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29. Things Fall Apart, First Essay, I. 285-303
‘Old man, indeed you have spoken
wisely’, replied Agamemnon.
But this man wants to rule over others;
to lord it, be king of all, and issue orders,
though I know one who will flout him.
What though the immortal gods made him a spearman;
does that give him the right to utter such insults?’
Achilles then interrupted, saying:
‘A coward, and worthless, I’d be called,
if I gave way every time to you no matter what you say.
Command the rest if you wish, but give me no orders,
I’ll no longer obey.
And here’s another thing for you to think on:
I’ll not raise a hand to fight for the girl,
with you or any other, since you only take back what you gave.
But you’ll take nothing else of mine
by the swift black ships, against my will.
Come, try, and let these men be witness:
your blood will flow dark along my spear.’
Introduction to Lines 285-303
The gist of Nestor’s advice to both leaders was as follows: Agamemnon should honor the distribution of the Achaians and not take Briseis from Achilles (275-76); Agamemnon also should set aside his anger at Achilles (282-84). For his part, Achilles needs to recognize that Agamemnon really is king and therefore not stand in opposition to him (277-81). Each has his task to perform; if they do their tasks, peace will be restored to the Achaians.
Nestor gives clear, practical and wise advice to them. But one of the major things that mediation theorists teach us in 2020 is that mediation can only work if you have a prior desire of the two
parties to make it work. Mediation will fall apart if people aren’t ready to deal. People become ready to enter into mediation when they perceive that the cost of remaining uncompromising exceeds the cost of giving up their grudge. Thus, successful mediation is, in many ways, an economic transaction.
Or, to look at mediation theory from the perspective of psychology, people are ready to enter into mediation when they have become “talked out”; i.e., they have declared their case to their heart’s content and really have little more to say. The Book of Job, probably inadvertently, points to this when it only has Job’s breakthrough moment occurring after “the words of Job were ended,” 31:40. That breakthrough moment is d during his speech in Job 42:1-6.
Nestor’s big mistake is that he never really assessed whether the two opposing sides were “ready to deal.” As the verb in line 248 tells us (anorouo), Nestor literally jumped up in the middle of the quarrel to give his sage advice. Achilles and Agamemnon were still fuming at one another. They hadn’t assessed fully the “costs” of continuing in their disagreement. Because of these factors, it was likely even before Nestor began speaking that certain issues were still outstanding, still to be
resolved. The most sage advice of the most silver-tongued orator will not solve the simplest problem if people don’t yet perceive the disadvantages of remaining in their intransigence.
Each side will do something right away that shows he is disregarding the counsel of Nestor. As the last one addressed, Agamemnon speaks his words first.
Agamemnon Speaks First (285-91)
Agamemnon begins in an auspicious way by commending the sage words of Nestor (286):
“Indeed you speak all these things, old man, fittingly"
In other words, Nestor’s words were technically impeccable. But that doesn’t mean that Agamemnon will obey them. In reality, he has a problem with Achilles that he just has to mention (You see, he wasn’t quite “talked out”). Using four verbs of growing intensity, he almost bursts with rage at the aspirations of Achilles. Achilles, Agamemnon tells us (287-289):
"wants to be superior to all others; to have power over all, to rule over all, to give commands to all"
What could possibly be the purpose of a fourfold repetition of this idea? I think the repetition bespeaks Agamemnon’s own sense of powerlessness even though he is the lord of men. Troy
hasn’t been taken, his own prize has to be given back, he has been assailed by his greatest warrior, and the prophet seems to be in cahoots with Achilles. All of these things add up to a certain sense of impotence, even if he is “powerful,” line 285. You overcome feelings of impotence by doing something that gives you power or makes you feel powerful. In this case it means excoriating your opponent with words relating to ruling. But then he adds five final words to line 289 that function as a sort of cynically-said “I don’t think so..”
Literally he says (289),
“in which things (i.e., ruling) I do not suppose that a certain person will obey (him)"
There should be no mystery in identifying this “certain” person--it is Agamemnon himself. And, as if to dig in the knife yet deeper, Agamemnon uses a favorite word of Achilles (oio, I suppose, think, consider) as if to say, in an unctuously avuncular way, ‘Well, Achilles, I just don’t think it will happen that a certain person will obey you. Isn’t that just too bad?’
Obedience is now going to be the big issue between the two, as Achilles’ speech will presently show. But before we get there, Agamemnon has one other juicy thought, phrased as a question (290-291):
“If indeed the eternal Gods have given him a spear, on this account are they granting him in addition the privilege of uttering reproaches?”
Note the not-so-subtle denigration of Achilles. Nestor had just made a crucial distinction: Achilles was the stronger (karteros), while Agamemnon was the better or mightier (pherteros). Achilles owed his strength to his divine parentage. But see what Agamemnon does with this idea of Nestor. He
downgrades the power of Achilles to the fact that the gods had placed a spear in his hand, as if some divine being happened to be on the battlefield, found a spear and put it in the warrior’s
possession. When you despise another person you can even make his most special gifts sound as if they were commonplace accoutrements. ‘It is just a spear, folks. That’s all he has!’
So powerful was this kind of denigration that later rhetoricians invented the term tapeinosis, or “demeaning” to deal with it. Quintilian, that late first century CE teacher of rhetoric, defined tapeinosis as follows:
“when the grandeur or dignity of anything is diminished by the words used, as in the
line, ‘There a rocky wart upon the mountain’s brow,’” Institutio oratoria VIII.iii.48.
That is exactly what we have here. Quintilian could probably have given us a better illustration if he chose this passage from the Iliad rather than his, from an unknown (to us) tragedian.
Then, Achilles’ Turn (292-303)
So, Agamemnon decided to ignore Nestor’s advice to put an end to his anger (282). It still rages. Now it is Achilles’ turn to speak. Even before the first words come from his mouth we see that he also has ignored Nestor’s counsel. Nestor wanted him to recognize the majesty and authority of Agamemnon’s regal position. But look at what Homer does in his narrative in line 292. In a word only appearing here in more than 25,000 lines of his poetry, Homer uses upobleden, which means “interrupting.” Achilles cuts off the lord of men before he is finished speaking. It is rarely if ever permitted for a lawyer to cut off a judge or a soldier to break in on a commander-in-chief. It bespeaks lack of respect and a sense that the soldier’s or lawyer’s agenda is the most important thing. Already by interrupting Agamemnon we see that Achilles not only still rages but that he has lost respect for the lord of men. Achilles basically treats Agamemnon as an inferior.
Achilles first words confirm my approach--because they have to do with obedience (293-294):
“May I be called fearful and worthless if I obey you in everything that you say"
But just as Agamemnon ran to one extreme by downgrading Achilles’ gift from the gods, so Achilles now runs to the extremes. He isn’t being asked to obey Agamemnon in everything. Nestor is just suggesting to him that he recognize the one who really is in power--Agamemnon. The deeply pained person, however, can’t help but run to extremes. Why? Because he hears suggestions as
commands; he hears a suggestion to do one thing as a command to do everything.
Just as Agamemnon piled up four words to speak of Achilles’ power-grab, so Achilles now piles up thoughts about obedience (295-296):
“Why don’t you command these things to others and not try to give me orders? For I don’t suppose (oio again) that I will obey you any longer"
What Achilles does in the next seven lines, however, is nothing short of brilliant. He appears to acquiesce in his earlier words to give Briseis, his prize, up to Agamemnon if conditions are met (i.e., the Achaians themselves have to take her away), but he surrounds this apparent acquiescence with words of stern warning. He is speaking to Agamemnon as if he, Achilles, is really the lord of men. The harsh attention-getting words of line 297 (“But I say this to you; and cast it deep in your mind”),
followed by his apparent willingness to relinquish his prize are only preparation for the solemn blood oath he swears in 300-03. We can understand that oath better in paraphrase than literally.
‘If you have the gall to take anything beyond that which belongs to me, which I would give up unwillingly, if you have the guts to try it, know this. Immediately your black blood will be spurting around my sword.’
Sorry, Nestor, but your words were completely ineffective. We are back to threats and swords, to rage and hostility. Agamemnon can’t give up his anger; Achilles can’t learn to submit. The only thing left, if Nestor is to be ignored completely, is for Agamemnon to take away Achilles’ prize. Oh...that is in the next section!