Hoisted from the Archives: December 6, 2004:
The Best of the Achaeans: My brother Chris watches "Troy" while flying back from London and says a bunch of smart things about The Concept of the Hero in Twenty-First Century Civilization:
First, he says that "Troy" is an excellent airplane movie. You know the plot, so if you get distracted you do not thereafter feel lost. And the supporting actors are uniformly excellent: there is always something wonderful going on onscreen.
Second, he says that the makers of the movie did not understand the story they were telling, or decided not to tell the story. The story they told was by and large one of the futility of war. The story that Homer wrote was one of the glory of Achilles (and, secondarily, Agamemnon).
This raises a bunch of interesting questions. So let me once again strap on my greaves, put on my shield, pick up my spears, mount my chariot, and take my place by the Scaean Gate alongside... who?
The Greeks view Agamemnon as glorious because he is a good king: at key moments, he listens to good counsel from his advisors; and when the chips are down he values victory in the common enterprise as more important than his own pride. By contrast, Priam's pride is overweening: he doesn't send Helen back--no Achaean is going to tell him what to do!--even though in a pre-feminist world it is a grave moral offense that puts you in the wrong for your wastrel younger son to steal a queen from a fellow monarch.
The Greeks view Achilles as glorious because he is preeminent in a crucial--the Greeks, at least the Greek aristocrats who paid Homer, would have called it the crucial--field of human endeavor: war. Without preeminence in war, no other form of human excellence can matter (for your cities are sacked, you fields burned, your people enslaved). And, on the battlefield, Achilles is the best of the Achaeans.
We can see how the Greeks viewed Agamemnon and Achilles by looking at the history of the Macedonian conquest. Alexander set out to consciously emulate Achilles. And his father Philip--After the battle of Chaeronea, he refused to allow the defeated Athenians to bury their dead. One of the Athenian prisoners then said: "Lord King, the Gods have cast you in the role of Agamemnon. But you are playing it as if you were Thersites." And Philip laughed and relented: to compare someone to Agamemnon in fourth-century Greece was high praise.
Now I think that the filmmakers' decision was conscious: that we cannot today--that nobody can, since World War I--see war as glorious, and see the skill of the warrior as as source of glory. We admire the honor of Hector. We admire the strategic genius of Odysseus. But we do not see sheer excellence in the techniques of war as glorious in itself. And an earlier generation would. An earlier generation would see the march of the 3rd Infantry Division from Kuwait to Baghdad as glorious, even though the strategic fruits of that operational victory were thrown away by the incompetence of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Franks, Bremer, and company. We do not.
And so, for us, it is Hector fighting to defend his home and family (even though the war waged by the Achaeans against Troy does, by their lights, have a just cause) who is the hero of the Illiad.
Is it a good thing that we modern American liberals have the mindset that we do--that we cannot even suspend our disbelief for long enough to enter into a frame of mind in which Achilles is glorious? For example, Armed Liberal wants to call Achilles a hero, but immediately steps back: "do we respond to Achilles as a hero, or as a kind of glorious monster?"
I am not sure whether our mindset is a good thing or not...
Let me put it this way: who would you rather have standing beside you when spear meets shield--Achilles, Hector, or Odysseus? With Hector, the man of honor, you will wage war when you should--but you may well lose. With Achilles, the man of skill, you will win--but you will wage war all the time, whether or not you should.
With Odysseus, the man of strategy, you will wage war only when you can win--but will you always be happy with your victories?
I think I would take my place beside Odysseus. But who should I take my place beside? It is an interesting question...