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The Pride of Achilles

I don’t think that Achilles went overboard when he first left the fighting. Agamemnon took his prize and left him with nothing. Achilles was rightly upset by this. Agamemnon was free to take whatever he wanted whenever he wanted it. To fight for such a man is less than meaningless.

Leaving the battle is fine. It’s what Achilles does next that puts him over the line.

Achilles asks his mother, the goddess Thetis, to go to Olympus and persuade Zeus to cause the Achaeans (his allies) to start losing the war. The reason he wants his own side to lose is because he wants Agamemnon to realize how much he needs him – Achilles wants to hear Agamemnon beg him to come back.

Now this is ridiculous. This same tactic is something I used to think about doing as a ten year old whenever I was upset about not getting my way. I fantasized that maybe if I ran away or something, then everybody would start missing me and finally realize how wonderful I was.

The only difference between a ten year old and Achilles (at this point in the story) is that Achilles is actively pursuing the death and destruction of actual people. These actions on his part betray his true motivation for refusing to fight. And it’s not because of Agamemnon’s theft.

Consider the reasoning behind his actions and see if it makes sense:

Agamemnon steals my stuff… so…

I’m not fighting anymore.

That makes sense. But that’s not what happens. Instead:

Agamemnon steals my stuff… so…

I’m sending a message to Zeus to have his army slaughtered so they’ll miss me.

This makes no sense. Had this dispute been merely about his stolen prize, he would have just sat it out and that would have been it. He probably would have left the battlefield entirely and sailed back home – But he didn’t do that. He stayed. This isn’t a dispute about Agamemnon stealing his plunder (at least not entirely), the true motivation for refusing to fight is his pride.

Considering what Achilles becomes later in the poem, it is clear what Homer is telling us: It’s the pride of Achilles that sets him down the horrific path he’s about to take. Even at this point, he’s already gone way to far. All because of his hurt pride, Achilles has eschewed all sense of compassion and is conspiring towards the death of numerous comrades – as many deaths as it takes to make Agamemnon come begging to take him back.

This idea of ‘pride’ being the root cause of all grief is merely a quiet undertone in the book, but it’s something that is made quite explicit in later Christian theology. Since Jesus, Christianity has taught that the one great sin is the sin of elevating yourself above __________ (fill-in-the-blank). Pride in Christian terms is ultimately the elevation of self over God. It’s a state of being where the creature has placed himself over the creator.

Pride is the first, last, and only sin. It destroys nations, tears apart families, ruins relationships, and – as Homer will show us as The Iliad progresses – pride makes us monsters. It turns us into the very opposite of what we are meant to be.

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