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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?

  • 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. – Brian Donovan Oct 10 '17 at 13:55
  • @BrianDonovan can you elaborate as to why the mechanism for rewarding Achilles with eternal fame has been broken? – Hao S Apr 15 '19 at 21:38
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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 Aug 21 '15 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 Aug 21 '15 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 Aug 24 '15 at 3:08

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