Thoughts on Odysseus and Achilles

The Education of Achilles by Chiron, fresco from Herculaneum, 1st century AD

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 directed toward 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 contest and battle. Friends and enemies are without qualifications –they are, so to speak, plain and easy to distinguish 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. He wants honesty and 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, especially 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. 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?

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. This is in contrast to Achilles, who is described as longing to return home to garden and live a long but quiet life. 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 deaths. Notably, the killing of Hector is considered inferior to the wooden horse ploy in conquering 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, 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 divergent characters. Achilles is a properly educated 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. On the other hand, 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 with tact. For this reason, Odysseus endures through many twists and turns while Achilles lives a short life but memorable life.

Now to turn the page, the two heroes notably share a common bond on the final point regarding durability. Achilles strives to make an enduring name for himself 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 ongoing political problems, war and contest are the ways people build a lasting name for themselves. 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 be 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 powerful lesson to learn from Homer, the teacher of the Greeks.

Political Philosophy in the Iliad

Book Two of the Iliad is perhaps the most politically revealing passage found in Homeric literature. Recall our heroes, a confederacy of Achaean princes feuding with one another. Despite being united under the arrogant leadership of Agamemnon, who is regularly deemed “the shepherd of the people,” the Achaeans are found squabbling over property. They have banded together to form a collective whole composed of many distinct parts to confront the strong walls of Ilium (Troy). Paris, son of Priam and brother of Hector, has wrongfully eloped with Helen, the wife of Menelaus, and this gross degradation of Menelaus’s honor causes a series of tribal treaties to be invoked, compelling the greater Achaean territories to embark upon war with Troy. Helen is the most dangerous creature in the text, an object of immense beauty who impels terrible destruction. She makes inferior men like Paris a slave to their passions. However, in the ninth year of this war, Agamemnon and Achilles are confronted with reasons to return home before Menelaus’s wife is rightfully returned to him. The question of whether Helen is still worth pursuing is raised.

After receiving a deceitful Dream from Zeus, Agamemnon gathers his counsel of princes. He speaks first to the leaders, then to the masses, convincing them to return home from Ilium. Remarkably, throughout the proceedings, the Greek body politic is civil –the Greeks are listeners. Each man speaks in his own turn. Homer, as the teacher of the Greeks, presents a highly civilized model for a future culture. Mimesis requires politics as the crucial foundation from which to create. Recall similar scenes, such as the promise of friendship exchanged by Glaucos and Diomedes of Argos with one another in Book VI, or the exchange of gifts between mortal enemies Ajax and Hector in Book VII.

Amidst this political struggle, Odysseus emerges as the model statesman, the ideal prince. Beckoned by wise Athena, Odysseus moves through the masses of people restraining them. Confronting both kings and men of influence, Odysseus speaks softly in an attempt to persuade them of the need to continue fighting. Toward the loud masses of men, Odysseus forcibly strikes them with his staff. Odysseus, the most cunning of the Greeks, behaves differently toward the noisy crowd than he does toward the leaders of men. His purpose is to marshal the men in support of war, and in order to best shepherd the people, Odysseus employs a combination of speech and force, persuasion and compulsion. Perhaps this is why Homer explicitly identifies Odysseus as “the equal of Zeus in counsel” (Book II, 169).

“The Love of Paris and Helen” by Jacques-Louis David in 1788

As the title of the text reveals to us, the book is about the city. The birth of Greek identity. Broadly speaking, the Iliad acknowledges and reveals to us the concealed forces that govern our actions and reactions, as they are apportioned to the city. For example, Eris and Envy are ever present gods to the Greek mind. Conflict and pain are necessary forces that govern life. For the Greeks, the Iliad reveals to us our inner human pains and envies, as our churning desires manifest themselves in both war and peace. Rather than denying and suppressing our inner drive toward arete, the Homeric politeia acknowledges envy, spite, anger, and honor as elemental life-yielding truths. Each Greek leader believes himself to be the best of men, and a competition of excellence necessarily ensues. A timocratic politeia begins to develop –each caring not for his own individual self-preservation, but rather for his honor and respect. Each man believes he is owed due goods so that he may not lose his respect and honor. Agamemnon believes he is the best of men because he rules the largest number. Achilles believes he is the best of men because he is the mightiest warrior. Odysseus seeks no justification for his excellence. He is both wily and wise, so much so, that he “knows” the voice of Athena when she speaks to him. Much like the serpent in Genesis, Odysseus is “cunning,” and a leader of men. When Thersites of the “endless speech” who was the “ugliest man” (Book II, 210-216) verbally abuses Agamemnon, Odysseus publicly threatens him and strikes Thersites, forcing a tear in his eye as the Achaeans laugh. We moderns must resist the urge to read this passage as tragicomic, lest we find ourselves in a dizzying Quixotic bind. To the classical audience, it is a merely comic scene. The Greek citizen laughs in the face of weakness, like that of Thersites. Hellenism shows no kindness toward the meek and mild. How foreign is this kind of laughter to the modern mind!

However, the Homeric tale leads us not only into the Achaean camp, but also behind the walls of the Trojan city. Here, in Troy we encounter the aging Priam, the shining strength of Hector, and the weakness of Paris, sometimes called Alexandros. Hector is an equally admirable hero to any of those we find in the Achaean camp. He is determined to preserve his city’s honor, Hector leads the Trojan armies despite his younger brother’s impassioned disrespect for custom. After young Paris is swept away from battling with Menelaus over possession of Helen, Hector enters the mighty gates of Ilium and berates Paris. More than three times he addresses Paris as, “Strange man.” Paris is a stranger not only to nomos, but also to his own brother. His disrespect for law is foreign to the people of Ilium. The downfall of Troy comes in the decision to protect this stranger, a native son, who follows the wayward whims of his heart over the political demands of the city. He poses a threat to the honor of the city, and is thus a potential weakness.

A careful examination of where Homer’s temporal presentation leads is also helpful. During scenes of politics, the author recollects the moment. It is presented to the audience in the past tense. However, during scenes of battle, the author often uses the word “now” to indicate urgency or immediacy. Politics is better understood in reverse, knowledge comes when one engages in the activity of recollection –and knowledge of things political is the highest form of knowledge attained within the city. The chaotic motion of the battle makes it more difficult and dizzying to have knowledge in the moment. In order to understand political things, men must climb higher than the ground-level to survey the scene. They must stand on high mountains, to see things a little more clearly. Men must also have space and order to recollect things past.

A 1st century fresco found in the house of a tragic poet on Pompeii depicting Achilles surrendering Briseis

Politics escapes none in the Iliad, not even the gods. Zeus is compelled to balance the wishes of Hera, Athena supports the Achaeans, Ares is easily angered by the battalions. The will of each god also comes into conflict with the humans in their war, and their politics. However, the frivolity of the gods binds the fate of the warriors. The humans fight one another to become “like the gods” and yet they surpass even the gods in their desire to be best. Not even the gods can stop the strong-willed Greeks. Their competing inner intentions are embroiled to overcome the status of being human, of the finality of life. The highest political thing to the Greeks, honor, transcends the value of self-preservation, and they fight to overcome death. The gods are envious of the humans and the terminal finitude to their lives. They live an existential life wherein the character and quality of death can cause angst. Our heroes ask themselves: How will I die? When will I die? For what purpose will I die? Achilles must decide between dying honorably in battle or returning home for a lengthy but forgotten life.

Therefore, Homer exposes to us not merely the dynamics of the city, but also the underlying tensions that form the body politic. The Iliad reveals to us our nature. The inner competing wills that lie beneath the politeia.

For this reading I used the Fagles and Lattimore translations.