Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

HOMER: The Iliad (Books 9-12)

Everyone I know has had some moment in early childhood when they said: “No, that’s mine. You can’t have it.” Mature people have more graceful ways of establishing ownership. What happens when that personal ownership is violated? In modern America if it’s serious enough you can call the police and go to court. In Homer’s world it was a personal matter. Back in Book 1 King Agamemnon had his prize-girl taken away from him and he didn’t think it was right for everyone to have a prize except for the king. So he took a prize-girl away from Achilles. Agamemnon acted out of anger and pride; Achilles responds out of anger and pride by withdrawing from any further fighting. At this point most readers respond better to Achilles than they do to Agamemnon. We all know how it feels when something that’s rightly ours is taken away unfairly. We think Achilles has been cheated and Agamemnon is acting like a cry-baby. But how far would we push that feeling of being cheated? How much would we make others suffer because our own pride was hurt? What if the other guy (Agamemnon) apologizes?

That’s the dilemma posed in Book 9. The wise counselor Nestor tells Agamemnon he was wrong. Agamemnon responds like a mature man and says “Sir, you have reproved my folly justly. I was wrong. I own it…I was blinded with passion and yielded to my worser mind; therefore I will make amends and will give him great gifts by way of atonement.” He knows he has acted badly and admits it. What about Achilles? Some Greek envoys come to tell him that Agamemnon is not only sorry for the way he acted but will go to great lengths to make it up to Achilles. How does Achilles respond? He responds like this: “I will say what I mean. I will be appeased neither by Agamemnon son of Atreus nor by any other of the Greeks…Are the sons of Atreus the only men in the world who love their wives? Any man of common right feeling will love and cherish her who is his own, as I this woman, with my whole heart, though she was but a fruitling of my spear. Agamemnon has taken her from me; he has played me false; I know him…I will take no counsel with him and will undertake nothing in common with him. He has wronged me and deceived me enough…let him go his own way for Zeus has robbed him of his reason. I loathe his presents and don’t care one straw for him either.” Achilles will not change his mind no matter what Agamemnon does. Now who’s acting like a cry-baby?

Using terms like cry-baby diminishes the story. Agamemnon is a king; so is Achilles. Homer seems to be asking an obvious question: then why don’t they act like kings? The Greeks are in their ninth year of fighting a war. They need to be unified if they’re ever going to defeat the Trojans. All this infighting is counterproductive and can only hurt the Greek cause. Agamemnon has made a poor command decision affecting his best officer. Achilles has committed insubordination to a superior officer. What kind of message does that send to the troops in the field? What kind of message does it send to people reading the poem today? The problem posed by Agamemnon vs. Achilles is a universal problem. Strong-willed people almost always vie for leadership positions. And leadership positions are rare. So the modern reader must focus on what leadership means. Does leadership mean achieving the goal set out by your organization or country? Does leadership mean taking care of the people under your charge? The Greeks were under no starry-eyed illusions about the universal need to grasp for power. The historian Thucydides wrote: “We believe that Heaven, and we know that men, by a natural law always rule where they are stronger. We did not make that law nor were we the first to act on it; we found it existing, and it will exist long after we’re gone…”


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