Sing, Muse, Achilles’ rage
that cost the Greeks
… so begins Homer’s Iliad, the story of a man whose merit is punished by an unmeritorious, elitist king … so began our Classive Civilization … and so began our American Civilization, a civilization based on merit, on individual accomplishment, on ambition to excellence. Some 200 years after Homer composed Iliad (VIII B.C.), meritorious Athenians overcame the tyrants and established democracy, “people power” (VI B.C.). Homer wrote it, we became it. Alike Achilles, alike Athenians, meritorious Americans, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, Washington, Madison, et alia, overcame the tyrant king George in a war of independence, liberated we Americans, and founded a republic.
The unanimous “Declaration of the thirteen united States of America” (our Declaration of Independence), ratified, July 4, 1776, acknowledges in Homeric fashion an individual’s equality with a king, the “separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle” us, we Americans who by practice of excellence achieve equality with kings.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” What did Jefferson intend by “Happiness”, a gayness, fun and frolic; no, Jefferson, a Classics scholar*, a reader of Greek language when yet a child, intended by “happiness”, eudemonia, that “human flourishing” which attends the achievement of excellence.
In the Declaration, Jefferson goes on to enunciate the truism that governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed”. Jefferson did not consent to being ruled, Achilles did not consent, and this the cause of the Greeks’ incalculable pain, the cause of Americans throwing off the frivolous whims, the hard burdens and petty tyrannies of a meddling government, the coercive inconveniences and compulsory submission to rulers.
Jefferson expanded in complaint of King George whose “train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce [us] under absolute Despotism”, as did Achilles complain to his king, Agamemnon, “And now you threaten to strip me of my prize, the one I fought for long and hard, and yet my honors never equal yours, my arms bear the brunt of the raw, savage fighting, yet when it comes to dividing up the wealth, the lion’s share is yours, even though I fight to exhaustion. No more! I have no mind to linger here disgraced, brimming your cup…” et cetera.
Homer wrote it, we became it, a people by virtue equal to kings.
The July 4 declaration concludes, “for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” Honor, the excellence of “moral virtue”, a full realization of each person’s gifts and potentialities, potentialities of personal merit allowed by liberty, potentialities denied by government’s tyrannical obstructions. Honor, arete, Homer’s word for the “strength” and the “courage” that result in honor, in merit of individual accomplishment.
All good things are achieved by arete, the accomplishment of “true excellence”, even small accomplishments like trimming a board to precision, like striking a nail true. The act of building a house is an act of virtue, any vice in construction will cause weakness, perhaps terminally, as in an individual life, as in a nation, as in a civilization. Seems to me: Best to build in virtue, best to be true to tradition, the foundation upon which we build family and home.
In this month of independence, traditional pride in American excellence, beautiful homes and courageous words: from Maurice Barboza, President of Liberty Fund, DC., a consideration of soundscapes; from Milton Grenfell, thoughts on front doors; and architect Erick Bootsma will share observations of American excellence in domestic architecture.
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* Alike Thomas Jefferson, Boris Johnson, current British Prime Minister, learned Greek when yet a boy and is yet able to recite from memory the first 100 lines of Iliad.
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Featured image: America Excellence, credit Michelle Bryant.
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