Magnanimity in the Iliad

Strength, honor, and unconditional bravery are held dear to the Achaians and Trojans alike. Among those people, qualities that reveal leadership and might are highly regarded as indicative of a magnanimous human being. Yet, Agamemnon, Achilleus, and Hektor all perceive magnanimity in different ways, and each attempts to exude it as he understands it. Public recognition is a key element for one to be honored in Greek and Trojan societies, however, the three men differ in how dependent they are upon that recognition for complete satisfaction or happiness.

Agamemnon is the definitive king who all too readily reminds his subalterns of their status. For Agamemnon, to be great-souled is to have utter control and command. His need for recognition from, and the fear of, other men is blatantly evident when he attempts to humble Achilleus, saying,
I shall take the fair-cheeked Briseis,
your prize, I myself going to your shelter, that you may learn well
how much greater I am than you, and another man may shrink back
from likening himself to me and contending against me. (64)
For him nobility and worthiness can be measured materially. To be a prodigious leader in the eyes of his people, the Achaians, Agamemnon must attain material affluence that includes women as war prizes. Material want that develops into material greed springs from dissatisfaction with what one already possesses. Agamemnon simply desires more so that he may be seen as more powerful. It is in human nature to want to succeed or to feel accomplished. However, for Agamemnon that wish is granted only when he is publicly recognized and rewarded. He feels his place in the world is that of a plenipotentiary king, simply overseeing only the execution of his orders. In that sense, Agamemnons perception of magnanimity is distinctive because he feels he is owed respect simply by his being in the position of power. For instance, when speaking to his army, he says,
There will be a mans sweat on the shield strap binding the breast to
the shield hiding the mans shape, and the hand on the spear grow weary.

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There will be sweat on a mans horse straining at the smoothed chariot.

But any man whom I find trying, apart from the battle,
to hang back by the cured ships, for him no longer
will there be any means to escape the dogs and the vultures. (86)
However, as Achilleus argues frequently, Agamemnon himself never joins in the actual battle, yet claims the rewards of victory for himself. In that way, the Achaian king seems almost a demagogue in choosing the extent of his responsibility to his people, instead of accepting all that being a leader encompasses. He will order the men into battle, yet will not lead them towards the enemy lest death await him on the battlefield.

Achilleus of the swift feet, the doughty warrior of the Achaian army, has views of magnanimity conflicting with those of Agamemnon. Achilleus strives for honor based on personal satisfaction as the dominant factor in the degree of recognition or respect he is given. Self-respect permits one to be content on a deeper level than does the lack of self-respect allow for contentment on the part of those men who are merely adulated by others. He sees Agamemnon as a poltroon for lacking the passion to earn, at it were, the wealth he receives through the blood and sweat of his men. In fact, Achilleus goes so far as to call Agamemnon a king who feeds on his people. Criticizing his leader for his lacking presence on the battlefield, Achilleus exclaims,
Never once have you taken courage in your heart to arm with your people for battle, or go into ambuscade with the best of the Achaians. No, for in
such things you see death. Far better to your mind is it, all along the
widespread host of the Achaians to take away the gift of any man who
For Achilleus, lifes apogee will be his aristeia, or definitive moment in which all that is good and honorable in him will be utilized and then recognized. Only by enduring the trials and tribulations of a valiant warrior does Achilleus believe one can truly be magnanimous. Human will must be tested and given the opportunity to try an individuals virtues. Then, mediocrity can be overcome.

Then on the Trojan side, Hektor, scolding Paris for his cowardice in refusing to fight Menelaos, Hektor gives insight into his own idea of magnanimity. The greatness of his soul is in no way tertiary to that of Agamemnon and Achilleus. Hektor is most probably the most selfless character of the trio. He tells Paris that though he is handsome, Paris has no strength or courage in his heart. Hektor values recognition for his deeds; however, unlike Agamemnon and Achilleus, his magnanimity encompasses the love of his family as well as the love for his country. He attempts to explain to his wife his responsibility to fight in the war, saying,
before the Trojans, and the Trojan women with trailing garments,
if like a coward I were to shrink aside from the fighting;
and the spirit will not let me, since I have learned to be valiant
and to fight always among the foremost ranks of the Trojans,
winning for own self great glory, and for my father. (165)
Hektor seems more deferential to the entire notion of magnanimity in that he is careful of excessive desire for it. Selfishness or greed never play a part in Hektors character. Unlike Agamemnon and Achilleus, who both ruminate about the various ways in which to acquire power or revenge, Hektor is content with executing his duty as a Trojan warrior and prince in the hope that he will remain always as a father to his children and a husband to his wife.

All three men are magnanimous. All exude power, respect, and honor. However, the degree of their honor measured either by public recognition, or by love of self, of by love of family differentiates each of the men from one another.


Bibliography:
The Iliad of Homer as translated by Richmond Lattimore

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