My dear friend Kori Schake has written a wonderful article at War on the Rocks in praise (mostly) of my new book,The Heroic Heart: Greatness Ancient and Modern. The book takes up the subject of how ideas about heroism changed over the millennia and what this tells us about ourselves. I recently had another go at some of these questions in relation to the Medal of Honor bestowed last month on Capt. Florent Groberg, (U.S. Army, ret.). Groberg exemplifies the life-saving, protective hero characteristic of the modern world — and stands in contrast to the self-aggrandizing, slaying and conquering hero so prevalent in the ancient world. I tell the stories of representatives of both types in my book, exploring as well their relationship to political order and change.
People who have taken the trouble to write something about the book or to talk with me about it have addressed these large themes, as indeed Schake did. But what I loved most about her essay was her willingness to engage my interpretation of the Iliad and especially Achilles, whom I take as the archetype of heroism in the ancient world.
What I loved least about Schake’s essay, however, was her contention that I got Achilles and the Iliad all wrong — or at least wrong enough that she felt obliged to correct the record. But this puts me at a terrible disadvantage with the good readers of War on the Rocks. Her criticism of my view of Homer is there for all to see, but my view of Homer is nowhere to be found. This I must fix. And so I shall, right now.
Schake writes that my “description of the Iliad as a tale of Achilles’ self-actualizing butchery is too pinched a reading.” She sees Achilles as “a tragic figure” because he opts for “the glory of achievement” and because “his petulance sets in motion the death of his dearest human connection, Patroklous.”
Schake also faults me for giving short shrift to “Homer’s inclusion of other heroic models” in the Iliad. She notes the sacrificial heroism of Odysseus, who is “compelled to join Agamemnon’s force because his Ithaca cannot afford to make so powerful an enemy. His stratagems are all driven by an effort to preserve the cause and minimize losses.” She rightly notes, “The Trojan side, too, has its heroes, and their virtue is ‘the caring will,’” citing my term. She notes that “Hector’s name translates as ’holder,’ or ’preserver’” and also cites his wife Andromache, who “persuades him to offer himself in single combat against any Greek to determine the outcome of the war.”
I don’t think Schake likes Achilles very much, hence her focus on his “self-actualizing butchery” and “compulsion for glory.” She regards him as “a tragic figure” because it’s his own “petulance” and love of glory that sets in motion the death of his friend Patroclus. Due to a slight he believes he has suffered at the hands of Agamemnon, the Greek leader at Troy, Achilles withdraws from the fight. Patroclus subsequently dons Achilles’s armor and charges out to his doom.
There is certainly a lot going on in the Iliad other than Achilles’s heroism; as Schake rightly notes, it takes on other forms in the story. But the Illiad is, above all, a story about Achilles. It is the tale of his rage (the first word of the poem) and the full panoply of its effects. Homer certainly depicts Achilles as self-centered, but this is not a (primarily) negative trait in Homer’s rendition. Achilles has the same sense of self that everyone else has of him: He is superior to them (even including Agamemnon, a big problem for Agamemnon). Achilles is “great in his greatness,” “best of the Achaeans.” He acts out that superiority every day, not to demonstrate his greatness to others — he has no need of their approval or assent — but because he is who he is.
The first phase of his rage in the Iliad is indeed about what others think of him, including the honor and glory that are his due. Agamemnon (the greatest king) has shown Achilles disrespect, and he is grievously offended, brooding about a slight to his honor (even from the greatest king). His mother (a goddess) has told him about a prophecy according to which he will either leave Troy and live a long life, or remain and die but win eternal glory. At this stage, he weighs life against glory (the acclaim of others). But the second phase of his rage, against Hector for killing Patroclus — the point at which Achilles makes the final choice to stay at Troy and fight, thus ensuring he will die young — no longer has anything to do with glory. The opinions of others make no difference to him. Having lost the person dearest to him, he is done with others. The only reason to act is out of motivations from within — rage and knowledge of his own greatness.
Achilles gets his revenge and indeed dies at Troy, though only after the Iliad concludes. Homer doesn’t find inclusion of the death scene to be necessary to the story he is telling. I agree. This is a story about a hero who will not alter course despite certain knowledge that his death will soon come. Death has no power over him while he lives, though of course it will take him like the rest of us.
Schake twice calls Achilles a “tragic figure,” for choosing glorious achievement (and death) and for losing Patroclus. I do not regard Achilles as a tragic hero. By the end, the glory is incidental. The greatness comes from looking death in the eye without blinking. This is triumph rather than tragedy.
Schake is, of course, quite right about Homer depicting other forms of heroism — starting with Patroclus, to whom Schake denies much in the way of agency, but who I see, to the contrary, as literature’s first “saving hero” — the preeminent form of heroism in the modern world and the highest expression of “the caring will.” Patroclus charges into battle with the knowledge that if he dies, the effect will be to draw Achilles back into the fight, which Patroclus (alongside everyone else) regards as essential to the Greek cause. Patroclus is prepared to, and does, make that sacrifice.
Yet far from considering the “caring will” uniquely modern, as Schake suggests I do, I think it’s primal. It’s the quality that Patroclus has and that Achilles lacks — except toward Patroclus, and even there only in the relation of “the best of men” to his favorite inferior. We find the caring will expressed in other characters in the Iliad, as Schake notes, and throughout human history, in unchanging form. I think it’s what we now call the “humanity” of the human.
Thanks to Kori Schake and to War on the Rocks for providing a forum for an argument about the oldest war story of them all — 2,700 years after Homer wrote it up and 500 more since the fall of Troy.