Autodidact: Homer’s Iliad I

A:  The Muses

“Sing, goddess, the wrath of Achilles Peleus' son, the ruinous wrath that brought on the Achaeans woes innumerable, and hurled down into Hades many strong souls of heroes, and gave their bodies to be a prey to dogs and all winged fowls; and so the counsel of Zeus wrought out its accomplishment from the day when first strife parted Atreides king of men and noble Achilles.”

So begins an epic poem that many readers even today regard as the best work of literature that has ever been written, equalled only by the Odyssey. I never cared for such judgments—the most important theologian, the 3 greatest western movies ever made, the world’s best hotdog.  I leave the making of lists to newly wed brides who torture their husbands with “Honey Do lists” they post on the bathroom mirror.

Every word of this little preface is significant.  There are many significant characters in the Iliad—Odysseus, Diomedes, Menelaos, Hector and Andromache, but it is a mark of Homer’s genius, not only that he does not go back to the egg from which Clytaemnetra and Helen and their brothers were hatched, but that he names the three most important players:  Achilles, Agamemnon, and Zeus.  In this and the next lecture, I hope to make it clear why and how a god could be a major actor in this drama.

But, before we go on to talk about Zeus, let us first note the verb, “Sing”.  Whether the poet actually sang or merely chanted to his lyre is something for scholars to debate, but obviously he wants us to regard his work as music.  The poet appeals to a goddess to sing, that is, to inspire the song.  The goddess would be understood to be a Muse, the divine beings who inspire men to make and enjoy beautiful works of art.  In later Greek, the Muses are described as daughters of Mnemosyne, memory, partly because bringing the past to life is one of their functions.

If I may digress, the power of memory is very little appreciated today.  I don’t simply mean that school children are not required to learn poems or even the times tables by heart, though that is a part of it.  What we do not carry in our heads does not really belong to us, and nothing is more pathetic than to take part in a conversation where some subject comes up such as What was Shakespeare’s last play or which composers died after finishing their 9th symphony or who put the bomp in the bomp bah bomp bah bomp, and inevitably some 40 year old case of arrested development pulls out his iPhone and starts to diddle.

But the power of memory is more complex than any recording software.  It is a creative not simply a preservative function.  As we remember, we shape and reconstruct and find order and meaning.  Remembering is much like dreaming, an act of composition or in plain English a “putting together.”  The Homeric singer, every time he sang the siege of Troy or the homecoming of Idomeneus was actively calling upon his creative power, something like a jazz musician playing “Stella by Starlight” for the 100th time but never quite the same.

Here in the beginning of the Iliad, the singer invokes the goddess is invoked as a source of truth, but it is not simply an historic truth.  Her inspiration also gives a religious character to the work.  In the Odyssey [XXII], the singer Phemius also invokes the gods to protect himself from the righteous wrath of Odysseus.

I hug your knees, Odysseys-mercy!spare my life!

What a grief it will be to you for all the years to come

if you kill the singer now, who sings for gods and men.

I taught myself the craft, but a god has planted

deep in my spirit all the paths of song-

songs I’m fit to sing for you as for a god. [22, 362-367)..

The epic poet preserves the memory of great men and his recreation of their deeds draws them closer to the divine.

So, lesson one we can draw is this:  Homer’s Greeks were an intensely religious people, and most Greeks remained faithful to their religion until they adopted Christianity.  Religious skeptics were treated with suspicion and hostility, and Socrates’ careful critique of the religion of the poets was at the very least a pretext for his elimination.  We shall, in the course of this series, speak a good deal more about religion.

The second point to observe is that the Iliad is some kind of song that is performed, not a book to be read by the eyes.  A comp lit teacher would tell you that Homer’s works are “epic poems” and cites as parallels such other epics as Beowulf, Gilgamesh, the Chanson de Roland, and perhaps the Mahabharata.  Such general categorizations are meaningless, and worse than meaningless they are highly misleading.  Many nations have told stories about heroes, and some of those stories have been poems, but the tradition of true epic poetry begins with Homer.

The word epic comes from a Greek word, epos, which means word or utterance.  Used in the plural, it can refer to this type of poetry.  Later in the poem we come upon Achilles, who is singing ta klea andron—the famous deeds of men—and that is, at least superficially, what epic poetry is.  Greek epic is composed in a specific metrical form known as the hexameter or dactylic hexameter, because it contains six feet, either dactyl (-uu) or spondee (— -).  By a well-known rule of Greek verse, one long syllable is assumed to be the length in time of two shorts.  (A short syllable contains a short vowel and has only one consonant at the end.)  There are other restrictions, for example, the sixth and last foot is always a spondee, and the final syllable is treated as long, no matter what it’s actual length is.  The penultimate foot is generally a dactyl, though Homer especially is free to use a spondee.

Finally, the line is divided into two parts by a caesura (a Latin word that means a cutting), most often in the middle of the third foot, either after the initial long or the first short.  Thus the first line would sound in the awkward mouth of an English-speaker something like:

Maynin aayde thea// Paylayiadyo Akilayos

Scanned, it would look:

-uu -uu -/- -uu -uu —

While prose translations of Home are generally more accurate than verse translations—by verse do not include the fatuous attempts to write rough hexameters in English by such people as Richmond Lattimore, a form I once heard a translator (Doug Parker) refer to as “a loose six-beat thing,” that was better described by a scholar as the sound of buzzing fly trying to get out of a bottle.

So Homeric poems are a mighty river, twenty four books of perhaps six hundred lines of rolling hexameters.  The effect on the mind is something wonderful.  If you have ever read a hundred lines or Milton out loud or recited the Rosary in a rhythmic chant, you will have some idea.  Years ago, an old friend of mine, Frederick Turner, wrote an article in Poetry on the effect of metered verse on the mind. Working with a psychologist, he showed that when people read prose, the two sides of their brain continue to work more or less independently, but when they read verse, real verse, metered verse, the brain waves of the two hemispheres began to synchronize.  One of the many reasons modern people are so unstable and dissatisfied is that they have abandoned one of the greatest agents of sanity at our disposal: metered rhythmic poetry.

For the Greeks, poetry and music were closely related, and much of the best Greek poetry—the solo songs of Sappho and Alcaeus, the choral lyric poems of Simonides, Pindar, Bacchylides and the tragic poets—were written as musical compositions.  As we go on, we shall have occasion to talk about the Greeks’ dedication to formal beauty, but here at the beginning of Western literature, we are confronted with a highly developed art that will be refined by later generations but never really surpassed.


B  Greek Anthropology 001: Homer’s Man

Since I have lectured and written on this subject many times, most recently in The Reign of Love, I shall try to keep this short.  Before taking up the view of man, we should note that we really are plunged in medias res.  The Iliad is set in the last year of the Trojan War.  In historical terms, this was the early 12th century BC, over 3000 years ago.

The Greeks, under the command of Agamemnon, the high king of Mycenae, are besieging Troy to get back his brother Menelaus’ wife Helen, who ran off with the Trojan prince Alexander better known as Paris, taking with her a good deal of her husband’s treasure.  There is a great deal of fighting, but the main story concerns a quarrel between King Agamemnon and the greatest of the Greek heroes, Achilles, who withdraws from the battle.  Notice, first, how very little explicit characterization there is in Homer.  In a Victorian Novel or in the works of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, you’d expect, either in the third or first person, some description of the person, life story, and personal qualities of principal characters.

“Robert Cohn was middle weight boxing champion of Princeton…..” 


“If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there was something gorgeous about him [Gatsby], some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away. This responsiveness had nothing to do with that flabby impressionability which is dignified under the name of the "creative temperament"—it was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again. No—Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men.”

Homer, by contrast, describes Agamemnon with stock epithets that fit different parts of the hexameter line:  lord of men, son of Atreus, widely ruling; while Achilles is son of Peleus, swift-footed, etc.  The standard view in recent decades has been that these epithets are arbitrarily used as metrical devices and have none but the most general significance.  I won’t explain why, at this point, but, while I for the most part accept the standard account of the oral composition of Homeric poetry including the mechanical use of formulae, this theory—like nearly every theory of anything human—is far too rigid and ignores that obvious fact that while the tradition was certainly oral, the poems did in fact get written down, most likely by the composer.

The most standard epithet is the patronymic formula, “son of X.”   Now, in the two modern cases I quoted above, we know next to nothing of the family background of either Robert Cohn or Jay Gatsby.  For Homer—and for Greeks over many centuries—who you are depends largely on who your father was.  The eldest son of a family even today is typically named after a grandfather! Conservatives like to speak of “family values,” but the strongest American families will not bear comparison with the Greeks.

Of Agamemnon’s family, it is better to be discrete:  the quarrel of Atreus and Thyestes, the banquet of Thyestes, the murder of Agamemnon by his wife and cousin, and the revenge taken by Agamemnon’s son Orestes, were certainly known to Homer’s audience—even if one agrees with Sir Dennis Page, who chopped the relevant passages out of the Odyssey. Achilles is the greater son of a very great man: Peleus, whose marriage to the sea goddess Thetis was one of the great events in Greek religious legends.  Peleus was also the brother of Telamon, the father of the greater Ajax, who plays such an important part in the story.

On the Trojan side, King Priam, unlike his Greek counterparts, is a polygamist and father of a vast progeny, both legitimate and illegitimate.  The most prominent of his sons are Hector, Alexander (Paris), Deiphobus, and Helenus, though we hear of many others.  Near the end of the poem, after Achilles has killed Hector and dragged him around the walls of Troy, Priam comes to beg for the body.  The enraged Achilles, as the king well knows, is capable of killing him, but Priam plays the one card that will get any Greek’s respect:  He asks him to imagine his own father, Peleus, and how he would want to recover the body of his son.

A number of fine scholars (Brooks Otis, C.S. Lewis) have stressed the difference between Homer—as primitive as he is great—and Vergil, whose humanity makes him the first truly civilized writer of epic.  They have a valid point, but it has been overstated.  Homer treats the Trojans with the same respect and decency as he treats his own Greek heroes, and Hector is perhaps the noblest character in the work, certainly the most sympathetic to Roman and modern readers, and in Priam’s appeal, which invites an enemy to put himself and his father in his enemy’s shoes, there is a compassion that anticipates Christian tenderness of mind.

If you have concluded that Homer is not interested in portraying his characters in depth, I have already misled you.  The opposite is true.  No works are more filled with finely drawn characters, but it is by their actions and words and by the response of others to them that we learn the characters of the heroes.  Famously, he never describes Helen, but as we shall see, we learn to admire her by the reaction of the old Trojan men who cannot blame her.

When most literate people think of epic poetry, they think largely of action, but the Homeric poems.  In fact, the Iliad is about 45% dialogue.  When Aeschylus said that his plays were just the scraps from Homer's table,  he meant of course his plots, but I think he also meant that Homer had taught him--and other Greeks--how to tell a story through speeches and conversations.

I have a confession.  Throughout my life, when I read most fiction, I skim the descriptive parts.  Narrative and dialogue are what I concentrate on.  That is one of many reasons I find Dashiel Hammet such a good writer, whatever his personal failings.  It is also a great strength of Defoe and Bunyan. When Scott is on a roll, so to speak, his dialogue carries the story.  But Dickens?  The less said of his sunsets  and landscapes the better.  Among the many things the great Greeks and Romans can teach later generations of writers is economy:  to get the deepest meaning and strongest effect with the fewest unnecessary details.

 The Principals

We meet the two principle characters of the Iliad in the first scene of Book I:  Achilles and Agamemnon.  Neither is on his best behavior.  Most people—and this includes scholars and literary critics—read the Iliad as the tragic story of a great man who has been offended by an inferior who happens to be in authority.   There is some truth in this interpretation, but it is too simplistic for Homer, a writer who consistently confronts the mysteries of life head-on without flinching.  For example, various characters are said to be helped or harmed by various gods.  Does that mean they are not free agents, not responsible for their actions, not worthy of praise for their heroism?  Absolutely not.  Does it then mean that the gods are merely a literary device, like the Sylphs in “The Rape of the Lock”?  Absolutely not.  It is like the arguments over fate and free will, Grace and works.  If we are asked which alternative in these two cases is valid, the answer is both.  Interestingly, Chesterton, who is absolutely a rotten scholar, got it right.  He says somewhere that, while characters in Greek tragedy are always talking about fate (or necessity), they act as if they had completely free wills.

Agamemnon usually gets a raw deal from critics.  In the opening scene, he seems arrogant, arbitrary and verging on paranoia.  When the priest of Apollo makes a perfectly reasonable request to ransom his daughter, Agamemnon sends him away with harsh words and threats against his life.  The result is a plague inflicted by the offended go.  When Achilles brings up the question, he too is threatened by the king who seems to suspect him of collusion with the “prophet of evil” Calchas. Since everyone knows Achilles is the greatest warrior on either side of the Trojan War, Agamemnon must be a coward as well as a bully, relying on the men under his command to bring the impetuous youth to heel.  In Book II, Agamemnon is misled by a lying dream and brings up the possibility of abandoning the whole expedition—with disastrous results.

And yet, as we shall see very soon, when Agamemnon reviews his army after the duel between Menelaus and Paris, that Agamemnon is a shrewd commander, who knows how to put his men on their mettle.  While lesser heroes do not appear to understand the purpose of his gibes, the wisest of them—Idomeneus, Nestor, Diomedes, and Odysseus all treat him with deference and respect.  And, while he is no Achilles—but then neither are even the greatest other heroes, Ajax, Diomedes, and Odysseus—he is a heroic and successful fighter.  If we think of Agamemnon, as more like Patton than Braxton Bragg, we shall keep on the right track.

Achilles is a very great hero.  There was a story, probably known to Homer and his readers but a tale not of the type that interests him, that Thetis was wooed by the greatest gods until they found out that she was fated to bear a son greater than her father.  Since Zeus and the Olympians are the third generation of divine rulers, they know what lies in store for them if one of them begets a son by her.  So, they give her to a heroic and pious mortal, Peleus.  Thetis is important in the story, because she has a claim on Zeus.  When the other gods had had enough of his monarchy and chained him up, it was she who set him free.  Now she is in a position to plead for her son and create so much mischief for the Achaeans.

If we look at Achilles with only one eye open, we see a very great hero, who has no particular stake in the warm humiliated by a man inferior to himself in all but rank.  If we close that eye and open the other, we see a spoiled hoodlum punk, who cares nothing about anyone but himself and his own prestige.  He later tells his friend Patroclus that his wish is that the Achaeans and Trojans will kill each other off, so that he and Patroclus will come away with all the loot and all the glory.  From the Greek point of view, this egotism is monstrous.   Worse is his treatment of Hector’s body.  He offends the gods but even they do not wish to confront him.

Then there is his name.  Most Greek names have a clear meaning or at least set of associations.  Diomedes, for example, contains two roots, the first refers to Zeus and the second to the mental attention.  Odysseus is probably connected with a verb that means to suffer pain.  Agamemnon could be interpreted either as he who rules rightly or he who is very steadfast.  Then what associations are there with Achilles?  The most plausible explanation is a combination of the word achos, pain or suffering, and laos/leos, the people.  The bane of his people—which he certainly is.

Then which eye gives us the real Achilles?  The answer is both or neither:  Each is a valid perspective on a complex human being—too complex for most novelists and dramatists to grasp.

The Human Person 

Names  are not just something parents make up on a whim, because they like a movie star or a brand of beer.  Names are the means by which you are slotted into a social network.   Like most traditional peoples, Greeks were embedded in a network of family, friends, and community, and they were also subject both to divine influence and to their inner passions that represented emotional and biological urges.

To see how this works, let us turn to the first dramatic scene of the Iliad: the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon.  Achilles has criticized Agamemnon’s leadership and has egged on Calchas the seer to blame Agamemnon for the plague that has attacked the Greek camp.  The High King’s phrenes swell and blacken, putting him into a rage.  These phrenes are clearly a biological organ, probably the diaphragm, and Homer describes them as the seat of strong passions and sense-perceptions like hearing but also of the noos, mind in which see pictures of their earlier life or meditate plans.

The phrenes are both a real physical organ and a more abstract faculty of sense-perception and feeling.  But there is an entire spectrum of such organic functions, ranging from the hetor/kardie—physical hearts and the thymos—probably the spirit or soul, originally, imagined as a vapor (=Latin fumus) but sometimes treated as if it were organic.  The psyche or soul, on the other hand, is the life-force the leaves the body upon death.

The noos, while generally a non-organic function—the mind that perceives—it can also be seen, as I have shown, to have a physical location—much as we imagine today that our mind is in our heads for no better reason than our brain and principal sense organs are there.

It is almost as if these various organs and psychological functions operate independently, helping the hero in his bravery or driving him in his follies.   Achilles, humiliated by Agamemnon, is enraged—and, it is said, the heart in his chest is divided in two, whether to pull his sword and kill Agamemnon, or to stifle his Cholos--his bile.  While he is debating, the goddess Athena comes and pulls him by the hair, telling him to sheathe his sword and be content with insulting Agamemnon.  This would be an internal debate in an English novel, but here the voice of reason is represented as a divine external force actually laying hands on the person, who is being stirred up below by passions engendered by physical organs.  The man we call Achilles can be looked at as the border between the subhuman passions and the suprahuman gods.  Where is the human person in all this?

Bruno Snell, took the straightforward position that since the Homeric Greeks had no word for the separate persons we call individuals, they must also have lacked the concept. As an analogy, Snell points out the childish and primitive depiction of the human person as a simple stick figure, which is then developed, with triangles and other figures, into the human representations found on Geometric vases.

I hope it will not be too great a travesty of a great scholar's argument if we reduce it to two propositions:  First, since Homer had no word for the individual person, he could not conceive of such a thing, and, second,  when he did try to deal with his actors, he could only imagine them as fragmented beings strung together with wires pulled by supernatural powers.

So, Homer has no good word for the human person or individual, but we can go further.  We typically fall into the habit of saying a man is body and soul or mind and body.   The soul may be the true ME, but the body is the recognizable emblem that represents the person.  But the later Greek word for body—soma—in Homer refers only to the dead body, and we have to make do with a word referring apparently to the separate limbs, rethe.  As for the soul or mind, it depends on what aspect of mental activity we are talking about.  The Psyche is the vitality, “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.”  Our passions, feelings, motivations are the province of thymus, while the Noos is the seat or organ of thought and perception.

Of course, later Greeks and many moderns speak of the different parts or aspects of the soul.  Is that what is going on here?  No, because such an approach presupposes a conception of the soul as a whole, which is lacking Homer.  So, no body, no soul, no person, even the thymos—the least material of the organs of feeling and perception—is not viewed as a unified whole.  In Odyssey 9.302, for example, Odyssey speaks of himself as having a divided thymos:  “Another thymos held me back.”

Although Snell’s thesis has been criticized repeatedly, his analysis of Homeric terminology does in fact offer us valuable insights into the Greek mind at the dawn of our civilization.  There are, however, other aspects of the question to consider.  In English we still attribute psychological and moral qualities to such organs as the heart, the liver, and the spleen, and we can still speak (albeit in an archaic and literary tone) of cowards as lily-livered or refer to the bowels of compassion or the bilious or choleric disposition of a man prone to anger.  There was a time in our history when the theory of the humors—bodily fluids that influence character—was taken seriously by serious men (Ben Jonson, for example).  Then, Homer’s biological language may not be so strange after all.  Nonetheless, no matter how far we are prepared to take such an argument,it can only partially shorten the distance between us and Homeric man.  As one scholar [E.L Harrison] has observed, Homeric man felt more “exposed to external influences than is the case with ourselves,” while  parallel expressions in English, are with us a mere “façon de parler; whereas with Homer something more positively felt, more pervasive is involved.”  Even in 16th century English, there were other ways of talking about human emotions more precise than the largely metaphorical language of organs and humors.

From the other direction, we can narrow the gap a bit by agreeing that, even in the most "backward" or "primitive" cultures, people must make practical decisions that require some intuitive understanding of routine distinctions between subject and object, animate and inanimate, human and non-human.  No matter how firmly they may believe in fate or destiny, most people in most cultures—even Calvinists—seem to hold each other accountable for their actions.  What seems a paradox to philosophers was common sense to a Greek—and probably to most modern men and women, when they are not watching a PBS special.

This paradox is particularly striking in Greek tragedy, where bad choices and bad ends are routinely attributed to destiny without in the least diminishing the culpability of the moral actors. Sophocles' Oedipus was fated to kill his father and marry his mother; however, it was not fate but his arrogant nature that drove him to kill the old man at the crossroads.  We may say that Sophocles was a “fatalist,” but he writes as if his characters had free will—an important point well made by the very unscholarly G.K. Chesterton.

Obviously, Homer's heroes are capable of attributing praise and blame to the comrades they distinguish, the one from the other.  The Greek word for "head" (kephale) is sometimes used in the sense of person, and his heroes do have names, after all, which implies that they could tell each other apart.  Indeed, some of them seem self-willed to the point of egomania.  But in addition to a regular name, like Achilles, each hero also has a sort of surname, a patronymic:  Peleides, son of Peleus or Atreides, son of Atreus.  Indeed, the heroes are as often called the son of their father as by their own names.  This would seem to indicate that while the individual persons are clearly discerned by others, they are also identified as members of a descent group.

Homer's heroes perform acts of individual bravery and speak of winning renown, and Achilles became for later Greeks the supreme example of a man who chose his own destiny without regard for social pressures.  On the other hand, as a recent scholar (Jan Bremer) has written:      

"In Homer's  time the individual did not yet know of the will as an ethical factor, nor did he distinguish between what was inside and outside himself as we do.  When referring to themselves, the early Greeks, like other Indo-European peoples, did not primarily consider themselves to be independent individuals but rather members of a group.”

His second point, that early Greeks—and perhaps most Greeks of classical times—conceived of themselves primarily not as individuals but as kinsmen or neighbors or fellow-soldiers, is certainly right, but if his first point is equally valid, that the “individual did not yet know of the will as an ethical factor,” we might quickly lose all interest in these epic poems except as light entertainment.

Before rushing to condemn the savagery of early Greeks, let us consider the scholar’s loaded language.  What is this all-important “individual,” if not a social construction of later times, and what is this “will” he speaks of except a reflection of Enlightenment philosophers, Kant in particular?  It is a strange fact that the very scholars and intellectuals who are eager to delineate the social constraints on thinkers from earlier societies cannot, apparently, grasp the fact that they too are operating under the ironclad constraints of popular notions like “progress” and “equality.”   

A noted scholar (Adkins in Merit and Responsibility)  argued that the Homeric Zeus was not a moral being, “We are all Kantians now,” he declared. meaning, we are compelled to judge other societies by criteria established by a philosopher who wrote over 200 years ago.  If we are Kantians, we rise above all considerations of time and place, ethnicity and religion—except for this one curious prejudice:  While all other opinions are socially determined and all morality is relative, our own morality represents the culmination of human development.

Now, it is easy for Kantians to condemn the primitiveness of Homeric psychology and ethics.  On the other hand a Freudian would ridicule the easy assumptions of the Kantians that all human problems are reducible to questions of the will, the power of reason, and a human mind divided into Kantian categories.  And a materialist scientist, a Francis Crick or E.O. Wilson would ridicule both Kantians and Freudians for thinking mere words like will and reason, id and ego, stand for things in the real, material world.  In fact, a scientist, if he could be forced to study Homer, would probably prefer Homer’s psychological organs, which can after all be examined and tested.

The Person and the Community

In fact, we do have a lot to learn about ourselves from studying Homeric man.  Homer’s heroes are extraordinary men, but they are not the etherial saints of ethical philosophers since Kant.   ”To know the will as an ethical factor" is a gift reserved for few mortal men in any era, but ordinary people, even when they do not possess these abstract concepts, are capable of sitting on juries and pronouncing on questions of guilt and innocence.  Ajax is the most dull-witted of Homer's heroes, but he has no trouble condemning Achilles for his selfish and willful conduct.

Achilles is savage and remorseless.  He is cruel and cares nothing for the love of his comrades lavished upon him more than on all the others.  He is implacable—and yet if a man’s brother or son has been slain he will accept a fine by way of amends from him that killed him, and the wrong-doer having paid in full remains in peace among his own people; but as for you Achilles, the gods have put a wicked unforgiving spirit in your heart, and this all about one single girl … [IX 628-36]

Ajax is quite reasonably contrasting the Greek’s kin-based social and legal system, in which homicide is treated as a crime against the family, with Achilles’ obsessive sense of personal self-worth that is offended to death even by the loss of a concubine.  A baseball or football coach today might make a similar argument in order to persuade an unfairly treated star player to play his heart out for the sake of the team.

It is quite true that Achilles is a godlike hero, impervious to all base temptations, but it is equally true that, in contrast with Ajax, Odysseus, Diomedes, and the other heroes, he is also a spoiled brat.  It is precisely because Ajax sees himself and Achilles as members of a community (in this case the army and its leaders) that Ajax can so confidently pass judgment against the arrogance of any man, however noble or semi-divine, who elevates himself above the necessities of the group.  It is not at all clear to me that Ajax or his gun-slinging counterparts on the American frontier were morally inferior to acutely reasoning moral philosophers at major universities.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina