On The Iliad
I see the Iliad as the story of Akhilleus’ journey towards death. At the opening of the Iliad, he knows that the choices he makes will directly impact whether he lives or dies. He must decide because two paths have been laid before him and no more. Other men, because they do not know their appointed time, have the luxury or curse to imagine that they may live for many years yet. Akhilleus, unlike the rest, knows better. This forces him to wrestle with the hard questions that other mortals whose time in life is not revealed choose to ignore or simply don’t consider. In the end his mental struggle leads him beyond his own self-centered despair to a broader sympathy for the human condition in general by forcing him to ask questions that most men only ask if ever in the few short moments before their death.
Akhilleus’ and Agamemnon’s fight leads to Akhilleus withdrawing from the battle. Akhilleus is left thinking confused, angry, and indecisive by his ships while the war rages on with one side winning and then the other. Below him lies the undergloom, while above him sit the unpredictable, immortal gods. When Odysseus comes with the peace offerings from Agamemnon we can see that Akhilleus’ ideas about the war and other things has changed. “Why must Argives fight the Trojans?” (Book 9 lines 413-14) All around him rages a senseless war, while ahead of him stands certain death if he chooses to stay and fight. Behind him lies memories of all he has left behind while inside of him bubbles a cauldron of rage and despair at the injustice and futility of it all.
Akhilleus has been thinking about his future, the choices he has and their consequences, when the emissaries come from Agamemnon with a peace offering. Although he may not see it this way his rage against Agamemnon can be seen holistically as rage against the indifference of the universe and the thankless struggle of life. For all his efforts and his coming death he feels he is owed justice but it eludes him. Akhilleus is at war, not only with the Trojans and Agamemnon but all men and himself. Akhilleus’ is going to die in battle and he knows it so it may be that he is using his anger against Agamemnon to avoid war. His anger at Agamemnon complements his perhaps unconscious fear of death. No other character in the book can say for certain that they won’t survive this war. For every one there is a chance to live except Akhilleus. For Akhilleus if he stays and fights he will die. “My mother, Thetis of the silver feet, tells me of two possible destinies carrying me towards death: two ways: if on the one hand I remain, to fight around Troy town I lose all hope of home but gain unfading glory: on the other, if I sail back to my own land my glory fails but a long life lies ahead for me.” (Book 9 lines 499-505) The Argives need him to fight because he is their greatest warrior but by Akhilleus telling them this they now also know that his choice will decide his life. He is camped at his ships not only to thwart Agamemnon but also because he is running from his end (like Hector does later around the walls of Troy) and needs time to think over what it is he should do in regards to his life or death. Hectors’ decision is decided by the futility of flight while Akhilleus’ is defaulted by the death of Patroklos.
In Homer’s world the undergloom awaits all mortals. The Trojans and Akhaians are spared the delusion of a just reward for a life well lived. Honor is the only way to achieve glory after death. Without it there is nothing because the same fate awaits all. No heaven or hell, but only the undergloom, makes no good or evil, only honor or dishonor, for mortals, and eternal bliss for immortals. This adds more weight to the questions Akhilleus is considering during his contemplation by the ships because in his world when it’s over it’s over. The question is posed again and again with every death on the battlefield in the Iliad: How and why to live and die? These quick flashes are mini dramas of Akhilleus’ own protracted struggle. The death of Patroklos jars Akhilleus out of his contemplation and back into action. His decision is made to fight, and so death awaits him. He has come to some understanding on how he will face his own death, which now gives Akhilleus the opportunity to begin looking beyond himself, to the fate that all men must face eventually. He gently schools his victims who care to know before dispatching them on what it is he has come to understand concerning the conduct of life and death. “Come, friend, face your death, you too. And why are you so piteous about it? Patroklos died, and he was a finer man by far than you… My father is noble, a goddess bore me. Yet death waits for me, for me as well, in all the power of fate.” (Book 21 lines 122-127)
Akhilleus sees that not just him but also all men will die, noble and piteous, great and small, and he finds comfort in that. It is the ghost of Patroklos, who he cared for very much and whom he hoped would take care of his son in his absence, which pushes him to muster the strength to face his own fated demise. Akhilleus’ feelings for Patroklos were so strong that it was feared he might take his own life on learning of the death “…he feared the man might use sharp iron to slash his throat.” (Book 8 lines 36-38) Akhilleus is grieving not just for his fallen friend but for himself as well.
Akhilleus’ anger at the prospect of his own coming death is reflected in his abusive treatment of the corpse of Hector and his refusal to bury Patroklos. Patroklos’ ghost in requesting burial encourages Akhilleus to rise above his own selfish fears and anger and face what really is. It is because Akhilleus loved Patroklos so much that he is able to rise to this challenge. By accepting Patroklos’ death he accepts his own and his anger at the corpse of Hector, which was a product of his fear of his own death, also disappears.
At the funeral of Patroklos we see that Akhilleus’ sense of justice and honor has evolved. His judgment of the contests shows his new thinking in these matters. He has learned that justice and honor are not hard and unyielding but give way and bend as circumstances dictate. He has been humbled by the death of one he cared for immensely and the little time he has left will not be spent in vain pride or foolish anger. With the burial of Patroklos Akhilleus buries his own illusions as well. He still mourns but he does not rage. He still also has some anger but it now feels empty and unfulfilling to him. He has not answered the questions that plague him but only accepted the enigma as such. The pleading of Patroklos’ ghost helped him turn this corner.
Akhilleus spiritual development reaches its flush with the meeting with Priam. After his unquenchable rage followed by sleepless nights, long fasting and denial of death, he is finally able to look beyond his own suffering and grieve for the fate of all men. “Far from my country I sit at Troy to grieve you and your children” (Book 24, line 650-651). Akhilleus sees the tumult of life, its sad futility, and for a moment realizes that it is the kinship of others in the suffering struggle, not their destruction and plunder, that brings fulfillment. Life goes on and the war continues after a time. This flash of insight is not the beginning of a peaceful conclusion for the warriors at Troy, but still it is important as illustrated by Homer choosing to essentially end his narrative here. Homer does not condemn war and suffering (they after all are a part of the grand pageant of life) but seems to say that there are still many lessons to be learned in the foolish excitement of mans follies; as after the allotted time of the secret peace, agreed upon between Priam and Akhilleus, the war will resume. “The men were quick to raise the death mound, while in every quarter lookouts were posted to ensure against an Akhaian surprise attack.” (Book 24 lines 953-956) The dance of life, death, drama, violence, and love continues and the riddle has not been answered.
Akhilleus’ death awaits him around the walls of Troy but it need not be told because his journey through the forest of his own doubts and fears has already settled the challenge. Homer leaves the answers to the questions he poses to the preachers, politician and romance novelist. Avoiding these easy answers contributes to the timeless nature of the Iliad’s greatness.