Achilles was not a Stoic (and neither was Paris)

Achilles and Patroclus, sculpted by Malcolm Lidbury

I’ve always been fascinated by the two great Homeric poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, ever since I read them as a kid. I re-read them several times since, in various translations, both in Italian and English. The very fact that epic poetry dating, in its earlier written version, to the 8th century BCE can still move us today is a testament to the genius of Homer (whoever he, or they, was/were).

Though both poems are chock full of larger-than-life figures, two are most likely to strike people’s imagination: Achilles in the Iliad, and, obviously, Odysseus in the homonymous epic. As we have discussed in the past, Odysseus was considered a fascinating character by all the major philosophical schools, each (selectively) interpreting his story in a way consonant with their framework. For the Stoics, Odysseus was a role model. I guess that explains also my own admiration for the King of Ithaca.

But what about Achilles? I must confess, I never liked the guy. All brawns and no brains (exactly the opposite of Odysseus), he never appealed to my nerdy self. And I always thought his treatment of Hector’s body after their epic battle was irredeemably shameful. More recently, though, I started thinking about him specifically from a Stoic perspective. Particularly the pivotal episode near the beginning of the Iliad, when Achilles gets pissed off at Agamemnon, the head of the Greek expedition to Troy (and brother of Menelaus, the husband that Helen left for Paris, thus allegedly triggering the war itself).

It’s worth recounting the episode in some detail. Agamemnon has taken a woman named Chryseis as his slave. Chryseis’ father, however, is a priest of Apollo, and he asks the god to return his daughter. Since Agamemnon refuses, Apollo sends a plague to the Greek camp to make a convincing case. The prophet Calchas diagnoses the problem correctly, but refuses to speak up unless he secures Achilles’ protection. When the hero grants it, Agamemnon is forced to return Chryseis. Petty as he usually is, he takes revenge on Achilles, demanding the latter’s battle prize, Briseis, in reparation for the loss of Chryseis. It is now Achilles’ turn to get pissed off and petty: out of spite, he goes on strike and refuses to lead the Greeks into battle. Hence the famous opening lines of the Iliad:

“Sing, Goddess, of the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
the accursed rage that brought great suffering to the Achaeans.”

(Sounds better in Italian, I think: “Cantami, o Diva, del pelide Achille / l’ira funesta che infiniti addusse / lutti agli Achei.”)

That rage quickly leads to the death of Achilles’ intimate friend, Patroclus, who had donned Achilles’ harmor to lead the Greeks in a desperate attempt to push back the advancing Trojans, and was killed by the Trojan prince Hector (who will later, in turn, be killed by Achilles).

What would the Stoics think of Achilles’ behavior? One clue is in the word “rage” used by Homer: as we know, the Stoics thought that anger was the most devastating of the pathē, the unhealthy emotions, to be avoided at all costs. But we don’t have to speculate much, as Epictetus addresses the episode directly:

“And when did Achilles come to grief? When Patroclus died? Far from it. But rather, when he himself yielded to anger, when he wept over a young girl, when he forgot that he was there, not to acquire mistresses, but to make war. These are the ways in which human beings are brought to grief, this is the siege, this the razing of the citadel, when right judgements are overturned, when they are destroyed.” (Discourses I.29-24-25)

The “citadel” being razed here is not Troy, but the very same one so often mentioned by Marcus Aurelius in the Meditations: our ruling faculty, the hêgemonikon, a term closely related to Epictetus’ favorite one, prohairesis (our capacity of judgment). Achilles’ true loss did not occur when his friend was killed, but when he himself lost the way of reason (assuming he ever had it, since there is little evidence of that).

The same section of the Discourses provides several other examples of this most human of tragedies. Aside from Medea, whom we have recently discussed, Epictetus describes Paris, the instigator of the war, in the same fashion:

“Did Paris suffer his great disaster when the Greeks arrived and ravaged Troy, and when his brothers perished? Not at all, … his true undoing was when he lost his sense of shame, his loyalty, his respect for the laws of hospitality, his decency.” (Discourses, I.29-22.23)

Menelaus is up for a similar treatment as well:

“If an impression, then, had prompted Menelaus to feel that it was a gain to be deprived of such a wife, what would have come about? Not only the Iliad would have been lost, but the Odyssey too!” (Discourses I.29-13)

That is, both poems — and thus, more generally, all human tragedies — are the result of a series of misjudgments made by the main actors. Had they used their prohairesis correctly, or kept their hêgemonikon in working order, none of that would have happened. (Of course, we would have lost two of the masterpieces of human art, but so be it.)

Should we, then, be angry at Paris, Helen, Menelaus, Agamemnon, Achilles, and so forth? No, says Epictetus:

“Why should you be angry with [them], then, because, poor wretch[es], [they] have gone astray on matters of the highest importance, and have changed from human beings into vipers? Shouldn’t you, if anything, take pity on [them] instead? And just as we pity the blind and the lame, shouldn’t we also take pity on those who have become blinded and crippled in their governing faculties?” (Discourses I.29.9)

[I have slightly altered the above to refer to multiple characters, as the original passage talks about Medea, but it’s clear that Epictetus applies the same reasoning to all the others as well.]

So all those people, as strong (or beautiful) and brave as they are, are really cripples. They suffer from amathia, or un-wisdom. They are deeply flawed human beings who think they are doing what is right and just, or what they ought to do, because their are blind and lame in their souls. But how is it possible that so many famous figures keep making such horrible mistakes? Surely they see the truth but fail to act accordingly. No, they truly think that they are right in doing what they do:

“For what reason do we give our assent to something? Because it appears to us to be the case. If something appears not to be the case, it is impossible for us to give our assent. And why so? Because that is the nature of our mind, that it should agree to things that are true, not accept things that are false, and suspend its judgement with regard to things that are uncertain. What is the proof of that? ‘Form the impression, if you can, that it is night at present.’ That is impossible. ‘Put aside the impression that it is day.’ That is impossible. So whenever anyone assents to what is false, one may be sure that he does not willingly give his assent to falsehood.” (Discourses I.29.1-4)

This is a profound insight, which however, whenever I write about it, encounters a lot of resistance from people. The common stance is that of course those who do bad things are evil, and not just mistaken. Because if that were not the case, then Epictetus would be right, we would have to pity, not hate them, and we can’t have that, can we?

If we did shift from anger and hatred (righteous, as we may think they are) to pity and compassion, then we would have to stop dehumanizing “evil” altogether, and admit that those people are just like us, only more flawed than normal, pathologically so, perhaps, but sick, not evil. We would have to admit that — while of course those people need to be stopped from injuring others — retribution is just revenge, which is both unvirtuous and ineffective. We would have to revise our whole way of dealing with crimes, focusing on rehabilitation as much as it is possible, and — failing that — on compassionate confinement. Because as Epictetus puts it right at the beginning of that section of the Discourses:

“Am I any better than Agamemnon and Achilles, to be satisfied by impressions alone, when they caused and suffered such evils by following their impressions? … What do you call those who follow every impression that strikes them? Madmen! What about us, then; do we act any differently?” (Discourses I.29.31-33)

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Categories: Psychology

19 replies

  1. I agree that Achilles isn’t a stoic – but his attitude does change through the poem, he is motivated by ‘timi’ – external honour bestowed by others – however when the Odyseuss and the other ambassadors come and beg him to rejoin the fight, he says he is no longer interested in that type of honour – because it is worth nothing if it can be taken away at the whim of another. I think from that point of view he becomes closer to stoic through the poem in his attitude to placing the value on things within his control.

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  2. I really enjoyed this post. The context around Paris, the Odyssey and the Iliad motivated me to look up the original text, and this brings me to my question. Which copy of the Discourses are you citing that places these passages in Book 1, Chapter 29? I’ve reference three versions of the Discourses (Oldfather, Hard & Dobbin), and all three have these passages in Chapter 28. Just wondering if you are referencing a different translation. Appreciate your time.

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  3. Sean,

    I’m using the Hard translation, Oxford Classics.

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  4. Great job weaving together passages of Epictetus on characters in the Homeric epics with the story of those epics! Because Stoics need role models to determine appropriate conduct, a narrative form, and especially one like Homer, is well suited to exploring the practice of Stoicism. Thanks!

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  5. Great post as usual (goes without saying at this point). The question on my mind about Achilles concerns his duty. Was it his duty to go to war with the rest of the Greeks? The aim of the war was questionable, but many more Greeks would’ve died without Achilles’ warfighting skills. I have wondered if Stoic ethics can fully address this point – perhaps it simply falls in the category of discretionary conduct that Epictetus describes: “You know at what price you will sell yourself.”

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  6. J.,

    yup, I think you’ve answered your own question. At least, that would be my take as well.

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  7. I very much agree and, for an inncesary addendum, I must say that after a couple of readings of the classic I have come to consider Hector to be the true hero of The Illiad.

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  8. JD,

    indeed, I always thought of Hector as the true (tragical, of course) hero. And a pretty good Stoic too.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Great essay, greatest subject…
    One can live big now. Yes, it requires sacrifices. Yes one can die from it like in old times. Yes, that’s how really new, bold and deep ideas appear, and otherwise they will never blossom.
    Rage can be bad, rage can be good. It depends upon circumstances: how the rage arose, if it is justified, what it will achieve. As all human emotions, it is present, because it has evolutionary value. All revolutions were propelled by rage, and without them, there would be no advancing civilization.
    Achilles increasing rage is an example of the wrong sort of rage, which scrambles a proper consideration of reality. Yet, Achilles’ problem is not so much rage, than having a wrong hierarchy of motivating factors in his logical processing: he “forgot”. Consider the revealingly truncated quote:

    …when did Achilles come to grief? …when he forgot that he was there, not to acquire mistresses, but to make war. These are the ways in which human beings are brought to grief, this is the siege, this the razing of the citadel, when right judgements are overturned, when they are destroyed

    Basically, Achilles came to Troy and then engaged in the wrong activities: that shaped his mind wrong, “overturning right judgements”.
    Achilles forgot that, when one makes war, one makes war, not love. Love making scrambles his war logic, his hierarchy of motivations, and cautions, he overlooks the fact that his absence will force his friends to take desperate measures endangering them. (After the death of his friend which he caused, Achilles further compounds the problem by directing further rage at the stoic Hector, whom he uses to hide his own culpability… from himself!)

    Conclusion: our logical systems are shaped by our experiences. Examining one’s logic is not enough for the wisest: the logic can be perfect, and still wrong in a more general setting. One has to examine one’s entire mental input, that is, one’s entire life, to find out where one’s logic comes from… And judge it optimally.

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  10. “Rage can be bad, rage can be good. It depends upon circumstances”

    Not according to the Stoics, there are no circumstances under which it is good to shut off reason, which is what rage does.

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  11. In his book ‘Homo Deus’ Yuval Harari writes (chapter 1) :

    According to the life sciences, happiness and suffering are nothing but different balances of bodily sensations. We never react to events in the outside world, but only to sensations in our own bodies. Nobody suffers because she lost her job, because she got divorced or because the government went to war. The only thing that makes people miserable is unpleasant sensations in their own bodies
    […] A thousand things may make us angry, but anger is never an abstraction. It is always felt as a sensation of heat and tension in the body, which is what makes anger so infuriating. Not for nothing do we say that we ‘burn’ with anger.

    Would the ancient Stoics agree?

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  12. Pubbli,

    I’m not sure I would ask a biologist (and I am one) what happiness is. That said, a Stoic would say that happiness has nothing to do with bodily sensations, but rather with whether we are doing the right thing or not. Of course, “happiness” is an ambiguous word here, as the Stoics understood it as “the life worth living,” which is probably not what the biologists in question had in mind.

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  13. Massimo: Thanks for the answer, it made me think. As often in matters philosophical, semantics is at the core of the debate.
    I would suggest that rage doesn’t shut off reason, necessarily. Instead, it switches reason to the combat mode, a form of reason which enabled the human genus to survive, when it sustainably invaded and occupied lion territory. The real question is whether combat is justified. Any reasonable human would say that, quite often, there are situation where combat is justified. Socrates, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius said so, explicitly.

    There are many ways to use a brain. There are many forms of reasons, and many reasons, and even forms of reasons, used by working brains. If I drive a car, while making an impassioned discourse about Rome’s Second Triumvirate, two sorts of reasons are at work: one quasi-automatic driving, the other, historical. However, the part of my brain operating the vehicle works flawlessly: otherwise I would have an accident.

    When in combat, reason is still there, but it mobilizes the full combat brain: after a Greek phalanx uttered the Alala or a Roman legion the Barritus, shaking the plain, terrifying the enemy, the only “reason” that’s left is the reason of combat. It is akin to rage: consider the furia francese, the “berserker” Viking, the “amok” Malay or Indonesian. A human being in full combat mode is an awesome sight which makes even lions think twice (when lions see a Masai warrior, they take to flight).

    Combat thinking is particularly important for philosophical, or any sort of mental, moral, progress. It is no accident that so many top philosophers were combat ready, or otherwise obviously unafraid, although they faced enormous threats, including, of course, death. Socrates came first to fame through his military exploits. And, as many a philosopher, he pursued his work, confronted to threats on his life:

    …”take Socrates and observe that he had a wife and children, but he did not consider them as his own; that he had a country, so long as it was fit to have one, and in such a manner as was fit; friends and kinsmen also, but he held all in subjection to law and to the obedience due to it. For this reason he was the first to go out as a soldier, when it was necessary, and in war he exposed himself to danger most unsparingly. (Epictetus, Discourses, 4.1)

    Combat mentality, akin to rage, enables, motivates, mental breakthroughs, because any mental breakthrough is, if formidable enough, something that tramples other minds, forcing them to reorganize, a form of ultimate aggression. The entire Iliad and Odyssey is there to tell us, first, that the deepest understanding only blossoms out of turmoil. Because a higher, more optimized mental order can only arise, after destroying the one before. To cut the Gordian Knot of obsolete reason, violence is the only way, whether we like it, or not, as Alexander pointed out.
    Even Christ knew this: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. [Matthew 10:34]

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  14. Patrice,

    two objections. First, we are not often in a combat metnality. Arguably, outside of actual combat, we shouldn’t be. Hence the idea of not relying on rage.

    Second, Seneca rightly says that sure, an angry soldier is braver. So is a drunk one, but we don’t want our soldiers to be drunk on the job, because it would impair their decision making. So does rage.

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  15. Is rage necessary for combat?

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Chuchu,

    yes for Aristotle. No for Seneca. seneca says that an angry soldier may be courageous, but he is also going to act rushly because of his rage. He makes the parallel with being drunk: that also gives you courage, but it impairs your judgment. We wouldn’t want drunk soldiers in the battlefield, right?

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  17. I’m not sure if comparing battle fields to competitive sports fields is fair, but I can say from experience that rage is actually crippling for the latter, personally.

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  18. Dear Massimo:
    Top mental creation is in combat always. That’s nearly its definition. A really new idea, especially if true, requires mental reorganization of those submitted to it, so it will always be perceived as an aggression… be it only because it requires work, either to repel it, and even more, to accept it.

    Also top thinkers tend to walk their talk. Thus, many of the most famous thinkers found themselves in combat situations: after the Vatican imprisoned and tortured Giordano Bruno for seven years, he was tortured in public and burned alive (1600). That persuaded Galileo to submit. Those two were among dozens of intellectuals killed in that generation, just between France and Italy. And it keeps on going: hundreds of intellectuals and artists are listed in Wikipedia as killed in the period 1940-1945. So, whether they want it or not, top intellectuals often find themselves cornered like Cicero or Boetius. Milder forms of combat exist: the US physicist Bohm was out of a job (at Princeton), thrown out of the US where he was born, and denied the Nobel Prize (he experimentally demonstrated the Gauge Field importance in quantum physics)… just because he refused to collaborate with Senator McCarthy.

    Rage is not necessary for combat, but an even worse state is. In real combat, or in situation where one’s life is in extreme danger, the ideal state is a total neuronal commitment to survival. So the perception of pain (of oneself, or others) disappears, completely. The mental concentration mobilizes the entire brain, enormous strength appears, dedication to the task at hand is the only thing that exist. I have myself experienced this more than once, either under attack, or engaging in solo climbing or deep sea apnea diving. This is why dangerous thrills are addictive. it is also why and because reason shrinks in combat, and forms a lance to pierce the enemy.

    Unwarranted rage is a state derived from maximal combat ardor, a neurohormonal and brain state which is such that the combatant doesn’t fear death, at all. Thus rage is combat readiness, without the release of actual combat. In that state, hundreds of thousands of soldiers have stormed walls on top of wobbling ladders, pierced by arrows, drenched by boiling liquids.

    Human brains are pickled with reward centers. Hatred, rage, combat, risk taking, life endangerment (of oneself and others) are all behaviors which come with rewarding neuronal mechanisms. Once engaged in these behaviors, they are, all too often not perceived as evil by the perpetrators.

    Avoiding hatred and anger at any cost brings an opportunity to do it much more for those who so indulge. As one gets killed by a cruel tyrant, pitying said tyrant with all of one’s might, doesn’t redress the situation, it makes it way worse, it even enables evil, as Hannah Arendt courageously observed (she was pretty much hated for daring to point that out…)

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  19. Patrice,

    it is simply not true that rage is the only way to get people focused. While it is true that rage has all sorts of negative side effects, especialyl on one’s moral judgment. Which is the point of the Stoic criticism of anger.

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