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The Amorality of Achilles

February 7, 2011 Leave a comment

By the end of The Iliad, Homer shows us the dark depths of depravity that humans can achieve. His hero Achilles has become as evil as he can possibly be. By the time we get to Book 22, Achilles has slaughtered countless men (including Lycaon, who helplessly pleaded at his feet for his life to be spared), fought against a river, and desecrated Hector’s body by dragging it through the dirt in front of his family and refusing to let him be buried. Any sense of compassion or pity for his fellow man has long since been eschewed.

Homer gives us, in gripping detail, the classic struggle of mankind: Himself. We as a species are capable of the utmost horror simply by detaching ourselves from our humanity. When we become nothing more than intelligent beasts, nothing more than calculating copulators, nothing more than what the most strident materialist claims us to be… we are no longer humans, we are nightmares.

Anyone who lived through the brutal inhumanity of the 20th century should have no need for this to be explained. And yet it is a sad and telling truth that now more than ever do we need to heed Homer’s message.

When we separate ourselves from our souls by ignoring that we are persons, there is nothing that we are not capable of. The history of man is rife with example after example of this. There is nothing that can stop or even persuade a man (or men) that no longer have any moral tether to their own actions. Dostoevsky similarly put it this way: “Without God, all things are permitted”. Homer would have agreed.

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Why Men Do Stupid Things

January 11, 2011 Leave a comment

In the Back to the Future movies, Marty McFly can be made to do anything anybody wants him to do simply by calling him ‘chicken’. This same principle is also at work in The Iliad, and gives rise to the major turning point of the the entire work.

In Book 17, Glaucus basically calls Hector a big chicken for letting Patroclus kill Sarpedon and running away from Ajax before he could take his body for proper burial. In true Marty McFly fashion, Hector responds by ‘proving’ his bravery to Glaucus: He strips Achilles’ armor from the dead body of Patroclus and puts it on himself.

This is a stupid idea. When Achilles hears about this outrage and desecration, he finally decides to fight. Specifically, he wants Hector dead.

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No Honor for the Gods

January 6, 2011 Leave a comment

Homer has a much lower view of the gods than his contemporary/predecessor Hesiod. Whereas Hesiod often goes out of his way to describe Zeus as an all-powerful, calm and collected lord over creation, Homer seems to go out of his way to describe him as a fickle, honorless, brat.

Throughout The Iliad, people are constantly offering up prayers and sacrifices, only to be roundly ignored by Zeus. There is a sense that these petitions are little more than worthless – he’s just going to do what he wants to do anyway. Even his wife Hera only gets what she wants by having to seduce and trick him.

Early in the story, the two sides of the war swear an oath to Zeus that a temporary truce be established between them. Not long after this, the warrior Pandarus blatantly breaks the oath and kills a man anyway. Agamemnon is incensed at this, but feels reassured by the fact that Zeus will take revenge on Pandarus for breaking the oath sworn in his name.

But in actuality, it was Zeus himself who sent Athena to make Pandaurs break the oath in the first place. Agamemnon smugly thinks that Zeus will take care of Pandarus, while unbeknownst to him, Zeus was the very one to blame for breaking his own oath!

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The Humanity of Hector

January 4, 2011 Leave a comment

Hector is the polar opposite of Achilles. He is not necessarily the ‘hero’ of the story, but he is Homer’s portrait of the true man.

Whereas Achilles has eschewed all ties to family, honor, patriotism, camaraderie, relationships, and self-sacrifice, Hector embodies them all perfectly. Relationships and his fellow man are what Hector is all about. In Book 6, we get a glimpse into his life as he says farewell to his wife and son to go out to battle. Nothing even remotely like this is offered for Achilles.

Hector’s prayer to Zeus at his departure is bittersweet. You can almost tell that even Hector himself knows he won’t be returning (he hints earlier that he thinks Troy will fall). Nevertheless, Hector asks that his wife, Andromache, and his child, Astyanax, be spared. It is a terribly sad moment in the story, as the readers are well aware that by the end of the war, little Astyanax will have been thrown from the walls of Troy and killed, and Achilles’ own son will have raped and taken Andomache for his concubine.

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The Inhumanity of Achilles

January 1, 2011 Leave a comment

Achilles rejects all ties to his fellow human beings in Book 9. It is here that Homer makes it clear he has gone past the point any mortal should go. The trio of Phoenix, Odysseus and Ajax attempt to get him to join the fight, but Achilles refuses all proposals.

There is nothing now that can persuade Achilles. He is his own entity. Achilles no longer cares for anything. He has achieved a certain sense of power simply by shrugging off all human responsibility, compassion, and any sense of duty to his fellow man.

To be sure, there is definitely an unmistakable power that can be obtained by following Achilles’ example. What can a teacher do to a student who no longer cares about school? What can a parent do to a child who doesn’t care about being punished? I use the word ‘inhuman’ to describe this attitude because it separates a person from the rest of the species and their interactions together. It is the ultimate elevation of self over all. Many times this attitude is lauded by poets and philosophers, but most of the time it shouldn’t be.

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Men and Fate

December 28, 2010 Leave a comment

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.

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Gods and Fate

December 22, 2010 Leave a comment

In classic Greek Mythology, the fates are depicted as three goddesses: Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos. And all of these ‘moirae’ are answerable, in one way or another, to Zeus. Homer however, doesn’t paint this picture. He not only never mentions the three goddesses, he doesn’t speak of fate as being personified by a god at all. In fact, whenever fate is mentioned, it plays a role that even Zeus is unable to control.

The first major mention of this strange relationship between gods and fate comes in Book 8. Zeus turns the tide of battle in favor of the Trojans, but before he does, he first consults his scales. He does this by placing the individual fates of Troy and Achaea on each side. It is only after Achaea’s fate falls that Zeus acts to help the Trojans. One wonders what Zeus would have done had Troy’s fate fallen instead.

We get an idea perhaps, later on in Book 16. Halfway through the book, Zeus is watching the war from the heights of Mount Ida and sees one of his (many) sons vainly fighting against Patroclus, who is dressed in Achilles own armor. Zeus knows that his son Sarpedon doesn’t stand a chance against Patroclus and wonders out loud if he should snatch him from the fight and set him down safely somewhere else in order to save him.

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