BMCR 1998.02.08

98.2.08, The Heart of Achilles: Characterization and Personal Ethics in the Iliad

, The heart of Achilles : characterization of personal ethics in the Iliad. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994. viii, 174 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780472105144. $19.95.

Zanker’s expressed purpose is “to examine why the heroes of the Iliad cooperate with one another and to analyze the nature and range of their cooperation, seeking especially for moments when the heroes go beyond formal or conventionalized cooperation, to conduct that is more spontaneously generous” (1). This entails an accurate delineation of the value-system within which the epic’s characters live and the types of motivations behind their ethical decisions. A study of “generous” behavior in the broadest sense is especially enlightening in this regard, since the actions of Homer’s characters appear to be based on competition against rather than cooperation with one another—competition to gain honor and, conversely, to avoid shame.

Zanker seeks to refine and correct the very influential reconstruction of the moral “thought-world” of Homeric epic that scholars like E.R. Dodds, Moses Finley, and particularly A.W.H. Adkins have formulated. His book, proceeding by sensitive and acute interpretations of telling episodes, offers some salutary correctives to the (by now) conventional Adkinsian line. Specifically, Zanker proves that actions can have more than one motivation—typically one proximate and consistent with the competitive ethos, the other ultimate and bespeaking an altruistic ethos seldom fully appreciated, let alone explicated by critics. He also stresses the atypicality of Achilles, whose motives and behaviors—especially in Book 24—so often give the lie to overly mechanistic conceptions of the dynamics of ethical decisions in Homer. Finally, Zanker highlights moments in the poems when Homer’s own ethical presumptions are both apparent and counterposed to those of his characters.

In Chapter 1, “Motives for Cooperation in the Iliad,” Zanker defines major concepts such as friendship, fame, justice, honor, shame, and guilt by careful analysis of relevant passages in the poem. Here, as throughout the book, there is a healthy emphasis on the exclusive authority of the text as guarantor of any theory of Homeric morality.

As a prototype illustration of the range of possibilities in the proportion of competitive self-interest to “spontaneous generosity” in the words and actions of Homer’s characters, Zanker contrasts the reaction of Agamemnon to the wounding of his brother Menelaus in Book 4 with Achilles’ feelings for Patroklos in Books 16 and following. Agamemnon is sincerely concerned for his brother and feels grief at his suffering and perhaps imminent death. Overlaying and outweighing that concern, however, is an egocentric fear of losing ground in the unending rivalry to secure honor and elude shame. “Agamemnon imagines what the Trojans will say as they dance on Menelaos’ grave: they will express the gloating and insulting wish that Agamemnon’s wrath will be directed with equal futility against everyone else…. The king hopes that the earth will swallow him when people say such things about him” (5). That is, Agamemnon evinces the typical heroic value system that strikes a modern reader as so nakedly and repellently self-seeking: never mind the fate of anyone else, how precisely will a given event reflect on me, how will witnesses assess my worth, what will posterity say about me, me, me ?

Achilles, by contrast, though he is cognizant of the question of honor as a motive for vengeance against Hektor, and indeed gives voice to such a concern ( Il. 18.79-121), is shown genuinely “lamenting the loss of his friend, as the dominant theme of his speech, and denying that Zeus’ restoration of his honor gives him any pleasure now that Patroklos is dead …” (8-9). Achilles is driven by “personal, internal motivations for revenge” that have little to do with his own acquisition of honor or avoidance of shame. “Agamemnon would never have understood the compelling power of personal affection voiced here, let alone the comparative neglect of honor.”

Now, Zanker rightly argues that the selfish honor-incentive can dictate generous, apparently altruistic behavior, for example, in the injunctions to respect the suppliant, to honor a holy man, to show concern for the well-being of comrades. He spends most of the first chapter discussing the evidence for various cooperative values in the poem. Friendship, pity, a sense of fair play, loyalty—all have their place in the Homeric moral world, though all are—in most instances—largely subsumed within the system of honor- and shame-incentives, that is, almost never truly altruistic or generous: “if the Iliad presents a recognizable case of disinterested concern and generosity in any form, it presents something significant indeed” (19).

In Chapter 2, “Values in Tension,” Zanker argues that the protracted war at Troy has applied a strong solvent to the system of constraints on heroic behavior: “both sides are exhausted, … feelings have become brutalized, a state that has ushered in the fragmentation of loyalties and moral values” (47). Zanker focuses on scenes attesting this brutalization: the brief truce in Book 7, when the men retrieve the bodies of their comrades, now unrecognizably mutilated and covered with blood and gore. This after the Achaians have, as the bloodthirsty Diomedes urged, refused Priam’s offer of restitution of the goods Paris stole from Menelaos. Nothing less that the total destruction of Troy, right down to the unborn child in his mother’s womb, will satisfy the Greek warriors at this stage.

Again and again, as in the slaying of the suppliant Adrestos by Menelaos and Agamemnon, “the honor-incentive for vengeance and death [overrides] … the honor involved in sparing a suppliant and … acquiring ransom gifts” (49). On the other side, Hektor loses sight of the importance of his survival for his community. He foolishly risks himself, ignoring the prudent advice of Andromache, Poulydamas, and, at the very end, his parents. Moreover, he does this quite consciously: “Hektor will call this pursuit of glory ‘recklessness’ ( atasthaliai, 22.104), and he will see that it has led to the destruction of his community, but knowledge of that fact will in no way encourage him to subordinate his need for personal glory to the common good” (54).

One character only distinctly perceives the deleterious distortions in heroic morality obtaining in the tenth year of the war—Achilles. Zanker identifies this awareness with guilt. In Book 24, Achilles articulates “his feelings about his father, that he is not ‘caring for’ Peleus in his old age but is sitting idly before Troy causing ‘care’ for Priam and his children” (62). Zanker cogently contends that Achilles is experiencing and expressing guilt here. Though “the heroes characteristically translate into shame what we would call guilt, we are at liberty … to postulate the activity of guilt-feelings behind Achilles’ reactions and words” (63). Zanker thus finds the source of the crisis of values in the Iliad in clashing forces of guilt (as ultimate motivation) on the one hand and honor/shame (as proximate motivation) on the other.

The chapter concludes with a section (“A Tragedian Reflects”) that explores the fascination of such moral issues in the fifth century—specifically, in Sophokles’Aias.“Here, as in the Iliad [scil., Book 24], we have the ultimate factor preconditioning the just and generous response: pity for one’s fellowman, even one’s enemies, motivated by the experience of the suffering that human life can entail” (70).

In Chapter 3 (“Achilles’ Disaffection”), Zanker comes to the heart of the matter in the heart of Achilles. For Achilles, too, seems to undergo the brutalizing effects of the long war. He, like Hektor, jeopardizes his community for self-interested reasons. But, unlike Hektor, or anyone else in the epic, Achilles will be jarred out of his lethal self-preoccupation by “intensely emotional and personal concerns” (73). Zanker’s argument in this and the following chapter is subtle, perceptive, and most persuasive. Mere summary will not do it justice.

Achilles is, uniquely in the epic, forcefully confronted by his own imminent mortality, authenticated by his own mother. This knowledge privileges him with greater insight than that of any other character and leads him ultimately “to reinstate the motives of affection and fair play as the most potent reasons for acting cooperatively, doing so from a deepened sense of mortality, in his behavior toward an enemy, and with a regard for honor-gifts that plays an appropriately ancillary role in his human relations” (73). The attainment of this higher awareness on Achilles’ part is, Zanker maintains, “the poem’s central gift.”

It had once been Achilles’ practice to behave generously, as for example when he accorded full funeral honors to Eëtion or shared a meal with and allowed the ransom of Lykaon. Even in the embassy of Book 9, where his concern with honor/shame-incentives is evidently paramount, Achilles is most receptive (or least unreceptive) to the entreaty specifically of Aias, based as it is on a sincere appeal to friendship. Aias impresses on Achilles that the embassy represents the interests of all the Achaians, not Agamemnon alone. Moreover, it consists of his “dearest” friends (9.642). “This affective aspect of Aias’ speech prompts the final ‘concession’ that he will rejoin the war, even if only when Hektor reaches and sets fire to the ships …” (90).

In Books 11 and 16, Achilles again seems to embrace the traditional honor-incentive. But we know better, for we have seen him in Book 9 questioning the authority of the conventional system of values in the harsh light of the ineluctability of his own death. Thus, although he tells Patroklos in Book 16 that he knows of no prophecy that might cause him to keep clear of the fighting and instead “talks in tîmê -concepts and phraseology,” Zanker shrewdly appraises this as an effort “to conceal an unexpressed motive for refusing to rejoin the Achaians, namely his personal realization of the reality of death … which … others may take as a fear of death” (97).

With the death of Patroklos, Achilles is overwhelmed by grief, guilt, and shame. His decision to avenge his friend and thereby to seal his own fate manifests itself as a seeming passion for kleos, but “what has driven him to wish for ‘noble glory’ [is] … an overwhelming sense of personal loss, so kleos is a much more internally and affectively motivated thing here than in the rest of the poem” (100-101). This is in stark contrast to the kind of glory Hektor seeks by ignoring affective ties that once bound him to city and family.

Achilles in Books 19-22 gives himself over to an unqualified lust to destroy all Trojans, “in an act of veritable genocide” (103). Thus, Tros in Book 20, Lykaon in Book 21, and Hektor in Book 22 are shown no quarter, as all Achilles’ victims “are treated with a strange and horrifying impartiality” (104).

The chapter ends with a convincing analysis of the funeral games for Patroklos, as Zanker shows that Achilles here behaves as one “in some degree coming to terms with his friend’s death, with his own death, and with the claims his community has on him” (121).

Chapter 4, “A Brief Resolution: Achilles and Priam,” shows how the poet fashions a new harmony of moral values. Achilles’ kindly treatment of Priam stems from his enlarged vision of the meaning of death and suffering as attributes of human experience. And, by the inclusion of the ransom-gifts, the scene also restores the honor-incentive, now more properly placed on the scale of social importance. “Achilles’ unique experience and knowledge of death enable him, alone among the warriors before Troy, to attain to the companionship in suffering that he shares with Priam and the sublime generosity that he shows him, a generosity that … outstrips even that of the gods themselves, whose immortality debars them from the totality of Achilles’ vision” (125).

The final chapter, “The Magnanimity of Achilles,” adds little to the argument of the book. Zanker settles on the word “magnanimity” as best describing Achilles’ behavior with Priam in Book 24, behavior “without any dominating sense of self-interest, motivated instead principally by a feeling of common humanity in the face of common mortality” (129). He then assays this Achillean magnanimity in light of ethical aspects in the work of ancient authors (tragedians, Plato, Aristotle) and the moral speculations of modern theorists (Kantian, Christian, humanist). The book then closes with a section on “The Achievement of Iliad 24″ that uses the scene between Achilles and Priam as a touchstone in the appraisal of magnanimous characters in Homer (Patroklos, Hektor, female characters, the gods; the Phaiakians in the Odyssey), Hesiod, more briefly, Sophokles’Antigone. Again, though not intrinsic to the argument of the book, these forays into loci similes et dissimiles are yet both enlightening and interesting.

In his “Acknowledgments,” Zanker says his book was a “by-product of … teaching of the Iliad in translation to senior undergraduates,” and grew out of a desire to reconstruct “the ethical thought-world presented by the poem.” He has succeeded impressively in providing a reconstruction that will stand as a welcome refinement of current received opinion about the morals and motives of Homer’s heroes. Its trenchant critical acumen and pellucid writing style make The Heart of Achilles must reading for all senior students of Homer, undergraduate and beyond.