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In the second myth, Meleagros, like Achilles, has withdrawn from his previous war activity and is currently keeping company with his bride, Kleopatra.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.

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

In book one of the Iliad, we learn that as part of the so-called “spoils of war,” Agamemnon and Achilles have claimed two concubines for themselves, Chryseis and Briseis.  Agamemnon declared Chryseis as his own, but her father, Chryses, intervened and offered a ransom for her return.  When Agamemnon refused the offer, Chryses prayed to Apollo for help, and he responded by sending a plague on the Achaians.  After several days of intense suffering resulting in many Achaian deaths, Achilles summons an assembly and seeks the help of a prophet named, Kalchas, to determine the reason for the plague.  Kalchas reveals that the deadly pestilence is the work of Apollo in answer to Chryses’ prayer and was due to Agamemnon’s refusal to return Chryseis and his dishonoring of Kalchas.[1] Agamemnon is enraged and says that he will return Chryseis in exchange for Briseis, Achilles’ “prize.” Achilles is offended by Agamemnon’s proposal and considers it an act of dishonor.  Agamemnon eventually takes Briseis, which results in Achilles’ rage toward Agamemnon and his withdrawal from the war.[2]

Later in book nine, after things have gone exceedingly bad for the Achaians, Agamemnon sends an embassy with lavish gifts to try and convince Achilles to rejoin the war efforts.[3] The embassy consists of Odysseus, Phoinix and Aias, each giving a speech designed to move Achilles to return and fight.  Though Achilles is still infuriated with Agamemnon, he greets the ambassadors warmly.  This seems suggest that the offense nurtured by Achilles is personal; yet, in book one just prior to his oath that he would not rejoin the Achaians, he calls them “nonentities.”[4] Here Achilles is not only angry with Agamemnon but with the other Achaian men who failed to speak against the king’s unjust actions.  Has Achilles then in book nine decided that Agamemnon as the representative of the people is to bear the blame personally and not Achilles’ comrades? If so, is Achilles’ withdrawal just?  One is hard-pressed to answer in the affirmative, as many of Achilles’ friends lose their lives because of Achilles’ inability to reconcile with Agamemnon.

Returning to the ambassadors, it is instructive to briefly examine the content of the speeches, as well as Achilles’ response to each.  Odysseus speaks first and appeals to Achilles’ sense of comradeship, playing upon the welcome Achilles has given his three visitors.  “Up, then! if you are minded, late though it be, to rescue the afflicted sons of the Achaians from the Trojan onslaught.”[5] Odysseus then warns Achilles that to fail to do so will result in great emotional torment and regret for Achilles. “It will be an affliction to you hereafter, there will be no remedy found to heal the evil thing when it has been done.”[6] Next Odysseus appeals to an admonition that Achilles’ father had given him, to keep his anger in check and not allow his pride to dictate his actions.  Odysseus thus exhorts Achilles to employ his spiritedness properly, lest it become his downfall.  Agamemnon’s gifts are then enumerated, which among other things include the return of Briseis.  Finally, Odysseus appeals to Achilles’ desire for honor and glory, suggesting that should he return, Hektor will provide him the opportunity to “win very great glory” among men.[7]

Achilles responds to Odysseus by charging him with a kind of double-speak-“I detest that man, who hides one thing in the depths of his heart, and speaks forth another.”[8] Since Agamemnon did not come himself to make reparations with Achilles but sent extravagant gifts via ambassadors, he perceives that Agamemnon still views himself as superior to Achilles.  (Odysseus does in fact leave out Agamemnon’s statement that Achilles must yield to him). Achilles then speaks about fate in a leveling, relativizing way that seems to indicate that he is now calling into question the whole honor system of his day.  “Fate is the same for the man who holds back, the same if he fights hard.  We are all held in a single honour, the brave with the weaklings.  A man dies still if he has done nothing, as one who had done much.”[9] Perhaps Achilles has overstated things because of his anger toward Agamemnon;[10] nonetheless, his experience has resulted in a time of reflection upon the arbitrary nature of the code of honor of his day.[11] That is, Achilles has come to realize that the value of honor is intricately tied to the source conferring it, and the source itself can be self-interested, and hence, less honorable than the conferee. In light of his realizations, perhaps Achilles’ withdrawal and time of reflection has led him to seek to demonstrate a self-sufficiency and honor that does not depend on Agamemnon and the opinion of (human) others.  (I shall elaborate more on this possibility as the essay unfolds).

Clearly, Achilles sees Agamemnon’s taking of Briseis as an unjust, deceptive act and even equates it to a man stealing another man’s wife.[12] In fact, Achilles connects Agamemnon’s deed with Paris’ theft regarding Helen.[13] Over the course of Achilles’ response to Odysseus,  we sense that his argument and outrage presupposes a moral principle which involves (1) a call to respect and honor a man’s love for his wife/concubine and (2) a censure against taking a man’s wife/concubine arbitrarily and by force.  Presumably, Achilles wants to apply this principle in a transcultural, “timeless-truth” manner.

Are the sons of Atreus alone among mortal the ones who love their wives?  Since any who is a good man, and careful, loves her who is his own and cares for her, even now as I loved this one from my heart, though it was my spear that won her.[14]

From Achilles’ point of view, Briseis is his wife, his part of the “booty” that he rightfully deserved and earned through his valiant fighting; [15] hence, Agamemnon is in the wrong for taking her from him and dishonoring him. However, as we shall see, since Achilles ultimately rejects Agamemnon’s reconciliatory gifts, can we conclude that his decisions here are just? Should Achilles allow a personal affront to be the basis of his choices and actions? After all, his withdrawal affects not only himself but the lives of many others as well.

As Achilles continues his discourse with Odysseus, he announces that he will return to his homeland of Phthia and that no gift which Agamemnon might offer would change his mind.  Then he recounts the prophecy of his two fates, which Thetis had revealed to him:  a short, glorious life or a long, inglorious life.  In light of his calling into question the value of the present honor code, Achilles has now (in contrast with his original choice in book one) chosen a long life without glory and even recommends his comrades to follow suit.[16] Life itself, as well as the goods of this life-marriage, a peaceful, non-military existence-now appear more valuable to Achilles than the arbitrary bestowal of honor in the present system.  “A man’s life cannot come back again, it cannot be lifted nor captured again by force, once it has crossed the teeth’s barrier.”[17] In other words, how estimable is this so-called eternal glory if it comes at the cost of the goods of this life and the loss of life itself-not to mention the possibility of dishonor in the present?


[1] Iliad I.94-100, 61.

[2] For a taste of Achilles’ anger toward Agamemnon, cf. I.225-44, p. 65.

[3] The gifts include gold, horses, women, Briseis (with a promise that he has not had intercourse with her).  Cf. Iliad IX.264-276, 205.

[4] Iliad I.231, 239-44, 65.

[5] Iliad IX.246-47, 204.

[6] Iliad IX.249-50, 204.

[7] Iliad IX.303, 206.

[8] Iliad IX.311-12, 206.

[9] Iliad IX.318-20, 206.

[10] As already mentioned, the Achaians are also to a certain extent guilty in Achilles’ mind, as they failed to speak against Agamemnon’s act.  Even so, Achilles’ anger and resentment is (understandably) more specifically focused upon Agamemnon, who now possesses the “bride of his heart” (IX.336, 207).

[11] Sarpedon articulates (in a positive, uncritical light) various aspects of the honor code in book XII.315-326, 266-67.

[12] “All the other prizes of honour he gave the great men and the princes are held fast by them, but from me alone of all the Achaians he has taken and keeps the bride of my heart” (Iliad IX.333-36, 207).

[13] “And why was it the son of Atreus assembled and led here these people?  Was it not for the sake of lovely-haired Helen?” (Iliad IX.337-39, 207).

[14] Iliad IX.340-43, 207.

[15] One wonders how taking other humans as “booty” (even if the captives are willing) can be considered just.  If justice is giving to the other what is his/her due, then the category, “other,” in the Iliad excludes  women.  If we say that treating women as property and part of the spoils of war was simply accepted and unquestioned in Homer’s day, and hence, these kinds of practices were considered just, then are we not admitting that justice itself (or at least justice as practiced) is a conventional notion that changes over time and is dependent upon what the people of a particular cultural have deemed it to be?  Also, is the definition of justice as “giving to the other what is his/her due,” a definition derived from Homer, or is it a later definition common in Socrates’ day?  If the latter, why should we assume it is operative in Homer’s day or that it applies in a transcultural way?

[16] Iliad IX.407-18, 209.

[17] Iliad IX.408-9, 209.