Sublime and terrible; a bronze helmet of Corinthian type, c 450 BCE, inscribed as dedicated to Zeus. Courtesy the Trustees of the British Museum


The anger of Achilles

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

by C D C Reeve + BIO

Sublime and terrible; a bronze helmet of Corinthian type, c 450 BCE, inscribed as dedicated to Zeus. Courtesy the Trustees of the British Museum

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 the Iliad, 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.

According to the reading (or misreading) I have in mind, Achilles initially cares only about his own honour. He doesn’t, for example, really care for Briseis, a Trojan woman who was captured and awarded to him as a war prize. Nonetheless, when she is taken from him by Agamemnon, a leader of the Greek forces against Troy, he is right to be angry since taking her is a terrible insult and a clear violation of societal norms and values. Later, when Agamemnon has appropriately suffered, he recognises that what he did was at least foolish, and offers enormous recompense. But Achilles was himself wrong to reject Agamemnon’s ambassadors: he should have accepted his gifts and been propitiated.

Achilles’ unwillingness to be propitiated, this reading continues, is due to one of two causes. Either he hubristically overestimates his own worth or honour, and so is wrong from the point of view of the values he shares with the other heroes, or he has – in a common but, I think, psychologically suspect metaphor – stepped outside the heroic code and become an existential hero at odds with, and critical of, the values of his society. The price he pays for the error of being unwilling to accept propitiation – whether due to hubris or to existential repudiation of the heroic code – is the death of his best friend Patroclus. This causes Achilles’ second great outburst of anger, directed now against Hector and the Trojans, rather than Agamemnon and the Achaeans.

Heroes must learn to control their anger, to be propitiated, to recognise that they’re mortal beings destined to suffer

This second anger turns Achilles into something less than human. He acts like a beast, unconcerned with the sufferings of others, and deaf to their pleas for mercy, ‘his invincible hands covered in bloody filth’. He kills the noble Trojan hero Hector brutally and treats his body shamefully. He is wrong to do so, as the god Apollo points out in a speech that recapitulates one made earlier by Ajax.

Achilles’ redemption begins with the description of the funeral games played in honour of Patroclus, and Achilles’ return to humanity and to a proper relationship to the shared values of his fellow heroes. This process culminates when Achilles returns the body of Hector to Priam as a result of the latter’s entreaty and propitiation. This is a Homeric paradigm for how to do things right. Heroes must learn to control their anger, to be propitiated, to recognise that they are mortal human beings destined to suffer. Then the lions will lay down with the lambs and all will be well. On the reading we are exploring, this is the lesson Achilles himself finally learns. When he meets Priam, Hector’s father, Achilles thinks of his own father. He outgrows the attitude of callous indifference to the sufferings of others he has exhibited throughout the rest of the poem.

On this reading, then, the Iliad is a textbook tragedy – a story about the ethical growth and education of the tragic hero. Achilles has a tragic flaw – his hubris. It brings about the tragic sequence of events – the death of Patroclus. This, in turn, causes the educative suffering that leads Achilles to change his character and values for the better. In a very deep sense, then, the suffering is worthwhile, since it is redeemed by the moral improvement it engenders.

This reading is, as I said, seductive. If it weren’t, it wouldn’t be worth criticising. But its seductiveness is, I think, more a measure of our own distance from Homer than of the true depths of the Iliad itself.

I have spoken of the brutality of the heroes, and of the heroes themselves as brutes, in order to be true to something that Homer vividly dramatises for us, namely, the awfulness of warriors and the gruesome repetitiveness of what they do for a living. But Homer also recognises the sublimity of killing, and of those who do it well. It is easier for us to recognise this sublimity in athletes, who mime the competitiveness and aggression of warfare, but the quality is still there when lives rather than cups and medals are on the line. Think of Achilles as the world’s greatest athlete and you will be on your way to having a feel for his greatness – for the greatness that the Greeks see in him. (Even Socrates, when he is on trial for his life, compares himself to Achilles.)

Now, the greater Achilles is, the greater the distance is between his worth and the worth Agamemnon treats him as having when he deprives him of Briseis. The greater that distance, the greater Agamemnon’s insult. Since anger ought to be proportional to insult, Achilles’ anger ought to be very great. Hence we should not expect Achilles to be easily propitiated or won over. If we do, we will be underestimating the harm he has suffered – underestimating his honour and his worth.

It would diminish that worth, to be sure, not just in our eyes but in those of his fellow heroes, if it were true that Achilles cared only about his own honour and not at all about his friends. But it is not true. There is no good reason to think, for example, that he cares nothing about Briseis, that she is simply a part of his honour, like a tripod. She is a part of his honour, certainly, but there is no reason to think that he is speaking less than the truth when he describes her to Odysseus in the following terms:

And why was it the son of Atreus assembled and led here
these people? Was it not for the sake of the lovely-haired Helen?
Are the sons of Atreus alone among mortal men the ones
who love their wives? Since any who is a good man, and careful,
loves her who is his own and cares for her, even as I now
loved this one from my heart, though it was my spear that won her.

His love for Briseis might not be pure, it might be alloyed with self-love and love of honour, but there is no reason to think that it doesn’t exist. Human love is usually impure, imperfect, contaminated with ego and self-interest.

Achilles cares for more than his own honour, and continues to care about his friends and the values he shares with them

Neither is there any reason to think that Achilles cares nothing for his fellow Achaeans. To the contrary, Homer shows that they continue to exert decisive influence on him, even after Achilles has allegedly abandoned the values he shares with them. Odysseus lists the gifts Agamemnon will pay in recompense for having taken Briseis. Achilles responds that he will sail home tomorrow. Phoenix, an older hero who helped to raise Achilles, then makes a very different kind of appeal, reminding him of the debt he owes to those who brought him up, and of the values he learned at his father’s knee. Achilles is moved by this response and abandons his decision to return home:

we shall decide tomorrow, as dawn shows,
whether to go back home again or else remain here.

Finally, Ajax – a warrior very much like Achilles himself – speaks. His speech is short and to the point. It is a direct appeal to friendship and its obligations:

Son of Laertes and seed of Zeus, resourceful Odysseus:
let us go. I think that nothing will be accomplished by argument
on this errand; it is best to go quickly
and tell this story, though it is not good, to the Danaans
who sit waiting for us to come back, seeing that Achilles
has made savage the proud-hearted spirit within his body.
He is hard, and does not remember that friend’s affection
wherein we honoured him by the ships, far beyond all others.
Pitiless. And yet a man takes from his brother’s slayer
the blood price, or the price for a child who was killed
and the guilty one, when he has largely repaid, stays still in the country,
and the injured man’s heart is curbed, and his pride, and his anger
when he has taken the price; but the gods put in your breast a spirit
not to be placated, bad, for the sake of one single
girl. Yet now we offer you seven, surpassing lovely,
and much beside these. Now make gracious the spirit within you.
Respect your own house; see, we are under the same roof with you,
from the multitude of the Danaans, we who desire beyond all
others to have your honour and love, out of all the Achaeans.

Achilles’ response to this quietly moving speech shows how strong the pull of friendship is. He decides to stay and return to battle, although he will not do so until

Hector the brilliant
comes all the way to the ships of the Myrmidons, and their shelters,
slaughtering the Argives, and shall darken with fire our vessels.

The embassy from Agamemnon is not a failure, then, it is a limited success – though the ambassadors, eager for immediate relief, might not see it as such. It shows clearly that Achilles does care for more than his own honour, that he does indeed continue to care about his friends and to remain within the ambit of the values he shares with them. If he has stepped outside the heroic code in his response to Odysseus, he has stepped back into it in his response to Phoenix and Ajax a few lines later. This is hardly the behaviour of a man who has seen through his society’s values and abandoned them.

Achilles is moved by the appeals of his friends, but isn’t he wrong not to be further moved? Obviously, those who want him to do more think he is. But they are interested parties and their estimations, like those of all interested parties, need to be carefully weighed.

By the same token, Achilles’ own questioning of the value of heroism needs to be carefully weighed. It is contextual, not philosophical. We are all ‘held in a single honour, the brave with the weaklings’, not because heroic values have been discarded in the face of profound philosophical reflection on death the equaliser, but because Agamemnon has flattened the distinction between a brave man and a weakling by taking away a prize that is the reward and sign of courage. If he can do that, then the Achaeans are, indeed, all held in a single honour. We do well to remember, too, in estimating whether or not Achilles should have returned to the fighting, that Agamemnon has not come to apologise in person. His failure to do so weighs as much with Achilles as it would with any one of us. His opening words to Odysseus reveal as much:

For as I detest the doorways of Death, I detest the man, who
hides one thing in the depths of his heart, and speaks forth another.

The target here is not Odysseus but Agamemnon, whose apology Achilles is portraying as insincere.

The poem itself, then, represents Achilles as being slowly moved to return to battle, under the influence of the values he shares with his fellow Achaeans. And the slowness of the movement, far from being a measure of Achilles’ egomaniacal hubris, or of the error he commits in refusing to take Agamemnon’s gifts, is a measure of his greatness and worth, and of the harm Agamemnon did him by insultingly underestimating that worth. Every dead Achaean is, one might say, another measure of just how valuable Achilles is to Agamemnon and the allies.

The next step in this slow movement occurs when Patroclus – Achilles’ closest friend, his alter ego – enters the fighting wearing Achilles’ armour, which it is the next best thing to having Achilles re-enter the fighting himself. And yet the outcome of Patroclus’ stepping in for Achilles drives home to us how far from the best the next best is. When Patroclus is killed, we see that no one but Achilles himself is great enough to kill Hector and save the Achaeans. (Later, when Hector puts on the armour he has stripped from Patroclus, the armour that once was Achilles’ own, we see how little the armour matters and how much the warrior within.)

That Achilles allows Patroclus to fight is, of course, a measure of how great the influence of friendship is on him. Indeed, it is clear from the beginning that Achilles is no longer kept out of the fighting by his anger at Agamemnon:

Still we will let all this [ie, Agamemnon’s insulting treatment] be a thing of the past; and it was not
in my heart to be angry forever; and yet I have said
I would not give over my anger until that time came
when the fighting with all its clamour came up to my own ships.

But, as in the case of Briseis, there is no reason to make out that Achilles’ motives are any more or less pure, or any less complex, than they actually are. He cares for Patroclus, of course, and for the other Achaeans, but he also cares for his own honour:

obey to the end this word I put upon your attention
so that you can win for me great honour and glory
in the sight of all the Danaans, so that they will bring back to me
the lovely girl, and give me shining gifts in addition.
When you have driven them from the ships, come back; although later
the thunderous lord of Hera might grant you the winning of glory,
you must not set your mind on fighting the Trojans, whose delight
is in battle, without me. So you will diminish my honour.

When honour is at the forefront of Achilles’ mind, to be sure, friends and their importance are correspondingly diminished. Notice the prayer that concludes the speech to Patroclus I have just been quoting:

Father Zeus, Athene and Apollo, if only
not one of all the Trojans could escape destruction, not one
of the Argives, but you and I could emerge from the slaughter
so that we two alone could break Troy’s hallowed coronal.

Later, however, when he hears of Patroclus’ death, honour recedes in significance and friendship comes to the fore:

I must die soon, then; since I was not to stand by my companion
when he was killed. And now, far away from the land of his fathers,
he has perished, and lacked my fighting strength to defend him.
Now, since I am not going back to the land of my fathers,
since I was no light of safety to Patroclus, nor to my other
companions who in their numbers went down before glorious Hector,
but sit here beside my ships, a useless weight on the good land,
I, who am such as no other of the bronze-armoured Achaeans
in battle

This will perplex us only if we hold Achilles to an implausibly simplified standard of authenticity or sincerity. Achilles, like most people, has many values, which do not all fit together tidily in all circumstances. Under the influence of powerful feelings based on some of what he cares about, he forgets, as we all do, that he cares about other things too. Like us, he has much to be true to, which means that, like ourselves, he is sometimes false to his very greatest loves. This would be a flaw, I suppose, if there were a better alternative, or if it were not so obviously the human lot.

What we are being shown is the god in Achilles that makes him a great warrior in all its awful power and splendour

When Patroclus dies, Achilles becomes a terrifying instrument of destruction. It is hard for us not to be horrified by him, and especially by his apparently bestial treatment of Hector. But instead of feeling simple horror, what we ought to feel – what the poem invites us to feel – is awe, which is an emotion appropriate not to the bestial but to the sublime, to something ‘in comparison with which’, as Immanuel Kant puts it in Critique of Judgment (1790), ‘everything else is small’. For what we are being shown is the god in Achilles that makes him a great warrior in all its awful power and splendour.

Some of the elements in this invitation are obvious. Achilles is the son of a goddess. He fights against gods (the river god Scamander); he wears immortal armour made for him by Hephaestus, craftsman to the gods; he is carried into battle by divine horses. Athena guides his actions; he is like ‘supernatural fire’ and ‘like the offspring of a god’. But other elements in the invitation – other ways in which the poem likens Achilles to a god – are somewhat harder to see, in part because we tend to forget what the Homeric gods themselves are really like. Consider, for example, the following exchange between Zeus and Hera:

Dear lady, what can be all the great evils done to you
by Priam and the sons of Priam, that you are thus furious
forever to bring down the strong-founded city of Ilion?
If you could walk through the gates and the towering ramparts
and eat Priam and the children of Priam raw, and the other
Trojans, then, then only might you glut your anger. Do as
you please then. Never let this quarrel hereafter
be between you and me a bitterness for both of us.
Then the goddess the ox-eyed lady Hera answered:
Of all the cities there are three that are dearest to my own heart:
Argos and Sparta and Mykenai of the wide ways. All these, whenever they become hateful to your heart, sack utterly.

Notice how implacable and long-lasting Hera’s anger against the Trojans is for an insult to her honour. Notice, too, the calm ruthlessness of her proffered quid pro quo: it is better that whole cities – even cities whose sacrifices have made them especially dear to her – should perish completely than that the gods should quarrel over the fate of mere mortals. Achilles’ own unrelenting anger, his ambivalent disregard for the fate of his fellow Achaeans, his pitiless treatment of the Trojans he so casually kills, must be seen against this divine template to be understood for what they are. Even the ghastly cannibalistic wish that he expresses to Hector before he kills him –

I wish only that my spirit and fury would drive me
to hack your meat away and eat it raw for the things that
you have done to me

– is Heraesque. In other words, all the qualities in Achilles that initially strike us as bestial are qualities intended to reveal how much like a god, how transcendently excellent, he really is.

Like many great athletes, Achilles is not a particularly modest man – especially not if modesty is thought to involve a positive underestimation of one’s abilities and achievements. But when he says that he is ‘the best of the Achaeans’, and claims to be ‘honoured in Zeus’ ordinance’, he is telling the simple truth: he is honoured. If he did anything that his worth did not entitle him to do, if he showed hubris by rejecting Agamemnon’s gifts, Zeus would surely have set him straight (as he does in due course). Since Zeus remains unconcerned, we can be confident that Achilles is acting correctly, that he is revealing the enormity of his worth, not overstepping its limits.

Achilles does, of course, go too far in his abuse of Hector’s body, and Zeus sends Thetis to tell him so, and to order him to accept Priam’s ransom for his dead son. It is another important expression of Achilles’ excellence, that he obeys her immediately, just as he earlier obeyed Athena. Achilles is not Virgil’s pious Aeneas, but the latter’s piety does develop a genuine strand in the Homeric prototype. Priam’s appeal moves Achilles profoundly as it does all of Homer’s readers:

I have gone through what no other mortal on earth has gone through
I put my lips to the hands of the man who has killed my children.

But Achilles’ anger remains a threatening presence even so:

You must not further make my anger move in my sorrows,
for fear, old sir, I might not let you alone in my shelter,
suppliant as you are; and be guilty before the god’s orders.

His motives remain mixed, his values many, and tomorrow he will be back on the battlefield winning honour by slaughtering Trojans. At the outset, he was shown as a pious man able to restrain his anger when ordered to do so by a god; by the end, he is no different. He is honoured by Zeus throughout. There is no reason to think that he has permanently learned some important moral lesson or that he is now a changed man, less hubristic more humane, less prone to anger. No reform takes place because none is needed. The costs of being a great warrior have simply been set beside its glories. To think one could have the glories without the costs, as Achilles thinks he can have great honour without losing Patroclus, or as Zeus thinks he can champion the Achaeans without losing his own son Sarpedon, is to think against Homer, it is to flee the intense sunlight of the Iliad for the twilight of redemptive fantasy.

In the world of Achilles, emblematised by the shield he receives from Hephaestus, the two urns at the doorsill of Zeus, one filled with goods and the other with evils, are permanent fixtures. There is no final triumph of good over evil; no heavenly reward or hellish punishment. War and peace, anger and friendship, insult and honour are eternal presences on the divine as on the human scene. Peace, friendship, honour are temporary and precarious achievements. War, anger, insult are endlessly recurring but transient horrors. Heroic grandeur is a two-edged sword, sublime and terrible, a saviour and a destroyer both. The divine in a human being, like the beauty in Helen, is a great gift and a great burden. The god in Achilles that makes him such a splendid warrior ‘is part and parcel of the god that cries Revenge!’ when he is wronged.