Even if you’ve never heard of that most famous of Greek warriors, Achilles, through the myths, you may have seen him portrayed by Brad Pitt in the blockbuster movie “Troy“. If you do know anything about Achilles, you’re probably familiar with what I refer to as “The Choice of Achilles”. That is: the gods presented Achilles with the opportunity to live a short life filled with glory, or to live a long life of no repute. He chose the short one, and 3000 years after his story was first told by a blind old man, we remember his name. But the issue of Achilles famous Choice is not a simple one. Though his motivations seem straightforward and vainglorious, he is in truth a very complex individual.
There’s a scene in the movie that seems to sum up everything we need to know about Achilles. It follows the same one-dimensional interpretation of this heroic figure which has become prevalent among those who’ve heard the story. The army of allied Greeks has formed up for battle and the two leading generals decide to settle the affair through the medium of single combat. But of course, just as today, the generals don’t actually do any fighting. So Achilles is elected as the one who should fight the enemies champion Boagrius. And Boagrius is huge. He marches onto the battlefield and towers above even men on horseback. But Achilles isn’t there to meet him. He’s spent the night getting drunk and having a threesome, and he’s still asleep. A boy is sent to fetch him. The kid’s young, no more than 12, and as he hands his hero a shield and spear he warns him:
“The Thessalonian you’re fighting… he’s the biggest man I’ve ever seen. I wouldn’t want to fight him.”
Achilles reply tells us all that we need to know about what drives him to war.
“That’s why no-one will remember your name.”
Achilles is often portrayed as a man who is motivated solely by the desire for everlasting fame. But of course, it’s not as simple as that. Though he longs for fame and glory, no man could sell his life merely in the hope that his name will be remembered without some measure of doubt. It’s true that he went to war in pursuit of glory, but when we encounter him on the battlefields of Troy he is not the same man as the young warrior who left his home in Greece. Achilles has always been driven to feats of superhuman skill and endurance by the desire for glory. For nine long years he has camped on a beach beside the Greek ships and fought many battles. He has established a reputation as the greatest warrior alive and the mere sight of him causes his enemies to flee in terror. But like all men, he has his limits. After nine years of fighting a seemingly un-winnable war on foreign soil for the sake of one greedy kings ambition, tensions within the ranks of the united Greek states come to a head when Achilles suffers his final indignity at the hands of his King, and declares that he will sail home and turn his back on the glory he sought to win in the war on Troy. Ever present in his mind is the Choice which was presented to him by the gods: long life, or death and glory. Achilles chooses to sail home and live after his disillusionment with the decade-long unjust war, and his great pride overcomes his thirst for fame.
“I say no wealth is worth my life! Not even all that might be stored in Troy. A man’s life cannot return once it is spent.”
But Achilles is afflicted with one trait which overcomes his desire for glory, his wish to enjoy a long life, his enormous pride and his love of wealth and victory: Rage. Achilles is a victim of his own anger. His unrestrained rage overcomes him and causes him to abandon all reason and self-control. The Iliad itself is not actually a story about the war on Troy. The very first line talks about “the rage of Achilles”. The Iliad is a cautionary tale concerning the dangers of giving in to unrelenting anger. As a ferocious warrior engaged in a vicious conflict, Achilles rage inevitably manifests itself in slaughter and death. As he sits in his tent and prepares his men for the voyage home, his foremost companion Patroclus puts on Achilles armor, joins the ongoing battle with the Trojans, and dies at the hands of a Trojan hero. Achilles is overwhelmed with grief and rage, and he chooses to stay and fight. Fully aware of the Choice the gods have presented him with, he chooses to die on a foreign battlefield in order to avenge the death of his shield-brother. He faces death bravely and achieves everlasting fame at the cost of life and happiness.
But Achilles rage is not the same as the base anger which is the experience of lesser men. Achilles is the exemplar of the dangers of excessive “Thumos”. Thumos is a Greek word (θύμος) which has no English translation. Loosely speaking it might be likened to “righteous anger and indignation”. Thumos is the fire in the belly. Thumos is the feeling in your gut and chest when you see something that is unjust and you wish to do something about it. When you see something that involuntarily makes you clench your fists and grind your teeth and thirst for blood, you’re connected to your Thumos. It is a type of anger, but it is useful anger. It is anger which can be directed and focused towards achieving your goals. But Achilles takes it too far. Thumos is a fire that must be controlled or it will consume whatever it touches. Achilles lets his raging Thumos control him and he becomes a slave to his own anger and his wounded pride.
This is the tragedy of Achilles. Like all heroes, Achilles life is tragic. He wishes to live and put aside the sword, but he has spent his entire adult life in developing and channelling his rage so that he might become the ultimate warrior, like a god on the battlefield. All he knows is war and the only thing he knows how to do is rage and deal out death. His unstoppable Thumos has earned him riches and honor beyond the scope of mortal men. Even Zeus himself favors Achilles above all others. The tool that has served him well for the past nine years, is what finally overcomes and kills him. In a previous post I discussed the four Archetypes according to Karl Jungs psychology: the King, Warrior, Magician and Lover. Achilles embodies pure Warrior energy, but without the control and forward planning of the King archetype. He is unbalanced. He has built his reputation on the back of his anger, and when the time comes to put it aside and utilize reason, to control his rage, he can’t do it. His anger is all he knows. When his disillusionment finally reaches fruition he is faced with the guilt of all the men he has sent to death, including those who he considers to be closer than brothers to him. The death of Patroclus is one lost comrade too many for Achilles, and he loses the desire to live. Achilles possess all of the masculine virtues: courage, strength, honor, resolve and drive. But he lacks restraint. He lives and dies as a pure example of a warrior, but a dead warrior is a waste of potential. Many have made the argument that Achilles and other great warriors in the Iliad (like Ajax) show all the signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but I prefer not to travel too far down that road. Indeed the great heroes behavior can be likened to symptoms of Combat Stress, but there would have been no equivalent to PTSD three thousand years ago when the story of the Trojan war was first told, and it is hard to make that connection valid.
An “Achilles Heel” is a euphemism for a persons weakness, because Achilles was shot through the heel with a poisoned arrow before he was killed in the final attack on Troy. But Achilles weakness was not his heel, it was his inability to change. Achilles anger had always been his greatest strength when he desired nothing but battle and glory. But when his priorities changed and he wished to sail home and enjoy life, his strength became his weakness. He had spent so long carrying out the same routines, following the same pattern that he became a slave to an emotion. He loses all self-control and goes mad with grief because he is overcome by his emotions and doesn’t know how to restrain himself. On the field of battle, Achilles was a warrior of unrivaled heroism. But a warrior is only a part of a man. When he finally realizes that he has devoted his life to a war against a people who pose him no threat and have done him no wrong, his habits are so deeply ingrained that he cannot overcome them. He knows he should sail home. He wishes to turn his back on his greedy false King who leads men to death out of pride, but he can’t go, because he can’t put aside the warrior mentally upon which he has thrived. Achilles could never be anything but a warrior, and it leads to his downfall.
This is the second Choice of Achilles, which the gods did not reveal to him: Evolve or Die. We should all spend time as a Warrior in the sense of the Jungian archetype and develop the characteristics that make us strong: courage, strength, pride, honor, ambition and resolve. But if a man is nothing more than a warrior, he is incomplete. At some point we must take the strength that comes from waging our own personal wars in whatever form they take, and direct that Warrior energy in a productive and useful manner. We must continually evolve to overcome our weaknesses or we will be crushed by them. To become stuck in one way of thinking, one mode of behavior, is to stagnate. Achilles reached his plateau as a warrior (though it was a very high plateau indeed) and he refused to rise above that position. The Achilles of this world can only ever belong on the battlefield, but they are slaves to the battlefield, and as such they are not free and they are incomplete. Thumos is what drives us to success and greatness, but if we do not control our Thumos, our drive, we too will become slaves to it.
In another post we will discuss the concept of Thumos, righteous anger, in more detail. What it is, how the Greeks thought of it, and how it applies to us today. We will also deal with the issue of Achilles legacy. His story has inspired greatness in many of the Giants of the history-books, and many of the characters who shaped the world we live in trace their motives back to Achilles. But we must remember that the first step towards surpassing Achilles is to become Achilles. That means connecting with our Thumos and stepping on to the battlefield.
Jan 4th, 2015. Dublin.