Achilles, the hero of the Iliad, is one of the most famous Greeks: He is the exemplary warrior who leads the Greeks to victory against Troy, but he is also emotionally unbalanced. He falls in love, he is easily angered, he becomes passive-aggressive, and finally he is so enraged that he goes on a killing spree. Is it his anger that makes him a great warrior, or is he a victim of his own emotions? Should we call a man who is engulfed in rage “a hero?” The emotions of Achilles are at the center of the story in the Iliad. What do we learn from this ancient case study?
Nietzsche on Achilles
Before we dive into one of the most fascinating stories ever written, we need to consider a warning from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who was also very interested in Achilles and the origins of Western civilization in ancient Greece. Nietzsche recognizes that there is a tension between feelings and their poetic translation. We would not know anything about Achilles if it were not for Homer, who is himself an elusive figure. Nietzsche is keenly aware of the difference between experience and recollection, and he writes the following lines about Achilles and Homer in “Human, All Too Human” (1878):
“It is always as it was between Achilles and Homer: one person has the experience, the sensation, the other describes it. A real writer only gives words to the affects and experiences of others; he is an artist in divining a great deal from the little that he has felt. Artists are by no means people of great passion, but they frequently present themselves as such, unconsciously sensing that others give greater credence to the passions they portray if the artist’s own life testifies to his experience in this area. We need only let ourselves go, not control ourselves, give free play to our wrath or our desire, and the whole world immediately cries: how passionate he is! But there really is something significant in a deeply gnawing passion that consumes and often swallows up an individual: whoever experiences this surely does not describe it in dramas, music, or novels. Artists are frequently unbridled individuals, insofar, that is, as they are not artists: but that is something different.”
According to Nietzsche, writers, artists, philosophers, and their followers, live in fictitious worlds, they induce emotions and take them as their real lives. Nietzsche, the analyst of the Western history of ideas, was also a prophet: he foresaw the dangers that became real in the age of computers: many people live in “virtual realities;” symbolic universes entrenched with fantasy and mythology. Their lives become meaningful and exciting mostly through social media, movies, and computer games. The stories and actors in the Iliad are recirculated as the material for blockbuster movies and action hero templates.
What happens to our “real” experiences? What about the people who let themselves go, who give free reign to their emotions and desires? Passions can easily consume us; we get “swallowed up” in them. What should we do? Give in to our real passions, or resist and go to the movies? Nietzsche also says: Nothing great is ever done without passion. His method of reading classical texts is mistrust: The writers and artists who immortalize these passions are themselves only translators with their own problems and delusions. “Only as an aesthetic phenomenon can the world be justified,” he states with irony, and: “thinking is anti-life.”
The Story in the Iliad
How does it feel to be angry? Or even enraged? We can read the story of the Trojan war as a case study for these feelings. How did this story become the mythological origin of Greek identity? How did the Greeks combine a passion for war (Achilles) with the shrewd calculation of Odysseus and succeed in their dominance of the Ancient World? The story serves as a blueprint for the rise of Western Civilization, driven by aggression, lust for power and dominance, by military achievements, and by skillful political actions.
The Iliad begins with these lines: 1
Sing, O Goddess, the anger of Achilles, Son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, King of men, and great Achilles, first fell out with one another.
The story begins in the final phase of the war, when two men clash with each other: Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks, (“Acheans,”) is selfish and cunning, and Achilles, their strongest fighter, is angry and prone to violence. The conflict between these two Greek warriors leads to the end of the war and the fall of Troy.
In Greek mythology, Achilles is the son of Peleus, a Greek King, and the sea nymph Thetis. According to Homer, Achilles was raised by his mother, together with his cousin and friend Patroclus. He was invulnerable, with one little exception, the proverbial “Achilles’ heel.” He easily became the most fearsome warrior in the Greek army, but initially, he was not very motivated to participate in the war.
The siege of Troy lasted for ten years, and in the early years the Greek men conquered the country around Troy and took twelve cities. In the course of these raids, it was common to take prisoners, and the most beautiful women, or women from higher-ranking families, became sex slaves for the Greek warriors. Not surprisingly, the men would sometimes also get attached to these women. This is where the story of Achilles begins: He falls in love with his slave Briseis. According to the Ilias, Achilles had killed her entire family, father, mother, three brothers, and husband, and then he took her as his bounty. 2 Nevertheless, they fell in love, and they became a couple.
Agamemnon also had his sex slave, Chryseis, but her father was a priest of the God Apollo. The father first appealed to Agamemnon to free his daughter and offered him a rich ransom, but he was rejected. He then turned to Apollo, who punished this disrespect by decimating the Greek camp with pestilence. 3
The Greeks know that they have to do something to address the problem, and Achilles demands that Agamemnon returns Chryseis to her father, hoping that this would appease the angry God Apollo. Agamemnon complies very reluctantly and wants as compensation for his loss the beautiful slave Briseis. Since he is the leader, Achilles has to comply, and now he faces a conflict between loyalty, humiliation, and love. 4 He loses his lover, he mourns, and he becomes passive-aggressive. He refuses to fight and just stays in his tent.
As a result, the Greeks are beginning to lose the war. Patroclus, the childhood friend of Achilles, begs him to go back into the fight, but the pleas are falling on deaf ears. Achilles finally allows Patroclus to go into battle and impersonate him. He lends him his chariot and armor. This, of course, does not end well: Patroclus gets killed by Hector, the oldest son of King Priam of Troy. The Greeks are in shock, and Agamemnon decides to give Briseis back to Achilles who has reached his tipping point. He had enough, and he is about to show the world what an enraged and decisive warrior can do: He puts on new armor and rolls back the Trojan advances. He works himself into a deadly frenzy: The Trojan forces are retreating in panic, and one group flees towards a river, and “fell into it with a great uproar.” Achilles shows no mercy. Instead of sparing their lives or capturing them, he “dove into the river in rage and began a great slaughter.” When Achilles became exhausted from killing the fleeing soldiers, “he drew twelve youths alive out of the water, to sacrifice in revenge for Patroclus son of Menoetius.” His bloodlust is still not satisfied: he soon came upon a son of King Priam of Troy, Lycaon, who had just reached the other side of the river in flight. “After throwing himself at the mercy of Achilles, hugging his knees and professing his friendship, the boy was gutted through the throat following a string of insults and mockeries.”
Even after all this slaughtering, Achilles is not done yet. He pursues the Troyans and finally manages to engage Hector in combat. Hector is the greatest fighter for Troy and the first-born son of King Priam. Hector, a mere mortal, knows that he is no match to Achilles, and tries to run away. After surrounding the city a few times, they finally engage in combat, and Achilles, “mad with rage,” fatally wounds him:
“Then Hector said, as the life ebbed out of him, “I pray you by your life and knees, and by your parents, let not dogs devour me at the ships of the Achaeans, but accept the rich treasure of gold and bronze which my father and mother will offer you, and send my body home, that the Trojans and their wives may give me my dues of fire when I am dead.”
Achilles glared at him and answered, “Dog, talk not to me neither of knees nor parents; be sure that I am able to cut your flesh into pieces and eat it raw, for the ills that have been done to me. Nothing shall save you from the dogs – it shall not be, though they bring ten or twenty-fold ransom and weigh it out for me on the spot, with the promise of yet more hereafter. Though Priam son of Dardanus should offer me your weight in gold, your mother shall never lay you out and make lament over the son she bore, but dogs and vultures shall eat you utterly up.
Hector, with his dying breath then said, “I know you what you are, and was sure that I should not move you, for your heart is hard as iron; look to it that I bring not heaven’s anger upon you on the day when Paris and Phoebus Apollo …shall slay you at the Scaean Gates.”
When he had thus spoken, the shrouds of death enfolded him, his soul went out of him and flew down to the house of Hades, lamenting its sad fate.”
Achilles is unmoved and triumphant. He humiliates the Troyans even further by dragging the dead body of Hector behind his chariot several times around Troy.
In an extraordinary act of courage, Hector’s father, Priam, the King of Troy, visits Achilles secretly at night and begs him to get Hector’s body back. Achilles has calmed down; he relents and allows the father to bury his son properly. The Iliad concludes with the funeral rites of Hector. We only learn through Homer’s second book, the Odyssey, that Achilles was eventually also buried, but it does not say how he died. The poet Arctinus describes in his book Aethiopis that Achilles also killed the Ethiopian king Memnon, as well as the Amazonian Queen Penthesilea. According to Arctinus, Achilles was eventually killed in battle by Priam’s son Paris, whose arrow was guided by the God Apollo.
Grief and Anger
Even the name “Achilles” carries a message: It is a combination of ἄχος (akhos) “grief” and λαός (laos), which means “a people, tribe, or nation.” Thus, Achilles’ name signifies the people’s grief. In numerous locations in the Iliad, Achilles voices his grief about the unfolding events. He is not only a fearsome hero-warrior but also a sensitive man: he feels the pain of others, even if he caused it himself. He knows what grief is. He cannot escape from his emotions, and this makes him a tragic figure. When he is the blood-thirsty warrior, he and his men bring grief to the enemy. When he is upset and emotional, the Greek army suffers in war. Sorrow leads to rage, but rage causes more pain and grief – this cycle is familiar to us. Anger is personal, it is an easily accessible emotion, and it creates a powerful motivation for change. When anger clashes with anger, the results are deadly, and it always ends in anguish and desolation. Is this not the basic drumbeat of emotions throughout human history?
The Troyan war did not start with the rage of Achilles. The War began when Paris, another son of the Trojan King, abducts Helen, who fell in love with him, but who is also the wife of Menelaus, King of Sparta. Interpersonal constellations repeat themselves; they cause the chains of events to unfold as if they were unavoidable. The triangle between Paris, Helen, and Menelaus starts the war, and the dynamic between Achilles, Briseis, and Agamemnon determines its course. Masculine egos are easily triggered into aggression: Menelaus was humiliated because his wife fell in love with another man and ran with him, and Achilles has to give up his lover to Agamemnon, for whom he has not much respect. The dynamic unfolds as a serial avenging of one wrong after another.
The women are helpless participants, owned by men, and their lives mostly end tragically. Euripides writes that Helen is brought back to Sparta, where a death sentence awaits her. Briseis is given to a comrade of Achilles after the hero dies, and disappears into the fog of history. Agamemnon returns home, but during the ten years of the Trojan war, his wife Clytemnestra has found another man, and together they kill the returning King. Agamemnon’s son Orestes avenges his father and kills his mother and her lover.
An interesting variation on the theme is Cassandra, a Trojan princess, and daughter of Priam. She has the dubious gift of foreseeing the coming tragedies, but nobody wants to listen to her bleak warnings. After the fall of Troy, Agamemnon takes her as his slave, and even though she warns him about his brutal death in the near future, he does not believe her and gets killed by his wife, who also murders Cassandra. The motive seems clear: a witness needs to be eliminated, and who wants to hear dire predictions about the consequences of one’s actions?
Troy gets conquered and destroyed, the men are slaughtered, and the surviving women and children end in slavery. Only a few escape; under the leadership of Aeneas, they begin a long journey and end up in Italy. Eventually, their descendants become the founders of Rome. 5
The story encapsulates human history in a nutshell. Anger, hatred, envy, revenge, lust and fear: these emotions determine human destiny. Without the decisiveness of Greek leaders, motivated by the deep-seated desire for revenge and the greedy lust for plunder and dominance, the Troyan war would have ended in a negotiated settlement, and we would have never heard about these distant events and people. Are we better off trying to tame these so-called “negative emotions?” Modern psychiatrists would put Achilles on anti-depressants and mood stabilizers. Considering our growing possibilities to reach into the human brain, the time has come to ask: would we still be human without our dark, dangerous, and violent thoughts and feelings?
Contemporary societies are not less violent compared to the ancient Greeks. We just live in a culture where the expression of anger is often politically incorrect. From road rage to domestic violence, anger is a daily occurrence in people’s lives. Social and scientific attempts to neutralize these emotions have led to projects like “anger management,” with the underlying assumption that anger is somehow treatable. Anger is seen as the emotion that needs to be controlled. The proponents of these social engineering projects have probably not read Nietzsche or Freud. A key term in psychoanalytic theory is the “return of the repressed.” People want to feel safe, but the repressed anger returns explosively in action movies, terrorism, and in the random violence of mass shootings. We live in a deeply violent world, and we become numb as a form of self-protection. Nietzsche writes in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 1891:
When power becomes gracious and descends into the visible — such descent I call beauty. And there is nobody from whom I want beauty as much as from you who are powerful: let your kindness be your final self-conquest. Of all evil I deem you capable: therefore I want the good from you. Indeed, I have often laughed at the weaklings who thought themselves good because they had no claws.
- Quoted from the MIT Classics Archive. ↩
- Iliad 2. 688-694. We don’t know if their love affair is an example of the Stockholm Syndrom, if Briseis exploited Achilles’ emotions, or if the two of them came together to rise above the logic of war. ↩
- Here is the full text at the MIT Classics Archive.
And which of the gods was it that set them on to quarrel? It was the son of Jove and Leto; for he was angry with the king and sent a pestilence upon the host to plague the people because the son of Atreus had dishonored Chryses his priest. Now Chryses had come to the ships of the Achaeans to free his daughter, and had brought with him a great ransom: moreover he bore in his hand the scepter of Apollo, wreathed with a suppliant’s wreath and he besought the Achaeans, but most of all the two sons of Atreus, who were their chiefs.
“Sons of Atreus,” he cried, “and all other Achaeans, may the gods who dwell in Olympus grant you to sack the city of Priam, and to reach your homes in safety; but free my daughter, and accept a ransom for her, in reverence to Apollo, son of Jove.”
On this the rest of the Achaeans with one voice were for respecting the priest and taking the ransom that he offered; but not so Agamemnon, who spoke fiercely to him and sent him roughly away. “Old man,” said he, “let me not find you tarrying about our ships, nor yet coming hereafter. Your scepter of the god and your wreath shall profit you nothing. I will not free her. She shall grow old in my house at Argos far from her own home, busying herself with her loom and visiting my couch; so go, and do not provoke me or it shall be the worse for you.”
The old man feared him and obeyed. Not a word he spoke, but went by the shore of the sounding sea and prayed apart to King Apollo whom lovely Leto had borne. “Hear me,” he cried, “O god of the silver bow, that protectest Chryse and holy Cilla and rulest Tenedos with thy might, hear me oh thou of Sminthe. If I have ever decked your temple with garlands or burned your thigh-bones in fat of bulls or goats, grant my prayer, and let your arrows avenge these my tears upon the Danaans.”
Thus did he pray, and Apollo heard his prayer. He came down furious from the summits of Olympus, with his bow and his quiver upon his shoulder, and the arrows rattled on his back with the rage that trembled within him. He sat himself down away from the ships with a face as dark as night, and his silver bow rang death as he shot his arrow in the midst of them. First, he smote their mules and their hounds, but presently he aimed his shafts at the people themselves, and all day long the pyres of the dead were burning. ↩
- Homer writes: “The son of Peleus was furious, and his heart within his shaggy breast was divided whether to draw his sword, push the others aside, and kill the son of Atreus, (Agamemnon) or to restrain himself and check his anger.” ↩
- The Aeneid by Virgil, 29BC. ↩