When we talk about prospects of life for a student who has chosen the humanities as a course of study, we always fight the headwind of pragmatism that pushes toward the question “but what will they do?” Most young people are concerned with joining the adult world, whatever that may be, and they covet the signs of belonging and success that they see. How do we answer the student that says “I’m learning nothing useful” ? What arguments for the course of liberal arts do we have within the corpus of literature itself? What are the choices? Shifting the balance in the favor of the study of man himself by way of literature, we may start at the font of western self consciousness; the Iliad.
Within the Iliad we encounter the central figure of Achilles, the harborer of deep rage against Agamemnon. Agamemnon the situationally expedient war chief who sacrifices his own daughter to the gods for a favorable wind that would blow him to plunder, incidentally promising her a marriage to Achilles as a ruse to bring her to the sacrificial altar, spends his family for his career. This daughter-murder is the first of many ploys pushed by the hated Agamemnon. Agamemnon compares Achilles, the Swift Runner, to the most hated of gods. That hated god is death itself. It is the finality of Achilles, his personal immovability that causes this breach between what must be a somewhat congenial king – after all he is commanding the army of ‘a thousand ships’ – and the genius of battle, the killer and godlike Achilles. Agamemnon in pursuing his instinct toward power and aggrandizement is absorbed in in the piling up of signs. Achilles, by contrast, will not be moved by the promise of gain, only embittered by loss. He is a man who has everything and cannot be enriched, only impoverished. There is an end to this, however, which is death, and Achilles is a reminder of death, the most relentless of gods.
Those enmeshed in the pursuits of living are not patient with reminders of mortality. Engaging in absorbing activity postpones the question of purpose by pursposefulness. I have heard some people talk of intentionality, others talk of ‘concern’ as a valid form of anxiety. Perhaps the question of life is instead one of liveliness, the busy ones would say. Liveliness can be translated into things like productivity and output. All of life, like the endless feasts of the chieftains in the Iliad can be expressed by measurements of economy. It should be possible to live, fascinated with the activity pursued, resting to recreate between frenetic bouts of liveliness to ultimately pass away exhausted not from life, but from the avoidance of death. The world of Achilles has no such distraction, and distraction is the modus operandi of Agamemnon, the deceiver of men and plunderer of cities. What profits a man?
The peculiar situation that arises on the beach at Troy, when the great Agamemnon repeatedly advises retreat, once to check the morale and willingness of his fighters (deception), another time to flee in despair (rootlessness), these instances divided by a curious ambiguity over the actual recovery of Helen of Troy, gives us the impression that Agamemnon is an opportunist. Agamemnon though labels Achilles as some sort of dilettante. Achilles may be the supreme soldier, his reasoning goes, but that is just a god given talent, unlike Agamemnon’s own carefully compiled and curated greatness. It is this contradiction of the life of Agamemnon in Achilles, the ability of Achilles to kill certainly, and will uncertainly, that drives Agamemnon to his own rage. Agamemnon has goals. His goals however are secret, and he manipulates other men to help him achieve them. We might think into the play of Aeschylus written three hundred years later here for a moment to observe the actual movement of life in the background, the waiting Clytemnestra in Mycenae for the returning conquerer, plotting Agamemnon’s death in recompense for their murdered daughter Iphigenia. Unhappy wife, unhappy life. Meanwhile, Agamemnon waits for the windows of fate to open in order to dart in and take what he certainly wills, while Achilles wills fate itself and distractedly tears curtain after curtain away in order to perceive it. This seems rude to the son of Atrides. Why won’t Achilles feast under the Warlord’s great provision, enthusing at the side of his compatriots toward the hoped for ruin of the rich city of Troy? Agamemnon eventually sheds ‘black tears’ as he is stymied by the resolute warrior Achilles, sending an embassy of soldiers to convince Achilles to ‘join the team’. Achilles will not relent in his rage toward the adventuring king, refusing to fight for one so deceptive, and perhaps deceived.
But what is this deception by Agamemnon regarding Achilles? It is an attempted one that Achilles sees through, one that aims to attach Achilles to the will of Agamemnon, making Achilles a means to an end, an instrument of work. Apparently common knowledge, a curse hangs over Achilles in the form of an enigmatic dilemma. According to his mother Thetis, he will either fight and die after a short life of legendary glory, or he will live a long, prosperous and forgotten life. Achilles is fully aware of his disjunctive doom. He is a living either or. This clear cut choice causes Achilles to constantly weigh the meaning of his life not in acquisition, but in a quality of focus. Agamemnon’s mistake, or his own maladroit attempt to use Achilles as an instrument of his activity, is to think that Achilles can be distracted, like most men, by an intermediate third way. This way is in the distracted piling up of loot, of alternately feasting and sweating on the battlefield in a diurnal semblance of infinite days and nights, to either die in the pursuit and pass away unconscious of loss, or sail home enriched by plunder and comfortably aging like the venerable Nestor, a harmless dotard. Isn’t this civilization itself? The bond of Camaraderie sacred to Agamemnon means not breaking the common delusion by giving obeisance to the most hated of all gods. Agamemnon is doing what is sensible, and Achilles, the hated one will not be reasonable.
The modern era, with its focus on progressive accomplishment as a reasonable expectation, has erected a ladder of history that sensible people climb. Semper Empor. Progress. Thinking now of Patroclus, the companion of Achilles, I think of the student. The impressionable and younger version of Achilles, a shared soul, is propelled by the suffering of his fellow warriors, and pulled toward the antagonistic walls of Troy. Unable to understand his mentor’s stillness, he moves. Against the warning and restraint of his tutor he snatches at the weapons and takes his place in the rough commerce of the war. The fact that he does it for pity and shame indicate that he at once identifies with the pointlessness of the warriors death and the solitary isolation of his mentor Achilles. Patroclus sees his benefactor’s contemplation as ultimately destructive, and so chooses action. Achilles on seeing him away, wishes that all of the Trojans and Achaeans would mutually perish, and that only he and Patroclus would persist. It may be that Achilles is haunted by the absolute. Nevertheless, the game is on, Patroclus is away, the world is turning, and Patroclus must spin with it. Our final understanding of Patroclus is of the meaningless life. He is pulled down from the climb of Troy’s walls, never knowing what lay over the top, and dying by trickery and backstabbing. For this absolute severance by death of friendship Achilles will bitterly fight as a personal objection, not for gain, but hatefully as against an enemy. Of course. This is the motive force of literary exceptionalism.
Max Weber in his essay Science as a Calling* remarks on dedication to the collective task of assailing the secrets of nature. Committing to a career. The dedication to science, naturische wissenschaft in his case, or what we might conceive of as the materialist proposition, can never be poetic. The poetic life considers things intact and in their place, while the career of science is an ever finer removal of things from themselves. He writes of the difference between the modern man of deeds and the contemplative soul of the past in their summation.
“And no person who comes to die stands upon the peak which lies in infinity. Abraham, or some peasant of the past, died ‘old and satiated with life’ because he stood in the organic cycle of life; because his life, in terms of its meaning and on the eve of his days, had given to him what life had to offer; because for him there remained no puzzles he might wish to solve; and therefore he could have had ‘enough’ of life. Whereas civilized man, placed in the midst of the continuous enrichment of culture by ideas, knowledge, and problems, may become ‘tired of life’ but not satiated with life’. He catches only the most minute part of what the life of the spirit brings forth ever anew, and what he seizes is always something provisional and not definitive, and therefore death for him is a meaningless occurrence. And because death is meaningless, civilized life as such is meaningless; by its very ‘progressiveness’ it gives death the imprint of meaninglessness.”
Weber’s use of ‘civilized man’ points to the civilization arising in his time, one that educates men with skills suited to the pursuits of specialized society and not concerned with an illusory ‘whole man’. His contrast with the peasant, a companion of Abraham (noted nomadic herdsman), highlights his non-coopted existence as he works outside the borders of human business. That Abrahamic peasant lives on the border, like the beach of Achilles.
The modern Achilles is the one that is not swept into the fascination with particulars that marks this progressive science of Weber, or other collaborative and open ended pursuits that occupy without edifying. He desires life, and life abundant, singing of heroes. This can only be encountered in the regions of struggle, and not the struggle for ease that formulates work as the means to pay for the escape from work. Like Jacob we struggle with angels. Sometimes we admonish students that ‘the task is its own reward’. We do not mean this monetarily, or even in some abstract way that contributes to the progress of mankind. We mean it in a way that brings the life of the student himself into sharper focus, and in this encounter also reveals the secret of history, which is the sum of human choices given natural constraints and the will of God. What we read in the character of Achilles, what we study in the pursuit called the humanities, is the granularity and novelty of history, or the soul of man itself.
*Modified from: H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (Translated and edited), From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, pp. 129-156, New York:Oxford University Press, 1946.
Original: Wissenschaft als Beruf, in: Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftslehre (Tübingen, 1922), pp. 524-55. Originally a speech at Munich University, 1918, published in 1919 by Duncker & Humboldt, Munich.