Rethinking Achilles

Aeon

A warrior hero such as Ajax, Hector or Achilles must be willing to fight in hand-to-hand combat day after day. He must be able, physically and psychologically, to plunge a sword into the body of another human being, and to risk having a sword plunged into his own. He must be brutal and ready to risk brutality. At the same time, he must be gentle to his friends and allies, and able to join with them in group activities both military and peaceful.

Plato was well aware of the problem these opposing demands create, both in the soul of the warrior and in the society he inhabits: ‘Where,’ he asks, ‘are we to find a character that is both gentle and big-tempered [megalothumon] at the same time? After all, a gentle nature is the opposite of an angry one.’ When, in the opening line of the Iliad, Homer asks the goddess to sing ‘the anger of Peleus’ son Achilles’, a large part of what he is asking her to do is to explore this opposition, its sources and effects.

Anger or rage (mênisthumosorgê) is an emotion, a mixture of belief and desire. It is not a somatic feeling, as nausea and giddiness are, though it is usually accompanied by such feelings – trembling and blushing, for example, and the sense of seeing red. It is, in Aristotle’s definition, ‘a desire, accompanied by pain, to take apparent revenge for apparent insult’.

Anger is triggered by insult, then, and so is connected to worth (aretê) and to honour (timê). A person is insulted when the treatment he receives is worse than the treatment his worth entitles him to receive. He is honoured when he is given treatment proportional to his worth, and his worth is above or well-above average. When we speak of honour, therefore, we are in a way speaking of worth, since honour measures worth. Honour and insult are thus close to being polar opposites, and an insult is a harm to worth or honour.

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