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Book Reviews (by Kim Gentes)

In the past, I would post only book reviews pertinent to worship, music in the local church, or general Christian leadership and discipleship. Recently, I've been studying many more general topics as well, such as history, economics and scientific thought, some of which end up as reviews here as well.

Entries in greek (2)

The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization - Arthur Herman (2013)

The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization

I am a student of history, having read much of the main classical Greek and Roman translated history sources. However, my study into the area of philosophy has been tertiary. This book provided not only an architectural outline of the Platonic and Aristotelian philosophical structures but a progressive history of their changes, branches, impacts and major figures on both sides. The book is written with warm and engaging tone while being crisp and insightful in its points.

This is a great book for anyone who wants a thorough history of western philosophy for a layman. It doesn't require college philosophy course training to follow the arguments , ideas or people. It is smartly self-contained and accessible. The best book I have read in the last five years.

The author's primary insight is, itself, a triumph of western thinking- that the world's most proliferated civilization has become so by the dynamism of its two polarities of philosophical inquiry. The tension of that dynamism has become the powerful tool for self-critique and self-correction that is built into the 2500 year-old scaffolding of western thought. This insight alone makes this book not only worthwhile, but essential to virtually everyone interested in their society and participation in it.

The author, Arthur Herman, is scant ever guilty of injecting personal prejudice into the text or it's summary findings. This makes it not only readable, but laudable. 

At just over 700 pages, Herman, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, has presented the book in an affable style while staying solidly bound by scholarship and not making illogical leaps in his conclusions. He also doesn't treat the book like a thesis outline. There is no dissertation style and format here, giving the "tell them what you'll tell them, tell them, and tell them what you told them" mindless repetition. Thankfully, the scholar leans this book towards a popular audience and it reads perfectly well for the informed and uninformed reader. 

The breadth of this work, the importance of the topic, the careful attention to detail, the rigorous explanation of change, and the final sterling conclusions it draws make this one of the best books I've ever read.

A brilliant work of international significance.

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Review by Kim Gentes


The Iliad - Homer (c. 850-1200 BC)

"It's about a woman..." If one was trying to create a pithy phrase to summarize the Iliad, this wouldn't be bad. But it might also be a serious misrepresentation. Homer's classic poem is constructed around the premise of a war over 'the face that launched a thousand ships', but it goes far beyond that. In fact, writing a review of Homer's Iliad seems almost silly in a way. The contents of the story, the characters, the plot line and even the details of the literary masterpiece have become so deeply embedded into the fabric of our modern culture and language that we don't even recognize them as being from the pages of ancient lore. Helen of Troy, Achilleus tendon, Hektor, Agamemnon, Odysseus, the greek pantheon of gods, such as Zeus, Apollo and Aresa- all of these find their origins in Homer's Iliad. In fact, Homer's epics might even be said to represent an early chapter in the foundational narrative of Western Civilization. Only the Biblical text has had a more pervasive impact on western, and now world, culture.

The first thing that most people can recite about Homer's Iliad is that it is a classic fight over a woman- Helen of Troy. This is true. However, the place of Helen in the story really just provides the backdrop to the world of the ancient Greek story. A world marked by one single activity more profoundly than any other- war. The world which the Iliad exposits is a world of war. Men, nations, fame, honor, gods, destiny, families, heroes, villains and even love are all wrapped up in the human exchange of conflict, conquest and death. Into that world, the beautiful Helen has been taken away by her lover Paris (also called Alexandros) from the home and country of her husband, Menelaos. Menelaos happens to be the brother, however, of the king of the Achaians- a man named Agamemnon. Upon Helen's abduction, the king and his jilted brother gather the nation's army and navy, launching their forces to capture Helen back from the city-state in which she now lives- Troy. This part of the story is alluded to in the Iliad, but isn't completely included in the narrative timeline of this epic.

But the story isn't that simple. The war to siege Troy drags on for 9 years. The Achaians are held back by the Trojans and the allies of the city of Troy who continually send forces in support of their friends. The war-like Achaians make raids on nearby cities throughout their years-long campaign against Troy. These raids gain them supplies, funds and the human spoils of war- women. In the course of such raids, both Agamemnon and a military champion of the Achaians, Achilleus, acquire new wives as part of the spoils of the raids. The king chooses to keep a girl named Chryseis, who happened to be the daughter of a priest of Apollo. When the father, Chryses, later comes in anxious but suppliant submission to ransom back his daughter, Agamemnon refuses him arrogantly. Chryses, as priest to the god Apollo, prays curses down on the Achaians for the king's evil actions. Apollo answers his priest and begins to kill the soldiers of Agamemnon.

Only after Achilleus challenges Agamemnon with the truth of his arrogance and their consequences, the king relents and sends the girl back to her father to appease the wrath of the god Apollo. But losing his concubine, Agamemnon looks to replace her and chastise Achilleus for pointing out the king's own faults. He does this by taking Achilleus own concubine, Briseis. Enraged, Achilleus wants to slay Agamemnon, but decides not to on the direct intervention of his goddess mother, Thetis. Because of the dishonor that Achilleus incurs, he makes an oath never to obey Agamemnon again or to help him in battle. This is serious, because it is clear that Achilleus is the greatest of all the Achaians warriors.

All this backdrop is meant to supply the primary force behind the entire legend. The war and the conflicts over women are meant to set up the real engine of conflict in the Iliad- Achilleus wrath. Homer, in fact, makes this clear right from the beginning of his poem, which states in the first two lines:

Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus' son Achilleus and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,b

Before Achilleus takes further action in the Iliad story of the Trojan war, the narrative adds more intrigue, characters and reasons for his rage to grow to a boiling point. Menelaos and Paris try to resolve the war by dueling for the hand of Helen, since the conflict between them for her is the microcosm of the entire war. In the duel, Paris loses but is saved from death by a goddess (who magically carries him away). Many fighters die on both sides, but the Trojans seem to make increasingly strong advances towards the Achaean ships. That advantage is further emphasized by individual success of Hektor against the Achaians. He battles to a stalemate with the great Aias and later kills Patroklos (Achilleus best friend) in the battlefield.

Once Patroklos has been killed, this finally is enough to antagonize Achilleus to rejoin the war and fight for the Achaians, not so much for the defeat of the Trojans as just retribution towards Hektor for killing his friend. So, while wrath stopped Achilleus from fighting, it is ultimately more wrath that has him re-engaging in the war.

Achilleus wrath against Agamemnon (and later Hektor) pushes the storyline from start to end. It becomes the cause of many lives lost for the Achaians through battle and it forces Agamemnon to eventually entreat Achilleus' forgiveness so that someone worthwhile could face the powerful Trojan champion, Hektor, in battle. Even Achilleus showdown with Hektor is laced with the fire of bitter anger, as shown by the spiteful treatment of Hektor's body by Achilleus after he has slain the Trojan.

The story of the Iliad is about wrath and war. But even more subtly, and perhaps more pervasively, it is about honor and the ancient culture of honor/challenge in which all the characters live. Every aspect of this story is driven by the main characters attempts to gain honor, to challenge other for it, the anger resulting when one loses it and the vengeance one takes to reclaim it. This idea of honor is seen in battle, in the discourses of the gods on Olympus and even in the human and touching conversations of friends. For example, Hektor, speaking with his wife before going into battle, knowing fate will likely take him- he is more concerned about his honor among other than he is about living or being with his family. Likewise the one thing he speaks in prayer for his baby son is that he would have honor.

It is this all encompassing drive toward honor that takes hold of every character in the epic. From Agamemnon to Nestor to Hektor to Achilleus, all of them are focused on honor as the most important aspect of their lives. Indeed, characters which seem to not care about honor (such as Paris) are portrayed as weak, cowardly and less than noble. The gods and goddess of Olympus all fight and argue and connive for some honor of one type or another (even to the point of it seeming silly and very human-like: hardly divine at all). To describe the Iliad is to describe the forces beneath the epic. In Homer's Iliad, honor drives anger, anger drives war, and the spoils of war or the trophies which once again regenerate the cycle back to greater honor.

By way of a very limited outline of the narrative, here are some of the main points in the Iliad.

  1. Book 1: 10-55 - Agamemnon refuses to release Chrysies back to her father, and god Apollo destroys many troops.
  2. Book 1: 115 - Agamemnon gives back Chryseis to her father
  3. Book 1: 345 - Agamemnon takes Briseis from Achilleus
  4. Book 3: 340-380 - Menelaos defeats Paris in duel, but Paris is rescued by goddess Aphrodite.
  5. Book 7: Hektor and Aias duel to a draw
  6. Book 16: 855 - Hektor kills Patroklos in battle
  7. Book 22: 360-460 - Achilleus kills Hektor and desecrates his body by dragging it around.

I have drawn a relationship diagram that helps explain the timeline relative to the people and their connections. The narrative points listed above are labeled on the diagram so that you can see how the relationships acted in time sequence.

For most people point seven (7) of the timeline listed above is the apex of the story of the Iliad. But a friend of mine, Bill Palacio, rightly pointed out that the tension of the storyline is eventually unwound and, though sorrowful in ways, resolved.

  • Book 24: 485 - Like a parallel to the beginning of the book, we find that the book is ending with Priam, the king of Troy, begging for and ransoming his dead son from the very man who killed him. Here, after mentioning Achilleus' father, both Priam and Achilleus weep, one for his son, the other for his father and eventually, gone past his anger, Achilleus accedes.
  • Book 24: 599 - Achilleus relents and gives back Hektor's body to his father, Priam, allowing for honor to be restored to his family and his name.
  • Book 24: 675 - Briseis has been returned by Agamemnon and is sleeping at Achilleus' side.

The Iliad is not only an epic tale, it is an exploration of the culture in which the epic is written: the ancient honor/shame based society. The understanding of the author about human nature is uncanny, even if the setting is archaic. Be careful in reading this book, as it is overwhelmingly detailed. You will encounter dozens and dozens of names, relationships and even genealogies. I found my first reading of it to be confusing, frustrating and actually stressful. Lots of war, myriads of characters and a very slow moving plot. Some small items like pseudonyms of characters didn't even occur to me (Paris, for example, is also called Alexandros). I re-read the Iliad not to just 'look deeper' into the story but to actually try to follow it. The second time reading it, I made sure to properly preview the entire preface /introduction by the translator. Then reading Homer's Iliad the second time, it was much easier to not get bogged down with trying to remember and assess characters that would only be mentioned once or twice.

On the advice of my friend, I chose to read through a version of the Iliad translated by Richmond Lattimore. There are other available, though I have no experience with them. The text of Lattimore's translation seemed readable, is modern, and yet has a dense and compact style. I found it took about a day to get used to reading the style of the writing, but after that, I found it enjoyable.  I read the Iliad via the Kindle version found on Amazon.


Amazon Link:


Review by Kim Gentes



a) Many of the names of characters, people and places have slight derivations due to translation bias for various versions.  This is a quick list of the words which are spelled slightly different that might make the reading more familiar to you: (Achilleus/Achilles, Aias/Ajax, Hektor/Hector, Kronos/Cronus, Menelaus/Menelaos, Patroklos/Patroclus).

b) Homer (2011-09-19). The Iliad of Homer (p. 75). University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition.