Professor K. Martin
6 February 2005
Nice Guys Finish Last
In western culture a viewer can usually predict the outcome of a film: the good guy always wins. In the Iliad, however, it is not so clear-cut. The enraged Achilles slays the great prince of Troy, Hector, and, as known from other myths, the invading Greeks destroy the magnificent city of Troy. Perhaps, this difference lies in the nature of the cultures themselves; the Greeks being of a shame-culture and the western world being of a guilt culture.
In the Iliad, the palace of Priam, King of Troy, is described as a ”magnificent structure built wide with porches and colonnades of polished stone” (6.155ff). Homer refers to the king as “…the old and noble Priam” and the “majestic Priam” (24.258, 24.355). This was a glorious city with a good king. Troy also had a great future with the heir Hector, who was a brave and dignified warrior. He loved his wife, his son, and his countrymen. He fought with duty and courage for the defense of this splendid city. Lines like, “Hector stroked her gently, trying to reassure her, repeating her name,” make the reader want to empathize with him and identify with him (6.444ff).
Homer paints a very different picture when he is referring to the Greeks and Achilles. The Greeks seem to be in a constant battle within themselves, with Achilles at the center. King Agamemnon is not portrayed as the righteous King Priam. Agamemnon is a power hungry ruler, who takes for himself after conquering lands with the blood of the common soldiers; “…my arms bear the brunt of the raw, savage fighting, true, but when it comes to dividing up the plunder the lion’s share is yours” (1.194ff). Achilles seems no better. He abandons the Greeks because of his anger toward Agamemnon. The Greeks will die brutal deaths at the hands of the Trojans, only he can save them, and yet he remains prideful in his reluctance to fight. To the reader, Achilles is arrogant, stubborn; he fights for no man and no country.
If this tale has be woven by a modern day American writer, hoping to publish the next best seller, perhaps the ending would have been very different. Hector would have killed Achilles and lived out the rest of his life with the woman he loves and raised his son. Agamemnon would have been humiliated in defeat, leaving the beaches of Troy with the grand city still standing in all its majesty.
Though it is difficult for the west to understand, the shame-culture of the Greeks has the answer to why in this epic the good guys do not win. It was not about who was right and who was wrong, who was righteous and who was wicked; it was about defeating your enemy and gaining public honor at any cost, and what greater honor than capturing the rich city of Troy. It is almost as if to understand the minds of the Greeks, the reader must first forget all moral conventions and all inclinations to believe that the author could never let dear Hector and the good king of Troy be defeated by the rapacious invaders.
Perhaps, Homer is merely playing to the theme of man’s mortality. Eventually even the powerful Achilles must fall. Hector says himself, “For in my heart and soul I also know this well: the day will come when sacred Troy must die, Praim must die and all his people with him” (6.396ff). Even if Hector did succeed he will always be mortal; even if the Greeks had left Troy, it would have been destroyed with time. All mortals come and go; it is how history remembers you: as too afraid to fight or brave enough to face your destiny.