Part III: Honor, Wrath and Justice in the Iliad: A Hard-Learned Lesson in Human Finitude

Next, we turn to Phoinix’s appeal, in which he employs two myths:  the myth of the daughters of Zeus, and the myth of Meleagros, applying both by analogy to Achilles’ situation.  In the first myth (IX.502-12), the “spirits of prayer,” that is, the “daughters of Zeus” have the ability to heal those afflicted by Ruin.  If these daughters are treated with due respect in their peace-making and other salutary activities, a person may receive blessing and protection from Zeus.  But if a person dishonors them, they supplicate Zeus to send Ruin upon such a person.  Phoinix concedes that Agamemnon had acted out of pride,[1] but he adds that now he has (in at least some minimal sense) recognized his error and seeks (again in some sense) to make peace with Achilles.  Thus, Phoinix urges Achilles to put his anger aside and accept Agamemnon’s offer.  Should he stand firm in his rejection of Agamemnon’s gifts, Phoinix implies that Achilles will offend the daughters of Zeus.  If this is the case, does Achilles’ refusal to accept reparations from Agamemnon result in his own madness-a madness that comes in the form of a blinding delusion sent by Zeus? Does this madness manifest in Achilles’ inability to reason properly, as his anger overrides his deliberating processes?[2]

In the second myth, Meleagros, like Achilles, has withdrawn from his previous war activity and is currently keeping company with his bride, Kleopatra.  Meleagros’ comrades offer him gifts in the hope that he will put away his wrath and return to the battle.  He refuses the offer; however, his wife at last convinces him to rejoin the war efforts, which results the enemies’ retreat.  Although Meleagros fought valiantly and successfully, the elders reneged on their previous offer.  Phoinix clearly exhorts Achilles not to do as Meleagros did, but instead to accept Agamemenon’s gifts and return to battle in order to maximize his honor.  “With gifts promised, go forth. […] But if without gifts you go into the fighting where men perish, your honor will no longer be as great, though you drive back the battle.”[3] At this point, Phoinix’s speech ends, and Achilles responds, stating that he doesn’t need honor of this sort, because he is honored by Zeus.[4] In light of Achilles’ former reflections on the deficiency of honor based on human opinion and unworthy sources (Agamemnon), he seems to suggest that he will now seek honor from Zeus alone.   If this is the case, then does it follow that only humans can obtain honor, as the gods are (supposedly) better sources (at least metaphysically speaking) than humans?[5]

Although the aforementioned suggestion fits with what Achilles says, it doesn’t make sense of his actions.  After all, upon hearing Aias’ rather simple, emotion-driven speech, Achilles decides to remain in Troy and return to battle when the fire reaches the Myrmidons’ ships.  Whatever we make of Aias’ pleadings, we should not conclude that Phoinix’s speech has no affect on Achilles, as he ends up doing just what Meleagros did:  he returns to the fight and rejects the gifts.  So how do we account for Achilles’ drastic change of plans, as well as his decision to follow the negative example of Meleagros?  Since Achilles wants to show his independence from Agamemnon, his rejection of the gifts functions as a way to demonstrate his self-sufficiency.  In other words, Achilles fights on his own terms and decides when, for what purpose, and on what grounds he will re-engage the battle.  But has Achilles made the right decision-has he acted for the sake of justice?  Perhaps Achilles should have rejected all the gifts and demanded only the return of Briseis.  Would that decision have been the best way to serve justice for all parties involved, even if, as mentioned before, Briseis was taken by force as a war “prize”?

Given the difficulty of determining what Achilles should have done, could Homer’s purpose be to highlight an irresolvable tension connected with justice and the spirited soul?  Does the spirited soul, because of its desire for honor, end up obfuscating honor in order to avenge being dishonored?  That is, perhaps the warrior’s desire for honor is so strong that it ends up overpowering his desire for justice.  This certainly seems to be the case with regard to Achilles’ quarrel with Agamemnon, which results eventually in the loss of many lives-including the life of Patroklos, Achilles dearest friend.  We also see this tension manifest in Achilles’ appeals to Zeus for divine aid.  If Zeus helps Achilles, then Achilles cannot claim to be the indispensable element in the Achaian victory.  Here we are also moved to call Zeus’ justice into question.  Does he help Achilles win the decisive battle with Hektor because he is angered over the wrong done to Achilles, or does he act because of a personal favor that he owes to Thetis?  When all is said and done, perhaps the desire for honor is a problem for both gods and humans.  For humans the desire for honor results in an obfuscation of justice and the need to seek a (non-arbitrary) source higher than themselves to firmly establish and convey that honor.  For gods-or better, for Zeus, the most powerful of the gods-presumably there is no external source or being to which he can turn for the bestowal of such honor. Yet, throughout the Iliad, we have the sense that the gods need humans in order to demonstrate their power and worth.  Moreover, the gods (Zeus included) often seem just as fickle, untrustworthy and subject to wayward passions as humans.  Is there then in the Iliad a stable, worthy source for the bestowal of honor?

Perhaps the most we can conclude about the relationship between the will of Zeus and the life of Achilles is that at times Achilles’ choices and desires seem to coincide with Zeus’ plan, yet at other times they clearly conflict (e.g., the death of Patroklos).[6] Zeus’ will does have a comprehensiveness to it and even seems to include a desire to educate Achilles and make him a willing partner in accomplishing Zeus’ goals.  What then does Zeus want Achilles to learn?  In the final book of the Iliad, after submitting to Zeus’ desire that he return the body of Hektor to Priam, Achilles engages in a discourse with Priam about the design of providence and the fate of mortals.  As both men are grieving their losses, Achilles turns to Priam and says,

Such is the way the gods spun life for unfortunate mortals, that we live in unhappiness, but the gods themselves have no sorrows.  There are two urns that stand on the door-sill of Zeus.  They are unlike for the gifts they bestow:  an urn of evils, an urn of blessings.  If Zeus who delights in thunder mingles these and bestows them on man, he shifts, and moves now in evil, again in good fortune.  But when Zeus bestows from the urn of sorrows, he makes a failure of man, and the evil hunger drives him over the shining earth, and he wanders respected neither of gods nor mortals.[7]

Achilles stresses the difference between gods and humans, specifically highlighting the sorrows experienced by humans in contrast with the absence of sorrow experienced by the gods.  Here Achilles cannot mean that gods have no sorrows whatsoever, as he himself has admitted that Thetis, in marrying a mortal, endured much grief and distress. Perhaps Achilles means to emphasize that the sorrows of humans are of a different sort or have a significantly greater “sting” because of human mortality.  Humans can, as Achilles indicates, receive blessings from Zeus, but these are at best temporary and are sure to be followed by grief and misfortune-as the lives of both Achilles and Priam make clear.  No human being is free from the experiences of sorrow, and death itself stands as the victor of all mortals.

In book nine, Achilles had already begun to question the value of eternal glory since it is had at the cost of life itself (as well as the good things in life and with no guarantee of honor in the here and now).  This led Achilles to attempt to break with the customary honor system and demonstrate his self-sufficiency.  Yet, Achilles is not able to make a full break, as the tension in his spirited-soul compels him to pursue honor at great cost-the loss of Patroklos’ life, as well as his own.[8] Even after defeating Hektor and achieving his long, sought-after glory, Achilles remains dissatisfied and unfulfilled. Perhaps this is what he means by Zeus’ sorrows, making “a failure of man, and the evil hunger drives him over the shining earth, and he wanders respected neither of gods nor mortals.”  Achilles’ quest for honor and glory leaves him unsettled with regard to the value of his achievements and acutely aware of the loss he has experienced along the way.  In the end, Achilles does, by way of Zeus’ will and divine interventions, achieve eternal glory; however, his accomplishment does not produce his own personal happiness.  Rather, Achilles’ glory lives on as a hard-learned lesson in human finitude. Achilles, by way of Zeus’ hand, has come to realize that every aspect of his life and death involves dependence on others.  In his defeat of Hektor-the most glorious victory of his military career-Achilles acknowledges the indispensability of Athene’s aid.  Concerning his own death, Achilles concedes his dependence upon his fellow Greeks for a proper burial.  With the realization of his need for others to secure an honorable burial, Achilles gains an understanding of his place in the grand schema of things.  Neither beasts nor gods require burial-the former because they lack the kind of soul (however tenuous that soul may be in Homer’s account) which humans (and demigods) possess, the latter because they do not die.    Homer, then, ends his tale of Achilles’ hard-learned lesson in human finitude with the warrior’s acceptance of his place somewhere between gods and beasts.


[1] Agamemnon himself describes his actions toward Achilles as “madness” and as issuing from the “persuasion” of his “heart’s evil” (IX.115ff., 201).

[2] Perhaps this would explain to some extent Achilles’ treatment of Hektor’s body, dragging it around in an almost ritualistic way.

[3] Iliad IX.602-5, 214.

[4] Iliad IX.607-8, 214.

[5] Since Zeus is considered the greatest, most powerful god, presumably, he would be the greatest source of honor.

[6] Though one could devote an entire essay to the significance of Patroklos’ death in the Iliad, let it suffice for my present purposes to simply assert that the death of Patroklos compels Achilles to return to battle and is arguably a crucial element in the overall plan of Zeus for Achilles.

[7] Iliad XXIV.525-33, 489.

[8] He also comes to the realization that he must depend upon his fellow Achaians for a proper burial.