The Hero and the Philosopher

For the Pythagoras Foundation, 25 June 2011.

The first word of Homer’s Iliad is ‘anger’, and ‘the goddess’ is invited or asked or implored or commanded to sing the anger, the anger of Achilles. She is not asked to sing about it or its consequences but to sing it. Thus, the whole epic could be understood to be a revelation of ‘anger’—what it is, as we might say, its nature.

But it cannot be such a universal revelation as this suggests, for it is not just ‘anger’ but ‘the anger of Achilles’ that is to be sung. Essentially, there are no universals in Homer, only particulars—what we might call universals, but only embodied in particular heroic acts of particular heroes. Homeric language is historical or pseudo-historical narrative, not philosophical; we would search in vain for a discussion simply of ‘anger’.

We—like the heroes themselves—do not enter the universe of the Iliad at its beginning. By the time we learn of the quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon, there has been a sequence of ‘angers’. Clearly, Apollo’s priest is angry that Agamemnon will not accept the ransom for his daughter; Agamemnon is on the edge of anger, if not actually angry, in his brusque dismissal of the priest. The priest prays to Apollo who, in turn, also becomes angry at the disrespectful treatment, and punishes the Achaeans.

At this point Achilles intervenes and calls an assembly. It is not stated, but it is obvious that, prior to doing so, he has consulted with the prophet Kalchas and knows full well what he is going to report—namely, that Apollo’s anger is due to Agamemnon’s refusal to give back the priest’s daughter. Achilles may well be frustrated because the fighting has stopped—because he is only there for the fighting and to win the only thing worth having, namely, glory (or to yield it to others)—but he is not yet angry. Agamemnon, on the other hand, is immediately and openly angry and for at least three reasons: first, he has been out-maneuvered by Achilles: second, he has been revealed as the cause of the Achaians’ distress: and, third, he has to give back the daughter who was his prize.

He does not get angry at Apollo—nothing could be gained by that—but instead gets angry at Achilles who has, incidentally but importantly, laid bare Agamemnon’s weakness as a leader; as ‘king of men’ he has been a failure, exposed before the whole army, and all because of his touchiness and insecurity over his own pride of place. His response, as we all know, is to mollify Apollo by giving back the girl, and to take Achilles’ prize away from him, thus dishonoring him and glorifying himself. At the behest of Athena and Hera, Achilles allows this to happen, but the loss of honor, signalized by the confiscation, is what angers Achilles.

Faced with Agamemnon’s claim to be the source of honor—so that he can give and take away prizes and the glory they represent—Achilles in his sorrow and anger asks his mother, Thetis, to appeal to Zeus to vindicate him, to honor him by making the Achaians (including Agamemnon) restore his honor. Zeus agrees to do this—not, it should be noted because it is right, but because he is under an obligation to Thetis.

The stage, as it were, is now set, but it must be emphasized that although the song of the Iliad is ‘the anger of Achilles’, it occurs in a complex pattern of previous feelings, characters, and actions. Humans never begin at the beginning—not even the anger of Achilles—but are always plunged into the middle of things, in medias res.

Although Plato is critical of all the poets and especially of Homer, he clearly understands the philosophical problem underlying the action of the Iliad. To ask whether Agamemnon or Zeus is the greater source of honor, as Achilles does, is to ask whether honor is conventional (as Agamemnon supposes, in the keeping of the king of men) or ‘natural’ (if, in fact, the will of Zeus is accomplished and if he may be equated with nature). It is a variant of the old antithesis between custom (nomos) and nature (phusis), at least raising the question whether there is anything higher than custom.

It is Plato’s Polity (or Republic, as it is usually and mistakenly called) that is the counterpart of Homer’s Iliad, and whereas Achilles seeks ‘the right manner of life’ in his actions, to go beyond the conventional heroic way, and discover in action, not thought, if ‘natural’ honor is the highest ‘good’, Socrates seeks it in the city of words, in conversation, in the realm of ideas, and in the nature of the soul itself. For Achilles, the degree of honor is measured by the value of the prizes, awarded essentially by the assembly under its ‘king of men’; but this is misleading because there isn’t anything called ‘honor’ over and above or beyond the prizes. When Agamemnon takes Achilles’ prize, he takes away his honor; whatever he had done to merit the award no longer exists and is inconsequential. To storm a city single-handed is meaningless unless Achilles has a prize, something to show for it, something extant to be seen and talked about; without a prize, something concrete, the storming of the city will not exist for long—it is a past event, not a current object-prize, and is subject to the vagaries of time and memory. Whether Achilles stormed the city will only endure if the prize for doing it can be displayed in some way, including in narrative poetry. Thus fame and reputation are critical; the deeds ‘that men do live after them’, and if they are forgotten and the prizes perish, so immortality—the only kind recognized—also disappears.

For Plato’s Socrates, over and above all the individual strivings of the heroes (and also those of ordinary men), there exists an idea, a form, a universal, giving them a reality which not only persists after the war is over, but also persists for ever. It is the idea of honor, or justice, or courage that continues in existence when the deeds are all done, the heroes who performed them have all died, the words have gone silent, their written descriptions have been erased, leaving no trace. But no trace is needed, for the idea endures, and if a new race of men arose, they would find the idea of justice or courage awaiting them, as it were, if indeed they were men like us with souls like ours, with the creative power to recognize the good in all its forms, and to bring it into active being.

Of course, a new race of men is constantly arising as generations come and go, and they—each individual—find themselves in medias res. The problem seems to be how to be aware of the past without being controlled by it, as Achilles and Socrates, in different ways, tried to make it explicit, and then to examine and evaluate the past which is their present. For us, in nothing is this more evident than in the search for knowledge and what it means to know, than in learning and what it means to learn. By the time we can ask the question about what it means to learn, we have all ‘learned’ a very great deal, and, like Achilles, we find ourselves in the middle of patterns of ‘thought’ that may well be conventional and so strong that we need the excellence of an Achilles—or a Socrates—to ask whether or to what extent, if any, they are natural. This is the motive for the first half of the Polity in which Socrates guides Glaucon and his brother into recognizing what they had already ‘learned’—ironically, by criticizing and purifying it.

When the soul seeks to learn, it must always remember that it is itself, the soul, that is doing the seeking, and that ultimately it must therefore know itself and what has happened to it. The old scholastic adage applies: Quiquid recipitur, ad modum recipientis recipitur, or ‘Whatever is received, is received according to the mode of the recipient’.

It is customary to accord to Pythagoras the honor of first using the word ‘philosophy’ and to insist on the meaning of its two Greek parts, ‘the love’ of ‘wisdom’. Plato took this term and contrasted the lovers of wisdom, the philosophers, with those who claimed already to have it, the Sophists. It was as if the latter already possessed it, while the former were possessed by it. What is ironical is that the Sophists, by selling what they ‘knew’, brought others under their control and thus stifled their free and creative movement, their learning, while philosophers, by being controlled by their love, encouraged others to seek and learn with them. It would take too long to explore now the various meanings attached to ‘love’ and ‘wisdom’, as well as to ‘soul’, but it should be noted that Plato uses the word ‘philosophy’ and its cognates very sparingly: ‘philosophy’ (137 times), ‘philosopher’ (122 times), and ‘philosophize’ (53 times); in all the dialogues 312 times in toto—and 109 of them in the Polity.

Just as Homer and his goddess-muse do not sing about the anger of Achilles, but sing the anger itself, so Plato and his Socrates do not sing about philosophy but sing philosophy itself. The dialogue, the conversation, is philosophy. That is why Plato rarely uses the word; he has no need to, because he is eternally doing what it is, what it means. And that is why he calls it ‘the greatest music’.