Honor, Dignity, and the Rage of Achilleus

I have been reading through The Iliad of Homer as part of the CiRCE Apprenticeship. This is my first time through the book and I am thoroughly enjoying the reading. Enjoying may not be a strong enough word. At the beginning of the journey we were asked one simple questions: Is Achilleus over-reacting? (I am using the translator Richard Lattimore’s spellings of the names.) What a little question, and yet it has sparked so much discussion. We are still answering it. The following short essay is an exploration, though obliquely, of that question.

Modern man struggles with the rage of Achilleus. We think we understand why he is upset, but after a few books of Homer’s Iliad, and a lot of pages with Achilleus sulking in his anger, our inclinations lean towards a “just get over it already” perspective. Sure, we know Achilleus has been wronged, we know he is mad, we know Agamemnon is a questionable character, but we also see the Achaians getting beat up by the Trojans, and we see Hektor reveling in the glory of his success. How is it that Achilleus will not set aside his rage for the sake of his fellow countrymen? Is not Achilleus over-reacting? Or might it be that what seems clear to us actually distorts how we should understand Achilleus’ rage and his choice to remain angry for such a long time? Can there be some inherent characteristic, some Weltanschuung, of the modern world that hides the true nature of this legendary rage?

Here is the crux of the issue: Achilleus has been publicly insulted but we live in an age that no longer understands insult. In other words, modern man lives and thinks within a social-historical context that does not fathom, and therefor does not value, honor. This is not to say we never act with honor, but it does mean that the structures and institutions that were once so crucial for the establishment of honor and ourselves are now considered impediments. We seek instead the dignity of the individual rather than the honor of the man. We have traded honor for dignity, but more on that later. First let’s look at some evidence that honor has become obsolete. Peter Berger says in The Homeless Mind:

The obsolescence of the concept of honor is revealed very sharply in the inability of most contemporaries to understand insult, which in essence is an assault on honor. In this, at least in America, there is a close parallel between modern consciousness and modern law. Motives of honor have no standing in American law, and legal codes that still admit them, as in some countries of southern Europe, are perceived as archaic. In modern consciousness, as in American law (shaped more than any other by that prime force of modernization which is capitalism), insult in itself is not actionable, is not recognized as a real injury. The insulted party must be able to prove material damage. (p. 84)

In other words, an injury of honor has no real reality. It is merely a matter of one’s feelings and should eventually be dismissed as fundamentally inconsequential. Why modern man should have arrived at such a position is probably too complicated to sort out here, but we can see the historical shift in the concept of man with the birth of modern democracies. In short there has been a shift in consciousness that began more than two hundred years ago (maybe closer to five hundred years ago). We can see it in some of our most important documents. Consider these examples:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. (From the preamble of the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America, 1776)

Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions may be founded only upon the general good. (Article One of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of the French Revolution, 1789)

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world […] Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women… (From the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations, 1948)

The emphasis is on the human person alone, unencumbered. We see our dignity bound up in the idea of our real selves, that is, the self which is distinct from, and unbound by race, political views, skin color, gender, age, social status, geography, physical condition, sexual orientation, religion, or even actions. According to Berger:

There is an implicit sociology and an implicit anthropology there. The implicit sociology views all biological and historical differentiations among men as either downright unreal or essentially irrelevant. The implicit anthropology locates the real self over and beyond all these differentiations. (p. 89)

Modern civil society is based on this concept of human beings. We have inherent dignity in that we are all equal and have certain, even inalienable, rights. Ironically, this real self is a mystical self, unable to be seen or touched, produced or analyzed. It is one of our age’s most cherished beliefs yet is resides entirely outside the bounds of science.

We can get confused in the distinctions between dignity and honor, for both are goals of moral enterprise. They both require effort to attain, to defend, and protect. And they both achieve their attainment in the individual in relation to other persons. However, dignity, as Berger defines it, begins with the individual alone in the universe, inherently valuable yes, but requires a man find his own self from within himself. Honor, on the other hand, begins with the moral context and social fabric that man is born into, and a man must seek his place and accept his self within that world.

Human dignity is a good thing. As Christians we can affirm the inherent worth of each human being, know that God created each of us unique, placed in us His image, and sent His Son to die for each of us. Christians can also affirm this idea of the mystical self. It is very much like our understanding of the essence of God. We can know each others by what we do and what we look like, but we cannot ever truly know or define the essence of another. However, as moderns we must also realize what we deny and what we lose with each new so-called progressive step forward. Berger notes:

The institutional fabric, whose basic function has always been to provide meaning and stability for the individual, has become incohesive, fragmented and thus progressively deprived of plausibility. The institutions then confront the individual as fluid and unreliable, in the extreme case as unreal. Inevitably, the individual is thrown back upon himself, on his own subjectivity, from which he must dredge up the meaning and the stability that he requires to exist. Precisely because of man’s intrinsic sociality, this is a very unsatisfactory condition. Stable identities (and this also means identities that will be subjectively plausible) can only emerge in reciprocity with stable social contexts (and this means contexts that are structured by stable institutions). Therefore, there is a deep uncertainty about contemporary identity. Put differently, there is a built-in identity crisis in the contemporary situation. (p. 92)

But where does this leave Achilleus? The world of Achilleus is ancient. It is a world where honor ranks high in the social context. When Agamemnon took Briseis from Achilleus this was not a blow to his dignity so much as a blow to his honor. Agamemnon publicly insulted Achilleus, and Achilleus became, therefore, not merely indignant but wept in his dishonor. We, who live in a world that prizes dignity but not honor, struggle to understand. We are inclined to say things like, “Just walk away.” “It’s no big deal, there are other women to take from you plundering.” “Think about the others.” “Get over it.” But for Achilleus this insult reverberates with a sound that may be beyond our hearing. Consider the scene where Briseis is taken away from Achilleus:

He led forth from the hut Briseis of the fair cheeks and gave her
to be taken away; and they walked back beside the ships of the Achaians,
and the woman all unwilling went with them still. But Achilleus
weeping went and sat in sorrow apart from his companions
beside the beach of the grey sea looking our on the infinite water.
Many times stretching forth his hands he called on his mother:
‘Since, my mother, you bore me to be a man with a short life,
therefore Zeus of the loud thunder on Olympos should grant me
honour at least. But now he has given me not even a little.
Now the son of Atreus, powerful Agamemnon,
has dishonoured me, since he has taken away my prize and keeps it.’
(Iliad, Book One, trans. Lattimore, lines 346-356)

Notice several things that strike us as odd. He gives up Briseis, but then weeps. Achilleus is a great man and warrior, but to us his weeping seems unmanly. He calls to his mother. Though she is a god, this also seems unmanly. He complains that Zeus should give him honor but instead Zeus has given not even a little. But we would claim his inherent dignity is more important than honor, and that one should not look to another for one’s self-worth. Finally, he complains that he has been dishonored by Agamemnon, who took away Briseis his prize. We think nothing of true personal value, nothing of our character, can be taken by another, and we bristle at the idea of a person being a “prize” of another. But here we have the great Achilleus weeping and complaining to his mother over losing his prize. In the words of a once popular song we might say to this whiny warrior, “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, start all over again.” But should we?

What is it that makes a man? In our modern age a man is the product of personal, existential action. But the ancient world was not an existential world. Certainly the individual was important, and certainly people made existential decisions, but men did not seek to discover or to create their identity so much as they sought glory and honor within the prescribed contours of the existing world. Achilleus is not having an existential breakdown in the way we do today. He is not searching for himself. He is not in doubt as to who he is. Rather, Achilleus is raging over a breach in the institutional fabric of reality that defines him. His sociological context, from which he derives his honor, has been torn apart. Modern man tries to preemptively strip away the institutional roles that would define him, but pre-modern man accepts and relies on those roles. Modern man may even make fun of the old soldier pulling out his worn medals, or the civil servant in his uniform, or the wife in her kitchen. More than this, modern man sees in these roles trappings that are detrimental to the process of self-actualization and the nature of identity. Man must throw off the robes of honor that trap him in a self that belongs to another. It is better to live without honor and find one’s true self than play someone else’s game, or worse, society’s game. Berger takes this further:

The obsolescence of the concept of honor may now be seen in a much more comprehensive perspective. The social location of honor lies in a world of relatively intact, stable institutions, a world in which individuals can with subjective certainly attach their identities to the institutional roles that society assigns to them. The disintegration of this world as a result of the forces of modernity has not only made honor an increasingly meaningless notion, but has served as the occasion for a redefinition of identity and its intrinsic dignity apart from and often against the institutional roles through which the individual expresses himself in society. The reciprocity between individual and society, between subjective identity and objective identification through roles, now comes to be experienced as a sort of struggle. Institutions cease to be the “home” of the self; instead they become oppressive realities that distort and estrange the self. (p. 93)

If we live within this worldview then the presuppositions that undergird Achilleus’ actions will be foreign to our minds and his rage will seem grossly misplaced. We will, in short, misunderstand Achilleus.

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