Wisdom in the Face of Authority in the Iliad

Wisdom in the Face of Authority in the Iliad

Among those who begin to read the Iliad thinking that they already have the gist of the plot, many are surprised to discover that the foremost warrior in the epic doesn’t seem to be Achilles, nor Hector, Patrocles, Agamemnon, Menelaus, nor even Paris. Instead, it is a character not even mentioned or depicted in the 2004 film rendition Troy — Diomedes, son of Tydeus.

The entirety of Book 5 of the Iliad is dedicated to Diomedes’ martial prowess, in which he not only butchers countless men in his aristeia (glorious moment), but seriously injures not one but two gods: Ares and Aphrodite. And Book 6 further conveys his nobility of character and fearsomeness, even comparing him favorably to Achilles:

So may she [Athena] perchance hold back Tydeus’ son from holy Ilios, the furious spearman, the mighty deviser of rout, whom in good sooth I deem to have proved himself mightiest of the Achaians. Never in this wise feared we Achilles, prince of men, who they say is born of a goddess; nay, but he that we see is beyond measure furious; none can match him for might.

Iliad, Book VI

Readers who were not familiar with the greater context of the Trojan epic might be forgiven for thinking that Diomedes might actually be the primary hero of the Achaeans, and not Achilles.

But one of the more interesting passages related to Diomedes — and contrasting him with the likes of Achilles — is a moment in Book 4 in which Agamemnon, Lord of the entire Achaean host, is urging on his soldiers, sometimes even insulting them to try to fire them up for battle. One of the soldiers whom he insults is none other than Diomedes:

So saying he left them there and went on to others. The son of Tydeus found he, high-hearted Diomedes, standing still with horses and chariot well compact; and by him stood Sthenelos son of Kapaneus. Him lord Agamemnon saw and upbraided, and spake to him winged words, and said: “Ah me, thou son of wise Tydeus tamer of horses, why shrinkest thou, why gazest thou at the highways of the battle? Not thus was Tydeus wont to shrink, but rather to fight his enemies far in front of his dear comrades, as they say that beheld him at the task; for never did I meet him nor behold him, but men say that he was preeminent amid all. Of a truth he came to Mykene, not in enmity, but as a guest with godlike Polyneikes, to raise him an army for the war that they were levying against the holy walls of Thebes; and they besought earnestly that valiant allies might be given them, and our folk were fain to grant them and made assent to their entreaty, only Zeus showed omens of ill and turned their minds. So when these were departed and were come on their way, and had attained to Asopos deep in rushes, that maketh his bed in grass, there did the Achaians appoint Tydeus to be their ambassador. So he went and found the multitude of the sons of Kadmos feasting in the palace of mighty Eteokles. Yet was knightly Tydeus, even though a stranger, not afraid, being alone amid the multitude of the Kadmeians, but challenged them all to feats of strength, and in every one vanquished he them easily; so present a helper was Athene unto him. But the Kadmeians, the urgers of horses, were wroth, and as he fared back again they brought and set a strong ambush, even fifty young men, whose leaders were twain, Maion son of Haimon, like to the immortals, and Autophonos’ son Polyphontes staunch in battle. Still even on them Tydeus brought shameful death; he slew them all, save one that he sent home alone; Maion to wit he sent away in obedience to the omens of heaven. Such was Tydeus of Aitolia; but he begat a son that in battle is worse than he; only in harangue is he the better.”

So said he, and stalwart Diomedes made no answer, but had respect to the chiding of the king revered. But the son of glorious Kapaneus answered him: “Atreides, utter not falsehood, seeing thou knowest how to speak truly. We avow ourselves to be better men by far than our fathers were: we did take the seat of Thebes the seven gated, though we led a scantier host against a stronger wall, because we followed the omens of the gods and the salvation of Zeus; but they perished by their own iniquities. Do not thou therefore in any wise have our fathers in like honour with us.”

But stalwart Diomedes looked sternly at him, and said: “Brother, sit silent and obey my saying. I grudge not that Agamemnon shepherd of the host should urge on the well-greaved Achaians to fight; for him the glory will attend if the Achaians lay the Trojans low and take holy Ilios; and his will be the great sorrow if the Achaians be laid low. Go to now, let us too bethink us of impetuous valour.”

He spake and leapt in his armour from the chariot to earth, and terribly rang the bronze upon the chieftail’s breast as he moved; thereat might fear have come even upon one stout-hearted.

Iliad, Book IV

Knowing what is to come in the very next book, and understanding that Diomedes is perhaps the single best fighter in the entire Achaean force, it is hard not to feel more outraged at the insult, especially when Agamemnon ironically charges Diomedes in being a haranguer.

Yet unlike Achilles, who takes Agamemnon’s insult to his honor personally and escalates matters to the point of a divisive schism in the army, Diomedes is completely unphased by the insult, even checking his charioteer who tries to speak back to the King.

There is something closely related to excellence in this spirit, something that David Wong wrote about eight years ago when he emphasized the difference between how people might respond to Alec Baldwin’s character in Glengarry Glenn Ross. Baldwin’s character is approaching the peak of assholedom, railing against the losers of the real-estate office, and bragging about his own accomplishments:

“Nice guy? I don’t give a shit. Good father? Fuck you! Go home and play with your kids. If you want to work here, close.”

It’s brutal, rude, and borderline sociopathic, and also it is an honest and accurate expression of what the world is going to expect from you. The difference is that, in the real world, people consider it so wrong to talk to you that way that they’ve decided it’s better to simply let you keep failing.

That scene changed my life. I’d program my alarm clock to play it for me every morning if I knew how. Alec Baldwin was nominated for an Oscar for that movie and that’s the only scene he’s inAs smarter people have pointed out, the genius of that speech is that half of the people who watch it think that the point of the scene is “Wow, what must it be like to have such an asshole boss?” and the other half think, “Fuck yes, let’s go out and sell some goddamned real estate!”

Whereas Achilles punches back against the rudeness of Agamemnon, and suffers from his own Menis (“cosmic sanction/divine wrath”) as a result, Diomedes simply rides Agamemnon’s words — perhaps even channeling them — to greater success and glory than any of the other Achaeans.

This is, also, in line with the words and philosophy of David Goggins, Navy SEAL and arguably the world’s toughest motherfucker:

…when you’re driven, whatever is in front of you, whether it’s racism, sexism, injuries, divorce, depression, obesity, tragedy, or poverty, becomes fuel for your metamorphosis.

David Goggins, “Can’t Hurt Me”

So when faced with unfair criticism, Homer seems to suggest the following: don’t lash back in anger and escalate matters with a superior, with whom you will likely lose, and which may cause greater problems from powers above even your superior. Instead, ignore their words, and let their injustice be fuel to prove their judgment false, and in this way, gain glory in the eyes of everyone else, for whom the gap between empty words and manifest deeds is readily apparent.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Nice work😄
    If you have a chance to check out the short piece on Camus and happiness I wrote. I just started out. Thanks.

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