Rev Dr Simon Perry
Throughout this series, I have found it difficult not to use the language of a cosmic hierarchy – where there are things and people who exist to serve us, and there are things and people we serve, and above them, are greater cosmic forces to which we are all subject. Every belief system, from neolithic cave paintings to neoliberal capitalism, brings with it a cosmic hierarchy. The point with this series, is not so much to condemn hierarchies, as to highlight their existence. The Olympians have a clear cosmic hierarchy which helps to highlight those of our own day, as well as the distinctive nature of that found in Christian Scripture.
On Remembrance Day the obvious god to consider is Ares. Ares is a difficult god, because he is both an Olympian – and yet he is despised and hated by the other Olympians, especially his father, Zeus. I suspect, because he is not simply the god of war. Athena, is the god of state-sanctioned war – the god of legitimate violence, the god of civilised, chivalrous, honourable warcraft. Ares is the god of insatiable, indiscrimate, vengeful war: unpredictable and unmanagable, a threat to the proper order of war.
The Roman version of Ares, is the god Mars – but it is not a good match. Mars, like Athena, is strategic, tactical, measured warfare. Ares is emotion-driven, and does not follow the rules of war – and that is why he is hated by his father.
The sacrifices of war recognise the cosmic hierarchy of Olympus: foot soldiers are worthless pawns, noblemen count as warriors, and only royalty have a shot at being heroes. If you’re a worthless pawn, you die in battle – there is no interest in capturing you. But, the nobility whom the Olympian Pantheon upholds, can be ransomed for treasure. At least if it’s civilised war –
But the violence of Ares is egalitarian. It is blind rage, driven by emotion – by grief, by vengeance, by desperation, by the feeling of cosmic justice. In the Iliad, Ares is the fury that drives Achilles to annihilate Hector after the death of Patroklus, and there is no ransom for Hector [at least not, so long as Achilles remains angry].
My only experience of this was in boxing – where, in the final bout of a knock-out competition my during training at Hereford, which up to that point had loosely compliant with the Queensbury Rules. My opponent came out for round 2, to touch gloves – and as I returned the gesture to touch his gloves, he punched me in the face! That felt very unfair, especially since he was my friend, the Marquis of Queensbury turned in his grave, and I recall being pretty angry – but I genuinely have no recollection of what happened next. All I know, is that a few seconds later, Private Mclaimont was stood outside the ring refusing to re-enter. Something terrible had happened that felt unfair and wrong – and Ares is the god of blind rage that takes over.
I am in no way suggesting that Ares is virtuous – that the blind rage of violence is justifiable. Instead, I can’t help seeing it as a coping mechanism. Ares himself, of course, is not driven by any sense of fairness. In the Trojan War he’s caught fighting on both sides – sometimes as himself, sometimes in the blind rage of Hector’s onslaught.
When the Spirit of Ares takes over in a battle – it is not good for the nobles, for the kings, for the descendents of the gods who can go usually into war in the knowledge that they can be ransomed, and not necessarily face death. Athena, Mars, these are the gods who will follow this convention – but Ares, quite literally, takes no prisoners.
Perhaps a better example is Shakespeare’s Henry V – where the night before the great battle of Agincourt, the king has disguised himself as a peasant and wanders around the English Camp where the mood is grim. And the incognito King assures some of the troops, “the king himself has vowed not to be ransomed.”
But one soldier replies, “He said so, but after our throats are cut, he may be ransomed and we none the wiser.” So, at the beginning of the battle where the English are outnumbered 5-1, Henry delivers the most celebrated motivational talk in English literature.
And immediately Montjoy, the French herald, comes to beg King Henry to be rasnomed, “before thy most assured overthrow.” And Kenneth Brannagh, in front of his entire army, burns his bridges – “come thou no more for ransome, gentle herlad, they shall have none I swear but these my joints, which if they have as I shall leave ‘em them, shall yield them little.” That speech is a sacrifice to Ares – no class distinctions, no social hierarchy, the king has destroyed it all, “He today, that sheds his blood with me, shall be my brother, be he ne’er so vile this day shall gentle his condition…”
And sure enough, for Shakespeare, the horror of the battle is that knights and nobles lie dead in the mud alongside the unnamed common footsoldier. This is warfare according to Ares – desperate, indiscriminate, blind rage. He is hated by the other Olympians because he does not respect the cosmic hierarchy.
So there is a difference between the warfare of Ares and that of Athena, between furious, indiscriminate, egalitarian violence, and the more civilised, state-sanctioned, justifiable violence. Some ethicists and pyschoanalysts have made similar distinctions between types of violence: between the type that everyone can piously condemn, and the type that is acceptable to us. Between the violence that can be measured with statistics, casualites and criminal records – and the violence that is systemic, that is built into our systems of economics and politics and social relations, and is largely invisible. Between what Slavoj Zizek describes as Objective violence, and subjective violence.
It is best illustrated, according to Simon Critchley, by the story of two men, having had a couple of drinks, who go to the theatre and quickly get bored with the play. One of them feels the need to relieve himself, so he tells his friend to mind his seat while he goes to find a toilet. The man wanders down the corridor, but finds no toilet. Wandering ever further into the recesses of the theatre, he walks through a door and sees a plant pot. After relieving himself into it, he returns to his seat and his friend says to him, ‘Ah that’s a shame! You missed the best part: Someone just came on the stage and relieved himself into that plant pot’.
This is Zizek’s view of violence: “Watching the tedious play on the world stage, we might follow the call of nature somewhere discreet, but we lose sight of the play and the unwitting role we have within it. We are oblivious to the fact that we are urinating on stage for the whole world to see. And that’s how violence works: Our subjective outrage at the facts of violence – a suicide bombing, a terrorist attack, the assassination of a seemingly innocent political figure – blinds us to the objective violence of the world, a violence where we are perpetrators and not just innocent bystanders. All we see are apparently inexplicable acts of violence that disturb the supposed peace and normal flow of everyday life. We consistently overlook the objective or what Zizek calls ‘systemic’ violence that is endemic to our socio-economic order.” [Critchley]
I suppose it highlights alternative ways of engaging Remembrance Day. On the one hand, we can try to contain the violent aspects of our world in a frame, up there on stage, safely separate from who I really am. Tell ourselves that we must learn the lessons of the past, that violence is terrible, and piously affirm our pacifist sympathies. Or perhaps, we could recognise that violence is all there is, that human nature is to be violent, and that every generation we are confronted with its horrors, and the challenge to face up to tackling it. We can either distance ourselves from violence, or take responsibility for it. We can join the Olympians and condemn Ares, or we can challenge Olympus itself.
This is largely the point of confession in Christian tradition. It was not, orginally a pious way of wiping the moral slate clean before an Obsessive Compulsive Divinity. Nor is it the liturgical gateway of clearing our conscious so we can get on and enjoy the service. The is a courageous speaking out, recognising and affirming our place in the world, including our own little part on the world stage of violence. Violence is not simply the thing up there on stage for us to observe piously – confession is where we accept our role in the drama: if we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves. Christian confession is an invitation to inhabit the world with our eyes wide open, without succumbing to guilt ourselves, or throwing guilt at those above us in the hierarchy. Confession takes in place in Christian worship, alongside the meal we now share.
In this meal, the cosmic hierarchy is subverted, as we heard in our reading where Jesus declares himself not the leader – but the servant. The son of man comes not to be served but to serve, the greatest among you all must become the least, the first will be last and the last will be first, everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but whoever humbles himself will be exalted. That is the community that gathers around this meal. To participate in this meal, is to find our true place on stage in the cosmic drama, and to inhabit a kingdom that will always challenge Olympus.