Homer’s The Iliad opens with the rage of Achilles. Yet, more than that, it opens with the word “rage” itself. Here are the first several lines from the poem in the Robert Fagles translation:
Rage—Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son, Achilles,
Murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
Hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
Great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
Feasts of dogs and birds,
And the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and a brilliant Achilles. (1-8)
The rage of Achilles is important on so many levels. First and foremost it lets us in on the essential characteristic of the hero of the Iliad. It’s rage that defines Achilles, not cunning, like Odysseus. Achilles is motivated by an inner rage that, in the end, not only consumes him, but consumes most of those around him.
All my adult life I have tried to be like Odysseus, cunning, reasonable, and with the talent to tell a great story. Yet, try as I might to emulate those characteristics, I always come back to what is essential in me: rage. As much as I hate to admit it, I am much more like Achilles than Odysseus. I give into rage, sometimes when it is necessary, but more often when it is not. Whenever that does happen, I find it becomes easier and easier to give into a rage, whether it is an outrage at the state of the world, or something more personal. Rage sometimes feels good, and the more one gives into it, the easier it gets to allow oneself the luxury of feeling rage.
On a less personal level, the concept of “rage,” as the first word of The Iliad, also opens western consciousness. It can be argued that the West is informed, therefore, by rage. Rage is a concept that has defined us through the centuries and continues to do so even today. For proof of this one need only look at the news of the world. The world is full of rage, and the more we give into that rage, the more it continues to define us and the less able we are to break free from it. I will go even further and state that the most dominant value in the western world is rage. The West thinks itself entitled to be enraged, especially after 9/11. If rage defines us, it is also essentially what we are.
The ghost of Achilles haunts the 21st century. The implications of the first word of The Iliad take us all the way through time to the recent reaction of the burning of the Koran by the publicity seeking Rev. Terry Jones. Rage is sparked in men by the smallest events and the flames quickly grow to become an inferno. Even more interesting is the reason for Agamemnon and Achilles’ clash, a woman.
At the center of nearly all western rage stands the figure of the woman. In the Old Testament it’s Eve, seductress extraordinaire. The Trojan War is fought over a woman, Helen, who did not exactly go unwilling with Paris to Troy. Then, we have Chryses who begs King Agamemnon for the return of his daughter. Throughout the entire first book of The Iliad, some 735 lines, Agamemnon and Achilles refer to the woman as a “prize,” as if she were some heifer won at a country fair. The figure of the woman is not just one woman, not a woman, but the woman, all of them wrapped up into one.
Our rage in the contemporary world is not all that different from that of the classical age. As long as we are human we will be prone to rage—especially men. History and literature are full of women prone to rage, but the scales still tilt on the side of men. Our masculinity is in large part determined by our capacity for rage, and not, sadly, for our capacity to rein that rage in. We stereotypically think of women as emotionally less stable than men, but I think nothing could be further from the truth. Male emotional instability is on display at every bar, every sporting event, even among world leaders.
It’s time to allow more women to run the world.