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Men and Fate

Halfway through Book 9 of the Iliad, Achilles gets a choice that not many (perhaps none) have ever become privy to. Achilles is set up in his camp, still refusing to fight, when Phoenix, Odysseus, and Ajax come to try and persuade him to help his friends and family by joining the battle.

Ultimately their plans are unsuccessful. Perhaps Achilles’ rage is so great that nothing will lead him back into the fray, or perhaps a stunning prophecy from his mother has something to do with it. Achilles’ mother, the goddess Thetis, had apparently earlier told him exactly how he will die. More specifically, she told him exactly how he will die depending on which path he chooses. Recounts Achilles:

… Two fates bear me on to the day of death.

If I hold out here and lay siege to Troy,

my journey home is gone, but my glory never dies.

If I voyage back to the fatherland I love,

my pride, my glory dies…

true, but the life that’s left me will be long,

the stroke of death will not come on me quickly.

Here is a rather large monkey wrench that has now become thrown into the works. Achilles has the dubious priveledge of choosing between two options:

1. Stay and fight. Win unending glory… And die. Or,

2. Go back home. Live a long life… With no glory.

Either Achilles dies, or his glory dies. He can’t have both his life and his fame. Perhaps it’s better not to know such a thing. I’m not sure Thetis did her son any favors here. Later in the book when Achilles does join the battle, his imminent death must be in the back of his mind, lurking, adding fuel to the fire.

What then is the right path to take? Today, most would opt for the second. In fact, many people would hope and pray to live a long life and die quietly in bed. Honor and glory are a thing of the past. Perhaps even the distant past. So far are we removed from those days that I’m not even sure if Homer is here trying to show us how selfish Achilles is for not accepting eternal glory, or if he is wanting us to wrestle with the issue for ourselves. There is a sense though, that even Achilles (the very man who initially was so concerned about his glory being defiled) realizes the futility of postmortem honor for himself. Where is the benefit from it?

Immortality through deeds and glorious actions is of course a great honor, but that honor is a gift that you can personally never enjoy or even know about. This honor only comes when you can’t know about it. So what’s the point? Why care if your name lives on, if you never know that it will? How does our talking about Achilles today bring glory to him then? His name might still be honored, but his name is not a personal being, it’s an abstraction.

Either way, Thetis was correct. Achilles forfeited his life and his glory lives on – with no sign of it dying all these years later. The Iliad marked one of the first written stories humankind ever produced. And all the time, from then until now, humans have been talking about it. Similarly writing of the surpassing greatness of this book, one of my favorite authors, G.K. Chesterton, wrote that “If the world becomes pagan and perishes, the last man left alive would do well to quote the Iliad and die.”

It would indeed be a fitting set of bookends to human civilization.

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