“Then, in response to these words, Achilles said,
‘Phoenix, old friend, dear father, whom I respect
with all my heart, I have no need of this honor.
I already possess the greatest honor, I think,
by the will of Zeus. That honor will always be with me,
As long as the breath of life remains in my chest
and the strength in my legs.’”
–The Iliad, Book IX, lines 606-612
In one of the most famous scenes of The Iliad, Odysseus, Phoenix, and Ajax come to beg Achilles, the king of the Myrmidons and greatest warrior sworn to defend Helen of Argos, to help them fight the Trojans, to whom they are now losing. They bring lavish gifts from Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks, gifts that Achilles refuses.
Achilles and Agamemnon have been at odds since the beginning of this poem, whose opening scene explains how Agamemnon has taken Achilles’ female war prize Briseis simply because he can. In resentment at this humiliation, Achilles has been sitting this battle out, his absence leading to great loss for the Greeks.
When I re-read The Iliad this summer, I found myself in a position of resistance to Achilles and his story. He’s violent and bitter, perhaps even whiny and vain-glorious. But really, if I’m honest with myself, I can understand where he’s coming from.
I have worked under my share of Agamemnons. I’m not talking about particular people here; in my line of work (perhaps also in yours), the real thief of honor is usually systemic. Teachers (and administrators) are held to ever higher standards of education and certification and ongoing professional development. As a society, we attempt to recruit talented people to the profession, but once a talented educator is actually in the profession, all of his hard work and accomplishment can be undermined quickly by new mandates.
I don’t really want to dwell on all that too much. To do so would offer little new to the conversation about how to educate our children and make me seem as resentful (and sometimes annoying) as Achilles is in the first half of The Iliad. And quite frankly, I don’t want to give the system any more power over me by worrying about it.
During my first several years of teaching, the systemic problems of education weighed heavily on me. I found myself feeling increasingly helpless at the injustice of the many problems. I’m fairly sure I walked around in constant agitation and tension. I still see these problems, and I still believe in working to change them, but now I have very different ideas about how that change might be possible. As Achilles comes to realize, I can only change enact true change by first changing myself and my own perspective.
Achilles’ initial anger has grown into something different. Although he is still resentful, he has also now come to a greater, higher awareness, and his character takes on a newfound depth. He understands that Agamemnon will always stay safely by the ships and expect the rest of the Greeks to do his fighting for him. He now, however, has a different reason for not accepting Agamemnon’s gifts than simply a personal grudge.
Achilles declares to the embassy that he knows that he is chosen by Zeus. For perhaps the first time, he fully embraces this chosen status and his own destiny. He informs his friends that he will no longer seek honor from men.
For the past few years I have felt this same perspective shift in myself and in other teachers whom I admire. We have had time to reflect, to first nurse our anger and then move beyond it. Great teachers believe in their profession as a vocation, as a calling. We know that we serve a higher purpose, and we seek honor outside of our individual contexts. Our obligation is not to our jobs or to the particular institutions where we work. Our obligation is to this calling and consequently to each other and to our students.
This is where we part ways with Achilles. For as the embassy leaves, Achilles still refuses to join his comrades and friends. He still withholds his talents and holds on to his wrath. There are great consequences for this particular choice, as he will now only be able to achieve his honor after the death of his closest friend.
My dearest friends and colleagues, let us believe, as Achilles does, that our calling comes from a higher place than a school, a district, a state, or a nation. In this way, our honor will always be with us. But let us not, as Achilles does, wait too late to join together in this calling.
Homer, and Stephen Mitchell. The Iliad. New York: Free, 2011. Print.