29 October, 2007

Shall and Will

Who uses "shall" anymore? Does anyone really? If pressed, I can think of a few instances in which more grammatically astute people use the word - first person offers sometimes feature this word: "Shall I throw your laptop down the garbage chute?"

I had no idea, however, just how grammatically complex the issue of when to use the word can become. It's all the fault of Old English, as far as I understand. I'm far too hazy on the subject of the two words' origins myself to feel confident offering any explanation, but it has something to do with the fact that Old English did not really have a future tense, and these words were originally used in the preterite-present tense.

The two are distinguished primarily by their original connotations of command (shall) and wish (will). You can see this distinction more clearly in the way we use their conditional tense counterparts, should and would: "You should eat every one of those delicious lima beans" versus "I would equip myself for battle by learning how to use a lightsaber". The English grammarian, H.W. Fowler, gives some examples of using the two words in the "pure" system which derives more directly from Old English:

* Thou shalt not steal.
* Shall I open the door?
* You should not say such things.
* And shall Trelawney die?
* Whom should he meet but Jones? (...was it his fate...)
* Why should you suspect me?
* It should seem so. (It would apparently be incumbent on us to believe)
* I will have my way.
* I (he) asked him (me) to do it, but he (I) would not.
* I would not have done it for the world.
* I would be told to wait a while (Habitual).
* Will you come with me?
* I would I were dead.
* He will bite his nails, whatever I say.
* He will often stand on his head.

Now, of course, both shall and will function primarily as "auxiliary verbs" - words used to give additional grammatical information about another verb in the sentence - to approximate the future tense (which doesn't have specific independent verb forms in English), and this is where the issue becomes much more confusing. In the pure sense that I discussed above, you usually don't use "should" in the first person, because you don't usually give commands to yourself, and you don't usually use "would" in the second or third person, because it is used to connote a wish. However, these rules are reversed when expressing the "simple future".

When expressing simple future (i.e. making spontaneous decisions, making predictions, etc), shall and should are applied to the first person, whereas will and would are used in the second and third persons. From what I understand, this switch exists simply to distinguish this tense from the above pure sense in which the words can be used.

It switches back yet again, however, when expressing the modal future. This is a modification of the simple future, and is used to express the speaker's wish, intention, threat, promise, offer, refusal, and so on. Shall is used for second and third persons in this case, and will for first person. So if we had a conversation between the cyclops and Odysseus, for instance, using this tense, it might proceed like this:

Cyclops: I will eat you in a few minutes. (Cyclops' intention)
Odysseus: You shall regret it if you do. (Odysseus' threat)
Cyclops: You should have my lands and sheep if you let me eat you. (Cyclops' conditional offer)
Odysseus: I would poke your single eye out with a burning brand if I could. (Odysseus' conditional threat)

You get the idea.

Of course, no one really cares about such obscure grammar rules any more, especially not in the USA, where "will" is almost universally replacing "shall". I'd expect about the same is happening in most of the English-speaking world. This is probably a good thing, in some ways. If people can manage to mix up "has" and "have" the moment they are faced with a slightly complicated syntax in a sentence, it would be rather painful to hear what could happen if these rules were carefully followed.

And besides, insisting on such a manner of speech... would't be almost sadistic to all the people who have to learn our ridiculously complicated language? As if our spelling rules (or lack thereof) aren't bad enough....

23 October, 2007

Socrates vs Thrasymachus (The Republic...mwahahahaha!)

Any argument relies upon some fundamental agreement about the issue being discussed. However great the divide in opinion may be, there must exist at least some similarity in the participants’ manner of viewing the issue if a solution is ever to be reached. Book One of Plato’s Republic features a disagreement between Socrates and Thrasymachus about the nature of justice. The disaccord between their views of the subject is extremely pronounced, but there are certain underlying agreements which guide the course of the debate. One way to evaluate the validity of the arguments involved is to examine whether the assumptions at the root of the argument are in accord with this common ground. By my reading of the dialogue, Socrates’ reply to the first part of Thrasymachus’ definition of justice rests safely upon this common ground, whereas his answer to Thrasymachus’ second definition moves away from this mutually acceptable base, and is injured as a result. In exploring this topic, I intend to examine briefly Thrasymachus’ two-part definition of justice. For each of these parts I will evaluate one Socratic response and discuss it from the perspective of the “craftsman analogy” – an analogy which is initially used by common consent, but which Socrates adapts until its original usage almost disappears.

Thrasymachus’ first definition of justice is easy to state, but it is not so immediately clear how it is to be interpreted. Justice, he claims, is the advantage of the stronger. On its own, such a sentence could imply that what is beneficial to the stronger is just for and therefore, beneficial to the weaker, and Socrates accordingly asks whether this understanding is accurate. Thrasymachus promptly responds in the negative. The interpretation he proceeds to expound upon can be summed up by adapting slightly his original definition: justice is that which obtains the advantage of the stronger. To support this definition, he points to the example of ruling a city. Any ruling class will fashion the laws of the commonwealth with a view to its own benefit, he asserts. Since it is just to obey the law, those who behave justly will be acting for the advantage of the rulers (whom Thrasymachus interchangeably terms “the stronger”).

Socrates makes his first objection at this moment, but I will treat this here only incidentally: merely insofar as it allows us to see why Thrasymachus introduces the craftsman analogy. Socrates objects that rulers are, as humans, bound to make mistakes - to confuse their disadvantage with their advantage on occasion. In this case just obedience to laws would work to the ruler’s disadvantage. Thrasymachus responds promptly, saying that a man who makes a mistake in ruling is not at that moment a ruler in the strict sense, and introduces the craftsman analogy to support this idea. Insofar as a man is a craftsman, he will not make any mistakes; mistakes are rooted in ignorance, and so can only occur when a man’s knowledge of his craft is incomplete. The quandary which Socrates introduces is thus avoided by Thrasymachus’ qualification that errors are never made by rulers as rulers.

Though the analogy works at first to Thrasymachus’ advantage, Socrates promptly turns it against him in a new objection. All arts, he asserts, are exercised with a view to the benefit of the subject rather than to the benefit of the artisan. The doctor employs his medical art for the betterment of the patient, the pilot navigates for the safety of the ship and the sailors, and so forth. Like Thrasymachus, he identifies ruling as an art, and claims that ruling also is exercised with a view to the subjects’ benefit. Throughout the argument, Thrasymachus passively assents to Socrates’ individual points. But as we shall see later, he rejects the conclusion drawn from these.

From an objective viewpoint, one immediately questionable aspect of this argument is Socrates’ idea that ruling is an art in the same sense that medicine and navigation are arts. Despite its potential weakness however, Socrates’ use of the analogy is the one part of the argument which Thrasymachus cannot question without bringing Socrates’ first objection once again into dispute. Thus this definition of ruling forms some part of the common ground I have previously mentioned. Although an objection such as this may affect the objective validity of the argument, it is important to keep in mind the fact that Socrates is not attempting to create an incontestable definition of justice at this point. He is merely answering an invalid argument by demonstrating its weaknesses in terms which correspond to Thrasymachus’ perspective.

Agitated by Socrates’ line of reasoning, Thrasymachus proceeds to blurt out a revised version of his original statement. Thrasymachus claims that injustice is freer and stronger than justice and that it results in a happier life. As in the former definition, he does not consider so much what justice is as what it does; he rates the subject in regards to its advantageousness or lack thereof. Essentially, this definition is an extreme extension of the previous one. Also, the example he uses for support – that of a tyrant made powerful and thus happy through injustice – hearkens back to his initial definition as ruling being the advantage of the stronger. It is clear that Thrasymachus has not been convinced by Socrates’ last argument, despite his apparent agreement with Socrates’ points. He is arguing in different terms, but in actual substance this new development is little more than a bare contradiction of Socrates’ previous argument. He still supposes that the unjust will have the advantage, and does no more than give new evidence to support this view. He essentially declares: “You say that the proper ruler will consider the benefit of his subjects and thus act justly. I say that injustice leads to a happy life and that craftsmen do aim at their own advantage.”

Whereas the weaknesses in Socrates’ previously discussed arguments are more or less excusable, there are several factors in his next argument which make it very controversial. In opening this argument, Socrates asks whether a just man will want to overreach and surpass other just men. The two debaters agree that a just man will deem it proper to surpass the unjust man, but that he will not want to surpass his fellow just man. The unjust man, on the other hand, will want to surpass and get the better of everyone. Now Socrates proceeds to use the craftsman analogy to illustrate his case. With this case Socrates attempts to prove that those who try to overreach their “like” are bad craftsmen. Returning to the specific example of the doctor, he observes that a medical man will not endeavor to outdo another physician, but will want to outdo the non-physician.

One flaw seems to appear at this point in the argument. Socrates, it would seem, has left no place in this for simple ambition here. If the first half of this analogy is true, there is no room for an artist to advance and improve his craft in a just manner, because unless he is unjust, he will not have any ambition to surpass his fellow artists. However this can be answered by a glance back at Thrasymachus’ concept of the artisan “in the strict sense.” No one is an artisan insofar as he is in error, so the true artist will be unable to surpass another true artist: ideally, the artist, insofar as he is an artist, will already exercise his art faultlessly.

Socrates completes this argument by saying that the one who tries to overreach the artist can not have true knowledge of the craft. In other words, true artists will be able to identify one another and to recognize the impossibility of surpassing each other. Since the one who wants to surpass everyone in a specific art must not be an artisan, he is ignorant of this art. Thus, Socrates claims, the unjust man is really ignorant and therefore weak and bad.

There is a marked distinction between this use of the craftsman analogy and former uses. Previously the analogy was used in reference to the “craft” of ruling. This was legitimate in the context primarily because Thrasymachus agreed to this use. Now however, the subject of the analogy is not ruling, but justice. Thrasymachus never explicitly agrees to this switch, and thus when it is made, the analogy no longer rests safely upon the common ground. It is no longer an example accepted by both parties and so its sole justification would have to rest on an objective view of the argument. So we have another important question to examine. That is, can justice be rightly considered a craft? Even if it can in a vague sense, would it be properly analogous to other crafts like medicine or navigation?

There are reasons to support a negative answer to this query. For one thing, it could be argued that justice is more a manner of acting, rather than a craft in its own right. Whereas it is nonsensical to say that one can, for example, read a book medicinally, or in a navigating manner (except perhaps as a figure of speech), one can exercise a craft or perform any action either justly or unjustly. Justice is more easily considered a measure of how well an action is performed than the action itself.

The most important thing to note here is that Socrates has moved away from the common ground which has previously supported the argument. Before, the question of whether Socrates’ examples are objectively valid was not so crucial from one viewpoint. As long as Socrates was trying to demonstrate the illogicalities within Thrasymachus’ position, there was much to gain from arguments based on Thrasymachus’ premises, whether the premises were true or not. For this last argument, however, Socrates does not base his argument on these guides, but preserves the form of the craftsman analogy while changing it substantially. Thus this particular argument suffers and is at least of questionable efficacy.

However, if the question of whether injustice is better than justice were entirely closed here, there would be no need for the rest of the book. Problems in Socrates’ arguments are taken up by new actors in later books of the dialogue, and Socrates will spend nine complete books essentially inquiring into this theme. Though Socrates may be inefficient in answering Thrasymachus’ particular arguments, once we step back to look at The Republic as a whole, it becomes apparent that inconsistencies in Book One provide the necessary fodder to produce the rest of this Socratic discourse.

21 October, 2007

The Heroic Choice

The Iliad, a tale revolving around heroism, culminates in an epic battle between its two greatest heroes as Achilleus and Hektor fight before the walls of Troy. It is a climax predicted again and again, an event made inevitable by the will of the gods.
Yet simple human choice comes into play here as well. Hektor has an explicit opportunity to retreat as he hesitates before the wall of Troy, and when he decides against this course, he seals his fate more definitively than any god or goddess has. If Hektor’s hesitation is indeed the product of a choice, another question comes up: Is Hektor’s choice to stay and face Achilleus a heroic one?

Initially, it would seem that Hektor’s heroism should not even become a point of controversy, and that fate is more domineering in this case than I have given it credit for in my opening. His delay, as “deadly fate held Hektor shackled,” is described at first as the consequence of a divine compulsion (22.5). Later however, Hektor is “deeply troubled” by the choice he sees before him, and in this frame of mind, he debates several courses of action (22.98). While he cannot altogether evade his fated death,, a hero like Hektor seems to be responsible for determining its the “how,” “where,” and “when.” Hektor could delay his doom, or at least attempt to, but he explicitly chooses against this path.

Hektor evaluates three courses of action, distinguishing each from the others according to their varying “honourableness.” He could rush back through the gates of Troy while there is still time. However, this possibility is unthinkable for the Homeric hero who values honour so highly. Due to mistakes in his recent leadership, if Hektor takes this route, he will return to face disgrace among his people, who will “put a reproach on [him]” for his errors (22.100). The second alternative would incur even greater dishonour. Hektor could rush to Achilleus and beseech his mercy through promises to return Helen and all Menelaos’ stolen possessions. But in doing so, he would cast off his dignity as a warrior and offer things that were not by right his to give; after all, Paris stole Helen and the loot, and he alone could rightfully return them (cf 7.365-64). Worse still in Hektor’s mind is the possibility that Achilleus might kill him unarmed as he offers this appeasement, “as if I were / a woman, once I stripped the armour from me” (22.124-25). The third alternative, to stand his ground and fight, is the only one that accords with his standards of honour and is thus the one Hektor chooses. He vanquishes the first two alternatives asking, “why does the heart within me debate on these things?” (22.122).

From a modern point of view, the motives for this choice can seem more selfish than heroic. Hektor’s reasons for rejecting the second possibility are in part practical. It makes little sense to die begging but unarmed when he could put up a fight. But the alternative of returning to the city is not to be so lightly thrown aside. The reasons Hektor gives for discarding this option focus upon the opprobrium he will encounter if the city falls through his fault. However self-centered it may appear by from a modern perspective, however, I believe that this motivation is validly heroic by ancient Greek standards. The Iliad repeatedly emphasizes the importance praise, war trophies, and boasting of daring exploits hold for a hero. Achilleus, the paramount hero of the epic, evaluates honour in such a manner, taking personal prestige seriously enough to pray that his fellow Achaians be killed in droves until it is restored (cf. 1.408-12). Such heroic honour is at stake for Hektor if he returns to Troy in shame.

However, heroism in Homer’s world seems to consist of something more than mere glory. The greatest of heroes in The Iliad carry the burden of a fated life, and their heroism is further displayed in their reaction to fate and the will of the gods. Achilleus has his “double fate” – he carries “two sorts of destiny toward the day of [his] death” but must eventually choose one. His heroism is made dramatically manifest through his choice to die in glory and honour rather than to live unsung and without nobility (9.411). Sarpedon, Zeus’ son, is destined to be sacrificed for the sake of his father’s plan, but his words of encouragement to a companion in the midst of battle reecho as a sort of war cry for mortal heroes: “seeing that the spirits of death stand close about us, … let us go on and win glory for ourselves” (12.326-28).

Hektor chooses to shoulder his destiny in a similarly bold and heroic manner when he makes his decision to stand and fight. Unlike Agamemnon and many other warriors, he does not try to cast responsibility for his previous mistaken actions upon the gods. From this perspective, his decision, and even to a degree his motivations for this decision are veritably noble. He admits that “by my own recklessness I have ruined my people,” that he is responsible for the Trojans’ demise because he did not heed Poulydamas’ advice. He does not attribute this lack of judgment to the interference of the gods, despite the fact that Homer informs us of how “Pallas Athene had taken away the wits” of all the Trojans (18.311). The Trojan warriors had united with Hektor in rejecting Poulydamas’ counsel, yet Hektor takes full responsibility for weakening his city to the point of vulnerability when the moment for his fatal decision arrives. Likewise, he tacitly admits his complicity in Patroklos’ death by not protesting to Achilleus that he was only Patroklos’ “third slayer” – a weak excuse but one which has similarly weak precedent in the excuses of Agamemnon (16.850; 19.90). Hektor could have blamed both these actions on the gods or on fate. Yet he accepts responsibility as though his personal choice and nothing more brought on these catastrophes. In bearing the burden of his fate so deliberately, Hektor shows himself to be truly heroic.

Hektor’s motives for facing Achilleus are those of a man who, mistaken or not in his conception of heroism, acts honestly in accordance with that concept. Although a fated mortal, he accepts his fate with courage. This courage is great enough even to impress the gods and deserve their good will, as demonstrated by the way they carefully preserve the hero’s body during twelve days of battering (cf. 24.411-23). The words with which Hektor greets his impending death – “Let me at least not die without a struggle, inglorious, / but do some big thing first, that men shall come to know of it” – parallel those with which Sarpedon encourages his companions to heroism. And like his fellow hero and nemesis, Achilleus, Hektor chooses not to attempt to escape his fate only to die unsung and dishonoured, but rather chooses to die in glory and honour as a true Homeric hero.

As I'm sure you can tell, this is another paper. Stylistically, the biggest problem here is a slightly deferred thesis. I'm definitely going to watch out for that in my next papers!

17 October, 2007

Falling madly in love with a word

Is something I tend to do a lot. Right now, the word in question is "clever." Isn't it great? Say it a million times to yourself, turn it into a mantra or a chant. Liking it yet? Maybe you could try writing a paper on a certain Greek hero's cleverness.

Since I am so excessively fond of the word (cleverness, clever, cleverly, cleverosity - ok, that last one isn't a genuine word), I decided post its etymology. Just in case reading my random ravings about the word (cleverness, clever; I'm almost singing it now)haven't bored you enough, you can take a look at this. If you're rabidly interested in linguistics, however, I'm afraid that won't work, because it is a very interesting etymology.

c.1590, from E.Anglian dial. cliver "expert at seizing," probably from E.Fris. klufer or Norwegian dialectic klover "ready, skillful," perhaps infl. by O.E. clifer "claw, hand" (early usages seem to refer to dexterity); extension to intellect is first recorded 1704.

I like the part about its descent from the word "hand". Even today, this word has a definite connotation of dexterity, though now obviously referring to mental dexterity. Speaking of which, dexterity is a jolly cool word as well, is it not? The two sound rather similar, in fact. Clever. Dexterous. I won't write a compare and contrast essay, but my opinion remains that they sound as though they were designed to go together.

15 October, 2007

The worst thing about college:

Is sitting still so often. I loathe it with something rather akin to the proverbial passion. My roommate must think me insane because I so often leap to my feet to pace the room as I read.

Here's a tiny poem that popped into my head just now:

As sitting still progresses,
My mind begins to fade.
As my cerebrum deliquesces,
Perusing books begins to jade.

Unfortunately, since I've never taken a poetry class, I don't know what (if any) specific term is used to describe this type of "poem" (a bit ostentatious sounding, that description, now that I write it). Perhaps I'll call it an acrostic, and pretend that the letters "AMAP" spell out "SOS" in some unidentified foreign language.

14 October, 2007

The Dawkins Delusion

I found this on my cousin's blog. I don't usually post videos, but this is one of the best I've seen in a long time. (To my family: this is definitely worth watching even with dial-up)

10 October, 2007

Iliad vs the Odyssey

Reading The Odyssey is not much at all like reading The Iliad. Which is odd, because the same 750 B.C.-era blind bard supposedly wrote both.

The Iliad is an exhilarating read. Homer's perspective is foreign enough that reading this is like walking an intellectual tightrope. Exquisite care is required to comprehend and then apply to the reading certain Greek ideas, and even with this care, there remains an inexorable tension in the tale. The constant attempt to transcend mortality through heroism, while the reality of death is reinforced unremittingly by the encompassing war, gives the epic a tense and bleak feel at times. The book is undeniably dark, with its focus on the inexorability of death. Divorced from the theme, it is a grim and unattractive story - little more than a long sequence of beheadings and stabbings with no underlying purpose.

The Odyssey, however, is pushed forward by motives which are much more familiar to us now. Odysseus is propelled by his love of family and homeland; his journey is an attempt to gain those things dearest to him. He is guided in this quest by the virtue of hospitality - the supreme virtue practiced in the realm both of journeying and home life. A few of the themes from The Iliad are given cameo roles, but they do not thrust themselves so disconcertingly into the reader's attention as they do in the former epic. (This is not to say that the values of the Odyssey are never disconcerting, only that they aren't taken as a whole.)

The exhilaration gained from The Iliad's tension is replaced in the Odyssey by exhilarating language and an exciting variety of scenes. How often in The Iliad do we read of pear trees, olives, sacred groves, cyclopes, monstrous whirlpools, or anything of that type? But as vast the variety is, each scene draws attention to the importance of hospitality and the dire consequences resulting from sins against this virtue.

Variety in the Iliad would have detracted from the urgency of the theme. Death and dying are portrayed as inexorable, and the similarity of each warrior's death is in one of the technical means Homer uses to show that -as Achilles says - "death is the same for each man."

The Odyssey does not neglect the urgency of Odysseus' desire to return home. But the very nature of the theme allows variety to work well poetically in this story. Often when Odysseus encounters a new situation, he is greeted with either a breach or a reinforcement of the ways of hospitality. Each time this happens, the reader is reminded of Penelope and Telemachos and the suitors. A new type of tension arises with the question: How will Odysseus meet and root out these bad guests, these blasphemers against hospitality when he returns home? Will he return home and be successful in defending these values?

Perhaps reading the Odyssey feels less tense because it is the story of a single man. The massive outcry against death which drives The Iliad speaks to some part of us which is conscious still of the immortality we were created for and which is repelled by the thought of abandoning life. The Odyssey by contrast matters most to Odysseus. Though we can sympathize with his love for family, and though his journey to find that which is most meaningful in his life resonates with us all, for us it is by comparison a calm journey. The Iliad urgently questions the meaning of death. The urgency here however consists in a question more more hopeful and more easily answered: Will he ever get there? Will we ever get there?

It is a story of search for fulfillment, rather than of man's reaction to the threat of having this longed-for fulfillment threatened by the emptiness of Hades. The variety which makes the reading so immediately interesting reflects the variousness of every person's Odyssey in search of some sort of meaning. Guided like Odysseus by certain values, every individual is capable of searching for that which gives meaning to his life. After the tension and darkness of the Iliad, such a story can only seem profoundly hopeful.

06 October, 2007

LibraryThing list

Ok, so this has been floating around the blogging world, and I thought I'd do it myself. It's a list of LibraryThing's most read titles.

Bold the books you've read. Italicize the ones you haven't read bu have on your bookshelf. I'm going to put the books I haven't read into parentheses to distinguish them from the books I have read, because in my blog format bolding doesn't show up.

(Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell)
Anna Karenina
Crime and Punishment
(One Hundred Years of Solitude)
Wuthering Heights
The Silmarillion
(Life of Pi)
(The Name of the Rose)
Don Quixote
Moby Dick
The Odyssey
Pride and Prejudice
Jane Eyre

A Tale of Two Cities
The Brothers Karamazov
Guns, Germs, and Steel: the fates of human societies
War and Peace
Vanity Fair
(The Time Traveler’s Wife)
The Iliad
(The Blind Assassin)
(The Kite Runner)
(Mrs. Dalloway)
Great Expectations
(American Gods)
(Atlas Shrugged)
(Reading Lolita in Tehran : a memoir in books)
(Memoirs of a Geisha)
(Wicked : the life and times of the wicked witch of the West)
The Canterbury Tales
(The Historian )
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
(Love in the Time of Cholera)
Brave New World
(The Fountainhead)
(Foucault’s Pendulum)
The Count of Monte Cristo
(A Clockwork Orange)
(Anansi Boys)
(The Once and Future King) (on my TBR list)
The Grapes of Wrath
(The Poisonwood Bible )
The Inferno
Sense and Sensibility
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Mansfield Park
(One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest)
(To the Lighthouse)
Tess of the D’Urbervilles
Oliver Twist
Gulliver’s Travels
Les Misérables

(The Corrections)
(The Amazing adventures of Kavalier and Clay)
(The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time)
(The Prince)
(The Sound and the Fury)
(Angela’s Ashes)
(The God of Small Things)
(A People’s History of the United States : 1492-present) (Ack!)
(A Confederacy of Dunces)
(A Short History of Nearly Everything)
(The Unbearable Lightness of Being)
The Scarlet Letter
Eats, Shoots & Leaves
(The Mists of Avalon)
(Oryx and Crake )
(Collapse : How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed)
(Cloud Atlas)
(The Confusion)
Northanger Abbey

(The Catcher in the Rye)
(On the Road)
(The Hunchback of Notre Dame)
(Freakonomics : a Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything)
The Aeneid
(Watership Down)
(Gravity’s Rainbow)
The Hobbit
(White Teeth)
Treasure Island
David Copperfield
The Three Musketeers

And there we have it.

04 October, 2007

The Greek Appeals and Achilleus’ Honour

Here's my first literature paper, which I'm posting largely because I'm lazy and don't want to write anything new at the moment. My professor seemed to like the thesis and points of view. The biggest problem is my tendency to "strand quotes" - a habit which I think (shame, shame) I picked up while blogging. There are also a few word choices I'm regretting now that I re-read it. Oh well.

The plot of The Iliad revolves around Achilleus' argument with Agamemnon and Achilleus' subsequent abandonment of the Achaian forces. In Book Nine, the Achaians, after suffering several disheartening defeats, decide to appeal to their strongest warrior, Achilleus, beseeching him to return to their aid. Three emissaries are sent to Achilleus' camp, each bringing an appeal to the hero's pity and sense of honour. These appeals vary in persuasiveness depending on the audience – what may appeal to one reader may not appeal to Achilleus. It seems to me that from Achilleus’ point of view, the most effective argument is the appeal to his honour which develops throughout the parley.

The aspect appealing to Achilleus is not the most compelling for me. I am most convinced by Odysseus’ appeal for pity, together with his observation that Achilleus is harming not only Agamemnon by his anger, but the rest of the Achaians as well. “If the son of Atreus is too much hated in your heart…at least take pity on all the other Achaians” (9.300-2). However, from Achilleus’ honour-driven point of view, this line of reasoning is less strong than the consistent refrain that his behavior is not as honourable as it could be.

Of the points presented in any one of the three main arguments, Achilleus responds to these honour-based ones most heatedly. He substantially ignores or minimizes the other points made by the emissaries, and consistently bases his replies on his thoughts about honour, showing that they are his chief concern. The appeal to honour changes slightly with each speaker, but the progression formed by the speakers’ points on this subject, joined with Achilleus’ response to them, gives Achilleus an opportunity to refine his understanding of what it means to be honourable as a hero.

This refinement, it seems, is necessary: Achilleus’ ideas about honour – once so important to his concept of heroism – seem to have undergone a crisis during his time at the ship, as can be seen in his reply to Odysseus’ first plea. Towards the end of a strong argument, Odysseus brings out what he expects to be his strongest point – winning the war for the Achaians will bring Achilleus the very undying glory and honour which has been seeking for so long. "Take pity on all the other Achaians, who are afflicted...and they will honour you/ as a god" (9.301-3). In Achilleus’ reply, however, I hardly recognize the glory-seeker who in Book 1 prayed: “Since…[I am to be] a man with a short life,/Zeus…should grant me honour at least.” Now, he cannot see any reason to fight, and he no longer cares about glory if it means that he has to die in a pointless war. "Nothing is won for me, now that my heart has gone through its afflictions/ in forever setting my life on the hazard of battle.” My death, he says, is certain whether I am honoured or not, and I gain nothing valuable from this: "Fate is the same for the man who holds back, the same if he fights hard" (9.321-2 and 9.318). The desire to be immortalized in legend is, it seems, no longer paramount next to his desire for life.

Phoinix’s entreaty is much briefer in substance than that of Odysseus. Speaking of honour, he repeats the words of Odysseus, but hints as well that Achilleus has a duty to honour their counsel as ambassadors: “[Agamemnon] has sent the best men to you, to supplicate you…Do not you make vain their argument.” (9.520-2) He lastly observes that the honour Achilleus could gain by returning will not be as great if he returns at the last minute than if he accepts the gifts and returns as a hero now (cf. 9.603-5).

Achilleus is quick to reinforce his declaration that this popular and leader-accredited type of honour is not something he cares about. “[S]uch honour is a thing/ I need not. I think I am already honoured in Zeus’ ordinance.” However, the second part of this quotation is revealing. It discloses a slight qualification to Achilleus’ previous asservation that “we are all held in a single honour” (9.319). Perhaps when it comes to dying, we are indeed held “in a single honour,” but having the gods honour him in life still means something to Achilleus. He is still convinced that he is justified in his anger, and that his actions are honourable according to Zeus. After all, the gods have been supporting his wrath from the beginning of the quarrel - recall Thetis’ immediate acquiescence to Achilleus’ plea for vengeance (1.413-22) and Zeus’ subsequent agreement. But however just or unjust his actions may appear, Achilleus has at least has taken a step beyond valuing battlefield glory for its own sake, and is now beginning to desire the honour which he will receive from the gods for acting rightly.

It is the last speaker, Aias, who finally brings this development to a real conclusion. He hints that not only the random standards of the gods – who evaluate Achilleus’ anger as just – could be applied to honour. The higher standards of two Greek human virtues – hospitality and loyalty to friends – can also be guides to the one who wishes to be honourable. Aias begins with impolitic but effective bluntness. “Achilleus has made savage the proud-hearted spirit within his body” – Achilleus is not displaying honourable pride, but is making himself isolating himself from basic humanity in a stubborn and selfish refusal to help his fellow Achaians (9.629). Moreover, Aias points out, Achilleus’ rejection of their appeals indicates a disrespect of the emissaries. Phoinix, Aias, and Odysseus are warriors of high standing among the Achaians, and Achilleus’ friends, allies whose counsel and opinions Achilleus should greet with honour, as he has so far treated the men themselves with material hospitality. “Make gracious the spirit within you./ Respect your own house; see, we are under the same roof with you…we who desire beyond all/ others to have your honour and love.”

This appeal gives a good precedent for Achilleus’ return, and uncovers a concept which Achilleus, certain his claim is just and thinking of honour in terms of personal glory and reputation, has not even considered. Honourable behavior consists not only in exploits of war, but also in hospitality and loyalty to friends – two virtues which are crucial throughout the Iliad and Odyssey (take for example the meeting of Glaukos and Diomedes in Book 6). This way of putting things is crucial to Achilleus’ decision to remain by the ships, as he admits to Aias, “all that you have said seems spoken after my own mind.” I would moreover suspect that this will eventually have something to do with his ultimate return to battle, when he returns not for the sake of glory, but for the sake of avenging his friend, Patroklus. (9.645; cf. 18.114-6)

While neither Odysseus nor Phoinix manage to make honour sound convincing enough to persuade Achilleus, the points with which Aias concludes the theme they began cause the hero to relent just enough to promise to defend the ships. Although his concession is less complete than the emissaries could have hoped, at the end of the discussion, I would argue that much has been accomplished. Achilleus now has a better perspective on what it means to be honourable. He has matured at least a little towards being a true hero by learning that heroic honour means not only battlefield glory and the support of the gods. The greatest Greek virtues of hospitality, respect for one’s friends, and loyalty must be possessed by the man who is truly honourable.

03 October, 2007

WB Yeats - on a public bus?

So the other day I was testing out the public transportation system around here. While on a bus coming back from the train station (the trains here are very spiffy, by the way), I noticed that there was a Yeats poem inscribed on the ceiling of the vehicle.

Struck by its incongruity in such a work-a-day location, I set about memorizing it, and succeeded(it's a very short poem, after all) before I was back at the school.

Here is the poem, in its entirety. I don't remember the title, but I do recall everything else:

I made my song a coat,
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies
From heel to throat;
But the fools caught it,
Wore it in the world's eyes
As though they'd wrought it.
Song let them take it,
For there's more enterprise
In walking naked.

It's a very simple one, and not hard to catch the meaning of. Yeats "invented" his own style, involving imagery from mythology and ancient legends, but it was imitated by his contemporaries as though it was their own. Their poems, Yeats implies, are worth little, because they are devoid of the meaning which makes his poems able to stand even without adornment.

It's not my favorite poem of all time, but I'm always rather fond of Yeats' style - the language he employs, the interesting patterns of the lines. And where I found it was so strikingly unusual....

Such findings are always neat, just by virtue of their unexpectedness.