Saturday, 28 April 2012

Freethinkers and Skeptics In Ancient Literature Part I: Thersites the Contrarian

Mean, ever-contrarian, ugly and critical.  Like an ancient
Thomas Paine, Thersites dared to question and mock the
authority of kings.
You can read all of the articles in this series by clicking here: Freethinkers and Skeptics In Ancient Literature

I'm not sure if I've mentioned this before, but in addition to my Computer Science BSc, I have a bachelor's degree in Classics - Ancient Languages and Literature to be precise.  On a practical level this means I could be that barista at Starbucks who wearily doles out your caffeinated beverage every morning.  On a more theoretical level it means I may have exposed to some of the seminal works in Western Literature.  I would like to make believe it's the latte(r) for the duration of this post.  Please, indulge me this once.

As an outlet for the repressed literature student in me, I'm starting up this new series that focuses on characters in ancient Western literature who show some sign of skepticism or freethinking. By extension I'll also show the quacks, charlatans or authorities they dare to annoy with their tiresome voices of dissent, critiques and prodding for explanations, proofs, or defenses.  Or I highlight their intolerable standing-up-business for the common man.
All too often it's the crazies that get honoured - like Abraham or Moses.  Now is my chance to feature a scant yet nonetheless existing crew of characters who are portrayed to question blind faith in authority and to think for themselves.  Along the way I'll also chronicle any punishments they get for their impertinent hubris.

The very beautiful first few lines of the Iliad
Our first skeptical character is Thersites from Homer's Iliad.

It's even less clear where the Iliad actually comes from than the Bible.  The original Greek is more complex (and vastly more beautiful) than the Biblical Koine (common/standardized) Greek of 1000 years later.  Click here to see the Greek alongside different English translations and commentary - if that's your thing.

What we do know about the 15,000 line poem is it appears to have been an oral tradition dating back to around about 1200 BCE.  Theory is, someone actually wrote the thing down around 800 BCE.  So it's more or less contemporary with the old Jewish testament - more or less - depending on who you ask.

Of course, none of this is real - it's all Mythology.   I may as well be analysing Deep Space Nine or Battlestar Galactica, but millions have seen Homer's episodes over thousands of years.  Like the Bible, it's helped shape the Western Mind, if there's such a thing.

Paris of Troy about to get it on with the king's
wife Helen. Yes, Paris is a boy's name...
goddamnit, Paris Hilton.
(Jacques-Louis David 1788)
Here's the story.  In Iliad Book II, King Odysseus is running around King Achilles' army camp trying to rally his soldiers to war against the Trojans to retrieve Helen, wife of King Menelaus, who was snatched up by Paris of Troy.  He was doing this on behalf of King Agamemnon who happened to be Menelaus' brother.  

It's been said that Helen was none-too-impressed with Melenaus because he actually sent Agamemnon to suit her per procura.    I guess he's a busy guy.  Perhaps she was a little let down when she had to marry him instead because she took off with Paris, a fetching young (boy!) Trojan diplomat, stationed in her kingdom.  Paris began an affair with her and convinced her to leave her old fuddy duddy husband and take off back home with him.  Thus started the Trojan War.  You see what happens when we only listen to our gonads?

I'll tell the story using extracts.  I'm going to skip the stiff Victorian translations and use a nice one by fellow Canadian Ian Johnston, retired instructor become research associate at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia.  The text will come from Book II of his translation.
Men sat calmly in their places.       
But a single man kept on yelling out abuse— scurrilous Thersites, expert in various insults, vulgar terms for inappropriate attacks on kings, whatever he thought would make the Argives laugh. Of all the men who came to Troy, he was the ugliest — bow legged, one crippled foot, rounded shoulders curving in toward his chest.  On top, his pointed head sprouted thin, scraggly tufts of hair. Achilles hated him, as did Odysseus, too, both subject to his taunts.  But now Agamemnon was the target of his gibes.  The Achaeans, despising Thersites in their hearts, were furious at him.
Why is he portrayed as so ugly?  Well back then, like now, the beautiful people tended to be those who had access to good nutrition and the best medical care of the day; the rich ones.  And at this time the only way to be rich was to be born into the monarchy.  And it's pretty certain that if you were a king your lineage went back to the gods.  In a sense, with divine blood coursing through your veins,  you were considered to be about as close to a god as a human could be.  Thersites was a common man - a member of the lower not-divinely-inspired class.  Besides, people who challenge authority are ugly.
But he kept shouting out, aiming noisy insults right at Agamemnon: 
“Son of Atreus, what’s your problem now?  What do you lack? Your huts are stuffed with bronze, plenty of choice women, too—all presents we Achaeans give you as our leader, whenever we ransack some city.  Or are you in need of still more gold, a ransom fetched by some horse-taming Trojan for his son tied up and delivered here by me or by some other Achaean?  Or do you want a young girl to stash away, so you’re the only one who gets to screw her?   
It’s just not fair that you, our leader, have botched things up so badly for us, Achaea’s sons. But you men, you soldiers, cowardly comrades, disgraceful people, you’re Achaean women, not warriors. Let’s sail home in our ships, leave this man, our king, in Troy here to enjoy his loot. That way he might come to recognize whether or not we’re of some use to him. Now Agamemnon has even shamed Achilles, a much finer warrior than himself, stealing a prize, keeping it for his own use. Then there’s Achilles, no heart’s anger there, who lets it all just happen. If he didn’t, this bullying of yours, son of Atreus, would be your last.”
Here's he's not only asking why the war is taking place.  He's also challenging Agamemnon to defend himself with words - to give an explanation for why he's putting the sons of Achaea into peril.  He then freely suggests an alternate course of action. I concede this is not how armies work even today - I suppose he could have been a conscientious objector.  
Thersites yelled out these insults right at Agamemnon, the people’s shepherd, abusing him.
Interesting title, People's Shepherd.  He tells his flock what to do.  Sounds a little familiar to me.
Noble Odysseus stood up quickly, confronting Thersites. Scowling, he lashed out sternly:

“Shut up, chatterbox. You’re a champion talker. But don’t try to have it out with kings, all by yourself. Let me tell you something — of all those who came to Troy with Atreus’ sons, you’re the most disgraceful. So shut your mouth. No more words from you abusing our kings, seeking to sneak back home. How this war will end, we’ve no idea — whether Achaea’s sons will go back home successful or will fail. You sit here, railing at Agamemnon, Atreus’ son, leader of his people, because Danaan heroes have given him so many gifts—but that’s a cheap insult. So I’ll tell you how things are going to be.

If I find you being so foolish any more, then let Odysseus’ head no longer stay upon his shoulders, let him no longer be called the father of Telemachus, if I don’t grab you, rip off all your clothes, cloak and tunic, down to your cock and balls, and beat you back to the fast ships in tears, whipping you in shame from our assembly.”

Saying this, Odysseus lashed out with the sceptre, hitting Thersites hard across his back and shoulders. He doubled up in pain, shedding many tears. In the middle of Thersites’ back sprang up bloody welts beneath the golden sceptre. He sat down, afraid and hurt, peering around, like an idiot, and rubbing away his tears.
Thersites' was not afraid to be a contrarian and
question the sacred cows of his day - politicians
and gods.  He's a prototypic template filled by
Thomas Paine, the founding fathers and perhaps
Hitchens. (Photo: Christopher Hitchens)
Well there you have it. Insubordination deftly knocked down with the royal sceptre itself.

Thersites had big cojones for standing up and questioning authority by demanding a proper justification for putting the common Greek youth on the front line other than a domestic dispute.   He had cohones extra grandes for challenging Religion at this time as well.  Until his cohones were put into explicit peril by King Odysseus.

Remember, although Doubting Thomas only challenged one son of a god who was not head of state. Thersites was questioning three sons of gods who were also all earthly kings.   I don't want to turn this into a pissing contest, but that's pretty gutsy.

He was a champion talker - a master of rhetoric.  He was a personified archetype of the Revolutionary, a signal for later Enlightenment heroes, a kind of prototype of the French revolutionaries.   And I think Thomas Paine,  rhetorician of the pen,  himself would have been proud.  He reminds me a little of the late Christopher Hitchens, a masterful rhetorician by way of pen and mouth.   And I say this as a compliment to this 21st-century contrarian.

Next Article In This Series: Freethinkers and Skeptics In Ancient Literature Part II: Lucian the Skeptic

You can read all of the articles in this series by clicking here: Freethinkers and Skeptics In Ancient Literature


  1. Great idea for a series! Love it!

  2. Thanks Adriana! It's a fair bit of work but I think it's useful.

  3. Fun and interesting read.

    1. Thanks Neal! I'm encouraged by the response so I'll do another soon!


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