First, because the Iliad is built on them, a chapter about the gods(1). In those days people did not just read about them, they spoke with them.
Yahweh to Moses:
"...Come, therefore, I will send you to the Pharaoh, and you shall free My people, the Israelites, from Egypt". And Moses, after some discussion, went. The Greek gods may not quite have the numen of the God of the Hebrew bible, but they have at least one thing in common: they may speak to us, command us with great force. We obey because we know it is not our own voice, but the voice of a higher power.
Athena to Achilles:
It is not the Father of gods and men who is giving this message to Achilles, it is his daughter Athena, sent
by his wife Hera.
She is persuading the angry Achilles not to draw his sword to kill Agamemnon. He obeys her, not from any
moral or civic consideration but because it is the clever thing to do: she promises he will be better off that way.
In this scene we find an obvious difference between the God of Moses and the gods of Homer: Moses has one, Homer has many. But both the one and the many have the power to move us, to speak to us and tell us to do or not do certain things. I shall not theorize about the God of the Israelites here but concentrate solely on Homer's gods. Examples from the Iliad, Odyssey and Hesiod"s poems that underlie the assertions made below, will be supplied in the pages on the individual gods and on the "explanation page".
Let us start with Socrates' question: how shall we live? No, first Homer's subject: how
do we actually live?
Basically we, Ancient Greek warriors, decide to do something because of its expected result:
This is an incomplete picture, but it introduces three top-level forces that drive us:
(In other words: we are competitive, greedy and we love Love.)
Modern people talk about "drives" or "forces" and see them as internal to us, part of our
character. The Greeks (or at least some of them) call this "gods", they see those rather as powers
that originate outside us and may or may not drive us and help us at crucial moments. Homer makes it clear that they can act on both individuals and on groups such as communities or armies.
They distinguished a number of distinct "specialized" powers which tell us what to do if they so choose. They are beyond our control - we can only pray to them, put our faith in them, but they remain unpredictable. But if they do speak to us, we had better obey.
This is not an absurd view of things. After all, if, for instance, "cleverness" comes from inside us, why is it not always there? We cannot reliably decide beforehand to be clever in a given situation: successful cleverness comes and goes, no matter how high our score in the IQ test. We can only put our faith in it (confidently boast of it), rely on it and hope for the best. That corresponds to what Homer calls "praying" (εὔχομαι)(2) If we do put our faith in them, they may reward us. If we don't, they don't. But without them, we are "mere bellies" (Hesiod Th 26).
The pictures (icons) of the gods that Homer shows and the way all of the Greeks talk about them, gives us the impression that they see the gods as individual beings, "larger people", who look and act upon the human world. It is only in their actions as shown by Homer, most clearly in the so-called "double motivation" scenes where an actor is shown making a decision for himself while at the same time a god is convincing him/her to do so, that the "driving force" nature of the gods becomes clear. Homer is surely not the first or the only one with such a view, but only after Homer, with the Ionian philosophers and Plato do we see attempts to go beyond the metaphor. This view of the gods is not quite suitable for public speech and probably limited to private discussion among "initiated" people, i.e. prominent members of the aristocracy. For most people, the simpler "people in the sky" view is sufficient and the leaders of society can use this as a tool for herding their flock.
In the Republic, where Plato develops his soul - city analogy, he never mentions that the three parts of the soul correspond to the three Homeric goddesses(3). They do have the same roots and functionality. In the Laws he expands the theory of how he sees the gods. They are manifestations of Soul (Psychē), but purely good and immortal.
This is some philosophical distance beyond Homer but there is a kinship. Much about Plato's "proof"
of the existence of the gods is unclear, but here I would like to emphasize the mental aspects:
what moves us. These are things
"of the soul", the immaterial active principles, the ideas, that underlie everything: these are
first in his world view. We are talking here about forces or rather powers. Above we saw the domains of some of these powers. Plato tried to cleanse them of the worldly muddiness and very human partiality that they show in Homer. Hìs gods cannot be swayed by prayer or gifts and they are absolutely good; see above: the bad has been split off. Thus he paved the way for the
monotheism that was to come, though he himself does not completely go there.
Plato develops this into his theories of the three parts of the human soul, and the three classes of people: the aristocracy or guardians, the reasonable part or the rulers (if they happen to be philosopher-kings) and the desiring class, i.e. the common people or "money-earners".
In Neoplatonic terms these three become a. the Good, b. the True and
c. the Beautiful(4).
Plato has objectified the goddesses as follows: "the good" is the idea behind status, "the true" is the idea behind cleverness and "the beautiful" is the idea behind pleasure. He himself uses the terms we translate as Spirit, Reason and Desire. See also here.
All of these three are desires, making us want something: they have a telos, a target or purpose. The philosopher wants to instill in us purified forms of these values, purified by education, compulsion and by perfect leadership: a leader who absolutely knows what is Good, True and Beautiful. This way he will replace the subjective, relative values by objective, universal ones.
The Good, True and Beautiful in ancient Greece each have a semantic range which is partly unlike the modern usage of these words. Here follows a short explanation:
There are two kinds of things that we may obey: rules and desires. I would submit that female gods are "desire" gods, while male gods "rule". Neither Homer nor Hesiod ever hints at a difference like this but the picture fits the usage. Gods like Zeus, Ares and Apollo in Homer impose a rule or duty on us. Goddesses like the three beauties Hera, Athena and Aphrodite represent desires. Athena in a unique way seems to be both: a woman in a man's armour, an armed maiden. She presents us with a really quite complicated picture, see e.g. the story of her birth (not in Homer). In the Iliad, Homer paints her as the most dangerous, but also the most hopeful of the three main goddesses. More on Athena here.
These are the goddesses' bribes for Paris
in the story of the Paris Judgement (Paris is to decide which of them is the most beautiful - a job for Zeus if ever I saw one, but apparently the chief god chickened out) and in the Iliad: Status is
offered by Hera, Victory by Athena and Beauty by Aphrodite. Always
when these goddesses appear in the Iliad, they stand for the desires as described above. These are what we must obey to have a good life, they are our nature. We see
the world - if and when we are seeing it at all - through their eyes and they fill it with purpose. Therefore
they are quintessentially human but partially so(5) - in this sense they are less than we are. This is why Homer can describe them comically the way he does. They are also more
than human because these powers are always there, immortal, and they rule all
of us. So the person may be clever if they be led by "cleverness itself". See here the link to Platonian Ideas.
Let me emphasize again the incompleteness: no god (except Zeus) knows about the domain of another one. E.g. the desire for beauty or the striving for status understand nothing of cleverness and vice versa. This is also why they lack moral qualities (see below). And they are partial in the sense that they look at the world from our very personal point of view.
If you are lucky, they may be partial to you, as Athena loves Odysseus. That means you will be clever and possibly that your cleverness will make you a winner - but there are other gods and they may not love you as much. If you are a Heracles, a servant with no status in spite of his power, this is Hera hating you - you will be unable to improve your status no matter how highborn, strong or clever you are. If Hera would love you, you would be king.
In terms of Plato or Aristotle these are the "movers" although in Homer, they are not themselves "unmoved", i.e. they may respond to prayer. Homer speaks of us obeying them instead of them moving us. We obey them (or not) when we are making important decisions, we are not talking about trivial ones here. There are other gods that may move us, but these are the main three goddesses under discussion in the Iliad, the ones that we have to obey if we want to live a meaningful life. Except...
This is how we live. What about how we should live?
The real world is not ruled by our desires. There are other rules even if these are not immediately obvious. One thing we may be sure of: our actions determine our fate. True, the heroic mindset often denies this ("I will not die before my time has come") but the examples given in the Iliad (Patroclus, Hector, Achilles) confirm it: we are killed because of our own choices. Why do these three die? The short answer is: they go too far, they do not stop in time: they wanted more, a better fate, a bigger portion than they could have. Which leads to one of the imperative mottos of Delphi: "Mēden Agav", "nothing in excess". The iconic image of this is Zeus with his scales, representing the balance there has to be between one party and the other. Or more precisely: between one fate and the other.
In Il 12.433- there is a simile:
"[...] as straight as the scales of an honest working woman spinning wool, who sees to it that they be true, for she would earn some meagre wages for her children". We may guess why: too much she does not dare. She will be accused of cheating by her patron; too little and she will earn nothing. That is δίκαιος, just, in Homeric terms. Exactly as for the warrior, it is the dividing line between need and fear.
So, here enters a male god. Not a desire, a rule. Zeus says: "you and I must share". One does not typically desire to do that, many of us would keep it all if we could. But we do know about the rule. The word for "fate" in Greek means share or portion, archetypically the size of the portion that we get (according to status) when we attend the communal feast-meal, or the share of the loot that a man receives from his king once they have, for instance, sacked Troy. The exact proportions of the division are negotiable but the ever valid top rule is "not too much". Hesiod gives an illustration of that:
An example: Hesiod's story about Prometheus and Zeus and Pandora:
it sounds like a joke, a serious one (Hesiod Th 535-, WD 50-). Prometheus creates two portions for sacrifice: a worthless one that looks beautiful, a good one which looks unappetizing. He gives first choice to Zeus... Of course Zeus cannot choose the best part. Justice itself cannot knowingly pick the better part. Prometheus knows that, he is being clever but unjust by not making the portions equal, thus ensuring that in all future animal sacrifices, mortals get the best part(6). The trick earns us the wrath of Zeus. So Zeus hides fire from mankind (our "burning desires" lead us to clever and unjust deeds).
See here Fire, as stolen for you by Prometheus, hidden in a fennel-stalk (an obvious penis symbol) "so that Zeus did not see it" - connections to the "deception of Zeus" episode from the Iliad here:
It is Desire - Eros - the ever hungry energy that consumes all in its drive to get more. It can be harnessed, but will it?
It won't, so Zeus says, justly: "I'll give you what you desire" and the gods create Pandora: Woman. The worthless one that looks beautiful (so says the old misogynist. In Hesiod's defense: this is not about women - women are just men with breasts - but about Woman, a mythical creature that only lives in men's minds. Helen, for instance, is a Woman).
So, one up for Zeus, god of Justice and Fate. Still we mortals (as well as the immortals on Olympus) are to accept Zeus as supreme ruler: he is stronger. We need the other gods to live, even to live well. We need Zeus to live together. But...
The dramatic climax of the Iliad is the killing of the leader of the Trojan army, Hector, by the
Achaean hero Achilles. The latter is irresistible in his blind fury and revenge because Hector killed
Achilles' friend Patroclus in battle. All by himself, Achilles slaughters half an army. Slaughter is the right word because no one has a ghost of a chance against him. His
fury, mēnis, is the first word of the Iliad and its primary theme. Mēnis is a word that is used only
for gods and for Achilles. It is often appropriately translated as "wrath". This scene you might call
the epicenter of the Iliad.
Just before the killing Zeus, the god of Fate, balances his scales, symbol of Justice, in an iconic gesture measuring the Kēres (doom) of the two heroes. Hector's side goes down to Hades, Achilles' Kēr goes up (towards Ouranos, heaven). So it goes. For a long time I wondered if that was Homeric Justice. Achilles, although a Greek, is a furious monster. His friend Patroclus has himself to blame for his death, Homer makes that very clear. Hector, although a non-Greek, is a real mensch with strengths and weaknesses, a hero we would aspire to be, giving his life for his wife, child and city. This, too, is shown with great emphasis and pathos. Here we have a really curious contradiction in the rhetoric of the poem. Still, it is Zeus who holds the scales, i.e. makes the judgement. How is this just?
If the god of Fate is also the god of Justice, and Fate is "what happens", does that mean that everything that happens in the world (or in the Iliad) is just? We know better than that.
But, as always, the answer is hinted at within the picture. Balancing scales that go down on
one side are of course not "straight", not just. Scales that are perfectly balanced are the
image of justice (see above).
This Zeus with his unequal balance is showing us a judgement that
claims justice but is really one-sided only. It is only just from Achilles' point
Homer does not tell us this, we are supposed to see this ourselves. It is this image that made me understand that Homer's gods are not absolute. They are not beings "out there", distinct from us, but phenomena: we see and evaluate the world through their eyes subjectively. Achilles' mēnis is the wrath of Zeus, but it is the Zeus of Achilles. The latter is filled with Justice, or rather self-justification. First in his anger with Agamemnon, later in his implacable fury with Hector, for taking Patroclus (i.e. his honour) away from him. But is it Zeus who tells him to act this way? Actually his behaviour is driven by other gods. Homer shows this, too (Il 1.212-, 18.165-, 18.356-)(7). Achilles does not know himself.
So far, this is clear. But it leads to an ethical paradox:
The image of the scales is about your share (Moira or Aisa = share = fate). Seen as a one-to-one transaction, the question is: how much for me, how much for you(8). The measure of my justice is inversely proportional to the share I assign to myself(9).
This brings us to Delphi again: Mēden Agan, "not too much". The winner cannot take it all. There must be a balance weighing two portions. Zeus is the god, the only god, who acknowledges the other person. All the other gods know only "me".
So the size of my portion is the measure of my injustice (in your eyes). If you get
nothing or less than you think you deserve, you are in your own eyes perfectly just (and angry).
The loser of the judgement goes to Hades, literally or figuratively. Homer has a little pun with a deeper meaning:
The people in Hades, having no share in anything, are by the law of the balance
the most just people.
The poet probably associated the word "Hades" with "not being seen" e.g. Il 5.845), just as
he associates the mountain "Idē" (seeing) with Zeus' favourite lookout(10).
Justice is dependent on seeing - seeing the rights of the other person.
Here lies the problem of judging: one of the parties is judged to be in the right, his side of the scales will go up. The loser finds himself disregarded, unseen, as does Achilles who considers himself to have lost everything: Patrocles, his honour, and soon he will lose his life as well. But this makes him automatically the most just (in his own eyes)! And if this Zeus comes down to earth, you had better beware...
Here, as is shown by the figure of Achilles, is the paradox of subjective justice. Zeus is not only a loving god who tells us to share equally, he can also be a harsh and unreasonable god. Zeus is a god to be feared, the god of vengeance. There are likenesses to the bible here. The problem lies in our judging: when we judge we hold the scales, we take a position that we should not take, not having a "god's eye view"(11).
Here also lies
the root of the problem we have with understanding it: Zeus does not mean absolute
justice, in the death of Hector scene it means Achilles' justice. The absolute (in Greece) was only invented or properly
formulated by Plato. This immediately raises questions about Zeus. Relative justice? That
does not mean anything at all. It only means that everybody thinks himself just.
But: before writing off Zeus, we should realize two things: first, that Zeus is the only god who knows about the existence of other people. He may always be on our side but that is still better than nothing: if we do not even act according to our own sense of justice, we are beyond the pale. Second, we must make sure that the god we are obeying is really Zeus. Do we know ourselves well enough to be sure? In the case of Achilles there is a telling scene at Il 18.356-. Zeus says to Hera: "So, Queen Hera, you have achieved your goal, and have roused fleet Achilles". In 18.165- Homer shows Iris telling Achilles to get up and fight. Iris was sent to him by Hera, a notable flag that something is up here: Iris is supposed to be the messenger of Zeus. But was it not part of the "Plan of Zeus" that Achilles would be raised? This bears thinking about. What is really the source of Achilles' mēnis and of his rampage and hatred of Hector? Is it really Zeus or does he make himself believe that it is Zeus?
So for two reasons Zeus is a problematic god: he may not be strong enough in all situations to maintain disciplin among the gods. Homer shows Hera, Athena and Poseidon as opposed to Zeus' ordinations. The very fact that as god of Justice he can never "take it all" is a potential source of weakness. Secondly, he is subjective, capable both of "fair sharing" and of "implacable revenge". He is to be loved and feared. To see why Zeus would still be a worthwhile god or what alternative we have, we need to let Plato take us on a detour.
Plato purifies and objectifies the three main goddesses with a view to building his kallipolis.
Why did he not clean Zeus of his subjectivity?
This turns out to be easier said than done. How do human beings create an objective Justice? A partial answer is 'the law' and he goes that way in his later work. But law is not Justice, and with or without law, we still have to do the judging and - see above - we are not equipped for that. Perhaps if we become true philosophers, if such creatures exist. Plato knows this very well, it must be why he creates one of his 'noble lies': there will be justice after death. This theory has the advantages that no one can check it and that people who believe in it may behave better in this life. Philosophically I think it is a chutzpah: "we cannot have it here but believe me, the miscreants will pay for it after death (..so don't interfere!)."
That will not suffice: we need some measure of justice in this world as well. Witness his remarks about an army or a band of robbers, who will accomplish nothing if they are unjust to each other (Rep. 351C). So however unjust they may be to others, among themselves they should strictly avoid doing that.
Zeus needs to rule the three goddesses (though not like an absolute king).
The intersection of the three: Moderation.
Homer wants us to obey Zeus rather than our desires. We need to be able to recognize our desires for that and we need to admit the existence of the other. Plato wants us to do only things that are Good and True and Beautiful. Staying within those limits is a question of moderation (Sophrosune).
But Moderation is not the same as Justice: we need to be absolutely clear about that. Living alone on an island, you can be Moderate but you cannot be Just. In the picture of Plato's Good there is no place for Zeus and his balance. Justice (in The Republic's Kallipolis) is demoted to ensuring that no one interferes with another's domain ("mind your own business"). In terms of the above picture, within our soul, to stay within the bounds of moderation always. In terms of the Kallipolis: making sure that none of the artisan class interfere with business of the auxiliary class and certainly not with that of the CEO. It is a question of functioning well by everybody knowing their place. Moderation is not justice, but takes the place of it.
Broadly speaking this is the model of any large modern organisation: a company, a government department or indeed a nation-state. It is a strong model for it maintains a moderated hierarchy inside and the Good of the organisation always comes before everything. To the outside, it knows no law or justice: it only obeys a law if there is a higher power (a government for instance) which sees to that. Here we stumble on a problem in the case of the nation-state: there is no law. Our world is a collection of gangs of robbers, just like Greece in Plato's time.
What Plato c.s. wanted to do was to move the system one level up. Instead of a collection of city-state armies we would see a nation-state with an army, following the above model. At the head there would have to be a king. A king is a philosopher by definition: whether he actually knows what is good or not, he defines it. No one can contradict him. In this sense the absolute king is the only complete human being in the world: he decides what is good, true and beautiful. This a nice segue to the predecessor of Zeus, the god who was all the gods at once, except Zeus: Kronos.