(improper Use of Demigod Talents
Human government and military seldom see eye to eye, no matter how vital each is to the other. Homer’s Iliad illustrates such a struggle quite well in its capture of the tension between political authority and military force, most notably the tension perceived between Agamemnon, king of the Achaians, and Achilleus, the most skillful and respected warrior in the Achaian army. This friction is caused by each hero’s demand to have superior honor over the other through the just use of their respective excellencies. The excellency held by Agamemnon is that of political authority, whereas the excellency possessed by Achilleus is that of martial excellence. Because of this competition for superior honor, the reader can understand that political authority is capable of being transcended by martial excellence, and vice versa. Achilleus’ martial excellence has a stronger claim to superior honor than Agamemnon’s political authority because of the injustices committed by Agamemnon through his selfish misuse of power, in which he forfeits his claim to honor, and also because of Achilleus’ just use of prowess on the field of battle.
To distinguish the actions of Achilles and Agamemnon as being just and unjust, respectively, the meaning of justice in the sense of the Achaian tradition must first be established: Justice is rooted in the use of a hero’s excellence or talents to accrue distinction amongst common men in accordance with the will of the gods. This accord with the will of the gods can essentially be defined by whether or not the act in question fits in with the fate of the subject and object of said action. For example, when Agamemnon dishonors Achilleus by taking his war prize, Briseis, Achilleus becomes so angry that he almost draws his sword and slays Agamemnon. Instead, Athena comes down from Mount Olympus to urge Achilleus not to kill Agamemnon, and Achilleus obeys, saying: “‘Goddess, it is necessary that I obey the word of you two’… He spoke, and laid his heavy hand on the silver sword hilt and thrust the great blade back into the scabbard nor disobeyed the word of Athene” (1. 216-221) Agamemnon is not fated to be killed by Achilleus, nor Achilleus fated to kill Agamemnon. Achilleus and Agamemnon must die in ways according to their tragic fates. If Achilleus would have slain Agamemnon, the killing would have been unjust because Agamemnon would not have been able to face his destiny at the hands of his wife, and would have been killed over a minor war prize squabble.
With this concept of justice in mind, Achilleus seems to follow these guidelines quite well. Achilleus’ might on the battlefield is a just use of his excellency because he does so in search of distinction from the common man in acting by the will of Zeus. This use of considerable force can be seen over and over in his victories against smaller heroes of Troy, but where it is most prominent is in his vanquishing of Hektor: “Die: and I will take my own death at whatever time Zeus and the rest of the immortals choose to accomplish it” (22. 365-366) In this moment, Achilleus not only comes to terms with Patroclus’ death through vengeance exacted upon Hektor, but he also comes to terms with his own death through his tragic fate as well. Achilleus kills Hektor, who is the most renowned hero of Troy. This action, while it has an aspect of revenge to it, ultimately distinguishes Achilleus from the common soldier. Hektor’s death at the hands of Achilleus is also in accordance with the will of the gods because even the gods who were fighting for the Trojans knew that Hektor’s time had come to die. And perhaps what is most satisfying to the definition of the just use is that Achilleus fully submits himself to the will of the gods by accepting his impending death on their terms.
While Achilleus uses his martial excellence justly, Agamemnon uses his political authority in an unjust fashion, and in turn causes Achilleus to be not only a prominent warrior, but a leader as well. Agamemnon’s authority may have come from the gods, but his use of that authority is unjust when his greed in the division of the spoils caused the death of many of his own men, which in turn causes Achilleus to assume the role of the responsible leader and assemble the soldiers to admonish Agamemnon; after admitting fault, Agamemnon then directly violates Achaian tradition by taking from Achilleus what was rightfully his. Agamemnon forfeits his claim to honor when his simple pleasures get in the way of his ability to adequately rule. This interference of these simple pleasures causes Apollo to decimate the Achaian forces as a direct result of Agamemnon’s failure to follow not just the will of the gods, but the will of his own people in their time of need, in which Calchas, the soothsayer, cries: “No, it is not for the sake of some vow or hecatomb he blames us, but for the sake of his priest whom Agamemnon dishonored and would not give him back his daughter nor accept the ransom.” (1. 93-95). The assembly is called simply because Agamemnon would not return Chryseis back to her father Chryses, priest of Apollo. In this way, Agamemnon neglects his duty as a ruler to protect his people from the wrath of Apollo, as he lets them die. Achilleus, on the contrary, assumes the leadership in the situation and calls together the assembly to talk sense into the son of Atreus. As soon as Agamemnon admits he is to blame and that he will make it right to Apollo, he then takes Achilleus’ war prize. It could be posited that Achilleus was in the wrong when he refuses to fight alongside his companions, however, none of Achilleus’ companions stand alongside Achilleus when he is dishonored by Agamemnon. They sit idly by as Agamemnon strips Achilleus of his war prize and his honor as well. It is also the will of the gods for the Achaians to be driven all the way back to their ships in battle. This is justification for why Achilleus could rightly abstain from fighting with the Achaian forces.
Achilleus’ proper use of excellence and Agamemnon’s misuse of excellence are representative of how difficult it can be to be both just and human, but how much more honorable it is to accomplish such a task. The basic principle of abiding by the virtues set forth by the judge or judges of good and evil is as imperative to a hero now as it was in the days of the Achaians. In this case, the gods are the judges of good and evil, and the virtues they set forth are correlational to their will. By abiding by the will of the gods in battle, Achilleus brings honor to his name, whereas Agamemnon’s disobedience to the will of the gods brings shame to him and to the house of Atreus. This representation of human nature through the characters of Achilleus and Agamemnon is specifically why Homer’s Iliad is as relevant in modern times as it was in the time of its composition. Although the religious significance may be diminished, the model of flawed human nature that The Iliad embodies through the different characters is a major reason for its value amongst epic poetry.
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