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Tijana Jevtich discusses the beauty of gods and the virtue in true heroes, whose ethos is opposed to the contemporary nomos.

Human beings stand still, driven and determined by their will; alas, even in this time densely clouded by fundamental misunderstanding of the divine nature of language and deprived of their mythos, with their spiritual gaze yearning for beauty, for beauty is the only language spoken both between humans and gods, and for the time is no more than a concept essential for human comprehension of the world, vital for the mind of a man, and profoundly irrelevant for the blessed realm of the divine.

But what is the will of a human if not a yearning for beauty, for the singular phenomenon capable of bringing it so close to gods its spirit can feel the touch of their sublime essence and capable of establishing the image of the blessed nature of their existence in our frail realm? Owl-eyed Athena will touch the golden hair of Achilles, and he will rise as a fire-bathed dawn upon the battlefield, and yet many mortal destinies will be solved in blood as Keres come to claim the souls. For the gods will walk amongst the heroes, aid them, speak to them, love them, fight them, challenge them, praise them, and only in death will they abandon them, for then the time comes when the divine beauty cannot follow them anymore, cannot follow them into the shadow realm.

Heroes will always attract the sublime conversation with the gods through the beauty of their spirit, virtue, and merit and win their chance to witness and touch beauty in its essence only by desiring and valueing greatness above all else, even above their own lives. Beauty remains the heroes’ only desire, essential value and the only guide for their soul, sword or word spoken. Thus the ethics of the hero is no more than a quest for touching beauty, a human, a limited and imperfect technique of witnessing the endless phenomenon. While beauty is a matter of both humans and gods, ethos is purely a human matter. Alas, ethics is no more the concern of the gods as death itself.

Aesthetics and Ethics of the Iliad

Beauty is a goddess of both artists and heroes, a companion of both gods and mortals. But what about goodness or evil? Often when the world of the Iliad is being discussed, the question arises, are all of the doings of the gods in the Iliad good, or can some be qualified as evil? Now, the issue with the dilemma alone comes from a misunderstanding of the Homerian ethics – an ethos of the individual or the nomos of a community are both matters of the mortal worlds, while gods, blessed, in their endless existence, can only perform acts in accordance to beauty. The beauty of their beings is not bound to any limit, thus the acts performed by their beings never hurt their beauty. Aphrodite is beautiful; she does not become beautiful by acting or doing – she is. On the other hand, a hero becomes virtuous or beautiful – he is determined by both the beauty of his soul and his acts. Here we need to have in mind the term schöne Seele as established by German romanticism.

A heroic existence strives primarily towards the categories it finds in common with the divine – the category of beauty and the state of life as the only state in which it can act, thus coexisting with the divine.

Now we come to understand that human nature is a matter of endless dynamics, the correlation between the state and action. Beauty is a state of a divine being and a goal of an active human existence. Let us focus on the crucial difference between the static principle of the divine nature and an active
principle of poetic symbol. The nature of the gods is revealed to humans via action, not because it is its
dominant principle but because it is the only one comprehensive to a human being. Here we must be aware of the difference between the symbol as a name of a god, and a symbol as a name of a hero – Ares is Ares; he is born as Ares; he exists as one, and his acts do not make him more or less divine, while Achilles becomes Achilles, and he reveals the essence of his nature as he makes his return to the battlefield. Let us take a glance at the following verses spoken by Ares after he is injured by Diomed:

Now frantic Diomed, at her [Athena’s] command,
Against the immortals lifts his raging hand:
The heavenly Venus first his fury found,
Me next encountering, me he dared to wound;
Vanquish’d I fled; even I, the god of fight,
From mortal madness scarce was saved by flight.

Even when divine existence collides with a mortal one and suffers from that collision, even then, its nature is in no way altered or determined by it. However, a mortal existence lies on a constant path towards self-assertion. Now, we need to ask ourselves, how can one define a path towards heroic self-assertion? A heroic existence strives primarily towards the categories it finds in common with the divine – the category of beauty and the state of life as the only state in which it can act, thus coexisting with the divine.

Philosophy of Vitalism, or the Hero’s Path

Our meditation upon the question of the sublime aesthetic value of the Iliad brings us to the definition of our philosophical approach to the nature of the correlation between aesthetics and ethics. A human being is primarily a being of aesthetics and a creator of ethics. The only ethical principle capable of existing in correlation to beauty can derive solely from the philosophy of vitalism. The concept of vitalism rises from the idea of the will as a unifying force, striving to establish a limited existence in harmony with an unlimited beauty. The form of will as an image of Eros is the ultimate form of a human will, while existence harmonious with the idea of such a will is a heroic existence. One’s existence establishes itself as heroic solely through virtuous acts, those performed in accordance with the eternal idea of beauty.

In this article, we are referring to the concept of Eros as a primordial force of unification, Eros as a pure and ultimate form of will. For the needs of this essay, we present only a short clarification of the terminology we will be using further throughout the article in correlation to the concept of will. Being is a phenomenon either determined by the will for beauty or created out of the ultimate will for beauty. While a being of poetry, for instance, is defined by its aesthetic value derived from the correlation between the form and the content, the human being is determined primarily by his will, as will for beauty. It should be noted that the will of a genius as a fantasy (the ability to create the autonomous spiritual world and the ultimate form of the human will) will be defined as the image of Eros, as the symbol is an image of the nature of a singular divine existence.

Now, the opposite of an act of beauty is a shameful act, and only a virtuous soul can feel shame. Here we are going to meditate upon the words of Hector:

Where lies my way? to enter in the wall?
Honour and shame the ungenerous thought recall:
Shall proud Polydamas before the gate
Proclaim, his counsels are obey’d too late,
Which timely follow’d but the former night,
What numbers had been saved by Hector’s flight?
That wise advice rejected with disdain,
I feel my folly in my people slain.
Methinks my suffering country’s voice I hear,
But most her worthless sons insult my ear,
On my rash courage charge the chance of war,
And blame those virtues which they cannot share.
No—if I e’er return, return I must
Glorious, my country’s terror laid in dust:
Or if I perish, let her see me fall
In field at least, and fighting for her wall

As we see, Hector’s soul is not able to allow him to choose shame over merit – he will rather welcome any outcome as a virtuous man than embarrass himself with an existence that is not in harmony with a heroic principle. For him, there is no dilemma – it is easier to die a hero than live in shame. However, some acts of a hero bring his existence to an end as they place him in an unbearable confrontation with the will of the gods or the mortal ethos. Thus the acts that bring downfall upon heroes are not shameful acts per se but acts their souls cannot bear. The beauty of the divine beings is endless, thus they can bear any act they are capable and willing to do. Any act performed by gods cannot be in confrontation with ethics, for ethics is a human measurement, while the only divine measurement is beauty. On the other hand, humans can be willing or capable of performing an act their beings are not able to bear. Human beings are defined by action, thus human existence is in its essence the existence of activity, while the absolute is neither active nor passive but the absolute existence. Here, we come to the crucial point of the ethics of vitalism – the tragedy of a hero is not in an act that is necessarily shameful but one that the beauty of his soul cannot justify.

Achilles does not choose death as an opposite to life, but a heroic death as a natural end to an ultimate vitalistic approach to life – an active existence that rises to the heights of a godlike state.

It is important to clarify that the value of individual ethics is determined by the dynamics between the beauty of one’s soul and the nature of one’s acts, meaning further that when such dynamics can be defined as harmonious we can define the act in question as good, while if the dynamics are established as disharmonious we are talking about an ill act, an act that either brings one’s downfall or uncovers the ugliness of being. Having this in mind, we will reflect upon the idea that a beautiful soul of a hero simultaneously exists in a state of beauty and is constantly improved by performing virtuous acts. Thus, the desire for a heroic existence is for Achilles the form of his will:

The stroke of fate the strongest cannot shun:
The great Alcides, Jove’s unequall’d son,
To Juno’s hate, at length resign’d his breath,
And sunk the victim of all-conquering death.
So shall Achilles fall! stretch’d pale and dead,
No more the Grecian hope, or Trojan dread!
Let me, this instant, rush into the fields,
And reap what glory life’s short harvest yields.

As we know, Achilles forsakes the chance to spend a long life in his homeland in exchange for attaining glory, as the celebration of godlike virtue is for him a celebration of life. Achilles does not choose death as an opposite to life, but a heroic death as a natural end to an ultimate vitalistic approach to life – an active existence that rises to the heights of a godlike state. Now, while discussing the world of the Iliad comes as a pure and godlike pleasure, contemplating the nature of ethos in the contemporary world does come with a profoundly bitter taste. However, that is something that we, as beings determined both by idealism and history, must do.

The Struggle of the Modern Hero

In the age deprived of its own mythos, and abandoned by gods, can we even converse about the existence of its hero? Alas, gods have not forsaken us – it is we who have forsaken the ability to see them. As we have moved further away from understanding the nature of poetic beauty, we have alienated ourselves from our true nature. However, as each post-symbolic age finds its dialectic path in allegoric expression, each singular existence finds its post-mythological ability to create and understand beauty, in the eternal dynamics by both awareness of the concept of beauty as an absolute and the spiritual situation of the given historical moment. Thus, it is only natural to ask ourselves: what does a modern hero do?

While in the age of mythos, a hero establishes his name, in the post-mythological age he looks for one. He is creating his own allegorical spiritual state that will allow him to name his path and his purpose. Denying a possibility of rebirth is in fundamental confrontation with the nature of human existence and the reality of both historical and spiritual principles of civilization. A modern hero does not alienate himself from the idea of beauty; he alienates himself from the vulgar concepts that keep beauty away from entering his soul. We are referring to Schelling’s understanding of the modern concept of politics as explained in his essay about the correlation between the idea of liberty and the frail concept of the modern state from 1796/97.

The “nomos” of the contemporary era has no place in dictating the behaviour or in determining the path of an artist or of a hero – a work of art has only one purpose – to be beautiful, and a hero has only one path – a path towards virtue. There is no glory in obeying any “nomos” that does not lead towards merit and is not established in accordance with the idea of beauty. In general, as the nomos is born out of the philosophical realm, it naturally is a secondary value, and the ultimate hubris of mankind is when it tries to influence the artistic or philosophical realm.

Accepting that hubris is one thing a modern hero will never allow himself to do, and as he shifts further towards individualism, he realizes he can only build his individual ethos that will often violently collide with the given nomos of his era.

This way, he does not obey the “spirit” of his time if he finds acting according to its values shameful; he does not rely on the opinion of the polis, but he trusts the whispers of beauty in his own heart. Expecting the polis to provide the perfect guidance is a fool’s paradise; there is no certainty and that’s why the question of attaining glory is only for the brave ones, those who do not fear to follow beauty even if it is leading them through the dark passages, for the hero holds his own light, the beauty of his soul, that shines upon a path and reveals it one step at the time. For the paths already visible may be revealed by the false light that neither comes from beauty nor leads to it, and the modern hero does not need praise or acceptance by the polis; he only needs beauty. Until the dawn comes, the light of his lantern is the only light he can rely on, continuously breathing a new shine to his life, as he walks towards virtue. A hero is alone, in the dark forest, holding his lantern firmly in his hand, and he accepts beauty as his sole goal and his sole guide.

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Tijana Jevtich

Tijana S. Jevtich writes essays and papers on romanticism, ancient poetry, aesthetics, as well as art history and theory. Her main interests are the German philosophy of idealism, hermeneutics, and art history.

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