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18. Answering a Fool, First Essay, I. 121-129
Then swift-footed Lord Achilles spoke in answer:
‘Great son of Atreus, covetous as ever,
how can the brave Achaeans grant a prize?
What wealth is there in common,
now we have shared our plunder from the
cities which cannot be reclaimed?
Give up the girl, as the god demands, and we Achaeans
will compensate you, three or four times over, if Zeus
ever lets us sack high-walled Troy.’
One of the wonderful, and little explored, themes of the biblical Book of Proverbs is the way that paradox functions to deepen our exploration of some of life’s knottiest practical problems. So I argue in Wisdom Seeking: 30 Days with the Book of Proverbs (2009). Proverbs, for example, gives apparently contradictory advice on how to deal with fools. It says (26:4-5)
“Do not answer fools according to their folly,
or you will be a fool yourself.
Answer fools according to their folly,
or they will be wise in their own eyes"
How, then, do you deal with a fool? Well, it depends. By giving the answer it does, Proverbs recognizes the difficulty of dealing with the question in the abstract. There are dangers in both ways of dealing with fools--answering them and ignoring them.
This passage from Proverbs provides a helpful backdrop for understanding both the difficulties of engaging in fast- moving, potentially foolish encounters as well as the nature of Achilles’ response to Agamemnon in lines 121-29. The fundamental question here is whether Achilles, in responding to Agamemnon, berates him, which might be the equivalent of answering a fool according to his folly, or is giving a non-provocative response. Kirk suggests the latter, but I see Achilles answering Agamemnon in kind. Let’s look at the growing complexity of their encounter.
The Beginning of Achilles’ Response (121-26)
True to form, Homer introduces yet another word for saying or responding in line 121: ameibo. We have already seen a similar verb, apameibo, in 84. Both words come from the world of commerce
and literally mean “to exchange.” Thus, swiftfooted Achilles “continues the exchange” with his words. The word for “swift-footed” is very similar to the words so translated also in line 84. Slight variations make the world revolve. But what is his tone in response? That is the question. I
think we have it already captured in the first line (122):
“Son of Atreus, most glorious, most greedy for gain”
“Most glorious” translates kudiste. We might paraphrase, “Oh you to whom most kudos have come.” The long word rendered “most greedy for gain” is philokteanotate. We see “lover” or “love” in this, and the cluster of words surrounding the ktea/ktao root have to do with economic matters--buying and acquiring. What is Achilles doing in these two words, kudiste and philokteanotate? I think he is both observing heroic custom, of greeting even your foe with the veneer of courtesy, and then letting his true feelings out. He truly believes, as do we, that Agamemnon has had a terrible performance to date in Book I. Under the guise of wanting to do what is best for the people, the lord of men just wants to make sure that his bed is warm at night. He wants his prize. He wants
this even at the expense of the safety of the troops. Achilles sees this. Thus the king is “greediest of all” or “most avaricious.” It is not a flattering word.
Sarcasm and contrasts follow. The first contrast is between the leader of the Achaians and the Achaians themselves. Line 123 calls the latter “great-souled” or great-hearted" (megathumoi). Agamemnon, we have seen, is driven by material desires; the rank and file of the warriors are stout of heart. But then the sarcasm hits. Paraphrasing Achilles' words yields (123-124):
‘How will our stout-hearted companions give you a prize? We don't see many of them
lying around in the common possessions anyplace.'
Just as I imagined Agamemnon, in his previous speech, giving a broad sweeping gesture when
pointing out how his prize was going to another, so I see Achilles responding in kind, with his own mimicked gesture, parodying the lord of men even as he makes his point. Achilles moves his eyes to the vast expanse of the Achaian troops and ships. With a grand, majestic gesture, he says, ‘I don’t see anything lying around here. . .’ The word “lying around” is the typical Greek word
for something prone; it is used often as the passive of tithemi, the simple word for putting or placing. That which is “put” is now “placed” or “lying” someplace.
The picture is comical but deadly serious. The kind of prize of war that Agamemnon really wants wouldn’t be lying around anyway; she would be up and around. And, to imagine that such extra ‘prizes’ would be kept among the baggage or food supplies, well, we can hardly suppress a smile. The little word polla (“many”) is placed at the end of line 124, as if to say that there aren’t “many” of these extra prizes lying around, as if there was even one! For, just think, in Greek warfare it was customary for only the leaders to get their female “prizes.” The vast rank and file of the men might have to be satisfied with lesser possessions. To imagine that there is a bevy of women just sitting in the common stores waiting to be claimed, when there are potentially thousands of men without women, adds to the comic nature of Achilles’ words.
But, of course, his words are also deadly serious. “What we plunder from cities, these things are distributed,” line 125. The tense of the verb translated “distributed” ought to be noted--it is
the perfect passive. The perfect tense, as Pfarr indicates, “would indicate that the matter is settled, and not to be reconsidered,” Homeric Greek, p. 84. The line also shows that the Greeks had
already successfully taken several neighboring towns but had not as yet been able to make it into Troy. His thought continues in line 126:
“for it isn’t seemly to gather these things all together again from the people.”
The translation is difficult, because it can also be rendered, “it isn’t seemly for the people once again to gather things up.” I suppose the two translations say about the same thing--we cannot
reverse the distribution process. Agamemnon’s desire to have a replacement prize will affect distribution channels all the way down the line. It is like one airplane having to make an emergency
landing at a busy airport. It throws every plane off one position. It is like adding a special, unexpected, guest to the head table. Each successive guest is bumped down one place, until the last one has to eat in the kitchen.
But in this observation is another contrast or even an example of sarcasm. Achilles uses the verb epeiko, which means “to be seemly” or “be fitting,” to describe how difficult it would be to honor Agamemnon’s demand. It just isn’t right or fitting to recall all the distributed prizes. But hadn’t Agamemnon used the same word (without the prefix) in line 119 in his sniffling, whiny demand to have another prize? There he said that it just wasn’t fitting for him, the big guy, to go prizeless, alone. Achilles now responds, ‘Well, Bozo (implied!), it isn’t fitting to make a redistribution, either.’ Everyone is talking about things that are fitting, about proprieties that should be observed, and while this is happening their communication absolutely falls apart. Humor and irony abound.
Achilles’ Assurance (127-29)
Deciding on the “tone” of this passage is also crucial if we are to understand these lines aright. If sarcasm and bitter criticism is the tone, then these lines are an example of insulting comeuppance of the ruler by a subordinate. If the lines are “not overtly provocative,” as Kirk argues, then they just lay out an option for the future. I think Kirk is in outer space with his namesake on this one.
Achilles plunges ahead and tells the king to give up his prize and that, as a result, he will be richly rewarded in the future. Note the destination of the prize. Whereas Agamemnon was most concerned that his prize would be taken away and given to “another” (120), Achilles reframes this by urging him to give it up “to the god,” line 127. Thus we see an unctuous dimension to
Achilles. ‘We are only trying to do the proper religious thing,’ he says. Achilles and the Moral Majority--perhaps a topic for an aspiring classicist. And, to rub it in still more, Achilles puts
the emphatic su or “you” before his demand (the verb is in the imperative) that Agamemnon hand over his prize. ‘You, man, have to do it!” ‘I’m lookin’ at You, man.’
All of this is, no doubt, jarring and insulting to Agamemnon. The effrontery and gall of a subordinate to “re-interpret” the words of the disagreeable seer Calchas! Then, to add to the sarcasm, growing hypocrisy and contrast, Achilles picks up on a device used by Agamemnon in his previous speech to change the subject. Recall that after Agamemnon favorably compared Chryseis to Clytemnestra, he quickly changed the subject with the falsely magnanimous offer to give Chryseis back [an offer which Achilles now accepts!]. Now Achilles will change the subject by looking to the future and offering an “upbeat” conclusion. He says (128-129):
"We Achaians will repay you three or four-fold, if and
when Zeus lets us utterly destroy the well-walled Troy.”
Delayed gratification. Isn’t that what life is all about? Achilles is going to place that test on Agamemnon. Of course, who is he to do this? And, the way he frames the possibility of taking Troy makes it sound like it remains a very chancy undertaking. We ought not to forget, also, that these words are said by the one who just advised everyone to go home! Thus, Achilles’ words can be taken as nothing other than gratuitous or throw-away words, worth as much as is his heart for fighting this war.
The final words of line 129 have a slightly ominous ring. The lord of men will receive his prize when the Achaians “utterly destroy” the “well-walled” Troy. How is that going to happen? It hasn’t happened in nine years. A plague has just been ripping through the Achaian camp. Achilles wants to mutiny. And now he has the chutzpah to say that Agamemnon will receive a prize
when victory is theirs? Isn’t that sort of like saying to someone in November 1929 that you are looking forward to a quick recovery of the equity markets? Well, Agamemnon certainly doesn’t take Achilles’ statement in the way that Kirk understands it, as the next section shows.