Achilles Smack-down: Aeneas Ain’t All That

Hey, everybody!

I just finished responding to one "andreaskluth" at The Hannibal Blog. It was concerning the Trojan/Roman hero, Aeneas. Andreas makes a few claims about him that I think sell short a few other heroes. You can read his post here. Among his claims are:

1) Aeneas is the first "weak" hero,
2) Aeneas is the first hero whose internal journey was as important as his outer one,
3) Aeneas is the first hero to be presented as "a whole man," aaaaand
4) Aeneas has no free will and is, thus, alien to our sensibilities in a way that other heroes (like, saaaay, Achilles) are not.

I disagree. On all points. Not so much in a defense of Aeneas, but, again, because I think that doesn’t do justice to others. And I thought I might as well share my thoughts with you. So here they are (Enjoy!):

I feel compelled to respond. Hi, by the way, I’ve been perusing this blog this evening, heroism being a topic I am particularly interested in, and I don’t think Aeneas is as revolutionary as Andreas wants him to be.

First of all, I don’t think Aeneas is wishing to die when we first meet him, per se – he’s wishing he had died at Troy, in battle, in sight of his father and the people he cared for most. He envies the men who fell at Troy because they didn’t die at sea, dying at sea being one of the worst deaths in the ancient world because there is utterly no glory in it. You don’t die facing your enemy; you don’t achieve any honor; you die alone and anonymous, lost in a vast watery grave, unable to be buried properly, and, therefore, unable to properly enter the Underworld.

Secondly, it makes narrative sense to first show your protagonist at a moment of crisis, beginning the narrative where things get interesting, as it were. Consider the Iliad, which Homer (assuming such a creature existed) begins when the Achaean army is plague-ridden and all but broken. Or the Odyssey, in which we first meet Odysseus weeping, a helpless and pathetic captive of Calypso.

I also don’t agree that Aeneas is the first hero presented as “a whole man.” Here, I offer Hektor, a warrior, yes, but also a son, a husband, a father, and a brother. There’s the iconic scene where he takes off his helmet as not to frighten his son; the time after time his wife pleads with him not to fight; and his uneasy relationship with Paris, who he blames for the war but loves as a brother nonetheless. I would classify Hektor as a man who “is aware of the ramifications his actions have on others” and “has compassion.” In fact, it is these very ties that damn him to his inevitable face-off with Achilles. He can’t run from the war because of what he’s fighting for (nor, really, can any Trojan), and, because he must fight, he dies.

And I also don’t agree (good-naturedly, of course :)) that Aeneas is the first (western) hero whose internal journey is as important as his external one. Here, I’ll go back to Achilles, who I feel compelled to defend against his slanderous portrayal by Mr. Pitt.

Achilles begins the Iliad in a huff (and, I would argue, justifiably, given his cultural zeitgeist) because Agamemnon took away his war prize/lover, who was given to him as a demarcation that he is the greatest of the Achaean warriors. But, by the end, he sits and ponders and grieves and rages (oh how he rages) until he finally weeps, weeps with his enemies’ king over the warriors they both have lost. He starts as a pinnacle of Greek heroism, comes to question everything that that heroism is based on, and ends accepting the inevitability of death and the human condition. I mean … c’mon! That’s an epic hero.

Which brings me to the problem of free will. And here I have to echo Douglas above: Who does have free will? Determinism, for my money, is one of the most misunderstood concepts in the world. All determinism really claims is that there is a reason for everything, a causal chain of events. What I think most people don’t get is that you, yourself, are also a determining factor in those events. For instance, if I feel hungry, I can get up and go to the kitchen, but I did not “choose” to feel hungry, and whatever I “choose” to eat is bound by what I find in the fridge. Similarly, what people aspire to be, their morals, their values, their hopes and dreams for the future are all wrapped up in biological and cultural determinants. Or else it would be mighty odd that most Americans just happen to choose to value freedom above most other things, whereas most Chinese people just happen to value duty to family and friends. Or, as Arty Schopenhauer put it, “Man can indeed do what he wants, but he cannot control what it is that he wants.”

The ancient Greeks took it even further because they believed in fate. No one escaped their fate. Even the gods were bound by it. The only ancient Greek who came close to anything like free will was Achilles, because he alone (to my knowledge) had two fates that he knew about with certainty, thanks to his goddess mother (the vast majority of ancient Greeks didn’t know their fates until those very fates were upon them).

But even Achilles doesn’t choose his fate. As I’m sure everyone remembers, his choices were (as paraphrased by Joe Strummer) “should I stay or should I go?” At first, he wants to go, reasoning that any honor he wins in battle is trivial if Agamemnon can snatch it away (i.e. He desires to leave the war as determined by his shabby treatment by Agamemnon). He does not leave because Ajax the Greater convinces him to stay (i.e. Ajax’s argument for why he should stay determines that he will, in fact, stay). But, finally, his fate is sealed (his path determined) when he rejoins battle, hell-bent on avenging the death of Patroclus by killing Hektor (an act that puts him on the path to the worst case of Achilles tendonitis yet recorded). But did he choose that fate? I don’t think so. Such was his grief at the news of Patroclus’s death that he could not have done otherwise. His grief (and rage) overrode any hope of rational deliberation he had left. Game over; Hektor’s screwed.

Aeneas may not have free will, but then, neither do we.

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