A time long ago when the great heroes of the Homeric epics lived, the world was full of danger and mystery with the ancient Greeks often living at the mercy of their gods. The idea of cosmology in the Homeric world was based solely on Greek religion, which included a pantheon of gods who took on the same corrupted traits and faults as the humans who worshipped them; everything that people knew about the world they lived in was based on theology. That is, until people like Thales of Miletus began to think and inquire for justification. It was around the time of Thales that Western philosophy was born (Curd 1). Philosophy, unlike theology, is an attempt to find naturalistic explanations based on observations, facts, and reason rather than seeing natural phenomena as result of the gods or other supernatural forces. Thales of Miletus, for example, claimed that everything is made from water (Curd 2). His attempt at finding the origin of the cosmos was philosophical—he made a sound argument based on reasoning from a proto-scientific observation. Knowing that all living things need water to survive or exert moisture, Thales’s claim was reasonable in the way he tried to identify the first principle of cosmology. Additionally, there was Anaximander, a follower of Thales, who believed that the cosmos was indefinite and boundless (Curd 16). He also believed in a proto-evolutionary theory, where humankind were born as adults from fish and able to evolve and survive the environment. Lastly, there is Anaximenes, a follower and student of Anaximander, who claimed that the basic element of everything comes from air—he rejected his mentor’s views on boundlessness as being the first principle, believing there had to be a level of finiteness in order for the cosmos to be. According to Anaximenes, air gives humans life; air is what makes everything in the universe animated (Curd, 20). Though these early philosophers were not completely correct, their philosophical arguments were much closer to the truth than the answers a theological worldview could ever provide. Unlike the Homeric period, these early philosophers sought to find a naturalistic explanation for the creation and maintenance of the cosmos.
The most celebrated Homeric epic, The Iliad, is the tale of the Trojan War recited and recorded mostly from the perspective of Hesiod’s Theogony. But after watching Hollywood’s version of the epic story in the film Troy (2004), we now see a more realistic story that can be interpreted through a philosophical lens. Although Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy is a modern interpretation of Homer’s epic The Iliad, it can be read as a metaphor of the transition from theological centered thinking to philosophical reasoning—the destruction of Apollo’s temple, the death of Hector, and the fall of Troy are key representations of the philosophical transition.
In Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy, the destruction of Apollo’s temple at Troy is an iconic moment in the movie that represents the shift from theological centered thinking to philosophical rationale. After the warrior Achilles attacks the beaches of Troy, he heads to Apollo, the sun god’s temple. When Achilles right-hand soldier expresses his fear and warns his master not to offend the god, Achilles quickly chops off the golden head of Apollo’s statue (Troy, 2004). The golden statue of Apollo, Troy’s patron god, is a strong representation of the Trojan’s theological beliefs and worldviews. The sun god is not only worshipped as their savior and protector, but his temple is also considered sacred. Achilles, the prime example of strength and individualism in Greek culture, beheading the statue is a symbolic testament to the end of theogony and the start of reason and critical thinking; the beheading of the sun god’s head was a demonstration of the power of truth. The statue, glittering in its golden glory and seemingly unbreakable, is as flimsy and false as the rationale behind its theological foundation. With a single swing of Achilles’ sword the statue’s head was easily chopped off, showing that the only truth in the story is that which is happening through actions. In the film, Achilles’ skills as a warrior and military tactics are superior to the rationale behind the religious belief of the sun god’s divine protection over the Trojans. As a warrior, Achilles is depicted as being a man of action—he has no fear of the gods that never seem to appear or punish him for any of his offenses. In the film, the character Achilles represents the more modern man who is grounded in the reality of what happens in his life, and solves challenges with the wisdom and knowledge he has gained from his past experiences in fighting.
Another prime example of theological references in the movie Troy (2004) that leads to the fall of city is when the Trojan King decides to launch a surprise night attack on the Greeks—instead of listening to Prince Hector’s tactical advice to wait, he chooses to heed the directions of the head priest. In the film, the head priest of Apollo convinces the Trojan King that the eagle flying over the city was an omen from the sun god that victory would be theirs if they attacked the Greeks that night and forced them to leave. Prince Hector, completely unconvinced at the priest’s rationale for wanting to launch the siege, fails to get his father to see the logical truth; an attack on the disheartened Greeks would only unite them and give them reason to fight again instead of leave (Troy 2004). As a result, Hector is slain by Achilles for accidentally killing his cousin during the siege—the King’s choice to follow the superstitions of theology rather than logic shows that such mistakes can often result in dire consequences. The death of Hector was not the only consequence of an illogical choice, but it started the sequence of events that ultimately led to Troy’s downfall. The King’s failure to shift from a theological perspective of the world to a logical one led to the demise of his son and also himself.
The very last element that led to the fall of Troy was, of course, the acceptance of the Trojan horse. In the film the Trojan King, accompanied by his son, Paris, the general, and priest, goes to the beach to find no sign of the Greek army; only the giant wooden horse. Thinking that the horse on the beach was left as an offering to the god Poseidon, the King, against Paris’ more reasonable decision to burn it, decides to bring the sculpture to the city before the Trojan temple (Troy, 2004). This fatal mistake is what destroyed the city of Troy. The King had once again let his religious beliefs cloud any better judgment, making him naïve and susceptible to life-threatening situations. The King is the prime example of the people who relied too much on theology before the turn to philosophical inquiry. The Trojan horse, an object of warfare, was forged from cleverness and wisdom from King Odysseus’s battle tactics. This scene in the film is another metaphor for the onset of philosophical and critical thinking rather than the limits of theological perspectives. The Trojan horse was the tool, or weapon, that was used to outsmart all the people of Troy much in the same way that philosophy overpowers the rationale of theology.
Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy is a modern-day interpretation of the beloved Homeric epic The Iliad that can be interpreted as a metaphor of the transition from theological centered rationale to philosophical reasoning. The destruction of Apollo’s temple by the hands of Achilles signified the empowerment of human intelligence and agency to question religious beliefs. The golden statue of Apollo, a symbol of people’s acceptance of theogony was easily destroyed once Achilles’ blade sliced through the monument. The unjust death of Prince Hector was also a consequence of irrational choices based on naïve beliefs rather than facts. From a theological standpoint, just about any kind of event or natural or coincidental occurrence could be read as a kind of omen by a religious figure who has no regard for the reality of what is actually happening. The lack of reason on the part of the priest’s vision and the King’s loyalties in relation to the war dilemma cost not only the life of Troy’s greatest leader, but led to Troy’s overall downfall. By accepting the Trojan horse into the city, the King and citizens of Troy suffered the ultimate consequences for their lack of reasonable judgment—instead of burning the horse structure, they brought it into the city with the assumption that it was a religious offering to the sea god from the Greeks. Much like Apollo’s golden statue, the Trojan horse was another symbol of logic, and also cleverness, that the Trojans could not overcome with religious piety. The knowledge and wisdom that comes from the philosophical systems of inquiry is not only useful in times of war as we see in stories like Troy, but a philosophical worldview is what allows us to understand the world and people we have to live with. There is no better power to have than that of knowledge and wisdom.
Troy. Dir. Wolfgang Petersen. Perf. Brad Pitt, Eric Bana and Orlando Bloom. Warner Home Video, 2004. DVD.
Curd, Patricia, ed. A Presocratics Reader: Selected Fragments and Testimonia. Trans. Richard D. McKirahan. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub., 2011. Print.
Written for Dr. Lisa Rosenlee’s PHIL 211: Ancient Greek and Roman Philosophy