Stoic anti-role models: Achilles

[image: Ancient Greek polychromatic pottery painting (dating to c. 300 BC) of Achilles during the Trojan War, Wikipedia; this is essay #263 in my “Philosophy as a Way of Life” series]

“Sing, Goddess, of the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
the accursed rage that brought great suffering to the Achaeans.”
(Homer, Iliad, first two lines)

The other night I was watching a movie with my wife: Troy, the 2004 epic starring Brad Pit as the Greek warrior hero Achilles. It’s an okay movie, falling into the category of what I call ancient Greco-Roman “porn,” something you’d enjoy if you are into ancient history and mythology, but which you shouldn’t take seriously as a source of either.

I have always disliked Achilles, ever since I studied the Iliad in high school. His pettiness toward Agamemnon, his misdirected anger at the death of Patroclus, and his disrespect for the body of Hector rubbed me the wrong way. My hero was, and still is, Odysseus. Cunning, brave, and hell bent (in the Odyssey) to get back home to his wife and son, despite malicious Poseidon’s repeated attempts to kill him and his comrades.

While I was thinking about the movie afterwards, it struck me that those early feelings I developed toward Achilles and Odysseus were precisely what you’d expect from a Stoic — even though I didn’t discover Stoicism as a philosophy of life until decades later! There is a large literature on Odysseus as a role model for several ancient philosophical schools (the Stoics, the Cynics, and even the Epicureans), so I will not dwell on that here. Let us, instead, examine why Achilles is pretty much a perfect Stoic anti-role model.

Achilles was the son of king Peleus of Phthia (Thessaly) and the Nereid Thetis. Since the Nereids are sea nymphs, usually accompanying Poseidon in his wanderings, Achilles was semi-divine. His mother famously dipped him in the magical river Styx as an infant, to make him invulnerable. Unfortunately for Achilles, Thetis did not realize the obvious fault in her plan: in order to immerse the boy into the waters she had to hold him by his heel, which was therefore shielded from the magic of Styx. This mistake turned out to be fatal to her son many years later.

The Iliad begins with the two lines I quote above, and which I can still remember (in Italian) from my early studies. Why was Achilles enraged, and why did his rage brought great suffering to the Greeks (i.e., the Achaeans)? 

What happened was that Agamemnon, the king of Mycenae and the commander in chief of the Greek army had taken a woman named Chryseis as slave. This was problematic, as Chryseis turned out to be a priestess of Apollo, and the angry god accordingly sends a plague to the Achaean camp in retaliation. A prophet figures out what’s going on but agrees to explain it to the easily enraged Agamemnon only under the protection of Achilles. Achilles agrees, and Agamemnon relents and lets Chryseis go. However, petty as he is, he then takes one of Achilles’ war prizes, Briseis, as compensation for the loss of Chryseis. That’s what enrages Achilles, who retires to his tent to sulk and refuses to continue fighting.

This is the first episode that shows Achilles to be non Stoic, on two grounds. To begin with, of course, he cares too much for an “external,” such as the possession of a slave. Epictetus writes multiple times about the general topic of externals, but in one case in particular he refers directly to situations like Achilles’:

“What else are tragedies but the ordeals of people who have come to value externals, tricked out in tragic verse?” (Discourses I, 4.26)

Achilles is not just distraught by the loss of a slave, but also by what he considers his wounded honor, because his glory prize has been taken away. But according to the Stoics these are misguided priorities. Sure, other things being equal externals have value, but they should never be pursued at the expense of the only thing that truly matters: the integrity of one’s character. And Achilles is damaging exactly that with his behavior.

Also, in deciding not to fight for the Greeks Achilles knowingly puts his comrades’ lives at additional risk, which violates the Stoic virtue of justice, often understood as treating others fairly, in the way you would want to be treated. Marcus Aurelius says:

“Do not be whirled about, but in every movement have respect to justice, and on the occasion of every impression maintain the faculty of comprehension or understanding.” (Meditations IV.22)

Achilles is clearly not maintaining the faculty of comprehension, i.e., he is not acting reasonably, but rather in the thrall of anger. And that, of course, is a definite no for Stoics.

The second episode that concerns us here occurs after Achilles’ casual attitude toward his comrades ends up biting him in the ass, big time. Thanks to his inaction, the Trojans — under the command of the valiant Hector — are about to overrun the Greek camp. At this point Patroclus, Achilles' cousin and close companion, takes things in his hands. He wears Achilles’ armor and leads his warriors, the Myrmidons, into battle. As a result, the inexperienced Patroclus gets himself killed during a confrontation with Hector.

Achilles now mourns Patroclus, at the same time as he is enraged by his death (which he, indirectly, caused through his neglect of the fighting). Grief and anger are two topics on which the Stoics have a lot to say. Seneca writes to his mother Helvia:

While it is a foolish weakness to give way to endless grief when you lose one of those dearest to you, yet it shows an unnatural hardness of heart to express no grief at all: the best middle course between affection and hard common sense is both to feel regret and to restrain it. (To My Mother Helvia, On Consolation, XVI)

But someone who has given in to rage is not going to be in a position to find that middle ground, to feel regret and yet at the same time to restrain it. On the contrary, Achilles is mad for vengeance, and he goes after Hector with all his might. Indeed, Homer tells us that Zeus himself is concerned by Achilles’ rage, and sends some of his underlings to restrain him. But Achilles finally finds Hector, and the scene is set for the most memorable fight in the entire poem. Hector is armed only with a sword, and eventually succumbs to Achilles. Before dying he asks Achilles to respect his body, giving it back to his family for the proper funeral rites to be conducted. But Achilles is entirely insensitive, answering that “my rage, my fury would drive me now to hack your flesh away and eat you raw — such agonies you have caused me.” That is what happens when people act on the basis of anger, as Seneca vividly explains:

“Anger [is] a short madness: for it is equally devoid of self control, regardless of decorum, forgetful of kinship, obstinately engrossed in whatever it begins to do, deaf to reason and advice, excited by trifling causes, awkward at perceiving what is true and just, and very like a falling rock which breaks itself to pieces upon the very thing which it crushes. That you may know that they whom anger possesses are not sane, look at their appearance.” (Seneca, On Anger, I.1)

Achilles drags Hector’s corpse in the dust, securing it to his chariot and bringing it back to the Achaean camp. It is only later on, when Priam, Hector’s father, humiliates himself in front of Achilles that he finally relents and agrees to let go of the body of his opponent. But it is Hector who turns out to have the last word. With his dying breath he predicts Achilles’ demise, which takes place no long after, at the hand of Paris, who finds Achilles’ heels with an arrow guided by Apollo.

In a sense, Achilles succeeded at what he really wanted. He was determined to be remembered as the greatest warrior that Greece ever had. And we do regard him as such, even over three millennia after the (alleged) facts. But from a Stoic perspective Achilles was a wretched man. He had set for himself misguided priorities (fame rather than a good character); he was prone to anger, the most destructive of the emotions; and he was given to petty behavior that recklessly endangered his companions. Achilles truly is a Stoic anti-role model.

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