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)