Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Achilles’ Choice: Another Way of Being

In the Illiad, the great warrior Achilles is publicly insulted by the Greek commander, Agamemnon, so Achilles goes to his room in a sulk and refuses to fight. When the Trojans then drive the Greek army to the sea, Achilles gloats with childish satisfaction.

Agamemnon realizes his mistake and entreats Achilles to come back and fight with the Greek army. Achilles relents and the Trojans are pushed back and defeated, almost single-handedly by Achilles.

An interesting part of the story is that before returning to battle, Achilles consults with the gods (actually, his mother, who was a god or a half-god), and he learns that if he fights, he will die in battle. Despite that prophesy (which eventually is fulfilled), he decides to go. Why?

His reasoning is that battle is an opportunity for him to achieve glory and thus immortality. If he stays home, he will live a long, comfortable life, but always in the shadow of his snub by Agamemnon. He would prefer death and the immortality his great deeds will bestow upon his name. And he was right, for here we are talking about him 3,000 years later.

Whether Achilles actually existed doesn’t matter. We are considering this psychological choice, either made by the real Achilles, or by Homer or whoever wrote the story.

It is not a choice I would make, and I daresay, few Westerners would make today. Achilles was not duty-bound to fight. He was a free agent, not under any legal or moral contract to return to battle. Let’s assume there was no compulsion of duty.

Humans seek the esteem of other humans. The psychoanalytic explanation is that we desire to displace our parents as the authoritarian arbiters of life’s meaning. A famous person seems to have transcended individuality, as bigger-than-life parents did, while we are the still-egocentric children.

But what are the rewards of fame if it costs you your life? Achilles knows that even if he is victorious in battle, he will be killed. He will achieve legendary, god-like omnipotence among his people and the immortality of his name, although he won’t be around to enjoy any of it. How is that a good deal?

Achilles' choice is sober: posthumous glory over life. That choice only makes sense if Achilles identifies himself fundamentally as Greek and only secondarily as Achilles. He fully expects to live on because his community will live on, and he is one with his community. The death of the man, Achilles will be trivial, because what matters is the adulation of the crowd, and he will be there among them, because Greek is who he is. That is not mere imagination of future adulation, it is certainty of fact.

I don’t think we have that feeling today, at least I don’t. Maybe some politicians or super-patriots do. For most of us, it is every man for his or her self, so to speak. We will give our lives for duty and honor, but that is about integrity of self-definition, not everlasting glory. We will sacrifice our life for our children, but that is our gift to them, not a personal grab at immortality. A hero will face death to save a community, and there we see the hero’s self-identification with the community, required of a genuine hero, but even there, I think that a non-pathological hero acts out of sense of community, not for the lure of personal aggrandizement.

Achilles was a different bird. He explicitly sought personal glory. When the Trojans were driving the Greeks to the sea, he gloated, “See, Agamemnon? You are nothing without me!” Achilles’ petulance expresses selfish aggrandizement. His later decision to go into battle perpetuates that theme, for he can by pushing back the Trojans, demonstrate to everyone how wrong Agamemnon had been. He will trump Agamemnon’s snub by delivering to him an even greater humiliation.

Yet when Achilles learns that he will die in battle, he decides to go anyway, motivated by the prospect of posthumous immortal glory, not personal revenge upon Agamemnon. That is a different motive that reflects Achilles’ transcendence of egocentric individuality and self-identification with his people.

As if to emphasize this second, mature motive, the Illiad provides us with a mirror image in Hector, the Trojan general. Hector’s wife begs him to stay inside the city walls. ButHector determines, much as Achilles did, that he could not live with himself if he failed to rise to the occasion. His honor was worth more than his life.

We moderns can more easily understand the psychology of Hector’s decision. “Death before dishonor” is a modern slogan. If one’s sense of self is deeply dependent upon the esteem of one’s peers, then dishonor is a far more painful death than any manner of physical demise. The choice is not perplexing.

But Achilles was already dishonored, already dead, psychologically speaking. Was his plan to rise from the dead, re-establish his honor, then return to the dead? I don’t think so. I am sure his plan was to transform his being from the individual personality of Achilles, to the ego-transcendent condition of being diffused into the Greek people admiring Achilles. He would transcend himself not by rising to become one of the gods, which would be hubris, but by dissolving back into the community that produced and sustained him. He wanted to be among the adorers, worshipping a god that he knew personally, the legend of Achilles.

The legend of Achilles won’t literally be him, because personally, he is disgraced, the most humble of persons. Rather, his immortal name will become his higher self, the far side of his mortal humanity. That’s the self he chooses.

In humanistic modernity, normal people don’t work that way. We might seek our inner divinity and strive to become that. But we do not strive to project our divinity outward as a self-object to be admired and worshipped from the point of view of our humanity. Yet that’s what Achilles did. That’s a very different psychology from ours, and we are lucky to have the Illiad still around so we can consider that difference.

In modern times, if a person construes life, self, and world as Achilles did, he is considered mentally abnormal. Consider Seung-Hui Cho, the young man who slaughtered 32 people at Virginia Tech University in 2007. Didn't he follow exactly Achilles' psychological template? We might say that Cho was not acting heroically on behalf of the community, yet in his own mind, he was. He slaughters the nameless others who dared ignore him, honoring his imagined community of like-minded peers. Cho is formally and unambiguously declared mentally ill, which is to say that we do not concur with his construal of the social world.

Was Achilles mentally ill? He acted the same way as Cho, but values have changed. Cho, and other mass murderers like him are therefore guilty above all, of anachronism.