Google Translate

Monday, October 4, 2010


Rightly Anticipate Human Emotions


Homer advocates that every man should aim at winning over his own base instincts for, it would reward him with a life of fulfillment and in the case of a leader, it would ensure ardent followership.

Homer, with his Iliad, is said to have reached Olympian eminence in recording reality as seen through his vision. At least that is what one tends to infer on reading about Achilles in Iliad. One wonders if mankind has materially changed in the last three thousand years after what Homer has described about the general structure of society, the relations of men and women to one another, and even the physical circumstances of their existence.

The plot of Iliad is simple. King Agamemnon, the overlord of Greece (Homer’s Achaea), induces all those princes who are in allegiance with him to fight against King Priam of Troy, since one of his sons runs away with his brother, Menelaus’s wife—the beautiful Helen of Argos.

The Greek forces camp beside their ships on the shore near Troy. For the last nine years, they have been fighting under the dashing leadership of Achilles. Yet, they could not bring the war to a conclusion. They could, however, capture and loot a number of villages in the Trojan territory.

But this successful looting leads to a feud between Achilles and his commander-in-chief. Agamemnon had been allotted the girl, Chryseis, as his prize. Her father, a local priest of Apollo, approaches the Achaean camp requesting them to release her by accepting a ransom. But Agamemnon refuses to give her up. Instead, he heaps insult on the priest. The priest then prays to his god. As a result, a plague results in the Greece camp. Giving in to the public feeling, Agamemnon releases the girl to propitiate the angry god.

Agamemnon, however, compensates himself by confiscating one of Achilles’ own prizes, a girl called Briseis. This makes Achilles withdraw from the battle along with his force.

After an abortive truce, the two armies again meet. Taking advantage of Achilles’ absence from the battle, Hector, the Trojan commander-in-chief, who had hitherto been penned up in Troy in its defense, succeeds in setting fire to one of the Greece ships.

At this, Achilles at last yields to the entreaties and allows Patroclus, his bosom comrade, to lead the Myrmidon force to rescue the Achaeans. Patroclus succeeds in the mission. But, as he goes too far into Troy, he gets killed by Hector.

This disaster makes Achilles reconcile himself with Agamemnon and take to the battle. Overtaken by his grief at the loss of Patroclus, he drives the Trojans into their town. Finally, he kills Hector. His revenge is so intense—owing to his intense grief at the loss of his friend and the resulting injury to his self-esteem—that he savagely ill-treats the body of the fallen enemy. 

Inspired by the gods, King Priam, father of Hector, visits Achilles in his camp by night to plead for his son’s body. Achilles relents: the play thus ends with an uneasy truce for the funeral of Hector.

In this simple framework, Homer weaves certain episodes—grand, austere, rugged, poignant—which reflect the Homeric way of thought. One such episode is found in Book XXIV, where the true greatness of Achilles that lay concealed all along surfaces. In it, helped by gods, King Priam, father of Hector, reaches Achilles and prays: “Most worship-full Achilles…, / show deference to the gods / and pity for myself, remembering / your own father” and release the body of Hector for proper funeral.

In all earnestness to accomplish the mission, King Priam further appeals: “Of the two old men, / I’m more pitiful, because I have endured / what no living mortal on this earth has borne— / I’ve lifted to my lips and kissed / the hands of the man who killed my son.” Can such a poetic and poignant questioning that penetrates any listener’s consciousness go unheeded? No wonder it makes Achilles think of his father, which brings him to the verge of tears. As Achilles, taking the old man’s hand, gently keeps it away from him, Priam, crouching at Achilles’ feet, bitterly prays for Hector, while Achilles weeps for his father and later again for Patroclus. The house echoes with their lamentation.

As Achilles recovers his composure, he leaps from his chair and in compassion for the old man’s “gray head and beard”, takes him by the arm and raises him saying: “You unhappy man, / your heart’s had to endure so many evils. / How could you dare come to the Achaea’s ships, / and come alone, to rest your eyes on me, / when I’ve killed so many noble sons of yours? / You must have a heart of iron”, and requests him to be seated on the chair. Then he goes on to say: “Though we’re both feeling pain, / we’ll let our grief lie quiet on our hearts. / For there’s no benefit in frigid tears. / That’s the way the gods have spun the threads / for wretched mortal men, so they live in pain.” Such is the impact of the words spoken by King Priam on Achilles who, earlier in his wrath—in un-philosophical sophistication pined for a thousand assuagements, demanding novelties, excitements, distractions, agreeable shocks, tributes to his vanity, and a thousand sweet morsels for the palate of his insatiable egoism— ties the body of Hector to his chariot and savagely hauls it three times round Patroclus’ barrow. That is Homer’s understanding of human nature—the sublimity that delivers a man from that accursed habit of taking the essentials of life for granted which cheapens, debases, and vulgarizes all, and steals from the heart the very mystery of being alive—a lesson to be internalized by every aspiring leader for success.

The venerable Priam then pleads: “Don’t make me sit down on a chair, my lord, / while Hector lies uncared for in your huts. / But quickly give him back, so my own eyes / can see him. And take the enormous ransom / we’ve brought here for you. May it give you joy. / And may you get back to your native land, / since you’ve now let me live to see the sunlight.”

Achilles, frowning at him, says swiftly, “Old man, don’t provoke me. I myself intend to give you Hector. Zeus sent me here a messenger. Otherwise, no matter how young and strong, no living man would dare to make the trip to our encampment. So don’t agitate my grieving heart still more. Or, I might not spare even you, old man, though you’re a suppliant in my hut. I could transgress what Zeus has ordered.”  

This reprimand frightens the old man. Then Achilles, like a lion, dashes out of doors with his two favorite aides. He calls some women servants and tells them to wash and anoint Hector’s body in another part of the house so that Priam will not see his son’s body, for Achilles is afraid that the heart-stricken old man, at the sight of his son’s corpse, might be unable to contain his wrath, and that his own spirit might then get so aroused that he could kill Priam, disobeying Zeus’ orders.  This is another testimony to Homer’s understanding of human emotions. Achilles foresees the possible reaction of King Priam and in turn his own likely response to it with a clinical precision and accordingly executes the needful in such way that it affords a noble relief sans the vulgarity, the triviality, the litter and debris of the transitory and the unessential to all concerned. This is no doubt an example of exalted leadership displayed by the same Achilles who, while handling Hector’s body, was at the height of savagery. The episode displays how ambiguous leadership is—moving from the depths of depravity to the heights of nobility—and how dexterous a leader needs to be in the handling of right and wrong.

As the women servants anointed the body with olive oil and wrapped it in a fine mantel and tunic, Achilles lifts it with his own hands on to a bier, and as his comrades help keeps it in the wagon. In a groan, he then addresses his beloved friend: “O Patroclus, / don’t be angry with me, if  you learn, / even in Hades’ house, that I gave back / godlike Hector to his dear father. / He’s brought to me a fitting ransom. / I’ll be giving you your full share of it, / as is appropriate.” Here again, Achilles exhibits simultaneously his respect for the dead  Hector by placing his body on the bier by himself and to his departed friend, Patroclus. This terrific scene woven by Homer, portrays moments of radiant exaltation—in it we witness a solemn quiet, of fate accepted, of life not exuberantly commanded but taken  for what it is, grim and pitiful, with its own strange, sad beauty, and at least able to be justified—an incredible tale, the spirit of which every leader worth his salt must internalize.

Then Achilles walks into the hut saying, “Old man, your son has been given back, / as you requested. He’s lying on a bier. / You’ll see him for yourself at day break, / when you take him. We should think of eating. / Even fair-haired Niobe remembered food, / with twelve of her own children murdered in her home, / her six young daughters and her six strong sons. So, my royal Lord, let us two also think of food.” Then as Achilles’ attendants fetch bread and meat, they help themselves to the good things spread before them.

Once their thirst and hunger is satisfied, they look at each other with admiration. Then King Priam begs to retire for the night. Thereupon Achilles instructs maids to put the bedsteads in the portico. He then tells Priam: “you must sleep outdoors, my friend, in case some Achaean general pays me a visit… your recovery of the body will be delayed.” He also enquires: “… tell me—and speak truthfully / how many days do you require to bury / godlike Hector, so I can stop that long / and keep the troops in check?” The venerable king then replies: “If you really wish me to give Prince Hector a proper funeral, you will put me under an obligation, Achilles, by doing as you say. We should be mourning him for nine days in home, on the tenth day we shall bury him and hold the funeral feast, and on the eleventh day build him a mound. On the twelfth, if need be, we will fight.”

Saying, “All right, old Priam, things will be arranged / as you request. I’ll suspend the fighting / for the length of time you’ve asked for,” Achilles takes the old man’s wrist on his right hand, to banish all apprehensions from his heart.

Through the whole episode of King Priam’s interaction with Achilles, Homer establishes the magic of words in bringing the much desired healing that totally evades definition. It is under the touch of this magic, a great quiet descends upon Achilles and he grows ashamed of his turbulence, his hurry, his ignoble self-pity, his insatiable discontent and perhaps hearing the voice of his personal wrongs, he emerges as a savior full of tender expressions of an almost religious solemnity. That is great leadership indeed!

Homer, through his great Achilles, also shows the necessity of a great leader to rise above meanness and inhumanity and deliver ‘quietness’ even to an enemy when the issue at stake is “man’s humanity to man.” It is of course a different matter here that this recognition in Achilles is brought about partly by divine intervention—‘deus ex machina’ —and partly by a powerful appeal to his filial emotions.

But what is more important to grasp from the whole episode is: however mighty the leader may be, digressing the basic tenets of humanity could be disastrous— in modern terms, lead to unpredictable consequences. Now, can today’s leaders afford to ignore Homer’s prescription?
- GRK Murty


Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Recent Posts

Recent Posts Widget