domingo, 16 de julio de 2017

Homer’s warrior is no mere tragic human figure: fuelled by anger, he is at once a man of honour and a sword of the gods

The anger of Achilles

by C D C Reeve,

Professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He has written, edited and translated many books and volumes, his latest being a translation of Aristotle’s Metaphysics (2016). 
A warrior hero such as Ajax, Hector or Achilles must be willing to fight in hand-to-hand combat day after day. He must be able, physically and psychologically, to plunge a sword into the body of another human being, and to risk having a sword plunged into his own. He must be brutal and ready to risk brutality. At the same time, he must be gentle to his friends and allies, and able to join with them in group activities both military and peaceful.

Plato was well aware of the problem these opposing demands create, both in the soul of the warrior and in the society he inhabits: ‘Where,’ he asks, ‘are we to find a character that is both gentle and big-tempered [megalothumon] at the same time? After all, a gentle nature is the opposite of an angry one.’ When, in the opening line of the Iliad, Homer asks the goddess to sing ‘the anger of Peleus’ son Achilles’, a large part of what he is asking her to do is to explore this opposition, its sources and effects.

Anger or rage (mênis, thumos, orgê) is an emotion, a mixture of belief and desire. It is not a somatic feeling, as nausea and giddiness are, though it is usually accompanied by such feelings – trembling and blushing, for example, and the sense of seeing red. It is, in Aristotle’s definition, ‘a desire, accompanied by pain, to take apparent revenge for apparent insult’.

Anger is triggered by insult, then, and so is connected to worth (aretê) and to honour (timê). A person is insulted when the treatment he receives is worse than the treatment his worth entitles him to receive. He is honoured when he is given treatment proportional to his worth, and his worth is above or well-above average. When we speak of honour, therefore, we are in a way speaking of worth, since honour measures worth. Honour and insult are thus close to being polar opposites, and an insult is a harm to worth or honour.

Honour, like insult, comes from others. It is their recognition of our worth. It is the intrusion of the social into the psychological, the public into the private. After all, others honour us for what they find of worth in us. ‘To pursue [honour],’ wrote Baruch Spinoza in Treatise on the Emendation of the Intellect (1677), ‘we must direct our lives according to other men’s powers of understanding, fleeing what they commonly flee and seeking what they commonly seek.’ So what we come to think of as worthwhile in ourselves is bound to have as a large component what others think to be worthwhile in us.

In the society that Homer not so much describes as presupposes in theIliad, the traits and accomplishments socially underwritten as worthwhile are those appropriate to a world of raiding and warring tribes. Military prowess and achievement are prominent on the list, obviously enough, but so too is loyalty to friends and allies. Anger is intimately involved with both military prowess and loyalty: it provides the kind of psychic energy necessary to perform brutal acts, and so is bound up with success on the battlefield. But it also involves a socially constructed notion of worth, which is a focus for honour. When Plato argues in Republic Book IV that the characteristic emotion of an honour-lover is anger (thumos), he is recognising how central to the world of honour anger really is.

The bond of mutual honouring symbolised by the exchange of gifts – and, for that matter, by the singing of heroic songs that memorialise the achievements of the heroes and their friends and ancestors – is a major ingredient in the social glue that binds the warrior-heroes together. But this bond has another side, which is revealed by insult. When a hero’s friend is insulted so is the hero himself. When Paris steals Helen, he insults Menelaus, but he also insults Agamemnon and his other friends and allies. His action says in effect: ‘I have nothing to fear from people worth as much as you and those who will come to your aid.’ Menelaus’ friends and allies are willing to aid him, certainly, but they do so in part because their own honour is on the line. In helping to restore his honour, they are also out to increase their own. They are themselves to be appropriately honoured, their worth appropriately recognised, in the process of helping him. Competitiveness between friends is thus never far away. The war that Paris precipitates between the Achaeans and Trojans, which is what the Iliad deals with, is there waiting to break out among the Achaeans themselves.

Warriors with developed senses of honour and hair-trigger tempers sensitive to the slightest insult make dangerous enemies but they also make uncertain allies. Indeed, Aristotle claims that ‘our anger is more aroused against associates and friends we think have insulted us than against strangers’. This is the dilemma at the heart of heroic values. It is, again, one reason that Homer invites the goddess to sing about anger, one reason that she sings a song in which that anger is first directed against friends and then against enemies.

Looked at from one point of view, then, the insult-sensitive anger of the hero seems to serve and protect society by protecting the values, such as stable patrilineal families, that are at its core. Yet, at the same time, that anger is potentially destructive of the very society it seems to be protecting. By focusing on it, therefore, Homer can explore the foundations of heroic psychology and culture, the underlying causes of the Trojan War, which are his central focus. But the point of his exploration is to reveal something more universal than that, something more akin to a moral vision of the world. To understand this vision and appreciate its power, however, we need to begin by seeing that a tempting representation of it, based on a seductive reading of the Iliad, is in fact a misrepresentation.


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