Saturday, January 29, 2011

Charis of The Iliad

If you’ve ever used or heard the phrase, “A face that would launch a thousand ships,” you have just been exposed to the catalyst of the Trojan War, a ten year battle between the Spartans and the Trojans over the abduction of Helen, said to be the most beautiful woman in all of the earth and the wife of the Spartan King Menelaos, by Paris the son of Priam, King of Troy.  Meneloas goes to his brother Agamemnon, the ruler of Mycenae and together the two try to diplomatically secure the return of Helen to her husband, yet without success.  Meneloas decides to enlist the surrounding kingdoms in a campaign to rescue Helen and is joined by Nestor, an old family friend, in his journeys to solicit the aid of these kings and their armies. Some scholars state that the reciprocity that these kings show to Menelaos was a characteristic of the social order during the time recognizing that they would receive a portion of the spoil of the battles, while others suggest that many of them had been prior suitors of Helen and out of honor to her joined in this venture.  Note now that these two thoughts, reciprocity and honor, are foundational to the Greek concept of charis.
One of those recruited by Nestor was Odysseus who had been warned that if he participated that this journey home would take him twenty years.  He feigned madness until it was discovered the reason for his action at which point he reluctantly enlisted his services.  Many of the Greeks felt that they could not conquer Troy unless they employed the talents of the greatest warrior on the face of the earth, Achilles.  Achilles had been warned that he would receive great glory in the battle but that he would die at a young age.  His mother subsequently hearing this disguised him in woman’s clothing, which was discovered by Odysseus.  Achilles agreed to join the conquest much to the joy of many.  An armada of over a thousand ships representing all the Achaian independent states aligned with Meneloas set sail from Sparta with Agamemnon chosen as their general.
The Iliad picks up the story of the battle in its ninth year and there is great turmoil in the Achaian camp due to a charis-event between Agamemnon and Achilles.  Apparently Agamemnon withheld a portion of his rightful spoil from Achilles from a battle where he was clearly the victor and took Briseis, the concubine of Achilles, from his tent.  This was conducted in full view of the Achaian army which enflamed the anger of Achilles to the degree that he publically denounced Agamemnon and pulled his entire army from the battlefront back to the boats declaring that he was returning the following day back to his home.
Meanwhile in Agamemnon’s tent Nestor is showing the council that Achilles departure in demoralizing the troops and Agamemnon needs to make amend with Achilles.  He agrees that he has wronged Achilles and offers many gifts and riches be presented to him and the return of Briseis as an offer of reconciliation.  Odysseus and Ajax go to Achilles with the gifts and are welcomed into Achilles tent with great honor but he refuses to take the items or accept any terms that Agamemnon has to offer him with the following response:
“Nor do I think that Agamemnon son of Atreus nor the Danaans will persuade me, since there was no spoil (charis), then or now, for fighting against enemy-men, ever tirelessly.” Il, 9.315-17
So incensed by what Agamemnon has done to him publically, Achilles swears that even if all of the treasures of Egypt were given to him he still would not return to fight along side Agamemnon.  He claims that all that had been promised and delivered to him did not constitute charis to him.  This deeply concerns Odysseus who makes an impassioned plea with Achilles to reconsider since his absence is causing a great toll on the battlefield to the Achaians and there is a moral obligation that he owes to his comrades.  Again, this argument fails because it too lacks charis for Achilles.
In this matter some distinctions should be made.  Many might think, and have thought over the centuries, that Achilles is acting out from a wounding of his pride because of the dishonor that Agamemnon did to him.  These thoughts don’t take into consideration Achilles main point: Charis is not present.  We’ve seen already that charis deals with the aspect of honor and reciprocity, but in this instance the missing component is the “pleasure producing” aspect which has been severed from charis.  True, Agamemnon did trample upon the charis-honor of Achilles by taking the spoil and his concubine that rightfully belonged to him.  True, there is reciprocity on the battlefield as warriors fight beside each other that insures a sense of safety as each watches out for the other in the heat of the conflict.  But according to Achilles, the charis-pleasure that comes from obtaining the spoils and charis-pleasure that he as commander experiences when he and his troops successfully vanquish a foe has been taken from him by Agamemnon’s actions.
Furthermore, it must be kept in mind here that the relationship that Agamemnon has with every member of this expedition.  While he is the general, he is an equal with everyone in this battle.  Each has the freewill to decide the course of his own actions on and off the battlefield.  Achilles recognized that Agamemnon does not by his very position as general have a higher sense of responsibility that alleviates him from entering the battle while still enabling him to partaking of its spoils.  This was what Achilles believed Agamemnon had embarked upon and it would cause division among the ranks of the men if they felt that their efforts might be undermined too, and this could spell defeat for the entire army if it was allowed to continue.
At this junction I’m going to pause to give you time to reflect on some of the facets that have been revealed so far in the discussion of charis.  When we return we’ll take a further look at the nature of reciprocity in charis.
Charis and Shalom to you

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