Rage Can Be Good: Reflecting On the Iliad’s Achilles

WISDOM: IT ENCOMPASSES OF ALL EMOTIONS, EVEN RAGE CAN BE DRAFTED AS AN ENGINE OF CREATION:

Achilles’ rage is the engine of Homer’s Iliad, it makes the story much more interesting, including the tragic figure of Hector, who does everything right, just to be dragged around the walls, as a piece of garbage. A frequent mistake is to identify rage, the engine of creation of the Iliad, with the cause of much unhappiness among the participants.  Actually, Homer attributes a cause to the rage, and, it’s… forgetfulness. Thus Homer condemns, ultimately, not a basic emotion, rage, but the erroneous logical processing of Achilles: Achilles forgot what he was there for.

What is the nature of wisdom? How all-encompassing is wisdom? Some want to clip wisdom’s wings, consign it to something tame, with few emotions. This is completely erroneous. Wisdom should encompass, and work with, all emotions. Including rage. Homer’s work and the Vedas,the Knowledge, (1700 BCE!? to 500 BCE),  teach us this.

That rage is sometimes optimal, the episode of the 1930s, appeasing the Nazis and other fascists, should have taught us. But many are still the subjects in history which justify our ire, and it should motivate us to explore them. For example why the criminal Louis XIV of France could get away with expelling all Protestants of France, and torturing the rest, or why slavery was re-introduced by Europeans in the Americas… a full millennium after being outlawed  in Western Europe (by the Franks who ruled most of it). This is one of the reasons why anger is good.

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No Achilles, No Iliad:

Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey are Europe’s oldest literature (India’s oldest wisdom in writing, the Veda, is older). That oldest work from the 8th century BCE can still move us today is a testament to the genius of old thinking, and, in particular Homer (whoever he, or they, was/were).

Both works are full of larger-than-life figures, among them Achilles in the Iliad, and Odysseus in the homonymous epic. As Massimo Pigliucci discussed in the past, Odysseus was considered by all the major philosophical schools, each interpreting his story to serve their mentalities. For the Stoics, Odysseus was a role model.

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Massimo says: “But what about Achilles? I must confess, I never liked the guy. All brawns and no brains (exactly the opposite of Odysseus), he never appealed to my nerdy self. And I always thought his treatment of Hector’s body after their epic battle was irredeemably shameful. More recently, though, I started thinking about him specifically from a Stoic perspective. Particularly the pivotal episode near the beginning of the Iliad, when Achilles gets pissed off at Agamemnon, the head of the Greek expedition to Troy (and brother of Menelaus, the husband that Helen left for Paris, thus allegedly triggering the war itself).

It’s worth recounting the episode in some detail. Agamemnon has taken a woman named Chryseis as his slave. Chryseis’ father, however, is a priest of Apollo, and he asks the god to return his daughter. Since Agamemnon refuses, Apollo sends a plague to the Greek camp to make a convincing case. The prophet Calchas diagnoses the problem correctly, but refuses to speak up unless he secures Achilles’ protection. When the hero grants it, Agamemnon is forced to return Chryseis. Petty as he usually is, he takes revenge on Achilles, demanding the latter’s battle prize, Briseis, in reparation for the loss of Chryseis. It is now Achilles’ turn to get pissed off and petty: out of spite, he goes on strike and refuses to lead the Greeks into battle. Hence the famous opening lines of the Iliad:

“Sing, Goddess, of the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,

the accursed rage that brought great suffering to the Achaeans.”

(Sounds better in Italian, I think: “Cantami, o Diva, del pelide Achille / l’ira funesta che infiniti addusse / lutti agli Achei.”)

That rage quickly leads to the death of Achilles’ intimate friend, Patroclus, who had donned Achilles’ harmor to lead the Greeks in a desperate attempt to push back the advancing Trojans, and was killed by the Trojan prince Hector (who will later, in turn, be killed by Achilles).

What would the Stoics think of Achilles’ behavior? One clue is in the word “rage” used by Homer: as we know, the Stoics thought that anger was the most devastating of the pathē, the unhealthy emotions, to be avoided at all costs. But we don’t have to speculate much, as Epictetus addresses the episode directly:

“And when did Achilles come to grief? When Patroclus died? Far from it. But rather, when he himself yielded to anger, when he wept over a young girl, when he forgot that he was there, not to acquire mistresses, but to make war. These are the ways in which human beings are brought to grief, this is the siege, this the razing of the citadel, when right judgements are overturned, when they are destroyed.” (Discourses I.29-24-25)

The “citadel” being razed here is not Troy, but the very same one so often mentioned by Marcus Aurelius in the Meditations: our ruling faculty, the hêgemonikon, a term closely related to Epictetus’ favorite one, prohairesis (our capacity of judgment). Achilles’ true loss did not occur when his friend was killed, but when he himself lost the way of reason (assuming he ever had it, since there is little evidence of that).”

***

Achilles: the Wrongs and Rights of Rage:

One can live big now. Yes, it requires sacrifices. Yes one can die from it like in old times. Yes, that’s how really new, bold and deep ideas appear, and otherwise they will never blossom.

Rage can be bad, rage can be good. It depends upon circumstances: how the rage arose, if it is justified, what it will achieve. As all human emotions, it is present, because it has evolutionary value. All revolutions were propelled by rage, and without them, there would be no advancing civilization.

Achilles increasing rage is an example of the wrong sort of rage, which scrambles a proper consideration of reality. Yet, Achilles’ problem is not so much rage, than having a wrong hierarchy of motivating factors in his logical processing: he “forgot”. Consider the revealingly truncated quote of Epictetus:

when did Achilles come to grief? …when he forgot that he was there, not to acquire mistresses, but to make war. These are the ways in which human beings are brought to grief, this is the siege, this the razing of the citadel, when right judgements are overturned, when they are destroyed

Basically, Achilles came to Troy and then engaged in the wrong activities: that shaped his mind wrong, “overturning right judgements”.

Achilles forgot that, when one makes war, one makes war, not love. Love making scrambles his war logic, his hierarchy of motivations, and cautions, he overlooks the fact that his absence will force his friends to take desperate measures endangering them. (After the death of his friend which he caused, Achilles further compounds the problem by directing further rage at the stoic Hector, whom he uses to hide his own culpability… from himself!)

Conclusion: our logical systems are shaped by our experiences. Examining one’s logic is not enough for the wisest: the logic can be perfect, and still wrong in a more general setting. One has to examine one’s entire mental input, that is, one’s entire life, to find out where one’s logic comes from… And judge it optimally.

Some will sneer that I spoke of rights and wrongs of rage, and then just mentioned wrongs.

But, of course, Achilles is famous, and awesome, because of his rage, and how destiny changing rage is: Achilles’ rage wins battles… Achilles, the Iliad, is a poem about how rage is the maker of destiny, thus, how Greece won… and how the West, in more than one sense, was won… From anger, not just meditation. Accursed rage, yes, but then there is rage of the other sort!

 

Massimo

May 10, 2018 • 1:58 pm

“Rage can be bad, rage can be good. It depends upon circumstances”

Not according to the Stoics, there are no circumstances under which it is good to shut off reason, which is what rage does.

***

Patrice Ayme:

Massimo: Thanks for the answer, it made me think. As often in matters philosophical, semantics is at the core of the debate.

I would suggest that rage doesn’t shut off reason, necessarily. Instead, it switches reason to the combat mode, a form of reason which enabled the human genus to survive, when it sustainably invaded and occupied lion territory. The real question is whether combat is justified. Any reasonable human would say that, quite often, there are situations where combat is justified. Socrates, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius said so, explicitly.

There are many ways to use a brain. There are many forms of reasons, and many reasons, and even forms of reasons, used by working brains. If I drive a car, while making an impassioned discourse about Rome’s Second Triumvirate, two sorts of reasons are at work: one quasi-automatic driving, the other, historical. However, the part of my brain operating the vehicle works flawlessly: otherwise I would have an accident.

When in combat, reason is still there, but it mobilizes the full combat brain: after a Greek phalanx uttered the Alala or a Roman legion the Barritus, shaking the plain, terrifying the enemy, the only “reason” that’s left is the reason of combat. It is akin to rage: consider the furia francese, the “berserker” Viking, the “amok” Malay or Indonesian. A human being in full combat mode is an awesome sight which makes even lions think twice (when lions see a Masai warrior, they take to flight).

Combat thinking is particularly important for philosophical, or any sort of mental, moral, progress. It is no accident that so many top philosophers were combat ready, or otherwise obviously unafraid, although they faced enormous threats, including, of course, death. Socrates came first to fame through his military exploits. And, as many a philosopher, he pursued his work, confronted to threats on his life:

…”take Socrates and observe that he had a wife and children, but he did not consider them as his own; that he had a country, so long as it was fit to have one, and in such a manner as was fit; friends and kinsmen also, but he held all in subjection to law and to the obedience due to it. For this reason he was the first to go out as a soldier, when it was necessary, and in war he exposed himself to danger most unsparingly. (Epictetus, Discourses, 4.1)

Combat mentality, akin to rage, enables, motivates, mental breakthroughs, because any mental breakthrough is, if formidable enough, something that tramples other minds, forcing them to reorganize, a form of ultimate aggression. The entire Iliad and Odyssey is there to tell us, first, that the deepest understanding only blossoms out of turmoil. Because a higher, more optimized mental order can only arise, after destroying the one before. To cut the Gordian Knot of obsolete reason, violence is the only way, whether we like it, or not, as Alexander pointed out.

Even Christ knew this: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. [Matthew 10:34]

***

Massimo, on May 12, 2018, replied:

Patrice, two objections. First, we are not often in a combat mentality. Arguably, outside of actual combat, we shouldn’t be. Hence the idea of not relying on rage.

Second, Seneca rightly says that sure, an angry soldier is braver. So is a drunk one, but we don’t want our soldiers to be drunk on the job, because it would impair their decision making. So does rage.

Intrigued, “Chuchu” intervened, May 13, 2018: Is rage necessary for combat?

Massimo interestingly observed that:

Chuchu, Yes for Aristotle. No for Seneca. Seneca says that an angry soldier may be courageous, but he is also going to act rushly [sic] because of his rage. He makes the parallel with being drunk: that also gives you courage, but it impairs your judgment. We wouldn’t want drunk soldiers in the battlefield, right?

[Yeah we surely should use Seneca, a giant plutocratic vulture, Nero’s teacher to tell us right from wrong…One of the very wrong aspects of present-day Stoicism: all too busy justifying moral monsters…]

***

Patrice Ayme: 

Massimo,

Top mental creation is in combat always. That’s nearly its definition. A really new idea, especially if true, requires mental reorganization of those submitted to it, so it will always be perceived as an aggression… be it only because it requires work, either to repel it, and even more, to accept it.

Also top thinkers tend to walk their talk. Thus, many of the most famous thinkers found themselves in combat situations: after the Vatican imprisoned and tortured Giordano Bruno for seven years, he was tortured in public and burned alive (1600). That persuaded Galileo to submit. Those two were among dozens of intellectuals killed in that generation, just between France and Italy. And it keeps on going: hundreds of intellectuals and artists are listed in Wikipedia as killed in the period 1940-1945. So, whether they want it or not, top intellectuals often find themselves cornered like Cicero or Boetius. Milder forms of combat exist: the US physicist Bohm was out of a job (at Princeton), thrown out of the US where he was born, and denied the Nobel Prize (he experimentally demonstrated the Gauge Field importance in quantum physics)… just because he refused to collaborate with Senator McCarthy.

***

The Human Species Would Not Even Exist, Without A Proclivity To Combat, & It’s Neurologically Deep:

Not to say it has to be approved. It’s just a fact, a major one, and we have to consider it.

Rage is not necessary for combat, but an even worse state is. In real combat, or in situation where one’s life is in extreme danger, the ideal state is a total neuronal commitment to survival. So the perception of pain (of oneself, or others) disappears, completely. The mental concentration mobilizes the entire brain, enormous strength appears, dedication to the task at hand is the only thing that exist. I have myself experienced this more than once, either under attack, or engaging in solo climbing or deep-sea apnea diving. This is why dangerous thrills are addictive. it is also why and because reason shrinks in combat, and forms a lance to pierce the enemy.

Unwarranted rage is a state derived from maximal combat ardor, a neurohormonal and brain state which is such that the combatant doesn’t fear death, at all. Thus rage is combat readiness, without the release of actual combat. In that state, hundreds of thousands of soldiers have stormed walls on top of wobbling ladders, pierced by arrows, drenched by boiling liquids.

Human brains are pickled with reward centers. Hatred, rage, combat, risk taking, life endangerment (of oneself and others) are all behaviors which come with rewarding neuronal mechanisms. Once engaged in these behaviors, they are, all too often not perceived as evil by the perpetrators.

Avoiding hatred and anger at any cost brings an opportunity to do it much more, for those whose good pleasure is to so indulge. As one gets killed by a cruel tyrant, pitying said tyrant with all of one’s might, doesn’t redress the situation, it makes it way worse, it even enables evil, as Hannah Arendt courageously observed (she was pretty much hated for daring to point that out…)

***
Massimo

May 13, 2018 • 4:26 pm

Patrice,

it is simply not true that rage is the only way to get people focused. While it is true that rage has all sorts of negative side effects, especially on one’s moral judgment. Which is the point of the Stoic criticism of anger.

***

Massimo has a 3 day reply limit, let’s we get too deep in a subject, so I didn’t reply. I have been in combat situations, or situations akin to combat, more than once. I have also been angry more than once. The neurological statuses are related. Refusing one totally, is refusing the other. All revolutions were based crucially on rage. Refusing revolutions is refusing evolution, and getting rid of parasitic elements in society, such as plutocracy, and the more organized the plutocracy, the harsher the, necessary, revolution.

All stoics were plutocracy compatible: the invention, blossoming and thriving of Stoicism coincide with the Hellenistic dictatorships. Seneca was a terrible person. Had a Nuremberg like tribunal been held after Nero’s destruction (on order of the Roman Senate), Seneca would have been condemned to be hanged (hopefully as slowly as Von Ribbentrop, Keitel and their ilk). I am not angry, or enraged, writing this: the fact is, examples have to established better paradigms. Had such a tribunal been held, the Republic, a more democratic Republic, could have been re-established. Instead what we got is more of the same: Vespasian and Titus were correct emperors, but Titus died within two years and was succeeded by his brother Domitian, who reigned for two decades of terror, in particular, philosophical terror. Under Domitian, Epictetus  and his “Stoicism” thrived in Rome…meaning “Stoicism”, revered by Massimo, was Domitian compatible (Domitian was very aware philosophically, he knew very well how and why to kill most philosophers and philosophies…)

Now, of course, it is easy for me to say all of this, because “Stoicism” is not my tax-deductible business… So I am free to see it for what it is: like rage, stoicism is sometimes indispensable. Yet, as Socrates correctly raged about, conflating teaching and income leads to very poor wisdom, and thus the fall of the City… The deer eaten by the wolves has to be stoic, yes. But then, we shouldn’t be deer.

Achilles’ rage is the engine of the Iliad, thus of history, and a good story. Yet, it’s not rage which drove him astray. It is forgetfulness. That’s Homer’s wisdom, in full. Without rage, and his amazing combat performance, which is related to it, Achilles simply would not have been, and the Greeks would not have defeated Troy, 12 centuries ago.

Rage is here, it is around, peoples, nations, governments, not only experience it, they compute with it: watch the recent exploits of Hamas and Israel, which got scores of civilians, down to an 8 months baby killed: Hamas computed that rage would break the fence. Israel replied that its own ferocity was too great for Gaza’s rage to overwhelm it psychologically…

Considering humanity without considering rage, is to miss the biggest picture… The first hominid who got enraged against lions, tried to do something about them. We would not be here without her (or him)…

Patrice Ayme

***

***

Note: “People are unjust to anger – it can be enlivening and a lot of fun.” Philip Roth, famous US author.

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4 Responses to “Rage Can Be Good: Reflecting On the Iliad’s Achilles”

  1. G Max Says:

    The New Testament says Jesus was very angry many times, even for simple things like when parents prevented little children to come to him. So I guess Jesup Christ was not stoic. But then he died stoically. What gives? Can one be stoic and angry?

    Are Christians stoic? Sometimes?

    And are Jihadists stoic when they explode themselves? Several families of Imams exploded themselves for Islam this week, in Indonesia, including 8 year old daughter. Was that anger or madness? Collective hallucination maybe? Like the tulip mania or south sea bubble? Collective madness? Tribalism?

    They too stoic to be angry so they follow each other like raging sheep?

    Like

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      Jesus to the rescue! 😉
      Yes those suicidal families in Indonesia was revealing how Islam is a crazed out religion, if taken literally (the Indonesian gov should be doing something right!)

      Like

  2. Benign Says:

    James Joyce had the best comment on Odysseus: “Odysseus was the simply the first gentleman of Europe.”

    To try to make the Iliad about Achilles is reducitve (I recently watched an Iliad on Amazon Prime Video that was trashed by critics but that I enjoyed).

    cheers,
    benign

    BTW the EU is falling apart.

    Like

    • Patrice Ayme Says:

      I agree that to make the Iliad all about Achilles is reductive. I also agree that the EU is at risks of falling apart, and not just because of Merkler and the 5 star movement… Manipulating public opinion about unlawful immigration in France is a serious problem, and the Islamist State attack by a Chechen refugee in France shows the decomposition there: the Putin installed dictator of Chechnya pointed out, the terrorist is a product of France (he arrived at age 3) and not Chechnya… That [anti-Islamism = racism] doctrine is not working too well!

      Like

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