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Immortal characteristics in the iliad and the aeneid essay

Support Aeon Donate now A warrior hero such as Ajax, Hector or Achilles must be willing to fight in hand-to-hand combat day after day. He must be able, physically and psychologically, to plunge a sword into the body of another human being, and to risk having a sword plunged into his own. He must be brutal and ready to risk brutality. At the same time, he must be gentle to his friends and allies, and able to join with them in group activities both military and peaceful.

Plato was well aware of the problem these opposing demands create, both in the soul of the warrior and in the society he inhabits: After all, a gentle nature is the opposite of an angry one. It is not a somatic feeling, as nausea and giddiness are, though it is usually accompanied by such feelings — trembling and blushing, for example, and the sense of seeing red. A person is insulted when the treatment he receives is worse than the treatment his worth entitles him to receive.

He is honoured when he is given treatment proportional to his worth, and his worth is above or well-above average. When we speak of honour, therefore, we are in a way speaking of worth, since honour measures worth. Honour and insult are thus close to being polar opposites, and an insult is a harm to worth or honour. Honour, like insult, comes from others. It is their recognition of our worth. It is the intrusion of the social into the psychological, the public into the private.

The anger of Achilles

After all, others honour us for what they find of worth in us. In the society that Homer not so much describes as presupposes in the Iliad, the traits and accomplishments socially underwritten as worthwhile are those appropriate to a world of raiding and warring tribes. Military prowess and achievement are prominent on the list, obviously enough, but so too is loyalty to friends and allies.

Anger is intimately involved with both military prowess and loyalty: But it also involves a socially constructed notion of worth, which is a focus for honour.

How Are the Gods presented in the Aeneid?

When Plato argues in Republic Book IV that the characteristic emotion of an honour-lover is anger thumoshe is recognising how central to the world of honour anger really is. The bond of mutual honouring symbolised by the exchange of gifts — and, for that matter, by the singing of heroic songs that memorialise the achievements of the heroes and their friends and ancestors — is a major ingredient in the social glue that binds the warrior-heroes together.

But this bond has another side, which is revealed by insult. When Paris steals Helen, he insults Menelaus, but he also insults Agamemnon and his other friends and allies.

His action says in effect: In helping to restore his honour, they are also out to increase their own. They are themselves to be appropriately honoured, their worth appropriately recognised, in the process of helping him.

Competitiveness between friends is thus never far away. The war that Paris precipitates between the Achaeans and Trojans, which is what the Iliad deals with, is there waiting to break out among the Achaeans themselves. Warriors with developed senses of honour and hair-trigger tempers sensitive to the slightest insult make dangerous enemies but they also make uncertain allies.

This is the dilemma at the heart of heroic values. It is, again, one reason that Homer invites the goddess to sing about anger, one reason that she sings a song in which that anger is first directed against friends and then against enemies. Looked at from one point of view, then, the insult-sensitive anger of the hero seems to serve and protect society by protecting the values, such as stable patrilineal families, that are at its core. Yet, at the same time, that anger is potentially destructive of the very society it seems to be protecting.

By focusing on it, therefore, Homer can explore the foundations of heroic psychology and culture, the underlying causes of the Trojan War, which are his central immortal characteristics in the iliad and the aeneid essay. But the point of his exploration is to reveal something more universal than that, something more akin to a moral vision of the world.

To understand this vision and appreciate its power, however, we need to begin by seeing that a tempting representation of it, based on a seductive reading of the Iliad, is in fact a misrepresentation. According to the reading or misreading I have in mind, Achilles initially cares only about his own honour.

Nonetheless, when she is taken from him by Agamemnon, a leader of the Greek forces against Troy, he is right to be angry since taking her is a terrible insult and a clear violation of societal norms and values.

Later, when Agamemnon has appropriately suffered, he recognises that what he did was at least foolish, and offers enormous recompense. Either he hubristically overestimates his own worth or honour, and so is wrong from the point of view of the values he shares with the other heroes, or he has — in a common but, I think, psychologically suspect metaphor — stepped outside the heroic code and become an existential hero at odds with, and critical of, the values of his society.

The price he pays for the error of being unwilling to accept propitiation — whether due to hubris or to existential repudiation of the heroic code — is the death of his best friend Patroclus. He kills the noble Trojan hero Hector brutally and treats his body shamefully. He is wrong to do so, as the god Apollo points out in a speech that recapitulates one made earlier by Ajax. This is a Homeric paradigm for how to do things right. Heroes must learn to control their anger, to be propitiated, to recognise that they are mortal human beings destined to suffer.

Then the lions will lay down with the lambs and all will be well. On the reading we are exploring, this is the lesson Achilles himself finally learns. He outgrows the attitude of callous indifference to the sufferings of others he has exhibited throughout the rest of the poem. On this reading, then, the Iliad is a textbook tragedy — a story about the ethical growth and education of the tragic hero.

Achilles has a tragic flaw — his hubris.

  • War, anger, insult are endlessly recurring but transient horrors;
  • And now, far away from the land of his fathers, he has perished, and lacked my fighting strength to defend him;
  • Obviously, those who want him to do more think he is.

It brings about the tragic sequence of events — the death of Patroclus. This, in turn, causes the educative suffering that leads Achilles to change his character and values for the better. In a very deep sense, then, the suffering is worthwhile, since it is redeemed by the moral improvement it engenders. This reading is, as I said, seductive. But its seductiveness is, I think, more a measure of our own distance from Homer than of the true depths of the Iliad itself.

I have spoken of the brutality of the heroes, and of the heroes themselves as brutes, in order to be true to something that Homer vividly dramatises for us, namely, the awfulness of warriors and the gruesome repetitiveness of what they do for a living. But Homer also recognises the sublimity of killing, and of those who do it well.

It is easier for us to recognise this sublimity in athletes, who mime the competitiveness and aggression of warfare, but the quality is still there when lives rather than cups and medals are on the line. Even Socrates, when he is on trial for his life, compares himself to Achilles. Now, the greater Achilles is, the greater the distance is between his worth and the worth Agamemnon treats him as having when he deprives him of Briseis.

Hence we should not expect Achilles to be easily propitiated or won over. If we do, we will be underestimating the harm he has suffered — underestimating his honour and his worth. It would diminish that worth, to be sure, not just in our eyes but in those of his fellow heroes, if it were true that Achilles cared only about his own honour and not at all about his friends.

But it is not true. There is no good reason to think, for example, that he cares nothing about Briseis, that she is simply a part of his honour, like a tripod. She is a part of his honour, certainly, but there is no reason to think that he is speaking less than the truth when he describes her to Odysseus in the following terms: And why was it the son of Atreus assembled and led here these people?

Was it not for the sake of the lovely-haired Helen? Are the sons of Atreus alone among mortal men the ones who love their wives? Since any who is a good man, and careful, loves her who is his own and cares for her, even as I now loved this one from my immortal characteristics in the iliad and the aeneid essay, though it was my spear that won her. Human love is usually impure, imperfect, contaminated with ego and self-interest.

  1. Argos and Sparta and Mykenai of the wide ways.
  2. It is a direct appeal to friendship and its obligations.
  3. The primary role-playing gods seems to manipulate the other lesser gods to interfere with mortals on their behalf.
  4. Nonetheless, when she is taken from him by Agamemnon, a leader of the Greek forces against Troy, he is right to be angry since taking her is a terrible insult and a clear violation of societal norms and values.

Achilles cares for more than his own honour, and continues to care about his friends and the values he shares with them Neither is there any reason to think that Achilles cares nothing for his fellow Achaeans.

To the contrary, Homer shows that they continue to exert decisive influence on him, even after Achilles has allegedly abandoned the values he shares with them. Odysseus lists the gifts Agamemnon will pay in recompense for having taken Briseis.

Achilles responds that he will sail home tomorrow. Achilles is moved by this response and abandons his decision to return home: Finally, Ajax — a warrior very much like Achilles himself — speaks. His speech is short and to the point. It is a direct appeal to friendship and its obligations: Son of Laertes and seed of Zeus, resourceful Odysseus: I think that nothing will be accomplished by argument on this errand; it is best to go quickly and tell this story, though it is not good, to the Danaans who sit waiting for us to come back, seeing that Achilles has made savage the proud-hearted spirit within his body.

Yet now we offer you seven, surpassing lovely, and much beside these. Now make gracious the spirit within you. Respect your own house; see, we are under the same roof with you, from the multitude of the Danaans, we who desire beyond all others to have your honour and love, out of all the Achaeans.

He decides to stay and return to battle, although he will not do so until Hector the brilliant comes all the way to the ships of the Myrmidons, and their shelters, slaughtering the Argives, and shall darken with fire our vessels.

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The embassy from Agamemnon is not a failure, then, it is a limited success — though the ambassadors, eager for immediate relief, might not see it as such.

It shows clearly that Achilles does care for more than his own honour, that he does indeed continue to care about his friends and to remain within the ambit of the values he shares with them. If he has stepped outside the heroic code in his response to Odysseus, he has stepped back into it in his response to Phoenix and Ajax a few lines later.

Obviously, those who want him to do more think he is. But they are interested parties and their estimations, like those of all interested parties, need to be carefully weighed. It is contextual, not philosophical. If he can do that, then the Achaeans are, indeed, all held in a single honour.

We do well to remember, too, in estimating whether or not Achilles should have returned to the fighting, that Agamemnon has not come to apologise in person.

  1. Like us, he has much to be true to, which means that, like ourselves, he is sometimes false to his very greatest loves.
  2. Military prowess and achievement are prominent on the list, obviously enough, but so too is loyalty to friends and allies. Consider, for example, the following exchange between Zeus and Hera.
  3. Honour, like insult, comes from others. Of all the cities there are three that are dearest to my own heart.
  4. He outgrows the attitude of callous indifference to the sufferings of others he has exhibited throughout the rest of the poem. For instance, in Carthage, when Zeus lets her manipulate the consummation of Dido and Aeneas, Zeus knowing full well that Aeneas will have to leave and eventually destroy the city of Carthage.
  5. By focusing on it, therefore, Homer can explore the foundations of heroic psychology and culture, the underlying causes of the Trojan War, which are his central focus.

His failure to do so weighs as much with Achilles as it would with any one of us. His opening words to Odysseus reveal as much: For as I detest the doorways of Death, I detest the man, who hides one thing in the depths of his heart, and speaks forth another. The target here is not Odysseus but Agamemnon, whose apology Achilles is portraying as insincere. The poem itself, then, represents Achilles as being slowly moved to return to battle, under the influence of the values he shares with his fellow Achaeans.

Every dead Achaean is, one might say, another measure of just how valuable Achilles is to Agamemnon and the allies.