The “Iliad” shows us human nature under extreme duress. Understanding Agamemnon and the consequences of his actions gives us a complex gauge of character. We come to recognize how often in daily life surprises come and how much they reveal that we stand in need of grace.
Poor Agamemnon. At the very outset of Western world literature, the man establishes a paradigm for bad leadership. Homer bestows a certain greatness upon this wealthiest and most powerful king of his time, the one who mustered the whole massive Achaian force to come and attack the Trojans, the king over otherwise independent kings from Greece and Crete.
But his position of prominence magnifies his faults. Selfish, shortsighted, ready to punish others for his own mistakes, he brings down a plague on the whole army at the beginning of the Iliad because he refuses to give back the daughter of a priest of Apollo who promptly prays to Apollo for retribution. When Agamemnon must appease the god by giving the girl back, he makes matters worse by taking the war prize of Achilles, universally recognized as the best warrior of all, and in doing so, insults him so profoundly that Achilles withdraws from the fighting, a catastrophe far worse than the plague. And then Zeus himself intentionally deludes Agamemnon in the worst way by convincing him that he can capture Troy immediately now that Achilles is out of the fighting—as though the son of Peleus had been a mere hindrance.
Things go very, very badly. On the first day of fighting without Achilles, the Achaians suffer such a setback that they decide to build a wall around their ships. On the next day of battle, the Trojans led by Hektor drive Agamemnon’s army back inside the new wall, where the thoroughly rattled Achaians now take the defensive for the first time in the war. In this crisis, Agamemnon stands up weeping in front of the other kings and complains that Zeus has tricked him, that they cannot win and they should all go home. The heroes, including Nestor, Odysseus, and Diomedes, of course repudiate such advice. Instead, they tell him to plead with Achilles to return—but Achilles sees right through Agamemnon’s self-serving and face-saving offer of huge prizes (made through intermediaries, not in person) and refuses outright. When the next day of fighting (still without Achilles) goes worse still and the Trojans break through the wall, Agamemnon advises the others to start pulling the ships into the water so they can escape, though the very first hint of doing so would create general panic among his own army. As Odysseus puts it with sharp disapproval, “the Achaians / will not hold their battle as the ships are being hauled seaward, / but will look about, and let go the exultation of fighting.” Agamemnon seems incapable of reading the moment and judging rightly.
Like other great books in our curriculum at Wyoming Catholic College, the Iliad (which I am currently teaching to a section of freshmen) shows our students the range of human nature, in this case, human nature under extreme duress. Understanding Agamemnon and the consequences of his actions gives them a complex gauge of character. To say that someone is “acting like Agamemnon” (or Nestor, or Odysseus, or Achilles) evokes a constellation of qualities in an instantly comprehensible way that amplifies personal experience. Great stories both embody and transcend particular cultures and historical epochs. It should be too obvious to need saying, but thoughtfully reading the great works informs practical judgment in everyday circumstances—the sphere of the moral virtues. Aristotle, like Plato, draws upon the epics and tragedies when he gives his philosophical account of ethics, and St. Thomas Aquinas in turn draws upon Aristotle in his own theological commentary.
I thought about Agamemnon recently when I was reading Aquinas on the necessity of grace. Obviously, the heroes of the Iliad precede Christianity by many centuries, but the question of a kind of grace is not altogether absent in the interventions of gods with heroes. Athena stops Achilles from killing Agamemnon outright, for example, and she directly aids Diomedes in battle. Both Zeus and Apollo step in to restore the gravely wounded Hektor and drive on his victory over the Achaians. A real question is whether such divine help comes only to those whose virtues already warrant the supplemental intervention. Agamemnon receives no such help, needless to say, and I am struck by a passage in Aquinas that speaks directly to his situation.
Can a man avoid sin—or, in Agamemnon’s case, bad decisions—without the help of grace? Not a chance, says Aquinas. If he knew in advance exactly what was going to happen and what the consequences of his actions would be, perhaps Agamemnon could behave well, but real life does not allow such preparation. “Surprised,” says Aquinas, “a man acts according to his preconceived end and his pre-existing habits, as the Philosopher says (Ethics. iii); although with premeditation of his reason a man may do something outside the order of his preconceived end and the inclination of his habit. But because a man cannot always have this premeditation, it cannot help occurring that he acts in accordance with his will turned aside from God, unless, by grace, he is quickly brought back to the due order.”
Surprised, Agamemnon acts altogether according to his pre-existing habits, and almost destroys his army. But the portrait becomes part of what we know, not least about ourselves. Can we stand harshly in judgment of someone most of us have resembled at one time or another? It is crucial to recognize how often in daily life surprises come and how much they reveal that we stand in need of grace, as Aquinas reminds us—and Homer, in his way, long before him. What better start could there be for our freshmen?
Republished with gracious permission from Wyoming Catholic College’s weekly newsletter.
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The featured image is “Achilles’ Dispute with Agamemnon” (1776) by Johann Heinrich Tischbein (1722–1789) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.