All posts by Wendy Hamblet

Stamatia Dova, Greek Heroes in and out of Hades (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2012)

Beginning from the seminal story at Odyssey 11.467-540, which chronicles Odysseus’ journey to Hades and his encounters with Achilles and Heracles, the table is set for a richly nuanced, methodologically diverse study of the hero in transition to and from the underworld (katabasis). The study then radiates outward to embrace other stories of other mythical heroes and heroines, to challenge previous understandings of these texts and Ancient Greek ideas about death and heroism. The result is a feat of erudition, whose curious juxtapositioning of hero/heroine and underworld fate/adventure discloses many innovative insights not only about the texts in question, but about timeless human questions regarding the meanings of life and death.


Dova’s study is launched with the recounting of the Odyssey passage that stages the reunion between Odysseus, the temporary visitor to Hades who enters the dark underworld in the full knowledge that he will return home and resume his life adventures, and Achilles, the self-sacrificing warrior-hero of the Iliad who shows up in the Odyssey in the form of an insubstantial shade, regretting his choice of an early death that promised eternal glory in the memories of men. Odysseus’ meeting with Achilles, informed by his encounter with Heracles, permits Dova to bring into deep conversation the two classic Homeric works, weaving their many thematic threads into a common tapestry that, like Achilles’ shield, depicts the vast landscape of human life and its deeply conflicted values: mortality, self-sacrifice, prophecy, death, heroic character, glory, shame, aretaic reciprocity, and ignoble deception. The reader gets to appreciate that all the bravery and glory in the world are useless after life is said and done; that identity involves a plethora of paradoxes; and that poor life choices and unfinished duels are not resolved in death.


One of the highlights of the book is Dova’s complex recasting of the hero Odysseus from his traditional framing as “the champion of mortality and the embodiment of resilience and cunning” (36) to the immature warrior, responsible for the sack of Troy, but riddled with personal flaws: he abandoned his young wife, infant son, and aging parents to go to Troy, he was “not particularly distinguished in warfare,” and he was particularly brave—“not in a hurry to die on the battlefield, at sea, or even in the underworld” (37). Dova sees the Odysseus of the Iliad as “curious and inquisitive, risk-taking and gift-loving, reckless, promiscuous, and proud” (37), and in need of much moral education. She reads his many adventures in the Odyssey as providing a number of “emotional stops” along the way home that afford experiences of love and hate, worry, regret, and joy, which permit Odysseus’ character to grow and mature.


Another innovative triumph of Greek Heroes in and out of Hades comes with Dova’s re-examination of the myth of Alcestis, through the dual lenses of Plato’s Symposium and Euripides’ tragic play. The contrasting recountings of the tale permit a comparison of male and female heroic experience that issues in surprising results. Alcestis chooses self-sacrifice to save her husband, without promise of glory or fame, and though the heroine’s self-sacrifice is thwarted in the end by Heracles, her ready willingness to die for love reveals a finer aspect of the death well-chosen than Achilles’ glorious choice, regretted once in Hades. The fact that Alcestis returns from death, yet receives the praise of the lover Phaedrus in his eulogy on love in the Symposium, reveals another, more selfless, aspect of heroic courage.


Dova’s Greek Heroes in and out of Hades is a rich work that will satisfy many a classical scholar’s palette. It is not for the faint of heart, nor for the beginning scholar, unlearned in the Ancient Greek language. But philosophers and classicists at a distinguished level of preparation are in for a rare treat. 


Michael Reid Trice, Encountering Cruelty: The Fracture of the Human Heart (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2011)

Trice offers a phenomenology of cruelty—that charts how cruelty is lived by human subjects—which exposes cruelty as a “fracture” of the human heart. The fracture can be traced through a series of “contours” that invade and corrupt the soundness of the varying spheres of human existence—the intrapersonal, the interpersonal, and institutional life. Employing as a lodestar to his study Friedrich Nietzsche’s charge that cruelty is concealed in Western ideals and is embedded in the systems of governance that enshrine these ideals, Trice tracks the sublimations of cruelty through the “closed teleological myths” that redefine cruelty as the good. Just as tragedies have a narrative structure—beginning, middle, end—that resolves the paradoxes of the human condition and permits catharsis of the audience’s frustrations, so “for instance, the enshrined sublime Ideal, once more of Justice, can conceal a thirst for revenge” (p. 5). With the death penalty, we cruelly murder our social offenders, but our ideal permits us to redeem this murder as an act of redemption. However, though cruelty is concealed, it remains active but sublimated. Revenge is sought in the name of Justice, Trice explains. Thus our very institutions of justice act to “transvalue” (contradict) our shared communal values; it allows us to act out our instincts for blood and cruelty and channel our thirst for revenge (instincts contrary to the ideal) through institutions that conceal their true nature. Beginning, middle, end. Offense, execution, resolution. We murder to express our disdain for murder.

The brilliance of Encountering Cruelty resides in the painstaking care of Trice’s detailed charting of the effects of cruelty through the inner life of the human person and out into the world of intimate relations and human interpersonal encounter. Trice’s use of geological metaphors to trace the wound lines through the human heart help us to visualize with aching clarity the costs of the concealed cruelties of our systems and our rituals upon individuals, intimate groups, and communities within the human world. He calls upon Bible stories that exemplify cruelty—Job, Abraham and Isaac, Cain and Abel—to demonstrate the god’s exemplary cruelty to men, and he draws from these myths the effects of cruelty that demand reconciliation—struggle, contagion, becoming an enigma to self, excision and ressentiment. His careful analysis of the contours of cruelty in the human heart allows us a broad view across the landscape of cruelty, revealing how the objectification that enables sensitive creatures such as we to engage in cruelty against our neighbors, the neighbors whom our holy books require us to love as ourselves, annihilates interpersonal reciprocity and transvalues interpersonal well-being. A therapeutic plan for reconciling communities and healing individuals in the wake of cruelty, argues Trice, must take into account the many agonizing and destabilizing contours that cruelty has carved out across the human psyche.

Trice’s objective in exposing each of the fault-lines, carved through the landscape of the human heart, is to offer a map to guide theologians in their efforts to help the psychically wounded, victims and perpetrators, move forward from their histories of suffering and harmdoing. Trice sees the theologian as the great reconciler, called to restore people’s well-being after cruelties have destabilized their core and eroded their inner resources. His anatomy of the contours of cruelty serves as a wall-chart of the human psyche, indicating where the hurt is stored up and where the theologian must apply his healing therapies.

Many kudos to Michael Trice! This book is beautifully written, despite its dark topic, and its painstakingly careful analysis of the effects of human suffering is virtually unmatched in the history of the phenomenology of violence. It is a must read for all educated persons who wish to understand why the victims of historical sufferings continue to visit their abjection upon innocent others. Though the book is meant as a guidebook for theologians, working as practitioners of reconciliation, it is equally useful to the secular philosopher, since the timeless truths of myth continue to serve as didactic vehicles for the human drama.