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I've been reading a lot of interpretations of Achilles' decision to return to battle, and many top scholars seem to think that he sacrificed his life in order to achieve some form of eternal glory. For example, both Gregory Nagy and Bernard Knox (Harvard Center for Hellenic Studies) saw Achilles' decision to return to battle and sacrifice his life as the ultimate choice of eternal glory/fame (see my article on the subject for more information).

But it seems like his own words and actions suggest otherwise. For example, When Achilles leaves the battlefield after his dispute with Agamemnon, the Trojans gain the upper hand on the Greeks. Desperate to convince their best warrior to return, Agamemnon sends an envoy of Achilles' closest friends to his tent to persuade him to reconsider his decision. During this scene, Achilles calmly informs his friends that he is no longer interested in giving up his life for the sake of heroic ideals. His exact words are below:

The same honor waits for the coward and the brave. They both go down to Death, the fighter who shirks, the one who works to exhaustion (IX 386-388).

I wrote an article that into more depth on this question but I'm still confused. The most straight-forward explanation seems to be that Achilles returns to battle solely out of rage and the desire for revenge. Am I missing something?

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  • I would say no (to the headline question). As I explained in the middle portion of my answer to another question here, the mechanism for rewarding Achilles' kind of merit with eternal fame seems (to him at least) to have been broken. In slaying Hector (and many others) in some of the later books he indeed does what his goddess mother has assured him will bring him eternal fame, but for another reason: his rage at the death of Patroclus. Commented Oct 10, 2017 at 13:55
  • @BrianDonovan can you elaborate as to why the mechanism for rewarding Achilles with eternal fame has been broken?
    – Hao S
    Commented Apr 15, 2019 at 21:38

2 Answers 2

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Is it possible, rather, to view Achilles as a more dynamic, developing, three-dimensional character? That is, you describe an either/or motivational paradigm, but mightn't it better be described as both/and? Achilles starts from a place of anger (as does Homer: menin is given pride of place, after all), but in the end, especially after meeting Priam, becomes a many-dimensional character. He is reminded from the beginning of the epic to its close of the finitude of all things but kleos which is aphthiton.

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  • Peter's answer suggested to me that the character, Achilles, may have gone through more than one thought or feeling at different times. I'm not sure this is the way that someone trying to teach a lesson about dealing with life via a story, would write, or a form that a story that was retold through generations would take. Maybe it is autobiographical in a sense, or cathartic. I like the idea though of not thinking in an "all or nothing" way.
    – user667
    Commented Aug 21, 2015 at 8:53
  • Motivations can be complex. Motivations can be multiple. At any one moment, a single motivation may take precedence over others, but that does not means they are erased altogether. Homer's way of emphasizing Achilles' complexity is to show him straddling the worlds of mortality and immortality. Homer's audience would readily grasp this emphasis.
    – Peter
    Commented Aug 21, 2015 at 19:13
  • Thanks for commenting everyone. Peter - interesting response. I especially like the idea of Homer's emphasizing his complexity as you said. It does make me wonder whether some of this complexity has been lost by many in modern times. The more I read about Achilles and discuss his life with others, the more these ambiguities and, at times, contradictions seem vital to his story.
    – Patrick
    Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 3:08
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Up to a certain stage of his short, painful life, Achilles is motivated chiefly by the desire of Kleos (glory), which motivates others including Diomedes, Ajax the Greater and - to a certain extent - Hector, who states it clearly. In book nine of the Iliad we realise that Achilles, shockingly enough, has come to see that life is more important than glory, which shows the cleverness of the man and well explains his refusal to fight again. In the same, unforgettable scene, we learn that another reason justifies his refusal, his lack of esteem for Agamemnon and thus the impossibility for him to obey: the killing machine has just offered one of the earliest anti-war statements in Western literature. Fabulous. And yet the very best is still to come, as they say: he does go back to the battlefield but no longer for glory, rather, he consciously and calmly accepts his fate - that is stay, fight and very soon die but for love and respect (for Patroclus). This act rockets Achilles up to the special realm of the likes as Alcestis, where no other Iliadic hero can even think of landing. The meeting with Priam completes the shining side of the Homeric portrait of Achilles, easily one of the most multi-faceted, problematic, fascinating fictional figures of ancient Greek epic- 2800 years of analysis of all kind suffice to prove that, I love quoting here Friedrich Schlegel who, in his essay on Greek Poetry, defines the fictional creation of Achilles "a miracle of art" - indeed he is, being a combination of epic/tragic and, late, cult hero. Unique. Furthermore, he is the true cosmic hero, who like a hugely radiant star can carry both splendour and devastation, and finally a man of powerful, genuine passions and feelings.

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