ENG214 Topics in World Literature: Ancient to Medieval
Prof. E. Joy
Sample Student Essay (Critical Essay 1):
Masking Rage with the Pursuit of Honor in the Iliad
Anger is the first word of Homer’s the Iliad for a good reason; the poem tells a story about what happens when people allow anger to control their actions. However, the reason why anger and rage are allowed to take control of the characters’ actions is not so clear from the first reading. This is because there is a disguise which anger clings to. The disguise is honor, which is a standing that usually is thought of as something a person should want to have. It is counter-intuitive to think that honor could be an achievement that is negative.
The duality of honor is shown in the Iliad, because there are two different perceptions of honor within. One honor is the positive kind; the kind that comes from doing good for the sake of good. I will discuss this more later. The other honor, in my opinion, is not truly honor at all, but rage and anger masquerading as honor. Throughout the Iliad, the characters claim that they are pursuing honor, when, really, they are masking their rage.
Why is it that they mask rage by using the concept of pursuing honor? I think that it is because no man, especially a man of such stature as Agamémnon or Akhilleus, would want to admit that another man has provoked their rage. Instead, they would rather claim that the other has damaged their honor. For example, when Agamémnon is about to lose his prize girl, he is described with anger: “Agamémnon / rose, furious. Round his heart resentment / welled, and his eyes shone out like licking fire” (1.119-21). He’s furious and full of resentment. Fire is the description for the degree of anger his eyes are glaring with. But Agamémnon does not claim anger as his motivation, he says he wants only “a prize of honor” (1.139). When Akhilleus tells Agamémnon that he will abandon the war, Agamémnon does not say that he is angry, he states that “Others will honor me” (1.203). Agamémnon wants the people around him to think that he is in pursuit of honor, and not simply full of anger.
The relationship between the perception of damaged honor and apparent anger is very close throughout the poem. But I question whether any honor is truly damaged. For when, as in the example above, the characters are talking about themselves, it is honor that is damaged, but when they speak about another, it is rage that is built. It seems like each side of the argument refuses to acknowledge that they have damaged another’s honor, but will fully admit that they’ve caused another man’s rage. This is clearly shown when Akhilleus says to Agamémnon “You will eat your heart out, / raging with remorse for this dishonor / done by you to the bravest of Akaians” (1.289-91). Akhilleus wants to cause Agamémnon to become full of rage, but does not say that he himself is full of rage. No, Akhilleus wants to call his own situation dishonor. Such is the same when Agamémnon is explaining that someone will have to give up a treasure if he does, “The man I visit / may choke with rage; well, let him” (1.164-65). He knows that taking another man’s treasure will anger them, but will not say that it will dishonor them.
So, is any honor truly damaged by the taking of the women? I feel like the answer is no. Even though Agamémnon sends his prized woman back, he is still respected in the army as a commander should be. Even though Akhilleus loses his woman, he is still loved by his cousins, his men, and he is still respected as the greatest warrior by the rest of the army. I cannot find any textual evidence that either men’s honor has lessened. Perhaps this is because the honor that both men felt so strongly that they were losing, is not truly honor, but the increase of anger masquerading as honor.
This anger, dressed as honor, works its way throughout the poem. There’s a series of killings that come from revenge bouncing from one person to another as people are killed. In Book 16, Patróklos kills the driver of Hektor’s chariot, and then mocks him loudly, causing a fight between him and Hektor over the body. Finally, Hektor kills Patróklos. In Book 18, Akhilleus learns of Patróklos’s death, and, in his rage, vows to kill Hektor, and finally, in Book 22, Hektor falls to Akhilleus’s spear.
Though I expected a great chain of vengeful killings to continue on forever, something drastically different happens. As I stated in the beginning of this essay, the use of damaged honor to mask rage is not the only type of honor. There is a positive kind of honor that comes from doing good for the sake of good. It is with this type of honor that the story concludes. Priam, who is Hektor’s father, discontinues the pursuit of honor, the rage, and the vengeance. Priam shows a different kind of honor, and teaches Akhilleus a lesson in the process: “Priam, / the great king of Troy, passed by the others, / knelt down, took in his arms Akhilleus’ knee, / and kissed the hands of wrath that killed his sons” (24.569-72). Priam completely submits to Akhilleus, and pitifully begs for the release of Hektor’s body.
This move by Priam is unbelievable to Akhilleus: “When, taken with mad Folly in his own land, / a man does murder and in exile finds / refuge in some rich house, then all who see him / stand in awe. / So these men stood. / Akhilleus / gazed in wonder at the splendid king, / and his companions marveled too, all silent” (24.573-79). Akhilleus is marveling at what he sees as a person that must have been driven mad. Priam, a king and highly prized target for the Akhaian army, left the safety of Troy and walked defenseless up to the most powerful soldier of the enemy. Not only that, but this king walked up to the killer of his many sons, kneels, and kisses his hands! If we have learned anything up to this point, it is that Akhilleus is not a quiet kind of guy, so he must have been incredibly unnerved to become “silent.”
What happens in this moment is shocking to Akhilleus and his comrades because this type of action until then did not exist in their world. Priam is not trying to get revenge. He’s not pulling a sword on Akhilleus. Priam is not full of rage or trying to pursue honor. Priam is disgracing himself, to end the chain of anger and vengeance. Priam knows this when he says, “Think me more pitiful by far, since I / have brought myself to do what no man else / has done before—to lift to my lips the hand / of one who killed my son” (24.604-7). The important line is “to do what no man else has done before,” because he’s showing that, for the first time, one man will suppress his anger, forget the pursuit of honor, and be the bigger man.
For that moment, Akhilleus gets a vision of that new type of honor. He understands what it means to be the bigger man, and he succumbs to this realization. Akhilleus has “an ache of grief” for Priam (24.610). He thinks and weeps “for his own father / as for Patróklos once again; and sobbing / filled the room” (24.615-17). I believe this reflection on Patróklos is a reference to the events that took place before. Perhaps Akhilleus realizes that many people died for his own pursuit of honor; his brutal rage.
But as quick as this mad king came into his hut with his crazy want for mercy, Akhilleus returns to the world he’s always known. Not to appear so touched emotionally in front of his band of warriors, he wipes the tears from his face, lifts the king up, and reminds him that “Tears heal nothing, / drying so stiff and cold” (24.630-31). He frees Hektor’s body, which might be a sign of his learning a lesson about honor, but is weary still about the human condition. While moving the body onto the cart back to Troy, Akhilleus “lifted, too, and placed apart, where Priam / could not see his son—for seeing Hektor / he might in his great pain give way to rage, / and fury then might rise up in Akhilleus / to slay the old king, flouting Zeus’s word” (24.698-702). He knows that either of them could be capable of reverting back into rage again, and so hides the body to prevent that. The way Akhilleus hides the body for fear of a new rage between himself and the king shows us that he has learned the lesson, and is aware of the connection between honor and anger. He can honor his enemies, and he can fight them, but he doesn’t have to be consumed by rage.
This, I believe, is the key moral to the story. Pursuing honor will only bring you rage and destruction, and there is something more important to find in this world. There is another type of honor; one that allows you to throw in the towel to unending battles. Why else would the story be set in a war so long it seems everlasting? Homer is trying to tell us the value in being the bigger man. That giving in can be a gift for all.
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.