of poems. It is very particular and very abstract. Here is one example: Briseis -Achilles’ battle trophy– becomes the object of strife when Agamemnon takes her from Achilles. The simple fact that Briseis speaks (Iliad XIX.350) reflects the poet’s attitude to people. To Agamemnon, she is an object, the spoil of war, but the poet treats Briseis as a particular person with a voice. She cries out to Patroclus, slain by Hector and Apollo, because Patroclus cared for her when Achilles had slaughtered her family. The particular love of Briseis puts the abstract force of war and slaughter in human perspective (which makes it more horrible). The characters are legendary and abstract, but the poet presents them as particularly human. Achilles rages through the poem, the abstract model of glory and violence, but there is nothing more particularly human than Achilles’ response when Priam comes to ask for the body of his son, Hector. As Priam slumps at his feet, weeping for Hector, Achilles weeps for his own father and for his friend Patroclus, and he takes his enemy’s hand, and pities his grey hair. The poem’s fragmentary picture of humanity is a heart-breaking, shining picture.
THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JOHN
In its first sentence (in the beginning), John’s gospel calls Jesus ‘the word’. The story moves from that abstract prologue to a particular, beautiful epilogue, at a breakfast of bread and fish toasted over a fire on the seashore, with one living person who had been slaughtered. Resurrection is the abstraction, so abstract that it was hard at first for Jesus’ friends to recognize the particular person. The fishermen, Simon and Thomas and Nathanael and Zebedee’s two sons, recognized Jesus when he told them to throw their nets on the other side of the boatand they caught 153 large fish. Mary Magdalene recognized Jesus when he called her ‘Mary’. It is a good book because it gives a complete picture of humanity –the whole general situation, communicated with a mercifully human (but it is not only human) connection of the abstract with the particular.
The books that I am particularly glad to have read do this thing that you can find in John’s gospel and in the Iliad. They put people in perspective, by connecting what they say about people in general with the things they say about people in particular. Other notable examples (even though they are famous, I think they should be read more widely) include The Karamazov Brothers by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, and Practical Reason and Norms by Joseph Raz.