Loneliness (Iliad Book IX)

I could have called this post “Democracy versus Autocracy.”

Four pigeons on a street face away from one another. The body of a cat on all fours is directed at them, but the cat’s head is turned away
Four pigeons and a cat
Tarabya Bayır Caddesi / Yücelevler Sokağı
(We live in the development behind the retaining wall)
Tarabya, Sarıyer, Istanbul
Wednesday morning, January 4, 2023

In Book I of the Iliad, Agamemnon was an autocrat in how he took Briseis:

  • not as his share of the common wealth, but
  • as a symbol of his dominance over even the greatest among his men.

In Book IX, Agamemnon is willing to submit to that man, but only so far. Achilles is offered wealth and power, but that power is contingent on a safe return to Argos. He would there be made son-in-law of Agamemnon, who meanwhile declares (lines 157–61),

All this I will bring to pass for him, if he changes from his anger (χόλος).
Let him give way. For Hades gives not way, and is pitiless,
and therefore he among all the gods is most hateful to mortals.
And let him yield place to me, inasmuch as I am the kinglier
and inasmuch as I can call myself born the elder.

Agamemnon has missed the point. It is his understanding of kingliness that is the problem. During a war to recover the wife of his brother, he has stolen from Achilles the woman who could have been his wife. Achilles sums up his refusal of Agamemnon’s offer (lines 646–8):

Yet still the heart (κραδίη) in me swells up in anger (χόλος), when I remember
the disgrace that he wrought upon me before the Argives,
the son of Atreus, as if I were some dishonored vagabond.

I am using Lattimore’s translation, because it is in verses corresponding to Homer’s; but as I observed in “The Asıl of the Iliad” and in additions to the original post “On Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad, Book IX,” Murray’s prose translation may be more accurate:

but my heart swelleth with wrath whenso I think of this, how the son of Atreus hath wrought indignity upon me amid the Argives, as though I were some alien that had no rights.

There may be a class system among the Argives, so that not everybody gets the same share of the common wealth; but everybody gets some share. At least that’s how it ought to be, according to Achilles the democrat; however, his own share has been taken by the fiat of Agamemnon the autocrat.

In opposition to democracy, I am setting autocracy. Writing in the United Kingdom while it was fighting against Nazi Germany, Collingwood opposed aristocracy to democracy, saying these are not simply in opposition, but can and should be in dialogue over how to reach a common goal, which is to have the best ruling class, namely a class that is

  • as large as possible (the democratic condition), but
  • not larger (the aristocratic condition).

In the Iliad, we are dealing with two men, each of whom, in his own mind, is in a class by himself:

  • At the beginning of Book I, when Chryses asked for his daughter back (lines 22–3),

    Then all the rest of the Achaians cried out in favor
    that the priest be respected and the shining ransom be taken;

    but Agamemnon refused.

  • In Book IX, when Agamemnon has detailed what he is willing to give up, Nestor can say (lines 163–6),

    Son of Atreus, most lordly and king (ἄναξ) of men, Agamemnon,
    none could scorn any longer these gifts you offer to Achilleus
    the king (ἄναξ). Come, let us choose and send some men, who in all speed
    will go to the shelter of Achilleus, the son of Peleus;

    but Achilles will scorn the gifts. Meanwhile, it is Nestor himself who chooses the men to send to him, namely Phoenix, Aias, and Odysseus, attended by Odius and Eurybates; and then (line 173),

    So he spoke, and the word he spoke was pleasing to all of them;

    but Achilles will not be pleased.

Still, again in his own mind, Achilles is not just looking out for number one. He declares that he has been working for the common good—at least somebody else’s good—as a hen does for her chicks (lines 323–7):

For as to her unwinged young ones the mother bird brings back
morsels, wherever she can find them, but as for herself it is suffering,
such was I, as I lay through all the many nights unsleeping,
such as I wore through the bloody days of the fighting,
striving with warriors for the sake of these men’s women.

However, Diomedes did tell Sthenelus something similar about Agamemnon in Book IV (lines 412–7):

Friend, stay quiet rather and do as I tell you; I will
find no fault with Agamemnon, shepherd of the people,
for stirring thus into battle the strong-greaved Achaians;
this will be his glory to come, if ever the Achaians
cut down the men of Troy and capture sacred Ilion.
If the Achaians are slain, then his will be the great sorrow.

Diomedes did not liken Agamemnon to a mother. By the account of Phoenix in Book IX, he played for Achilles what would seem to be the role of mother (lines 48594):

And I reared thee to be such as thou art, O godlike Achilles, loving thee from my heart; for with none other wouldest thou go to the feast neither take meat in the hall, till I had set thee on my knees and given thee thy fill of the savoury morsel cut first for thee, and had put the wine cup to thy lips. [490] Full often hast thou wetted the tunic upon my breast, sputtering forth the wine in thy sorry helplessness. So have I suffered much for thee and toiled much, ever mindful of this that the gods would in no wise vouchsafe me a son born of mine own body (ἐξ ἐμεῦ).

That last word “body” is Murray’s interpolation; Lattimore leaves it off. But is Phoenix playing the mother, the father, the parent, or the servant? I don’t know what Homer’s original audience would have thought. When he found me making bread, a friend of mine once thought I would make somebody a good wife. This was after I had come home from the farm, where I had learned a lot about cooking. On the same occasion, another friend said I would make a good husband. One of those two male friends now makes bread for his own wife and children, but I just don’t remember whether he was the one who had taken the stricter line on gender.

Like a mother hen, Achilles may have served for the good of the Achaeans, or of the generals among them; however, any wealth to be distributed among them is plunder from towns that have done them no harm. A democracy in the flesh serves its members, regardless of expense to those who are not members. It is not democratic to outsiders. This is a reason to call democracy as such an abstraction, as Collingwood does. Or call it a tendency, a direction along a line with no endpoint. It is not a paradigm, but an ideal, in the sense of the post of that name. If we think of democracy in terms of voting, we can always widen the franchise. Somebody once suggested to me the theoretical possibility of taking the vote of everybody who had ever lived. Given the condition of the earth and its climate now, it might have been better to think of taking the vote of everybody who would live in the future. On the other hand, taking “everybody” too literally can lead to the insanity of longtermism.

Towards Achilles, Agamemnon may be an autocrat; but he does allow himself to be challenged, as now in Book IX by Diomedes, who feels free to tell him (lines 32–3),

Son of Atreus: I will be first to fight with your folly,
as is my right (θέμις), lord, in this assembly; then do not be angered.

The folly is wanting to go home. Diomedes says,

  • Agamemnon can go home, but the other Achaeans will fight to the end;
  • they can go home too, but Diomedes and Sthenelus will fight to the end.

The end will be that of Troy; Diomedes does not contemplate his death (and it will not occur in the Iliad, even though he attacked two gods in Book V; then again, Troy will not be seen to fall either).

So Agamemnon can listen to criticism. On the other hand, the failure of the Achaean seige of Troy is not his fault, but God’s (lines 18–22):

Zeus son of Kronos has caught me badly in bitter futility.
He is hard: who before this time promised me and consented
that I might sack strong-walled Ilion and sail homeward.
Now he has devised a vile deception and bids me go back
to Argos in dishonor having lost many of my people.

Agamemnon leaves it to others to propose the obvious alternative to flight. That is what he did at the beginning of Book II, albeit without the results he intended. In Book IX now, Diomedes has got the alternative proposal started, and Nestor says it’s pretty good, for a young person’s (lines 53–7):

Son of Tydeus, beyond others you are strong in battle,
and in counsel also are noblest among all men of your own age.
Not one man of all the Achaians will belittle your words nor
speak against them. Yet you have not made complete your argument,
since you are a young man still and could even be my own son.

The argument will be completed in a smaller session.

In fine print at the end of “The Asıl of the Iliad,” I mentioned a recorded talk on WPFW in Washington that described an attempt to use money to atone for an insult. The general theme was cultural differences. Some people say, “I missed the bus”; others, “The bus left me.” At some meetings, refreshments come after the business; Nestor proposes the reverse arrangement. Let Agamemnon take the wisest counsel of the elders, after he lets them sample the Thracian wine that he takes delivery of every day.

After all are indeed suitably refreshed, Nestor points out that while Agamemnon may be (so to speak) an anointed king with the mandate of heaven, his monarchy is constitutional, rather than absolute (lines 97–100):

thou art king over many hosts, and to thee Zeus hath vouchsafed the sceptre and judgments, that thou mayest take counsel for thy people. Therefore it beseemeth thee above all others both to speak and to hearken …

To the obligation to listen as well as speak, Nestor adds a supplement or refinement. Murray makes it sound as if Agamemnon must do what another says, as long as it’s good (lines 101–2):

… and to fulfil also for another whatsoever his heart may bid him speak for our profit; for on thee will depend whatsoever any man may begin.

For Lattimore, Agamemnon seems obliged only to let others (of good faith) speak and listen as he does:

… you
are lord over many people, and Zeus has given into your hand
the scepter and rights of judgment, to be king over the people.
It is yours therefore to speak a word, yours also to listen,
and grant the right to another also, when his spirit stirs him
to speak for our good. All shall be yours when you lead the way …

Here are those last three lines (100–2) in the original, but I’m afraid I cannot really decide between Murray and Lattimore:

τώ σε χρὴ περὶ μὲν φάσθαι ἔπος ἠδ᾽ ἐπακοῦσαι,
κρηῆναι δὲ καὶ ἄλλῳ, ὅτ᾽ ἄν τινα θυμὸς ἀνώγῃ
εἰπεῖν εἰς ἀγαθόν: σέο δ᾽ ἕξεται ὅττί κεν ἄρχῃ.

In any case, Agamemnon must do what he does, only with the advice and consent of the elders, if not of the whole people.

He did not respect this rule when he ordered Talthybius and Eurybates to seize Briseis in Book I. Nestor points this out. Agamemnon glibly admits his folly (lines 119–20). Lattimore:

But since I was mad, in the persuasion of my heart’s evil,
I am willing to make all good, and give back gifts in abundance.


Yet seeing I was blind, and yielded to my miserable passion, I am minded to make amends and to give requital past counting.


ἀλλ᾽ ἐπεὶ ἀασάμην φρεσὶ λευγαλέῃσι πιθήσας,
ἂψ ἐθέλω ἀρέσαι δόμεναί τ᾽ ἀπερείσι᾽ ἄποινα.

Ι have bolded three terms.

  • The verb for being mad or blind is a middle-passive form of what is ἀάζω in Cunliffe, ἀάω in LSJ (where ἀάζω also has an entry, but only as an onomatopoeic word for making the sound “aha”). The blindness suggested by Homer’s verb seems to be always metaphorical.

  • I took up the difficulty of interpreting φρήν when writing “On Translation” (looking specifically at another part of Book IX, where Achilles is strumming a lyre stolen in a raid).

  • Murray is more literal in having what Agamemnon offers be “past counting.” Maybe that is unfair to Agamemnon, or maybe he deserves it, because of course what he offers is not immeasurable, it is specifically detailed:

    • so much now (including seven women);
    • more if Troy is taken (including twenty Trojan women of Achilles’s choice, except Helen);
    • more again, back in Argos (including Achilles’s choice from among Agamemnon’s three daughters—listeners may know of a fourth daughter, Iphigenia, sacrificed so that the Achaeans could reach Troy in the first place).

Agamemnon is good at making speeches. He is good at other things too, such as building a wall and digging a moat around the Achaean ships—as Achilles will point out to the legates, in what seems like a clever insult to me. Achilles observes that, when he was in the game, Hector never dared stray far from the walls of Troy, except once, when Achilles almost killed him.

As I said, Agamemnon has missed the point. It’s not the money, it’s the fairness—or the respect. He reminds me of a character in Brideshead Revisited. Though I did read the novel later, what I remember now is the TV series, whose dialogue must have followed the novel pretty closely at this point:

The library at Marchmain House was being devoted to wedding presents; Lady Marchmain, Julia, Cordelia and Rex were busy unpacking and listing them. Brideshead came in and watched them for a moment …

“You’d better pack all that stuff up again.”

“Bridey, what do you mean?”

“Only that the wedding’s off.”


“I thought I’d better make some enquiries about my prospective brother-in-law, as no one else seemed interested,” said Brideshead. “I got the final answer to-night. He was married in Montreal in 1915 to a Miss Sarah Evangeline Cutler, who is still living there.”

“Rex, is this true?”

Rex … smiled openly and innocently at them all.

“Sure it’s true,” he said. “What about it? What are you all looking so hit-up about? She isn’t a thing to me. She never meant any good. I was only a kid, anyhow. The sort of mistake anyone might make. I got my divorce back in 1919. I didn’t even know where she was living till Bridey here told me. What’s all the rumpus?”

“You might have told me,” said Julia.

“You never asked. Honest, I’ve not given her a thought in years.”

His sincerity was so plain that they had to sit down and talk about it calmly.

“Don’t you realize, you poor sweet oaf,” said Julia, “that you can’t get married as a Catholic when you’ve another wife alive?”

“But I haven’t. Didn’t I just tell you we were divorced six years ago?”

“But you can’t be divorced as a Catholic.”

“I wasn’t a Catholic and I was divorced. I’ve got the papers somewhere.”

“But didn’t Father Mowbray explain to you about marriage?”

“He said I wasn’t to be divorced from you. Well, I don’t want to be. I can’t remember all he told me—sacred monkeys, plenary indulgences, four last things—if I remembered all he told me I shouldn’t have time for anything else. Anyhow, what about your Italian cousin, Francesca? She married twice.”

“She had an annulment.”

“All right then, I’ll get an annulment. What does it cost?”

Writing in the National Review, George Weigel described Mottram as “a buccaneering moneyman with political ambitions and a hollow interior.” That was in March, 2016, when Weigel could warn,

That portrait should be studied carefully in the days and weeks ahead.

I guess such warnings didn’t work, even though,

In creating Rex, one of the great English novelists of our time unwittingly created a portrait of Donald Trump, who displays just about every attribute of Rex Mottram except Rex’s suave manners.

Making one last attempt to win Achilles’s aid for the Achaeans, Phoenix says (line 603),

The Achaians will honor you as they would an immortal. (Lattimore)
ἶσον γάρ σε θεῷ τίσουσιν Ἀχαιοί.
The Achaeans shall honour thee even as a god. (Murray)

I don’t know about the fictional Rex Mottram, but being honored as a god may be what Donald Trump wanted. It’s not what Achilles wanted. He reminds me of an old TV show, where a precocious misfit left town, even though another girl told her, “I need a friend like you!”

That is how I have remembered the words spoken by Kristy McNichol as Buddy in an episode of Family. I don’t know how much I watched that show, but I have no specific memory of any other episode. Through the magic of the internet, I have learned that the episode was “Sleeping Gypsy,” from the third season, and I have been able to watch it again; the words I remember occur after 24 minutes of the second part:

I need to have a friend with that, that jungle in her head; it helps me. You know what I mean? It sounds selfish, doesn’t it. And what’s in it for you? I’ve got stuff in my head for you Mara, so please don’t go.

I seem to remember understanding that those words wouldn’t work. In a year or two, I would first read the words of Phoenix, which don’t work either.

I would also be reading Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, and then reading more about Escher himself in Bruno Ernst, The Magic Mirror of M.C. Escher. Perhaps I didn’t pay attention, back then, to the loneliness that Escher mentioned in a letter to his son:

A person who is lucidly aware of the miracles that surround him, who has learned to bear up under the loneliness, has made quite a bit of progress on the road to wisdom.

I take that from the post in The Marginalian (October 4, 2022) called “M.C. Escher on Loneliness, Creativity, and How Rachel Carson Inspired His Art, with a Side of Bach.” Maria Popova quotes Carson as saying,

If you write what you yourself sincerely think and feel and are interested in, you will interest other people.

Apparently she did interest Escher. Popova observes,

Like Carson, who was too lyrical for science and too scientific for literature, Escher inhabited two worlds as an outsider to both; he felt that scientists nodded politely at his mathematically inspired art “in a friendly and interested manner,” but considered him merely a “tinkerer,” while artists were “primarily irritated” by his unclassifiable graphic daring.

I have combined mathematics and art in

I had earlier submitted the paper to a journal “that focuses on connections between mathematics and the arts.” The submission was twice rejected, first for not being art, then for not being mathematics. I quote from two reports; I’m guessing the first was written by a professional artist, but I could be wrong:

No doubt, these constructions are beautiful. But, are they pieces of art? Or, what would make them visual art contributions? … Although the author emphasized that the construction involves choices that “give play to one’s aesthetic sense,” this manuscript is about conic constructions and it includes a collection of nice construction[s]. However, without a significant and explicit art contributions and math[-]art interplay, this manuscript is not a good fit …

A mathematician wrote the following:

The submitted paper appears to have some interesting mathematical constructions, but does not fit with our intentions … The philosophical discussion in the paper addresses the question of mathematical diagrams as works of art, viewed in an artistic context. [We are] focussed on the (in some sense) opposite question: the art of producing effective mathematical illustrations.

Presumably that editor did receive plenty of papers that did meet with his intentions, and an editor only has so much time to look for what is good. It would be presumptious to say, “People don’t understand Escher and me, the way Agamemnon and the other Achaeans don’t understand Achilles”; however, it is a way to come to terms with the Iliad (and Escher).

Edited May 4, 2023

9 Trackbacks

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    […] « Loneliness (Iliad Book IX) […]

  2. By Points of an Ellipse « Polytropy on February 3, 2023 at 2:08 pm

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    […] a cliché in postwar suburban America. I am not prepared with a specific example, as I was for Book IX, where I likened the loneliness of Achilles to that of a girl in a 1978 episode of Family. I can […]

  4. By Masculinity (Iliad Book XV) « Polytropy on March 9, 2023 at 7:53 am

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    […] Agamemnon does look at himself. To prove that he repents of what he did to Achilles, he insists on giving the gifts that he offered two days ago, through the embassy of Phoenix, Aias, and Odysseus, back in Book IX. […]

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