There are very few references to iron (σιδηρος) in Homer: this is the Bronze Age after all, or rather a tale of the Bronze Age. When reference is made to iron these note firstly the difficulties in working it and then the value of this new metal. The value is shown in, for example, Achilles choosing lumps of iron as prizes in the funeral games he held for Patroklus (Iliad Chapter 23, esp. 826-35).
Homer was writing at the start of the Iron Age, according to generally accepted archaeological schemes. Would Homer know this? Perhaps. Hesiod, a writer roughly contemporary to Homer, wrote in Work and Days a history of the world up to that time: it was divided into five ‘ages’ – Gold, Silver, Bronze, Heroic (the time of the battle of Troy), and finally Iron, his own time. Our current archaeological three-age system – Stone Age, Bronze Age, Iron Age – ends in the same place, and suggests that we haven’t yet left the iron age.
Maybe we are still Iron Age people? Max Weber, after all, characterised our time with reference to iron. I was reviewing a journal article a few days ago: it made repeated references to Max Weber’s ‘iron cage of modernity’ and I felt I had to point out in my review the error of this formulation (the paper was, by the way, about aspects of Weber’s work). Weber never used the phrase ‘iron cage of modernity’. I think that the article’s author was ‘paraphrasing’ from The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Weber 1904) where Talcott Parsons, who translated the text into English in 1930, puts the words ‘iron cage’ into Weber’s mouth (rather than using the direct translation of stahlhartes Gehäuse (‘steel-hard casing’):
“In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the ‘saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment’. But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.” (Weber 1958: 181)
Parsons had, arguably, good reasons for doing this as it is a reference to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and actually Weber does use the phrase ‘iron cage’ somewhere else in his work. But not in The Protestant Ethic!
Hannah Arendt also used an iron metaphor in The Human Condition (1959), one that, I think, is deliberately referencing Weber. This is in her conclusion to the book:
“It is quite conceivable that the modern age – which began with such an unprecedented and promising outburst of human activity – may end in the deadliest, most sterile passivity history has ever known. But there are other more serious danger signs that man may be willing and, indeed, is on the point of developing into that animal species from which, since Darwin, he imagines he has come. … [it] becomes manifest that all his activities, watched from a sufficiently removed vantage pint in the universe, would appear not as activities of any kind but as processes, so that, as a scientist recently put it, modern motorization would appear like a process of biological mutation in which human bodies gradually begin to be covered by shells of steel. For the watcher from the universe, this mutation would be no more or less mysterious than the mutation which now goes on before our eyes in those small living organisms which we fought with antibiotics and which mysteriously developed new strains to resist us.” (295)
Prescient stuff from Arendt: consumerism, passivity and antiobiotic resistance – all things that we need to act against.
Are we still in the Iron Age? Hannah Landecker, who quotes Arendt in her excellent paper ‘Antibiotic Resistance and the Biology of History’ (2016), proposes that the widespread use of antibiotics from the mid-20th century onwards has so fundamentally altered human-nature relations and the environment around us that it can be considered to be the start of what we now call the Anthropocene.
Arendt, H. (1959) The Human Condition, New York: Doubleday.
Hesiod and Most, G.W. (2006) Hesiod, Cambridge, Mass. ; London: Harvard University Press.
Homer, Murray, A.T. and Wyatt, W.F. (1999) Iliad, Cambridge, Mass. ; London: Harvard University Press.
Landecker, H. (2016) ‘Antibiotic Resistance and the Biology of History’, Body & Society, 22, 4, 19-52.
Weber, M. (1958) The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.