The Wisdom of Achilles

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