Moral compass

Yes, it’s almost here! My new book, The Quest for a Moral Compass will be published by Atlantic on 1 May. Here, as an introduction, is the opening section of the book.

The Quest for a Moral Compass

‘Sing, goddess, of the anger of Achilleus, son of Peleus, the accursed anger which brought uncounted anguish on the Achaians and hurled down to Hades many mighty souls of heroes, making their bodies the prey to dogs and the birds’ feasting; and this was the working of Zeus’ will. Sing from the time of the first quarrel which divided Atreus’ son, the lord of men, and godlike Achilleus.’

So opens the most celebrated work of Greek poetry, the earliest expression of European literature, and, to some, its greatest too. Homer’s Iliad tells the story of the Trojan War, the ten-year struggle by Achaean Greeks to avenge the abduction of Helen, wife of Menelaus, the king of Sparta, by Paris, son of the Trojan king Priam. (The Achaeans were the first Greek-speaking inhabitants of what we now call Greece.) The Iliad forms one half of a poetic diptych with The Odyssey, in which Homer recounts the tale of Odysseus’ struggle to return home after the fall of Troy, a struggle that was to last as long as the war itself.

Written in the eighth century BCE, the Iliad and the Odyssey are distilled from a long and rich tradition of oral poetry, the work of generations of illiterate singers in an illiterate age who composed and passed on their epics of men and gods, love and death, adventures and conquests, without the aid of writing. Over centuries these tales melded together into a stock of myths that gave the audience that listened to the itinerant poets a sense of time and place. The Homeric poems were both the culmination of this tradition and its transformation, works that drew upon the oral lore but whose depth of vision, breadth of imagination, and sheer ambition gave voice to a new kind of literature and to a new kind of myth. The Iliad and the Odyssey gave ancient Greeks a sense of their history, turned a fable about their origins into the foundation stone of their culture, nourished generations of poets and sculptors and artists and established a framework for their moral lives. It is a good place from which to embark on our journey of exploration through the history of moral thought.

The Iliad is a poem about the Trojan War. And yet it is not a poem about the Trojan War. The beginnings of the conflict and the sacking of Troy both lie offpage. The whole story of the Iliad is contained within a span of fifty-two days in the tenth and final year of the war. The main action, running through twenty-two of the poem’s twenty-four books, occupies just four days.

The quarrel of which Homer speaks in the opening line of the Iliad is not the quarrel between the Greeks and the Trojans, but that between Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek forces, and Achilles, son of the goddess Thetis and the most famous of the Greek warriors. Homer begins his tale by telling of how Chryses, priest to the god Apollo, asks Agamemnon to allow him to ransom his daughter Chryseis whom the Achaean king had captured as a war trophy and claimed as a slave. When Agamemnon rudely rejects him, Chryses prays to Apollo for help. Apollo sends a plague upon the Greeks. To pacify the god, an assembly of Greek warriors demands that Agamemnon return his slave girl to Chryses. Agamemnon agrees, but only if he be given, in exchange, Achilles’ concubine, Briseis, another prize captured in war. Humiliated and dishonoured, Achilles withdraws himself and his warriors from the conflict.

Agamemnon’s ‘wicked arrogance’ and the ‘ruinous wrath’ of Achilles provide the raw material for Homer. His theme is not the war but the tragedy of the human condition, the unintended consequences of human sentiment and the nature of fate in governing human life. All the major dramatic moments of the poem spring fatefully and inevitably from the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon. With Achilles out of the battle, Hector, brother of Paris, successfully breaches the Greek camp, with backing from the gods. Achilles’ closest friend Patrocolus, who had also withdrawn from the war, re-enters the fray, dressed in Achilles’ armour. He manages to repel the Trojans but is killed in battle by Hector. In revenge, a distraught Achilles defeats Hector in single combat, then defiles his corpse for days, until King Priam persuades him to give up the body. The Iliad ends with Hector’s funeral. The death of Achilles and the fall of Troy lie outside the narrative of the poem. But we know that both will happen, for they are as inevitable as were the deaths of Patrocolus and Hector, two more moments in the unbroken sequence that had sprung from Achilles’ anger.

achiles and ajax

‘And so the plan of Zeus was fulfilled’, Homer writes of the consequences of Achilles’ wrath. Achilles’ ‘accursed anger’ had set forth a train of events that had ‘brought uncounted anguish on the Achaeans and hurled down to Hades many mighty souls of heroes’. But both that anger and that train of events were also part of a divine plan. Throughout the Iliad, divine and human causation are inextricably linked. Achilles and Agamemnon are responsible for their actions. They – and not just they – have to pay the price for their pride, arrogance and folly. And yet their actions are shaped by the gods, and their fates decided by Zeus’ scales.

The drama on the battlefield is shadowed by the drama on Mount Olympus. We see the gods holding council, quarrelling and sulking, laughing and partying and making love, and descending from their Olympian heights to change the course of human affairs. When Achilles is dishonoured by Agamemnon, his distraught mother, the goddess Thetis, appeals to Zeus, who promises her major Trojan success so as to ‘bring honour to Achilles’. As Paris is about to be defeated by Menelaus in a duel he has foolishly called, Aphrodite ‘snatched him away with the ease of a god, wrapped him in thick mist, and set him down in his sweetly-scented bedroom’. When Zeus’s wife Hera, who has championed the Achaeans, protests about her husband’s support for the Trojans, he accepts that she can have her way and see Troy sacked but also issues a warning: ‘Whenever I in my turn am eager to destroy a city peopled by men who are dear to you, do not try to thwart my anger, but let me have my way’.

Homer’s gods are not wise and judicious like the later gods of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. They are, rather, capricious, vain, vicious and deceitful. But however savage and immoral the gods may be, they are also all-powerful, or seemingly so to humans. It is in part a reflection of the world as the Ancients saw it: messy, chaotic, largely unpredictable, barely controllable, and yet inescapable. Not only have human choices to be made against the background of divinely ordered fate, but the gods often force humans to act against their wishes. Perhaps no figure better expresses the conundrum of human choice than Helen, whose abduction launched the Trojan War. Trojans hold Helen responsible for the war and for the suffering that it has brought. Helen herself accepts responsibility for the tragedy. And yet she, and Homer, recognize that she has been manipulated by divine forces, and in particular by Aphrodite, who had engineered Helen’s initial seduction by Paris.

In one poignant passage, Aphrodite tries to force Helen into Paris’ bed against her will, to comfort the Trojan prince. ‘Go sit by him yourself’, Helen retorts; ‘abandon the paths of the gods, never again turn your feet back to Olympus; no, stay with him, for ever whimpering around him and watching over him, until he makes you his wife – or else his slave.’ ‘I will not go to him’, Helen insists for ‘that would bring shame on me’ and ‘I have misery enough in my heart’. Yet, however much she detests the goddess’ imperatives, Helen knows that she is powerless to resist them. She follows Aphrodite to Paris’ bedroom.

And this, for Homer, is the tragedy of being human: to desire freedom, and be tortured by a sense of autonomy, and yet be imprisoned by forces beyond our control. Fate, to Homer, is a social reality, and neither will nor cunning can evade it. Indeed, a man who does what he ought to moves steadily towards his fate and his death. Both Achilles and Hector go into battle knowing they are fated to die, but knowing, too, that without surrendering to their fate they would also surrender their honour.

With tragedy, however, comes dignity. Gods act according to whim; only humans are truly accountable for their actions. Human life is framed by the gods and yet humans cannot rely upon them. They must depend upon their own wit and resources. It is human reason that imposes order upon an unpredictable world, and discovers dignity and honour within it.

achiles 2

The fraught relationship between Man and God lies at the heart not just of Homer’s work, nor even just of Greek philosophy, but also at the heart of all moral thought. In part, the history of moral thought is the history of attempts to address the problem of reconciling fate and free will. It is a dilemma with which not just believers but atheists, too, have been forced to wrestle. When ‘we feel ourselves to be in control of an action’, the contemporary neuroscientist Colin Blakemore has suggested, ‘that feeling itself is the product of our brain, whose machinery has been designed, on the basis of its functional utility, by means of natural selection.’ According to Blakemore, ‘To choose a spouse, a job, a religious creed – or even to choose to rob a bank – is the peak of a causal chain that runs back to the origin of life and down to the nature of atoms and molecules.’

For Blakemore, unlike for Homer, fate lies not in the hands of gods but in the nature of atoms and molecules. But the same questions are raised about human actions. If all action is predestined, what could free will mean? Or ethics? From the beginnings of the philosophical tradition to the latest thoughts on neuroscience, the questions of fate and free will have been inextricably bound together in an ethical knot. Part of the story of the quest for a moral compass is the story of the attempts to untie that knot, to understand it, to live with it.

* * * * *

As Agamemnon and Achilles quarrel over the slave girl Briseis at the council of warriors, the ageing king Nestor, intervenes. ‘You, agathos though you are’, he tells Agamemnon, ‘do not take the girl from him, but let her be, as the sons of the Achaians gave her to him in the beginning as his prize.’ Then turning to Achilles, Nestor warns, ‘Do not seek open quarrel with the king, since there is no equality with the honour granted to a sceptred king, whom Zeus has glorified. You may be a man of strength, with a goddess for your mother, but he is more powerful because his rule is wider.’

The Iliad provided the ancient Greeks with a framework within which to understand the hopes and sorrows that shaped their lives. It told of the desires of Man, the capriciousness of gods and the implacability of fate, and of how all three knitted together. Homer’s epic was not, however, just a way of making sense of the tragedy of the human condition. It was also a way of understanding how to meet the challenge of being human. Nestor’s speech gives us a glimpse of the moral rules by which Homer’s heroes lived.

The Greek word αγαθος (agathos), which Nestor uses to describe Agamemnon, is often translated as ‘good’, in the sense of an action or a trait that is morally admirable. But it is also, in Homer, a description of a person’s standing. Indeed, in Nestor’s speech, agathos is often rendered in English as ‘great man’. In Agamemnon’s world, a man’s social status and his moral worth are almost indistinguishable.


In premodern societies, and especially in ‘heroic’ societies at the edge of historical records such as that which Homer describes, the structure of society is a given, as is the role that each individual occupies and the privileges and duties that derive from that role. A person knows who he is by knowing his role within society, and in knowing this he knows also what he owes and what is owed to him by every other individual.

Being king gives Agamemnon his agathos. Yet possessing agathos does not stop him taking Briseis. Nor does his taking of Briseis undermine his agathos. Agamemnon is to be judged – and defined – solely by his ability to be kingly. To be kingly one had to possess not just kingly virtues like courage, cunning, military skill and the ability to command men, but also the wealth and leisure necessary for the development of such character and skill. To be good one must be born into a good family. The greater one’s nobility, the greater one’s goodness. Achilles may have been dishonoured by Agamemnon’s action, but his honour, as Nestor points out, could never be equal to that of Agamemnon because he is not king, and nor could his goodness equal Agamemnon’s.

Ordinary folk cannot it seems be good at all. The duties of a swineherd or a miller, as much as those of Agamemnon or Achilles, derive from the roles they occupy within the given structure of a community. But unlike for Agamemnon and Achilles, the rules that assign their roles and define their duties also determine that in lacking nobility they also lack agathos.

The Iliad is clearly a moral tale. But it describes an alien moral world, not simply because its moral rules are so different from those of our world but also because its very notion of what constitutes a moral rule is alien to us. When, as modern readers, we enter Homer’s world, it is almost inevitable that we pass judgements upon his characters that are different from those of Homer himself. Paris is a kidnapper, a shirker, a man whom we would probably describe as morally dissolute. Homer would not portray him as such. Even though Paris fails to perform the actions of a good man, he remains good, in Homer’s eyes, because his hereditary gifts, social background and material advantages embody such an important part of his agathos.

Agamemnon’s pride and arrogance led to the tragedy of the Trojan war. To a modern reader, this places upon him a moral responsibility for the conflict. To Homer, Agamemnon’s pride and arrogance is a matter not of morality but of fate. ‘I am not to blame’, Agamemnon insists, the gods ‘put a cruel blindness in my mind at the assembly on that day when by my own act I took away his prize from Achilleus.’

In the modern world, morality is inseparable from choice. Homer’s warriors cannot choose to be moral or not. Each is simply good or bad at performing the duties of his or her role. Human choice adds texture to the cloth already woven on the loom of fate, but cannot unpick the threads. There is in the Iliad and the Odyssey only the faintest glimmer of what we would recognize as free will or choice. Indeed, it is not clear that any of Homer’s characters possesses a ‘mind’ as we understand it, nor an interior life. In Homer’s epics, the psychologist David Olson observes, ‘there is an absence of such terms as “decided”, “thought”, “believed”, “doubted” or “equivocated”.’ Homer’s characters do all of these things, but not in the self-conscious way that we do them. Agamemnon’s wrath and Achilles’ pride describe not emotions inside their selves, but their actions and the actions of the gods that determine their fate.


Lacking a concept of an interior life, Homer turns that life into a spectacle of gods in battle over the human world. He cannot access the drama inside the human head, because he possesses no language through which to understand it. So the drama takes place outside human life through the gods’ quarrels, loves, obsessions and desires. Hence the humanness of Homer’s gods. So beautifully wrought is that divine drama that in the modern world we continually plunder it for metaphors through which to understand our own desires and motivations – think of the importance to modern psychoanalysis of Oedipus and Narcissus, Prometheus and Antigone.

Homer was wrestling with no mere metaphor. The inner world was opaque to him, but the divine world was a reality. Homeric gods form the cosmic intelligence that drives the universe. They form also the inner intelligence that drives every human being. The gods inhabit our heads as well as heaven.

Over time, the inner world became more transparent, but the divine world more opaque. The drama played out in myth was both an attempt to make sense of a disorderly world and an acceptance that such a world is too disorderly to make sense of. Increasingly philosophers discovered order in the world, and the rules by which nature was organized and that made natural events predictable. As the cosmos appeared more ordered and predictable, so the plurality of gods acting on whim and caprice came to be replaced with a single Creator who governed with reason and judgement. In time that single Creator was Himself dethroned and replaced by a mechanical universe. Just like the outer world, the inner world, too, came to be seen as ordered and, to a degree, predictable. At the same time, humans came increasingly to be seen as agents – wilful beings with minds of their own.

The moral world bound by myth is different to that embodied in religion or that which makes sense in a world that entrusts to science. Moral thought does not inhabit a sealed off universe. It cannot but be closely related to the social structure of a community and to the perceptions within it of what it is to be human. Homeric values emerged from the structure of heroic society, shaped by its needs and constrained by its particular conception of human nature. As society changed, and as new languages developed through which to understand the human soul, the human mind, and the humanity’s place in the cosmos, so inevitably moral ideas also evolved.


  1. Me likewise. But one quibble: “Agamemnon’s pride and arrogance led to the tragedy of the Trojan war.” Hardly. The Briseis incident is *within* the war, and if we are to blame any individuals for it, it would have to be Aphrodite, Paris, Menelaus and indeed Helen.

  2. RichardR

    I expect I’ll learn more from this one book than all of my ethics courses put together. Looking forward to it.

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