The Wisdom of Achilles

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Homer,
as Joseph Sobran recently pointed out, still has something important
to tell us, offering "a permanently disturbing insight into
the roles of force, slavery, and death in human existence, expressed
in graphic yet poignant images of brutal violence." It’s an
insight that resonates especially in sad times such as these.

In
his column "Bad News From Troy," Sobran stresses what
may be learned from the first of the Homeric poems, the Iliad.
The story of the war undertaken by a coalition of Greek powers led
by King Menelaus against the small kingdom of Ilium, or Troy, may
sound familiar to the contemporary reader.

What
is unique and amazing in Homer's poems, as Sobran reminds us, is
the realistic account of the consequences of the use of force. The
Iliad is not just a story about gallant heroes and their
glorious achievements: yes, the value of arete (virtue, but in a
broader sense) is of course stressed, and acts of heroism are not
lacking. Far more important, however, is the conception of war as
a meaningless game: Homer imputes the beginning of hostilities to
the fancy of three wayward goddesses (Athena, Hera, Aphrodite).
The whole thing is, from the outset, a bloody caprice.

The
three immortal ladies engage in a dispute over which of them is
the most beautiful. The judge, apparently a simple Trojan shepherd,
is actually Paris, one of the sons of Priam, King of Ilium. He chooses
Aphrodite since she promises to him what looks like the most attractive
reward: the love of Helen, the most beautiful woman ever to exist
— and, incidentally, the wife of the Greek King Menelaus. And we're
back to the casus belli.

We
soon come to see that war is not very welcome by some of the heroes
themselves: Odysseus, for example, even plays the role of the fool
to avoid going to battle.

The
Iliad doesn't try to hide the destructive consequences of
going to war that ensue for both for the Greeks and the Trojans.
Nor are the Trojans depicted merely as a bunch of "bad guys":
their stories are portrayed in a lively manner, so that they emerge
as fellow human beings worth of compassion and comprehension. No
"Axis of Evil" in Homer's times.

However,
the best testimony in Homer of the real nature of war is offered
by the eleventh chapter of the Odyssey.
This is not, strictly speaking, a war poem, but rather the account
of Odysseus's ups and downs to return to his homeland, Ithaca. But
the Trojan war is still a living memory for Odysseus, and so the
reader may extract some important insights into its events. The
information typically is made available when Odysseus meets other
people and recalls the ten years spent fighting Trojans or discusses
his current vicissitudes.

The
eleventh book of the Odyssey describes Odysseus’s visit to
the Kingdom of the Dead, which takes place after he left Circe's
island. Odysseus is understandably a little anxious about making
the trip to Hades and says he "embarked in no happy mind."
Once in the Underworld, he performs a ritual and meets a number
of dead people, including Elpenor, the soothsayer Tiresias, his
mother and, eventually, some of his old comrades.

The
first of these is Agamemnon, son of Atreus and brother of Menelaus,
the most important of all the kings who campaigned against Troy.
Here Agamemnon, being asked by his old pal about how he ended up
in the Kingdom of the Dead, tells the story of the conspiracy of
his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegistus. They got rid of
him as soon as he was back from Troy, and they killed the woman
he had taken with him as a war-prisoner, Cassandra, Priam's daughter,
who possessed the unhappy gift of seeing into the future.

"In
truth," Odysseus comments, "Jove has hated the house of
Atreus from first to last in the matter of their women’s counsels.
See how many of us fell for Helen’s sake, and now it seems that
Clytemnestra hatched mischief against too during your absence".

[I'm
quoting from Samuel
Butler's translation
.]

The
next ghost is Achilles (together with a distinguished group of former
fighters such as Patroclus, Antilochus, and the brave Ajax). So,
Achilles "knew me and spoke piteously, saying, ‘Ulysses, noble
son of Laertes, what deed of daring will you undertake next, that
you venture down to the house of Hades among us silly dead, who
are but the ghosts of them that can labour no more?’"

Odysseus
replies briefly, summarizing his own journey and explaining why
it so important for him to stop in Hades, to find the way back home.
Afterwards, he tries to please Achilles, the man who is known as
the bravest of all the Greek heroes:

"As
for you, Achilles, no one was ever yet so fortunate as you have
been, nor ever will be, for you were adored by all us Argives as
long as you were alive, and now that you are here you are a great
prince among the dead. Do not, therefore, take it so much to heart
even if you are dead."

Here
we are at the core passage.

"Say
not a word," Achilles answers, "in death’s favour; I would
rather be a paid servant in a poor man’s house and be above ground
than king of kings among the dead."

Later
on, the two men come back to a more commonplace discussion, speaking
of Achilles' father and son, but in this one sentence we find one
of the most powerful dismissals of war ever written.

The
speaker is no hippie pacifist, neither a Gandhian non-violent militant
nor libertarian theorist. He happens to be the most famous and courageous
fighter ever, a hero as versatile in war as he is embarassed in
signing peace. But even he sees the dark side of war, which is the
only side to be seen. He's dead, after all, and it is this, not
the honors that may have been bestowed upon him, which makes the
difference.

Honor
is supposed to be the key principle of a war, and of the army. "If
I lose my honor, I lose myself," says Shakespeare's Antony.
Quite a nice theory. Soldiers are even now instructed to think that
getting a seat at the Olympus of great heroes is a matter of supreme
importance: distinction in battle means more than self-preservation.

Most
of our novels or movies are in accord with this theory: men sacrificing
themselves for the sake of the expansionist dreams of the state
are rewarded with something priceless. Glory: here it is.

And
then comes Achilles. A man who knows what "glory" is better
than anyone else. The most glorious hero ever. And he says, quite
frankly, that being alive, that enjoying life, is really the only
thing that matters: he learned this lesson in being deprived of
that life.

Many
illustrious men of letters have told the world an ancient truth.
"The most disadvantageous peace is better than the most just
war," said Erasmus. "There never was a good war or a bad
peace," echoed Benjamin Franklin. Unfortunately, this seems
unappealing to some people, who are brainwashed by evil propaganda,
or sincerely obsessed with such concerns as "honor."

This
is why reading Homer, as Sobran stated, is still important. Because
he pictured the heroes as human beings. And once someone understands
that the battlefield is neither about "numbers" nor about
"great names," but just about men, real, simple, small
men, the next step follows. Getting rid of the illusions, and going
back to fight, yes, but for life – as precious as it is.

September
27, 2002

Alberto
Mingardi [send him mail]
is a student in political thought in Italy.

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