The Iliad As Ethical Thinking: Politics, Pity, and the Operation Of Esteem
In humanity’s fallen world compromised behavior is not unique and Homer wrote his epics and tales in way that detailed the human experience, as flawed as it may be, rather than projecting moral philosophies or Platonic arguments onto his audience. Homeric individuals act on their own accord taking into account external cultural norms and may or may not judgetheir self-worth based on their interpretation of society’s opinion of them. They may do introspective investigating of what is ethical good or evil much like Homer himself and consider the concesquence of their actions on themselves and on others. They are an ethically complex society believing that the community dictates what right and wrong and good and evil are as opposed to a higher power, some believe that humans have an internal sense of ethics or morality, and many remained uncritical of ethical dilemmas and lacked the ability to mature their reasoning and philosophical muscles. In a Homeric world morality couldradiate in those who chose to embrace it; although, the Greeks were adapted to the dark. Their communities were vain, brutal, and self-indulgent. One of the main goals of individuals in a Homeric world is trying to increase one’s honor through dramatic displays of skill, strength, and courage.
A constant in Homeric world besides relativism is the cloak of shame draped over anyone who did not impress upon the onlookers enough and this shaming is anticipated and simultaneously dreaded by the socially dependent men of this society and this makes him ashamed of himself. The self-esteem and image of a socially dependent man in Homeric world are as fragile and under threat as life itself. However, the socially independent man in the Homeric world will not find his value in his community’s opinion of him rather he will define himself in his own way apart from the onlookers.
The argument of this essay is the ethics of Achilles, the socially independent and vengeful Greek god-like man whose ethics manifest in his esteem, self-image, and interactions with other men and gods. He is outward in strength, emotion, and heroism, but into Book 24 we see a major character shift from a guarded and heartless warrior with nothing in his soul, but anger and self to a more complex being with layers of bad and good, pain and love, selfishness and empathy.
The Violation of Esteem and Achilles’ Withdrawal from Suffering
Achilles’ was not frightened or threatened by the possibilityof death. He thrived not on life, but rather being the recipient of honor and glory which is why the threat of losing Briseis‘ body – his war prize – to Agamemnon hurt his pride. In many ways the mentality of a “warrior society” or war torn country where the greatest heroes are the greatest fighters fed Achilles addiction for praise. Much like Achilles, the Trojans, and the rest of the Greeks honor and glory give warriors not only a purpose in life, but underpin the purpose of their mission. Brave fighting and community praise went hand-and-hand as winning battles and being rewarded with “choice meats and filled wine cups,” as well as good farmland (12.310–17).
This quest for immortal status is rooted in vanity, one’s image of himself and how others portray him. Often warriors judge themselves, their strength, their weaknesses, and their competence based on how his community views him and his image of himself is defined by how he wants to appear to others. This is the “internalized other” as William labeled it, when the respect of oneself is only established through the expressed respect of others first. Warriors would rather die with honor in service to their community than live as the subject of shame, dishonor, and immorality hence the quote from Odysseus in which he says, “[A hero] must by all means stand his ground strongly whether he be struck or strike down another.” (11.408-410)
When Agamemnon takes Briseis away from Achilles in full view of the Greeks they lose respect for Achilles and stop showing him honor and glory. This makes Achiles want to deprive the Greeks of his protection and presence in the community, letting them suffer because of his absence, in order to make them realize how important he is to them. Without praise and accolades from his community in return for his battles Achilles soon found himself discouraged from fighting and risking his life for a battle that had no reward. Achilles’ own view of himself was narcissistic in many ways; although, he was as brave as he was brutal he saw himself as someone who suffered from the afflictions of war.
The Embassy’s attempts to smooth over their dishonor and shaming of Achilles by boosting his self-esteem by showering him with many gifts and sacrifices as if he was one of their many is futile because he no longer finds value in living an honorable life. Achilles now views his death as the defining value of his life rather than viewing his character, decent or abominable, and actions, ethical or unethical, defining his death.Odysseus tries to convey to Achilles that the evil act of attacking the Achaians just to punish Agamemnon would stain his life and the effects of that sin would remain in his past and present as well as that of the Achaians.
Yet, the appeals for pity from Achilles’ fail miserably. Achilles’ “impulses of emotion” coupled with his pride driven nature were the main forces behind his rage filled and vengeful behavior in war and could not be ignored. He felt that his worth and value would be at stake if he did not humiliate the Achaiansand destroy Agamemnon and upon departing camp Achilles was thrilled that his own fellow fighters would fall in his absence. He was eager to kill the Achaians warriors and excited to regain his honor which he believes is imminent because he believes that Zeus has insured him that he has blessed his mission of vengeance. He leaves his thankless community behind to regain what was taken from him and ponder what his future had in store. It turns out that his ultimate dream is not of peace or of praise, but the ability to be a victimizer without in turn becoming a victim.
Esteem As “Being Responsible For”
A more empathic leader, Patroklos, is moved to take to the fields of blood and battle in defense of the Achaians against his friend who he deems “pitiless” for his unwillingness to fight. Patroklos dies in battle and this event shakes Achilles’ world and subsequently reactivates his thirst for vengeance. Filled with pain Achilles feels he can achieve honor by vindicating Patroklos. His motive derives from the guilt he has felt that he failed to protect Patroklos as his position demand he should.
For the first time perhaps in decades Achilles is suffering in pain for another. That is instead of inflicting pain to restore his own honor and esteem, detaching himself from the pain of others, and dodging pain himself Achilles cannot escape the strangling sensation of pain and mourning for the suffering of this specific “other” …his friend. Patroklos’ death made Achilles look beyond himself and his wellness and feel for someone that he simply loved. Yet, his narcissism does not end and it morphs his mourning into red-hot anger towards Patroklos’ victimizer, Hector.
Esteem for Oneself and Vulnerability to Another
Out of Achilles’ guilt births his shame that manifested in his unstable actions to cover his unworthiness by “foul[ing] his handsome countenance” and “defiled his hair” making his outside as filth and dirty as he felt on the inside. In a sense Achilles has died to himself and can find no honor not even in Zeus who he had once deemed his only source of honor. Achilles declared that there was “no pleasure [in Zeus] to me, since my dear companion had perished.” (18.80) Achilles’ entire worth is now tied to Patroklos and he is guilty for abandoning his fellow warriors to die by Hectors’ unforgiving sword all because he lacked the strength to fight in his place.
According to Achilles pre-Patroklos’ death, equality occurs between all men in the inevitable experience of death. Meaning that all men, kings or coward, are forever alike, but not in unified. Post-Patroklos’ death Achilles comes to see that men are explicitly connected in death as well as life by the choices and actions of the living. In Achilles’ mind fate was leading him to act on killing Hector for Patroklos. Thetis reminds him that surely his own death is fated to follow and Achilles’ guilt responds back to her that it is what he deserves.
Esteem and the Distinctiveness of Another
Achilles’ begins the epic believing that he is separate from being including in the “collision of human fates”. He is a man whose only relationship to suffering was how he could best use it, and his fellow warriors, to exact his revenge on enemies. He used his own men as pawns and gambled with his beloved Patroklos’ life in battle to serve his thirst for honor, glory, and vengeance.
Achilles becomes vulnerable in his suffering and burning just to have Patroklos alive with him again, in the flesh, and not just in his memories. The palpability of his broken heart is evident when he said that he “missed his (Patroklos’) manhood and his great strength…all the actions he had seen to the end with him [through] all the hardships he had suffered.” (24.6-8).
Yet, in the cloud of Patroklos’ untimely death Achilles vows to never forget his friend as long he was alive and his knees could support him and in his blinding anger he makes it his mission to mutilate the body of Hector. Even though no matter what Achilles does to punish Hector’s corpse and family nothing will breathe life back into Patroklos.
Esteem and the Expression of Pity
However, Achilles’ empathy is not targeted to all ofhumanity, but only Patroklos and he makes it his mission to avenge his friend’s death by targeting Hector and the Trojans. He draws blood and breath at every turn on his rampage to punish everyone he could for the injustice he felt had taken place. Not yet revealed to Achilles there was another man suffering just as much as he, longing just as much for one who would never return, and bonded to his life and his actions forever. Priam, Hector’s heartbroken father, journeyed to meet the man who killed his son in the towering shelter surrounded by the courtyard with groomed hedges coupled closely together.
Priam appeals to Achilles’ emotions by asking him to imagine the joy in his father, Peleus’, heart at the thought that his son is still alive even though his joy will be short lived. Priam establishes the universality of loss which ripples through oneself from the outside in. This softened Achilles’ heart and he broke down sobbing with Priam mourning for his father’s imminent pain and suffering. Achilles mourned and cried also for Patroklos as the two remembered their loved one’s loss to the abyss of death. Finally, Achilles looks onto another human being with pity and that person is Priam. Another morsel of Achilles’ character, identity, and esteem was developed in this moment directly because of his interaction with another. As the Phoenix once said to Achilles, “Who I am, what I understand as my wants, aims, and desires, are not simply my own. This understanding of who I am may be subject to reflection and revision as my actions affect myself and as they affect another.” Also, in this experience Achilles identifies not only with Priam, but also his father and in his vulnerability. He accepts his responsibility for the suffering that has emitted like radiation off his destructive actions and as a result warped and deformed the lives of those nearest to him and the man within his consciousness.
The Politics of Pity
The meeting of Priam and Achilles is a healing one that results in emotional support between the two men and a figurative “song of pleasure” as they release their suffering together with a human solidarity that can overcome fundamental differences. In The Iliad where human reactions and actions cause mostly negative consequences and suffering, Achilles and Priam find unity. What is so cleverly put on display by Homer here is the power of pity and empathy to heal all wounds and all political scuffles. Priam’s connectedness to Achilles as a fellow human and his gentle approach chipped away at the stone covering on Achilles’ heart revealing his hidden tenderness. Pity is an element to ethics and vulnerability is an element to pity.
The future was one of promise, releasing, and restoration for Priam and Achilles. The gods desired for Achilles and Priam to be freed from the pain of their collided pasts and the consequences of previous actions. The past was present in both men’s lives in the form of sorrow and vengeance which kept their histories constantly present, overtaking their ability to advance. The gods wanted to appeal to Achilles that no matter how many ideas he could think of and execute to avenge his friend by further humiliating and mutilating the body of Hector,that Patroklos would remain dead and in turn his life would degenerate into a cycle of hateful vengeance and pain. Yet, Achilles remains unable to let go just like Priam whose sorrow became like an indigestible present in their bodies. As in Book 24 states, “Priam neither tastes food nor sleeps because he “broods” (pessi) over his suffering (24.639).”
When Achilles is able to have pity on Priam he commands his servants to wash, anoint, and clothe Hector’s damaged body. Achilles does this not out of love for Hector, but empathy for Priam. Achilles understands the love Priam has for Hector and can identify with his plight despite his fear that Patroklos will feel betrayed that he has now blessed and returned the body of Hector, the man who killed him.
As both men move towards restoration and healing they sit down and eat together, now able to taste their food and drink again. The sorrow they could not escape, trapped in their bodies like indigestible food, had begun to move on. This release gave way to the restoration that benefited the soul of each man.
Achilles eventually escapes to a place where he will no longer be held by promises or obligations to others. Upon his return to battle his only obligation is to inflict as much pain and suffering on the Achaians as possible in honor of Patroklos. He refused to makes promises to those whose actions have negatively targeted him or his companion. In Book 24 we see a turn of events that allows Achilles to be bonded with Priam and he calls him friend. Achilles finds pleasure in obliging himself to Priam to produce the body of Hector. Even heading towards his final days, hours, and breathes Achilles was freer now than he ever was before as an honored warrior. Even though Troy is doomed to fall with its leader humanity and its fragility and equality in The Iliad is preserved.
The Iliad and Ethical Deliberation
The claims of this essay is not simply to identify ethics or the lack there of in The Iliad, but also that the epic itself engages readers in ethical deliberation so skillfully so. The collision of human fates are evident in Book 24 of The Iliad and it is clear how our human relationships makes us vulnerable to loss and guilt if we do not take care of those who we feel responsible for. No matter how much we try to separate ourselves from pity, remorse, and put up walls of false strength and resilience we are still vulnerable and our hearts are penetrable to empathy as well as hurt. This epic and particularly Book 24 invites us to reflect on the dynamics of human enactment and examine our ethical relationship to one another, friend and foe a value which transcends Homeric world, Achilles, Patroklos, or Priam. This world attracts us to it and we come to see that total independence is a farce. Homer masterfully crafts subtle transitions in the story that lead us to realize through the self-destructive Achilles that we interact in this world constantly influencing one another, sharing, suffering, releasing, and restoring together. It is made obvious that we are either receiving or inflicting good or evil and that the world and life is a mutual experience made of emotion and connection.
~ The Novelette 🖤