Morality and Virtue in Poetry and Philosophy: A Reading of Homer's Iliad XXIV

By Yan, Hektor K. T. | Humanitas, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Morality and Virtue in Poetry and Philosophy: A Reading of Homer's Iliad XXIV


Yan, Hektor K. T., Humanitas


It is apt for Plato to describe the quarrel between poetry and philosophy as an 'ancient' one (Republic 607b). Art and poetry reflect on our humanity; so does philosophy. Perhaps the affinity between poetry and philosophy is most clearly seen in the domain of human conduct or ethics. Both disciplines offer means for the enhancement of understanding, but this also leads to competition and tension. This article will examine what a poetic work of art itself can say about morality and ethics, and how morality in poetry can differ from morality in philosophy. (1) My example here is the final reconciliation of Achilles and Priam in the concluding book of the Iliad. The moral philosophies of Aristotle and Kant will provide some examples for the comparison. But first more needs to be said about moral motivation in philosophy.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant raises the question of what constitutes the moral worth of an action. He seeks to discover under what circumstances an action becomes a moral one. He then puts forward a moral philosophy which emphasises the importance of rationality in morality and argues that inclinations and impulses contribute nothing towards moral worth. Instead, moral worth consists in one's following a rational, a priori moral law which binds all rational beings.

I am not going to examine the question of how a purely rationalistic moral theory can adequately guide our behaviour. (2) What is noteworthy is that Kant's moral philosophy has a reductive character. As its aim is to discover the essence of moral worthiness itself, the supposed essential element of moral worth excludes other elements in moral motivation. Note the example of a kind action done out of compassion which is claimed to have no moral worth while a kind action done for the sake of duty, despite the absence of any personal inclination to engage in such an action, does have moral worth. (3) Kant argues that actions done out of impulses or inclination can lead to very different results; therefore, the good or bad consequences of the action itself cannot form the standard of moral evaluation. He also thinks that, although one's inclination can lead one to perform a kind or benevolent act, inclination itself is too contingent to be the guide of one's behaviour.

In this sense Kant's picture of morality seems to be in sharp contrast to Aristotle's. While Aristotle stresses the importance of upbringing and the development of virtuous character, Kant argues that morality is a matter of the exercise of one's freedom of will, which is autonomous and independent of any desire, feeling or impulse. (4) One may reply that Aristotle and Kant are actually addressing two different issues in human life, the ethical and the moral. Basically, the ethical is concerned with how to live a good life and eudaimonia (flourishing or well-being), while the moral is restricted to judgements of right and wrong, which are by definition more narrow than the ethical as well as more abstract. However, there are certain overlaps between the inquiries of the two philosophers, and it seems that we cannot distinguish sharply between the moral (in the Kantian sense) and the ethical, for the ethical encompasses the moral.

It is unnecessary at this point to decide which philosopher gives a better picture of morality or ethics, but it is against this background that I propose to examine the final book of the Iliad in order to see how a literary work of art can provide a different perspective that can well accommodate the complex nature of morality and ethics.

It should be emphasised that the interpretation of the Iliad given here does not show that the Iliad is a work on moral philosophy. The moral or, in a wider sense, the ethical is a concern of ours that is present in different areas and activities. The moral or ethical can enter the literary or artistic sphere, and there we can find an alternative treatment of morality that is different from that of philosophy.

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