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.


Faraway said...

Greetings from Russia again.
Sorry it's a bit off topic, but I've just found you started uni - how's it going so far?
My warmest regards and looking forward to a line from you.

Faraway said...

We continue to explore the overseas
ways - so any materials you can contribute are very very welcome.
Sorry about the editors vandalising your texts - this will never happen on a Moscow EL forum :-)
Regards and good luck.

Mary Anne said...

Good job! The Peebles.