Great Books Section 3
24 September 2012
What Makes a Hero
The battlefield is the only home a warrior hero knows, his shield and spear the only instruments for achieving all aims. A hero is driven through suffering to earn the honor and glory of immortal status within a community from which he is inevitably detached. At the beginning of Homer’s The Iliad, Achilles embodies the “ideal” hero in his past accomplishments and renowned fame as the greatest of all Achaeans. What Achilles yet lacks, and what he struggles with throughout the epic, is the balance of wisdom to compliment his unmatched skills in battle. Achilles’ internal battle with rage, excessive pride, and self-righteousness causes him to appear far less heroic, if not merciless and cruel, in the eyes of his companions and some gods. Recognizing that these flaws bring enmity instead of fame, Achilles learns to gradually regain respect and admiration lost at the start of Book 1. Through a series of trials and error, starting with his decision to abandon the Achaean forces and ending with his final encounter with King Priam, Achilles finds a balance between his strengths and faults and ultimately discovers a path towards the glorious status of immortality by the end of the epic.
In Book 1, Achilles’ rash decision to overstep Agamemnon’s authority in addressing the plague immediately leads to a cascade of rage-driven actions, starting with a near attempt to murder the king. “Just as he drew his huge blade from its sheath, / down from the vaulting heavens swept Athena” (1.228-229). Only the intervention of goddess Athena prevents Achilles from making a fatal mistake; he has not yet grown to seek wisdom before letting rage consume his decisions. Achilles continues in his rage by pressuring his mother to “persuade him (Zeus), somehow, to help the Trojan cause… so even mighty Atrides can see how mad he was / to disgrace Achilles, the best of the Achaeans” (1. 485-490). For personal satisfaction by humiliating Agamemnon, Achilles is willing to abandon his comrades in battle and even wish suffering upon them. He remains resolute in this decision until late into the epic. Achilles’ desperate preservation of pride in this situation leads him away from the ultimate goal of permanent glory; his greatest enemy in this heroic struggle is personal weakness.
Selfishly driven by personal gain, Achilles revels at the sight of intense Achaean suffering and proceeds to ignore the desperate pleas of his greatest allies. He is waiting for the perfect moment to step in and rescue the Achaeans just as his fellow comrades are on their last leg. It is a plan that will put Agamemnon to shame and elevate Achilles to a new level of heroism, in his mind. “Achilles’ murderous spirit / must be leaping in his chest, filled with joy / to behold his comrades slain and routed in their blood. / That man has got no heart in him, not a pulsebeat,” Poseidon asserts about Achilles’ selfish withdrawal from battle (14.170-173). The issue here is much larger than hurt feelings over the loss of Briseis; it is wounded pride driving Achilles to stoop below his own and others’ standards, losing the respect of his companions and the gods. In refusing Agamemnon’s ransom in return for involvement in the war, Achilles shows growth in that he controls his hunger for battle, yet he does this purely out of spite. He is far from achieving a glorious status at this point, allowing rage to cloud his best judgment. Achilles has put himself into a situation where unexpected tragedy is necessary to draw him back to face the fate that is set out for him.
This tragedy comes in Book 16 as a result of Achilles’ rash decision to send Patroclus into battle in his place. Ignoring prophecies revealed long ago, Achilles blindly sends his greatest companion to face the Trojans without recognizing the dangers of this decision. Though he could have expected it from such a zealous warrior, “Achilles...
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