I’ve always been a reader, but I’ve never read much fiction. I’m interested in ideas, so my preference has always been philosophy, theology, history, or personal development. Recently, however, I’ve had an itch to read more fiction, to delve into stories where the themes aren’t laid out quite so clearly, but are perhaps woven more deeply. To that end, I started my fiction reading with The Iliad. While the story itself is an enthralling one in which nearly one-third of the lines involve descriptions of battle, which are often overseen and impacted by the gods who have differing preferences on who wins the war, and in which around 300 heroes are killed, my focus today will be on what lessons we can learn from this story that’s nearly 3,000 years old. But first, here’s some background on the story.
I used Barry Powell’s 2014 translation, which reads pretty easily and contains plenty of notes that help you to understand the scenes. The Iliad is an epic poem thought to be initially created without writing around 800 BC. The story centers on an attempt by Greek armies to invade the famous walled city of Troy. An ancient name for Troy is Ilion or Ilium, from which the title of the poem is derived. Some have joked that The Iliad is most properly translated “Troy Story”.
The Greeks have sailed to invade Troy to salvage the honor of Menelaos, whose wife, the renowned Helen of Troy, considered the most beautiful woman in the world, has been taken by Paris, a son of Priam, the king of Troy. Menelaos’ brother is Agamemnon, the king of the Greeks, who uses the taking of Helen as an excuse to expand his realm and, thus, his legacy as king.
The siege of Troy lasted 10 years, but the time frame covered in The Iliad is less than 60 days. The overarching story in The Iliad is whether the Greek warrior Achilles will enter the battle, thus ensuring a Greek victory, or whether his feud with King Agamemnon will keep him on the sidelines, thus allowing the Trojans and their hero, Hector, to prevail. Achilles is renowned as the greatest warrior in the world, while Hector, the older brother of Paris, is known as the greatest warrior of Troy. The anticipation of their duel lingers over the entire story, but I won’t spoil the ending for you. With that as the backdrop, here’s the first lesson we can learn from The Iliad.
Lesson No. 1 – Men have always been esteemed for being strong and courageous, and shamed for being weak and cowardly. And every man will face times when his soft skills are of no value.
In Book Three, as the Greek and Trojan armies come face to face, Paris steps out from the crowd and challenges the Greek army to send their best warrior to fight him. Paris was, after all, the reason for the entire war because he stole the wife of Menelaos. Upon hearing Paris’ challenge, Menelaos, who was an excellent warrior and who was seeking vengeance, gladly stepped out to meet Paris on the field of battle. Upon seeing Menelaos emerge, Paris’ “heart collapsed” and he slipped cowardly back in among the crowd of the army to hide. This act did not escape the notice of his brother Hector, who went to Paris immediately to get in his face. His words:
“Little Paris, nice to look at, mad for women, seducer boy – I wish you had never been born. . . . That would be better than being an outrage, as you are, the object of everyone’s contempt. I think that the [Greeks] would laugh out loud thinking that we have chosen a champion just because he was good-looking, while in his heart there was no strength or power. . . . You don’t want to face off against Menelaos? You would soon see what sort of man is he whose ripe wife you possess! Your lyre will be worthless to you – your fancy hair and good looks when you are mixed with the dust!”
There’s a lot to unpack in Hector’s rebuke, but he’s primarily calling out Paris for being a pretty-boy who does not have the virtues a man should possess. Yeah, his good looks and musical skills might draw attention from the ladies, but he can’t protect himself or others. Not only can he not do it physically, he doesn’t have to the inner fortitude to try. Hector lets him know that, in Menelaos, Paris would have found out what a man with courage and strength can do. But, of course, Paris already knows this, as it’s exactly why his “heart collapsed” and he ran away from the fight.
How many of us are Paris? We spend our lives cultivating soft skills, things that will bring us greater social standing. We style our hair, buy trendy clothes, mind our social manners, and become technologically savvy. But, when it comes down to it, we are not very capable. We can push buttons and make things happen. But what happens when there are no buttons to push?
At that point, all that you’re left with is your own physical and mental abilities. That’s the predicament that Paris faced on that battlefield in front of Menelaos. He found himself in a situation where no one cared about his good looks and where no one was going to be charmed by his musical skills. He was going to live or die by his strength, courage, and physical skills. And in that moment, Paris knew he was going to die. He knew that, while he had been charming the ladies, Menelaos had been getting stronger and honing his fighting skills. He knew that he was up against a man who was far more capable than he. And when he realized that, his “heart collapsed”, because he knew his only choices were death or dishonor. And he chose dishonor, bringing shame upon him and his family.
There’s no question that strength, courage, and physical skills were more important in ancient times than now. Since there was no professional law enforcement, people had to be more capable of defending themselves and their property. Further, because there was less technology and less specialization of labor, more physical skill was required in order to have food, clothing, and shelter.
However, the manly virtues of strength, courage, and skillfulness remain important in our day, for two reasons. First, we need these virtues in order to carry out our role as protectors. One never knows when we will come face-to-face with our own Menelaos, someone who wants to harm us or our loved ones. When that happens, as I’ve noted repeatedly (see here), the police will not be able to protect us. We’ll either sink or swim, and perhaps live or die, based on our own ability.
But being faced with an attacker is hardly the only situation where we have to protect our families. Life throws all kinds of situations at us where we need to be strong, courageous, and skillful. I was at the beach this summer with my family. On our last day, we were all out playing in the ocean when we started to realize that we were being pulled out farther and farther, and we were not making much headway when trying to make it back to shore. Fatigue and a bit of panic began to set in pretty quickly. Ultimately, after some significant struggle, all six of us made it back in safely. Such situations cannot easily be predicted or managed, especially if you’re going to live a life of adventure. As a result, we need to be strong men with courage to face frightening situations and who have the skills to handle them. We will never be experts at handling every potential crisis situation, but strength, courage, and a high level of physical skill will never, ever be a disadvantage.
“A lion may be comfortable sitting in a cage everyday being fed meat, but he’ll only reach optimal contentment and satisfaction when he’s eating the zebra that he stalked and killed on the savannah.”
The second reason that we need these manly virtues is the one that I’ve written about extensively: because valuing these virtues is hard-wired into our brains and we’ll never be deeply content in life until we can master and express them. A lion may be comfortable sitting in a cage everyday being fed meat, but he’ll only reach optimal contentment and satisfaction when he’s eating the zebra that he stalked and killed on the savannah. Likewise, we may have a comfortable existence in our technologically advanced homes and offices and restaurants, but we’ll only reach optimal contentment when we know that we can get shit done on our own, no matter how rough the conditions. And we will only know that when we’ve done it. Repeatedly.
Society will try to make you like Paris, someone who looks good, but in whose heart there is no strength or power. But one day, sooner rather than later, you’ll find yourself in a spot where the things you’re good at are absolutely worthless, just like Paris did. Choose a different path. Choose a path that will render you both ready for the encounters that life presents and satisfied with who you are as a man. That path is the one of strength, courage, and ability. That is the man’s life.
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