ENG214 Topics in World Literature: Ancient to Medieval
Prof. E. Joy
Spring 2010

Sample Student Essay (Critical Essay 1):                            

Formal and Internal Concepts of Honor

Even though honor is a central concern to the narrative of the Iliad, actually attempting to define “honor” seems to indicate two different definitions; what may be called “formal” and “internal” concepts, both reflecting different concerns regarding the war. The characters of Akhilleus and Patroklos serve as a point where both honors manifest, and it is through their relationship that the reader can identify these two concepts and witness where they are at odds and where they coexist.

As the story begins, the reader learns that the Akhaian leader Agamemnon has taken as a prize of war Khryseis, daughter of Khryses, priest of Apollo. Having his ransom attempt rebuffed, Kryses calls upon his god, who strikes down the Greeks with plague. While Agamemnon is convinced by his men that he must give the woman up in order to lift the plague, he acquiesces only on the condition that his prize is replaced at cost to the army:

“I am willing now to yield her

if it is best . . . .

you must prepare, however,

a prize of honor for me, and at once,

. . . . .

It is not fitting so.

While every man of you looks on,

my girl goes elsewhere.” (1.136-39, 141-43)

Akhilleus criticizes him for his greed, and in response, Agamemnon orders Brisies, Akhilleus' prize of war, to be turned over to him to repay his loss, saying, “I myself will call for Briseis at your hut . . . to show you here and now who is stronger / and make the next man sick at heart – if any / think of claiming place with me” (1.214, 217-19). Because of this, Akhilleus vows that he will not fight until the Trojans are at the ships, and that “every Akhaian soldier / will groan to have Akhilleus back” (284-85).

This argument between the two Akhaians is a perfect illustration of the formal concept of honor. Formal honor is promoted first and foremost by displays of influence and reputation, usually through wealth. Being as such, formal honor in this context is structured along lines of accumulation and loss of the spoils of war. The idea of losing and regaining honor within this structure seems to be intimately tied to wealth to the point that reputation can can almost be quantified materially, to the extent that loss of wealth must be addressed in order to maintain honor, and any loss of face can be averted with the proper gifts. Agamemnon maintains honor by claiming his repayment at Akhilleus' expense, and Akhilleus must walk away from the army until he is offered compensation to save face.

Formal honor is not concerned with the bond of fighting men. Formal honor is concrete, it can be monetized, and quantified in such a way that exchanges can be made in order to maintain reputation. Little concern is shown by Agamemnon at the humiliation of his top warrior, and Akhilleus calls upon the gods to favor the Trojans in order to demonstrate to the Akhaians how much they need him. Agamemnon, however, retracts his wounded pride for the sake of the war, admitting that they need Akhilleus. He offers Akhilleus a large ransom, consisting of seven tripods, ten bars of gold, twenty cauldrons, twelve horses, seven women from Lesbos, and Breseis (9.147-60). Agamemnon attempts to attach a material figure to Akhilleus' honor, so that he may save face and return, which by the system they inhabit is entirely acceptable. But Akhilleus replies in the negative, claiming that if he continues fighting then things will be the same, that he will continue fighting and still get an unfair portion of the spoils (9.380-400).

In contrast to the materialistic concerns of Akhilleus and Agamemnon, Patroklos approaches Akhilleus as the Trojans threaten the Akhaian ships,crying to him that the Akhaian heroes are injured and the war is nearly lost, begging that if Akhilleus will not fight, than at least give Patroklos his armor so that the men may think that Akhilleus has joined the battle and be heartened. Akhilleus, still unwilling to lose face, and seeing a way to gain glory through battle without having to do so, agrees, blessing the armor and asking that Zeus aid Patroklos.

Multiple things within the exchange of armor illustrate the internal concept of honor. Firstly, the reader sees that Patroklos is willing to give up glory to Akhilleus in order to defend the ships: while Akhilleus is not physically on the battle field (being still unwilling to fight), his reputation is, regardless of who the armor contains. All the glory will go to Akhilleus. Secondly, Patroklus is given strength by Zeus (at the request of Akhilleus) in order to defend the ships, but no further:

“Sir, exalt his heart,

. . . . .

When he has thrown back

their shouting onslaught from the ships, then let him return

unhurt to the shipway and to me.” (16.31, 35-37)

As Patroklos enters the field in Akhilleus' armor, Akhilleus is in effect split in two, thematically. The individualistic Achilles, who has been slighted, who wishes to save face and preserve his honor in its very traditional, formal sense (which revolves around reputation, and material things gathered from combat), hangs back behind the ships. His honor has not yet been restored. Even as Hector is at the shoreline, he will not leave and accept the dishonor given to him. On the other hand, Patroklos brings to life an Akhilleus that has come to rally the Akhaians, so that the ships and Akhaian cause may be saved. By wearing Achilles armor, it appears as if he has manifested an Akhilleus following an internally honorable code rather than a formal one. Patroklos is in effect filling it with a new sense of honor, that of a countryman who wishes to save his brethren. He defends the ships, killing Sarpedon, son of Zeus, in the process (16.303).

Patroklos is in fact glorious in battle, and the Myrmidons succeed in driving back the Trojans. But, as if the attributes of Akhilleus linger in the armor, Patroklos is consumed by glory and attempts the walls of Troy:

But Apollo


“Back, Patroklos, lordly man!

Destiny will not let this fortress town

of Trojans fall to you! Not to Akhilleus,

either, greater far though he is in war!” (16.556-60)

The blessing of Zeus, not willing to overthrow fate, are rendered invalid by his attempt on the city. For his hubris, Patroklos is killed by Hector. It could be said that Patroklos actually moved from the internal honor of a warrior's bond to his fellow warriors to the more formal notion of honor through conquest, but was not warrior enough for conquest to be a realistic endeavor. And he paid for it with his life.

In the end, however, Patroklos' succumbing to the lure of glory may mirror Akhilleus' slide towards an internal understanding of honor enraged by the death of his friend: Akhilleus reconciles with Agamemnon and enters battle again to avenge Patroklos' death. While Akhilleus may not have moved entirely from formal honor, his entrance into fighting is precipitated by what could be regarded as revenge for the honor of a comrade. This showing how both concepts move together in the same world, and while seemingly at odds, manage to live with each other in the same instant, within the same man.

Work Cited

Homer. The Iliad. In The Bedford Anthology of World Literature. Book 1. Ed. Paul Davis et al. New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2003. 288-420. Print.