Thoughts on Odysseus and Achilles

A 1st Century fresco found in Herculaneum on the education of Achilles by the centaur Chiron

Achilles is a man of many passions. He is often described as quick, or “swift-footed.” For Achilles, the warrior, his life is short and grim. His unfettered rage is drawn out and drawn towards those who have offended him, especially those who have offended him most recently. He knows only friends and enemies. Rather than pursuing a strategy of diplomacy, of weighing the advantages and disadvantages among both friends and enemies, Achilles knows only total war. Friends and enemies are without qualifications -they are, so to speak, black and white to a warrior like Achilles.

Achilles also demands moral perfection. He expresses dislike for men who give speeches and commit acts that do not reflect the truth concealed in their hearts. Instead, he looks for authenticity. Any lie is a bad lie for Achilles -he does not approve of such a thing as a noble lie. He is skeptical of poets, tactful poets like Odysseus. This is why he fails in the realm of politics. He lacks the will to negotiate with Agamemnon, and his decision leaves his Myrmidon men muttering to themselves.

Odysseus, on the other hand, is filled nostos, the root for nostalgia meaning homecoming. His deep longing is to return home to reclaim the house of his fathers. Unlike Achilles, who is described as longing to return home to garden and live a long but quiet life, Odysseus longs to return home to continue to lead his family.

The Iliad is a text explicitly dedicated to the passion, the rage, of Achilles. The bard calls to the goddess in the Iliad, but in the Odyssey, he calls to the Muse about “a man.” Who is this man, to whom an entire Homeric epic is dedicated?

In the second line of the Odyssey, Odysseus is identified as the winner of the Trojan war. This is of course contra Achilles, the great warrior, whose rage is not credited with winning the war. Instead Achilles’s rage is characterized as leading many Achaeans to their death. The killing of Hector is inferior to the wooden horse ploy in leveling the city of Priam. Odysseus, on the other hand, is identified as the man of many twists and turns. He speaks in different ways to different groups. Toward the noisy masses of men, like Thersites, he forcibly punishes them. Toward men of renown, such as Agamemnon, he persuades them, appealing to their capacity for reason. As an example, Helen explains to King Priam that Odysseus’s wise council is second only to Zeus. He is crafty and cunning, a man of many disguises. He is also a dangerous poet to his foes, a pleasant liar who speaks and acts with reason, rather than passion. He is favored by Athena, goddess of wisdom.

Perhaps the differing educations of both Achilles and Odysseus bear significance on their unique distinctions. Achilles is a properly educated and reared man. The centaur, Chiron, is the legendary teacher who educates Achilles as his own disciple. Achilles, however, can only be reared to a certain limit. His heel, after all, is the only body part not dipped into the river Styx by his mother Thetis. Whereas Odysseus received no formal education, he was presumably trained in the art of war, and also in music and poetry. In addition Odysseus, who is perhaps a genius, has the gift of interpretation. While Achilles responds to events, typically with rage, Odysseus analyzes and then responds. For this reason, Odysseus endures and Achilles lives a short life but memorable life.

Now to turn the page, the two heroes notably share a common bond on this final point regarding durability. Achilles strives to make an enduring name for him by, somewhat ironically, sacrificing his own life. He knows, according to the prophecy, that by killing Hector, he will remain in Ilium and never return home with the Myrmidons again. Yet he is driven by his ceaseless rage. Similarly, Odysseus is concerned with his name. For in an age of endless challenges, war and contest are the ways for man to build a lasting name for himself. Odysseus, who nearly drowns at the hands of Poseidon, cries out that his story be not forgotten. It is good and fitting that the life of a man should emulate an epic, such as the epics of Homer, rather than a tragedy, perhaps of those written by Euripides. It is better to be remembered triumphantly and heroically than it is to remembered as pitiable and tragic. However, to be remembered is what is most important to the Achaean heroes, and this need to search for the enduring qualities in life is a characteristic lesson that is of value to learn from Homer, the teacher of the Greeks.

What is the Rage of Achilles?

The rage, or menin sometimes translated as “wrath”, of Achilles is the opening word of the Iliad and bears crucial significance with respect to the remaining content of the epic. This opening word stands in contrast to the first line of the Odyssey, a text about a man, whose opening word is andra, meaning “man.”

If we take the assumption, following from the title, that the Iliad is a book about the city of Ilium, why, then, do we find the rage of Achilles to be a central theme? Is there a connection between the godlike rage of Achilles and either the birth or destruction of the city? What is the rage of Achilles?

 “Achilles has a Dispute with Agamemnon” by Johann Heinrich Tischbein in 1776

In Book I, the rage of Achilles finds its form as a result of Agamemnon ignoring the priest of Apollo, causing the god to send a plague to the Achaeans. Achilles, frustrated with Agamemnon’s tenuous leadership, publicly berates him. A competition ensues between the two men, revealing an Achaean contest for the best of men -the most excellent. Agamemnon believes himself to be the best of men because he rules the greatest number, and therefore he is deserving of the greatest goods. This belief causes Agamemnon to take Briseis, a prize rightfully won by Achilles, to claim her as his own. Achilles, however, believes himself to be the best of men because he is the greatest warrior. His powerful aggression causes fear among the Achaeans and Trojans alike. Both men claim the right to be the most excellent.

In a world governed by force and compulsion, war is redemption for men. Conflict offers the opportunity to gain honor, “where men win glory,” so they can assert their power. Agamemnon commands his great numbers to forcibly take the property of Achilles, thereby reasserting Agamemnon’s greatness. Achilles’s response is to forcibly retaliate against Agamemnon by killing him, but he is prevented by wise Athena. Instead, Achilles pursues a strategy of inaction. He knows that his deadly skills as a warrior are most valuable to Agamemnon and the Achaeans. Therefore, in order to assert his excellence, he withholds his sword and prevents his Myrmidon troops from entering the battle as punishment to Agamemnon.

“The Rage of Achilles” by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo in 1757

Achilles prays to his mother, the goddess Thetis, to turn the tide of war against the Achaeans. By actively not participating in the battle, a version of what might be called “civil disobedience,” Achilles ponders the question of returning home to the house of Peleus where a long and peaceful life awaits him. Long ago, a prophecy was made that Achilles could either remain in Troy and kill Hector only to die shortly thereafter, or instead, he could return home to a long but forgotten life. Achilles makes a choice between having a glorious and memorable death, or a long but forgotten life at home. The character and quality of a hero’s death is paramount, and being remembered is the only chance at an enduring life among men.

Achilles’s rage, in Book I, is a decisive factor for the Achaeans. By offending the honor of Achilles, Agamemnon seals the fate of the Achaeans. Achilles’s great wrath is the only impulse that can overcome even the will of the gods, though it cannot escape his fate. Rage, the deep desire for vengeance, is a fundamentally human impulse. Like a wild untamed beast, Achilles struggles to force himself to return home, yet he refuses to return to battle as it would require confirmation of Agamemnon’s excellence. He is in a stasis.

Although there is an attempt made by Odysseus and a group of Achaean leaders in Book IX to offer to return Agamemnon’s stolen gifts to Achilles, and thereby persuade him to rejoin the battle, this ultimately fails. Achilles remains firm, he will not persuaded. Achilles privately mentions to Patroclus that he will not remain angry forever, though, but only until the Trojans have beaten the Achaeans all the way back the hulls of their ships. He mentions this upon taking “pity” on his friend Patroclus, with tears streaming down Patroclus’s face (Book XVI 1-19). Achilles allows Patroclus to rejoin the battle with the Myrmidons because young and impressionable Patroclus had been moved by the words of Nestor when visiting the Achaean front lines. Upon his tragic death, Achilles redirects his anger instantly.

“…the spirit within does not drive me

to go on living and be among men, except on condition

that Hector first be beaten down under my spear, lose his life

and pay the price for stripping Patroclus, the son of Menoitios” (Book XVIII, 90-93).

He wishes that all the strife and anger of man would go away for both gods and mortals. Due to the death of Patroclus, he will actively forget the past transgression of Agamemnon and refocus his rage on Hector.

Notably the rage of Achilles, a natural outward impulse, is initially directed inward -toward the Achaeans. The greatest threat to Achilles’s power comes from within his own tribe. However, once his great passions are drawn externally, toward Hector, the killer of Patroclus, Achilles immediately relinquishes his rage toward Agamemnon. He, as the archetypal warrior, and can only direct his anger toward one kind of enemy: internal (against the city) or external (toward an enemy of the city). It is, therefore, in the interest of the city to see that the warrior is treated justly internally, but unjustly externally -that he faces an enemy. In this way, the warrior and his unbearable rage, helps to reinforce the city as a cohesive whole.

However, the rage of Achilles is vengeful, and is therefore reactionary. He is driven toward revenge, or perhaps requital. Take, for instance, the stripping of Achilles’s armor from the body Patroclus in Book XVI, an unforgivable act in Achilles’s eyes. In order to claim his vengeance on Hector, Achilles mercilessly slaughters him, and with his dying words, Hector tries to persuade Achilles not to leave his body for the dogs, but stubborn Achilles refuses -he has a “heart of iron” (Book XXII, 288-361). His interaction with Hector stands in stark distinction to other Trojan – Achaean battles, predicated on mutual respect. Achilles, instead, yearns to demoralize and defile the body of Hector. His rage transcends the limits of law and custom in battle.

The Anger of Achilles by Jacques-Louis David (1819)

Finally, the last point to be made in an examination of Achilles’s rage, occurs in Book XXIV, the final book of the Iliad. Priam, king of Ilium, comes to Achilles to plead for his son’s body to make a proper burial. Throughout the text, only two people successfully persuade Achilles and both occur in weepy moments of lament. The first, as discussed earlier, is the weeping plea of Patroclus to rejoin the Achaeans and help push the Trojans back. The second, however, occurs when King Priam approaches Achilles, physically takes his hand, and beckons him to recall his own father, Peleus. How is it that Achilles allows himself to be persuaded during these impassioned moments, but he will not listen to the reason of Odysseus or Ajax? Achilles, the archetypal warrior, does not have the capacity for reason. He, instead, allows his heart and his wild passions to overpower him. In order to persuade the warrior, one must physically regulate his emotions. His only weakness is in what exposes his vulnerabilities, whether it be his heel or his deep affection for a friend or a father. In both cases his heart is softened. Achilles is vulnerable to pity and sorrow. However, this great pity is intimately connected to his deep sorrow -the warrior must be made to feel more than to discourse, yet the problem lies in the need for the city to have warriors who take honor and pity among there own stock, yet feel rage toward the city’s enemies. For Achilles, this rage takes its greatest form in reaction to the death of an intimate friend.

The warrior, unlike the magistrate or king, is dangerous. His untamed passions are the fruit of chaos, both within and without the city. Therefore a wise leader, like Nestor, who compels the spirit of the young Patroclus, can wisely redirect Achilles’s rage by foreseeing the death of his friend. It is far better that the great warrior’s rage is channeled outward, rather than inward, in order for the city to endure.

For this reading I used the Fagles and Lattimore translations.

On the Homeric Question

The rising tide of scientific investigation, everywhere pervading our age, begs us, once more, to pose the question of the authenticity of Homer.

This question comes about as a need to discover the sole source for the production of the Homeric works, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Could they have been the creation of one man? Or are they the works of many hands? At the root of these questions lies the deep cultural longing for an author, an authority, to justify the psychology of the texts. It is not unlike the question of the authenticity of the Mosaic texts. By seeking one author, or at least by seeking a satisfying answer to the question of authorship, we look for justification for the texts. As the rise of the internet as proved, there is great power in anonymity, and we moderns have difficulty accepting ambiguous authorship. We prefer to put a particular author on trial, by examining his “social political context” before approaching a text. However, our demand for demonstrable proof finds no kinship in antiquity. Among the multitude of texts attributed to Homeros and the Homeric body of literature, later delineated by Pausanias and others, we have difficulty locating the origins of these vitally important works. We can only find approximations that will not, in the long run, suffice. Therefore, we modern scientific-minded researchers must find alternatives to quench our thirst for comfortable answers.

“Homer and His Guide” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1874)

However, does this mean it is not possible to credibly believe in the mythological story of Homeros? After all, we find greater ease accepting that Homeric texts are mere products of a cultural milieu -emerging from a rich Greek tradition of oral poetry. From this answer we might survey the scene and dust our hands clean of any further need for inquiry -the author is the public, itself. There is no individual agency, but rather great high-minded classical works of art simply emerged out of necessity from populist demands. Under this manner of thinking, Homer is nothing other than a word representing a truth we arrogantly confirm for ourselves -namely that history proceeds dialectically, and that great works of art emerged from a democratic populism. They merely are reactionary pieces of evidence for a particular culture. But what of the truth of mythology, itself? Is there not any truth to mythos that extends beyond what many have called the socio-political-historical context? For example, when Homer is accepted throughout the Greek world to be the author of the texts in question, can we not accept an element of truth in this widespread “historical fact”? Or also, when the Christian narrative of the death of Christ is accepted throughout the Western world, is this not evidence of a kind of truth to the myth? Why must we ask for criteria on the origins of the myth, rather than accepting its significance as justification enough? Again we find ourselves run aground with the infinite multitude of cultural impulses that might lead us to believe in such a truth. The closest we are willing to venture is into the realm of probability.

At any rate, underlying this modern question of Homeric authorship is not simply a need to find a single person who can be responsible for the texts, rather it is the need to find a psychology behind the authorship. Who was Homer? Why did he write these texts? What did he believe? These are all personal and psychological questions that demand answers in order to by modern standards. His authority is not justified on its own account. Instead, a reader of the kind described demands a psychoanalysis be performed on the probability of Homer’s life. The texts, the Iliad and the Odyssey, again become subordinate to the account of the author.

In seeking answers to these questions, our scientists dig for evidence, linguists search for cultural inconsistencies, professors teach the improbability of Homer. We cannot find justification for Homer, only possibilities. While we possess the texts as evidence of a bygone age, they do not come coupled with a biography of the author. We have only the inheritance of classical antiquity to rely on.

However, we moderns don’t deny the greatness of the texts: the Iliad, the Odyssey, and other hymns attributed classically to Homer. It is not as if we believe the artists strung together a series of unrelated thoughts -a montage that happened to fall into place by the work of many hands. Rather we accept that Homeric literature forms a whole, it is consistent, and is a work of beauty. For why else would we call it Homeric? This awe-inspiring beauty and symmetry found in Homer implies that it must have been the work of a very profound poet or poets, as consistency is rarely found among populist rumors.

Therefore, we moderns believe these texts to be the work of a great poet – just not Homer.

“Homerus” by Rembrandt in 1663

We tell ourselves, gloomily, not to accept the Homeric, the Orphic, or the Bacchic, because they are mere mythos. Yet deep down we accept a grain of truth to these stories. If the myths are mere “social constructions,” as is commonly accepted, we then convince ourselves both that there is a dull and dry story confirmed only by evidence, and we also tacitly accept that “social constructions” still have locations deeper than their social context -they are not entirely fabricated out of rumors. Consider a coin passed through many hands (Nietzsche, Homer and Classical Philology 1910). As it proceeds, the coin, perhaps bearing the face of Alexander the Great, is steadily worn by the passage of time. Yet, the vital significance of the coin, itself, remains. Similarly, consider the Homeric epics -once sung by traveling bards throughout the Hellenic world. Did the first bard, who we call Homer, have a perfect recollection of each line and stanza before performing the Iliad for his first Greek audience? And then, following on this absurd insinuation, did the first scribe recall perfectly each verse and stanza to be replicated authentically onto tortoise shells and papyrus scrolls? An affirmative answer to these questions cannot be believed by a thinking person, unless he relies on divine revelation of some kind. However, the Homeric works make no claims to divine revelation, and they instead present a far more human-centered cosmos than, say, the books of the Torah.

Therefore, the Homeric works cannot be the products of perfect algorithms -the Iliad was not born out of a full and complete thought, that was put to song, that was committed to memory, and that was eventually captured perfectly on paper, as if in a museum. Rather the Homeric works and the Homeric identity are organic, living impulses. Homer is an enduring poet, perhaps the most enduring poet, because his epics find homes, even today, in modern impulses. We have not yet capitulated to modern advancements and relinquished our memory the naked truth of antiquity. We may, from time to time, find ourselves in a stasis, condescending to the noble Achaean warrior-chieftains, but we still cannot let go of our deeply held Homeric root.

In our relentlessly Quixotic quest to discover an authentic Homer, the blind bard, we should tread lightly in pursuing its answer. Otherwise we may find ourselves blinded, like Oedipus, in discovering our ill-fated origins. Let us, instead, relinquish the need to unearth the original Homer, and his prove his falsity. Let us, instead, embrace the life-giving truths embodied within the Homeric corpus, and guide our inquiry into the enduring nature of Homeros. Far greater truth, goodness, and beauty can be found in this mode of inquiry.