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The “Shadow Shining” of Achilles

Further Thoughts on Parables, Fables, Stories, and Tales

In the first portion of our excursion through the sticky saying that we discover in Homer’s Achilles I explored the idea that we’re not as different from Achilles as we think. Hearkening back to Bespaloff (On the Iliad), we might at this point be able to recognize that while in spirit we admire Hektor, more often than not in action we emulate Achilles. For confirmation, we only need to survey our society in which appearances, wealth, fame, brash self-assertion, and power are our golden calves. We do strive for what Achilles desired, even if we don’t like to admit it, and the story of our similar striving is elucidated for us in a place where we may be surprised — though we shouldn’t be — to find a connection: the Bible.

Alexander Pope wrote, in the preface to his translation of the Iliad: “What were alone sufficient to prove the grandeur and excellence of [Homer’s] sentiments in general, is, that they have so remarkable a parity with those of the Scripture.” Take this connection now, and amble with me a little way more:

First he placed along his legs the fair greaves linked with
silver fastenings to hold the greaves at the ankles.
Afterward he girt on about his chest the corselet,
and across his shoulders slung the sword with the nails of silver,
a bronze sword, and caught up the great shield, huge and heavy
next, and from it the light glimmered far, as from the moon.
And as when from across water a light shines to mariners
from a blazing fire, when the fire is burning high in the mountains
in a desolate steading, as the mariners are carried unwilling
by storm winds over the fish-swarming sea, far away from their loved ones;
so the light from the fair elaborate shield of Achilleus
shot into the high air. And lifting the helm he set it
massive upon his head, and the helmet crested with horse-hair
shone like a star, and golden fringes were shaken about it
which Hephaistos had driven close along the horn of the helmet.
And brilliant Achilleus tried himself in his armour, to see
if it fitted close, and how his glorious limbs ran within it,
and the armour became as wings and upheld the shepherd of the people.

– Iliad, 19.369-386 (Lattimore translation)

Here, at a most climactic moment of the epic, we can see how Achilles is a pre-Incarnation Ideal Man. Achilles is covered by the radiance of this armor and becomes the bearer of the shield’s luminous representation of mankind. As Eva Brann puts it in her book Homeric Moments, the shield encompasses “a complete world, with all its opposition and variety, war and peace, city and country, cultivation and wilderness.”

The story of Achilles’s wrath comes about because he has been stripped of his honor. His fragile sense of glory — he seeks the praise and acknowledgment of men to confirm it — has been ripped away from him. He is filled with insatiable loss, beside himself with the agony of knowing the honor he most desires is no longer his. He is enraged, not simply because he has been disrespected, but because he has been belittled in a public way that will now always be associated with his name. Achilles is overcome by wrath because something has happened that he cannot understand how to repair. In his inner turmoil, I am not convinced Achilles is sure this harm can ever fully be undone.

Don’t we see here in Achilles the universal human condition, the inherent knowledge that mankind was meant for honor and glory, but that this nobility has been lost? And what is the result of this knowledge? It’s rage, sometimes anger so potent it produces paralysis. It induces a state of apathy because along with that knowledge runs the counterpoint understanding that like Achilles, of themselves, men and women can never truly attain what they yearn for so desperately.

Caught in that place, a tunnel in which Achilles is trapped because for him honor is the only destination worth striving for, he allows Patroklus to impersonate him. In that moment Achilles condemns his beloved friend to death. He knows he has done this, because when he learns of Patroklus’s death he blames himself. But, although he wishes “strife would vanish away,” his anger does not sink permanently into his marrow: Achilles does not allow himself to wallow in self-recrimination or self-loathing. No, he turns that enraged grief towards Hektor.

Achilles never trades his vision of honor for self-abnegation.

He strives, to the bitter end and in the face of certain annihilation, to regain the highest honor: glory. The desire for this is the root of his life and the driving motivation of his days. In this he expresses the Greek Ideal: While living in a universe wherein there is no hope of redemption from Adam and Eve’s fall from glory — where all is determined by fate, in which men and women struggle bitterly for the same crowning honor and in which there can only be one noble “ideal” who stands for all — Achilles allows nothing to bar his way. He will strive to the end, in the face of extermination, to be glorious.

It’s because Achilles is such a man that he is given such armor, and has the right to carry such a shield: a beacon to all who lived before the Incarnation and many who came after, asserting, like the later Romantics, that to look into the face of the void and declare the glory of the self against all odds is to proclaim one’s honor. Thereby one takes for one’s self whatever glory can be mustered, even if it means death. Friedrich Nietzsche later expressed this striving in these terms: “Egoism belongs to the essence of a noble soul. . . . The noble soul accepts the fact of his egoism without question, and also without consciousness of harshness, constraint, or arbitrariness” (Beyond Good and Evil). Indeed, don’t all men anxiously, intrinsically, seek honor, though not all of us can strive for glory with the passion of Achilles? He is thus the Ideal Man in a fallen world. In this, Achilles stands for all mankind of not just his time and place, but all who perceive the world from such a perspective.

For Achilles, there can be no “restfulness” such as Luke describes Mary exhibiting in the Bible when she sits contemplatively at Jesus’s feet. Neither is there the “questfulness” of Martha portrayed for us by John, in which the pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty — the quest for Jesus, who truly transforms us into glory — becomes a sustaining goal (see “A Tale of Two Sisters” and “Martha’s Moment” in this series). For Achilles, there is only self-striving, even if the glory achieved is bitter in the end. This is the best one can hope for: a desperate ideal, but an ideal nonetheless, in a world without the Incarnate Christ.

We’ve walked in a parable of sunlight that has brought us to see that Achilles does indeed have something to reflect back at us in the mirror: As the Ideal Man of the ancients, he gives us nothing less than all of himself as a man born, Imago Dei, and living in agonizing grief and rage at the instinctive recognition of the loss of his birthright (which Adam and Eve forfeited when they, too, sought of their own accord to be “god-like”; Achilles is most assuredly their descendant). His sole desire is glorious honor, and for it he will sacrifice everything: his home and family, his countrymen, his beloved friend, his life.

In a way, perhaps, Achilles as the Ideal Man can also be seen as the expression of the universal wish for such a worthy one to come into the world, a savior who can make it possible for mankind to rise again to the glory for which it was created. In this sense Achilles heralds the need and desire for Christ in a fallen, hopeless world. Like Christ, as the ideal, representative man worthy to bear the shield, Achilles gives all for the redeemed honor and glory of mankind: for, if one man can achieve it, then the rest may bask in his light. Like Christ, through Achilles, the people are given a shepherd who instills hope that the battle may be won. Like Christ, Achilles is a shining sun, a guiding light in a fragile world filled with so much beauty yet so much cruel loss.

Finally, Achilles sacrificed himself for glory, as did Christ. The glaring distinction between them, however, is that Achilles strove for his own glory, while Christ gave his life to restore glory for us all. The greatest of ancient heroes is therefore only the flimsiest, fleeting shadow of Christ, and ultimately that shadow is profoundly insufficient.

Nevertheless, Achilles’ “shadow shining,” by its very frailty, serves to demonstrate even more acutely our deep need for the true Messiah. This is why my students and I, and many who encounter him, still find Achilles compelling and why that unsettles us.

Homer’s great gifts to us include showing us this Achilles—an uncompromising, relentlessly striving Ideal Man—so that we may more fully grasp and appreciate who Christ is and what he has done in taking a world and a humanity deprived of its inheritance and reinstating its glory, all the while creating for us a place in which resting and questing are made actual, attainable possibilities.

Where once there was only striving, now there is actualizing.

This is one of the most significant reasons why Christians should read, study, and teach such classics as the Iliad. As David Hicks writes in Norms and Nobility, “What made these stories valuable was not their historical authenticity or experimental demonstrability, but their allegiance to a pattern of truth.” The immutability of such truth means that we may glimpse such ideals in the mirror no matter how ancient it may be (in fact, no matter however relevant to the 21st century it may be; however fantastical it may be; however far into the future someone may imaginatively describe it to be).

Furthermore, it’s worth emphasizing that patterns are by nature things of harmony, and that part of the work of education is to help students take what they learn and bring it into symmetry, producing a unifying and holistic series of truths that come together in a symphony of overarching Truth.

Years before Hicks wrote those words, Friedrich Schiller penned a series of letters in which he included this thought: “Every individual . . . carries in disposition and determination a pure ideal man within himself, with whose unalterable unity it’s the great task of his existence, throughout all his vicissitudes, to harmonize” (On the Aesthetic Education of Man). Achilles sought, ferociously fought, to do just this. And so, each in our own ways, do we all.

As teachers, we must model this harmonizing repeatedly for our students, so they may grow in learning well how to synchronize the “pure ideal” within themselves, and ultimately, become worthy to receive the great “well done” of Christ.

Achilles is an Ideal Man as we existed for millennia before Christ took human form, and he can carry Homer’s iconic shield as a beacon because it illuminates what we are without Christ as well as prefigures and shines the way to Christ, in whom, solely, there is any hope of honor and glory.

Such is the “shadow shining” of Achilles.

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