The two kinds of warriors: Hector & Achilles

University of Virginia English professor Mark Edmundson has written a fascinating essay entitled “Do Sports Build Character or Damage It?”  The short answer is “both,” or “either.”  In the course of his discussion, which draws on his own experience playing football, he points out Plato’s observation that human beings have a need for thymos–the thirst for glory–but that this passion needs to be subordinated to reason.  Edmundson illustrates his points by contrasting the two major figures of Homer’s Iliad:  Hector and Achilles.

In the Western heroic tradition, the paragon of the humane warrior is Homer’s Hector, prince of the Trojans. He is a fierce fighter: On one particular day, no Greek can stand up to him; his valor puts the whole Greek army to rout. Even on an unexceptional day, Hector can stand up to Ajax, the Greek giant, and trade blow for blow with him. Yet as fierce as Hector can be, he is also humane. He is a loving son to his aged parents, a husband who talks on equal terms with his wife, Andromache, and a tender-hearted father. He and King Priam are the only ones in Troy who treat Helen, the ostensible cause of the war, with kindness.

One of the most memorable scenes in The Iliad comes when Hector, fresh from the battlefield, strides toward his boy, Astyanax. The child screams with fright at the ferocious form encased in armor, covered with dust and gore. Hector understands his child in an instant and takes off his helmet, with its giant horsehair plume, then bends over, picks his boy up and dandles him, while Andromache looks on happily. Astyanax—who will soon be pitched off the battlements of Troy when the Greeks conquer the city—looks up at his father and laughs in delight.

The scene concentrates what is most appealing about Hector—and about a certain kind of athlete and warrior. Hector can turn it off. He can stop being the manslayer that he needs to be out on the windy plains of Troy and become a humane husband and father. The scene shows him in his dual nature—warrior and man of thought and feeling. In a sense, he is the figure that every fighter and athlete should emulate. He is the Navy Seal or Green Beret who would never kill a prisoner, the fearless fighter who could never harm a woman or a child. In the symbolic world of sports, where the horrors and the triumphs of combat are only mimicked, he is the one who comports himself with extreme gentleness off the field, who never speaks ill of an opponent, who never complains, never whines.

But The Iliad is not primarily about Hector. It is the poem of Achilles and his wrath. After Hector kills Achilles’ dear friend Patroclus, Achilles goes on a rampage, killing every Trojan he can. All humanity leaves him; all mercy is gone. At one point, a Trojan fighter grasps his knees and begs for mercy. Achilles taunts him: Look at me, he says, so strong and beautiful, and some day I, too, shall have to die. But not today. Today is your day. At another point, a river close to the city, the River Scamander, becomes incensed over Achilles’ murderous spree. The hero has glutted its waters with blood and its bed with bodies. The river is so enraged that it tries to drown the hero. When Achilles finally gets to Hector, he slaughters him before the eyes of his parents, Hecuba and Priam, and drags his body across the plains of Troy.

Achilles is drunk on rage, the poem tells us. His rational mind has left him, and he is mad with the joy of slaughter. The ability to modulate character that Hector shows—the fierce warrior becoming the loving father—is something Achilles does not possess. Achilles, one feels, could not stop himself if he wished to: A fellow Greek who somehow insulted him when he was on his rampage would be in nearly as much danger as a Trojan enemy. Plato would recognize Achilles as a man who has lost all reason and has allowed thymos to dominate his soul.

This ability to go mad—to become berserk—is inseparable from Achilles’ greatness as a warrior. It is part of what sets him above the more circumspect Hector on the battlefield. When Hector encounters Achilles for the last time, Hector feels fear. Achilles in his wrath has no idea what fear is, and that is part of what makes him unstoppable.

Achilles’ fate is too often the fate of warriors and, in a lower key, of athletes. They unleash power in themselves, which they cannot discipline. They leave the field of combat or of play and are still ferocious, or they can be stirred to ferocity by almost nothing. They let no insult pass. A misplaced word sends them into a rage. A mild frustration turns them violent. Thymos, as Plato would have said, has taken over their souls, and reason no longer has a primary place—in some cases, it has no place at all.

via Do Sports Build Character or Damage It? – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

This comparison, I think, can apply to modern warriors in the military, and to athletes, and to “warriors” in the business world and other professions.  It’s possible for a lawyer, a scholar, a salesman, or maybe even a pastor (you think?) to go so all out that normal human feelings are extinguished in favor of winning at all costs, exerting power over other people, and achieving glory.  They can never “shut it off.”  Even when this means harming their families and ultimately themselves.  (Achilles himself being brought down by the weakling Paris whose arrow hits him at his one point of vulnerability.)

This has to do, of course, with vocation, when the vocation is twisted into a means of aggrandizement for the self rather than love and service to the neighbor.

The Captain Ahab of the primaries

Charles Krauthammer takes the prize for the best literary allusion in election analysis so far:

Gingrich is staying in. This should be good news for Romney. It’s not. In his Iowa non-concession speech, Gingrich was seething. He could not conceal his fury with Paul and Romney for burying him in negative ads. After singling out Santorum for praise, Gingrich launched into them both, most especially Romney.

Gingrich speaks of aligning himself with Santorum against Romney. For Newt’s campaign, this makes absolutely no strategic sense. Except that Gingrich is after vengeance, not victory. Ahab is loose in New Hampshire, stalking his great white Mitt.

via A worthy challenger – The Washington Post.

No more Narnia movies?

The prospects for more Narnia movies in the near future are not good, as Walden Media, which produced the first three,  has lost the rights to the novels.

Fans of popular book series The Chronicles of Narnia have been left in limbo over when, or even if, they will see a new movie from the franchise on the big screen.

Walden Media, which produced the first three Narnia films – “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” (2005), “Prince Caspian” (2008) and “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” (2010), apparently no longer hold the rights to the movies. What is more, the C.S. Lewis Estate must wait a number of years before they can resell them to Walden or another studio, NarniaWeb.com revealed.

Douglas Gresham, the stepson of C. S. Lewis, confirmed the news in a radio interview to Middle-Earth radio back in October. ChristianCinema posted an excerpt from the conversation:

“If you’re aware Walden’s contract with the [C S Lewis] Company has expired, that’s true. And that leaves us in a situation that, for a variety of reasons, we cannot immediately produce another Narnian Chronicle movie. But it is my hope that the Lord will spare me and keep me fit and healthy enough so that in three or four years time we can start production on the next one,” Gresham said.

The exact length of time that the estate has to wait has not been reported, but if Gresham’s hopes that production can only begin with within the next three or four years come true, fans may have to wait another six or seven years before the movie is finalized and ready for the big screen.

Michael Flaherty, co-founder and president of Walden Media, shared in an interview with The Christian Post back in March that the company was planning to make The Magician’s Nephew, and not The Silver Chair, as the next Narnia movie, which is a prequel to the very first book in the series. However, now it is unclear whether Walden will be able to reclaim the rights, or which movie a new production company would like to do.

via ‘Narnia 4′ Movie in Limbo; Likely Several Years Before Production Begins, Christian News.

The Hobbit trailer

To be released this time next year!

HT:  Paul McCain

“Upon Christ’s Nativity”

I continue my custom of offering you a Christmas poem, poetry being “a trap for meditation.”  Here is one that I just discovered by the Welsh Anglican cleric Rowland Watkyns (1662):

Upon Christ’s Nativity, or Christmas

From three dark places Christ came forth this day;

From first His Father’s bosom, where He lay,

Concealed till now; then from the typic law,

Where we His manhood but by figures saw;

And lastly from His mother’s womb He came

To us, a perfect God and perfect Man.

Now in a manger lies the eternal Word:

The Word He is, yet can no speech afford;

He is the Bread of Life, yet hungry lies;

The Living Fountain, yet for drink He cries;

He cannot help or clothe Himself at need

Who did the lilies clothe and ravens feed;

He is the Light of Lights, yet now doth shroud

His glory with our nature as a cloud.

He came to us a Little One, that we

Like little children might in malice be;

Little He is, and wrapped in clouts, lest He

Might strike us dead if clothed with majesty.

Christ had four beds and those not soft nor brave:

The Virgin’s womb, the manger, cross, and grave.

The angels sing this day, and so will I

That have more reason to be glad than they.

via Rowland Watkyns: “Upon Christ’s Nativity”.

The last chapter problem

Columnist Ezra Klein introduces a useful concept, the “last chapter problem”:

In March, the historian David Greenberg wrote an essay on “why last chapters disappoint.” He began by reviewing “Public Opinion,” Walter Lippmann’s 1922 treatise arguing that the longtime dream of a rational, enlightened democracy was being undercut by the complexity of policy issues and the irrationalities of the voting public.

The critics agreed: Lippmann’s book was brilliant. At least, until the final chapter, in which Lippmann offered gauzy and unpersuasive hopes that mankind’s better angels would rise up and banish “hatred, intolerance, suspicion, bigotry, secrecy, fear and lying” from the public square. The conclusion, H.L Mencken said, collapsed into “mystical gurgle.”

But Greenberg was sympathetic. “Lippmann’s experience will be familiar to almost anyone who has written a book aspiring to analyze a social or political problem. Practically every example of that genre, no matter how shrewd or rich its survey of the question at hand, finishes with an obligatory prescription that is utopian, banal, unhelpful or out of tune with the rest of the book.”

President Obama’s address from Osawatomie, Kan., also had a last-chapter problem.

Klein goes on to analyze (favorably) Obama’s Kansas speech, which, however, ended in unjustified optimism.  He then, gracefully, applies the concept to himself and his own column:

And the truth is, I’m left with a last-chapter problem, too. It’s all well and good to call for reforms to clean up and modernize the political system, but such things are easier said than done. The Supreme Court presents a significant challenge to all but the most modest of campaign-finance reforms, and though the wanton deployment of the filibuster has rendered both parties nearly incapable of governing, there’s little congressional support for reforms that would allow majorities to actually pass the policies they’ve promised voters. But to get to the right answers, you must first ask the right questions.

“In the end,” wrote Greenberg, “most authors have themselves to blame. Having immersed themselves in a subject, almost all succumb to the hubristic idea that they can find new and unique ideas for solving intractable problems. They rarely do, and even works that do usher in specific reforms or broad social transformations — from ‘The Jungle’ to ‘The Feminine Mystique’ — do so by raising awareness about an issue, not by providing ready-to-go blueprints.”

Can you think of other “last chapter” problems?

via Obama’s economic argument: A good premise meets a bad finish – The Washington Post.


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