Friday, October 24, 2008

Essay on the Iliad

    “He is so plaguy proud,” Odysseus says of Achilleus, in the Shakespearean play Troilus and Cressida, “that the death-tokens of it cry 'No recovery.’” The subject of pride has been a part of many books, and in some, a main theme. In The Iliad, we see a fascinating study of that sin which, as Claudianus asserted, “Sullies the noblest character.”

     The consequence of pride is the principal theme in The Iliad.

     As a first example, the pride of the main character, Achilleus, demonstrates the far reaching effects of pride, in causing the death of many Achaian men. Secondly, prideful Agamemnon’s arrogance helps bring about a bitter rift in the Greek army, which leads to a beating from the Trojans. Lastly, and in a more broad sense, the theme of pride is reflected in all the Greek and Trojan warriors, whose ultimate goal is glory for themselves, their country, and their children who come after them.

    When Agamemnon is forced to return his concubine Chryseis back to her father, and is thus humiliated in front of the whole Greek army, he froths with rage, demanding that Achilleus give up his own spoil of war, a girl named Briseis. Agamemnon cannot tolerate the thought of any of his great warriors smugly looking on, while one of his own possessions is forcibly taken. When Achilleus threatens to run away, Agamemnon nonchalantly replies, “Run away, by all means if your heart drives you. I will not entreat you to stay here for my sake. There are others with me who will do me honor, and above all, Zeus.” Agamemnon is so arrogant that he unwisely dismisses one of his most powerful fighters. Angry at Achilleus, he assumes that he can still conquer the flinty Trojans without the help of Achilleus and his tantrums. Agamemnon’s decision to treat Achilleus unjustly was a poor act of leadership, and his pride causes grave consequences to the Achaian army.

       As a corollary of Achilleus’ pride, the Greeks suffer a severe battering in the hands of Hektor and his men. In choosing to refrain from fighting after Agamemnon unjustly stole his concubine Briseis,  Achilleus inconsiderately puts all of his fellow warriors in danger. He is not sorrowing over the mistreatment of Briseis; rather mourning over his own crushed pride. In his clouded vision, the only way he can hope to win back his pride is to “teach them a lesson,” like a pugnacious school-yard bully. There the analogy stops, for Achilleus chooses to sit on the sidelines instead of biting or pulling hair. 

      “Pride is seldom delicate; it will please itself with very mean advantages,” Samuel Johnson once commented, an observation that seems to describe Achilleus refusing to give aid to his fellow warriors. Achilleus is successful in making the king appreciate his worth, but his pride helps bring about the death of his dear friend Patroklos, and countless other men besides. He is a living example of a proud man “who eats up himself,” as Shakespeare once remarked. Not only is Achilleus eaten up by his own sin, his friends are experiencing the pain of being eaten by some remarkably large and ferocious dogs, namely, the Trojans.


    In a broader sense, the pride of  all the Greek and Trojan soldiers can be seen throughout the book. 

     “It would be ignoble of me to shrink back in the fighting,” Diomedes stoically responds to a fellow soldier trying to persuade him to leave the forefront of battle. Trojan Hektor tells his wife that he cannot stand the thought of her “widowed of such a man who could not fight off the day of your slavery.” His pride is not necessarily that of bloated arrogance; rather a deep and rather “humble” pride, ready to fight for his wife, son, and country- the most important things in his life. In contrast to Hektor’s noble pride, Achilleus, still sitting in camp, selfishly bids Patroklos to “Win for me great honor and glory.” The ultimate goal of all Greek and Trojan fighters, was to achieve the elusive kleos, and time, a magnificent dream deeply entrenched in the pride of the warrior. Any soldier in the Iliad could have spoken the words uttered by Napoleon many years later- “Death is nothing, but to live defeated and inglorious is to die daily.” 

    It may seem that The Iliad is simply a gory description of war- the main theme being the pursuit of glory. The quest for military and social glory, however, always floats on top of pride- the driving force to achieve fame, riches, and honor. Thus the paramount theme of the Iliad is more profound than just a search for distiction. The Iliad is rather a story of how pride drives men to foolish actions and destruction, rather than a mere description of how desperate they were to attain majestic greatness.

    The best lessons to be learned from The Iliad are the far-reaching repercussions of prideful and arrogant actions. Homer masterfully illustrates this by showing the reader the conduct and exploits of both armies featured in The Iliad, especially the Achaians. Through the acts of brazen Achilleus, imperious Agamemnon, and Trojans such as Hektor and Paris, a useful lesson in human nature can be learned- that should not, and will not be forgotten. Many soldiers are are the same type of men David described in Psalm 73:6-“Pride compasseth them about as a chain; violence covereth them as a garment.”

   Ultimately, The Iliad is simply an illustration of Proverbs 16:18- “Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.”


(Thanks to Wikipedia and Crystal Links for the pictures.)

No comments: