HONR 218C Western Intellectual Heritage: The Hero and Society

First Paper: Due October 3

Choose one of the following essay prompts and write a brief paper (4-5 pages), following the guidelines in the course outline. All papers are due at the beginning of class; you may bring them with you to class or submit them by e-mail.

  1. Homer's Iliad and Odyssey are almost sacred texts for the ancient Greeks. In these epics the Greeks discovered the significant values of their culture. A central cluster of values in the Iliad is heroism, especially as exemplified by Achilles, the "best of the Achaeans." After a careful reading of Book 9, "The Embassy to Achilles," discuss those qualities which the Greeks seem to value most in their heroes. Pay special attention to the different components or strands of heroism. Base your discussion on direct references to the text, and don't stray too far outside Book 9.

  2. Consider this quotation from Plato's dialogue, The Symposium:

    The honor [the gods] gave to Achilles is another matter. They sent him to the Isles of the Blessed because he dared to stand by his lover Patroclus and avenge him, even after he had learned that if he killed Hector then he himself would be killed, but that if he chose otherwise he'd go home and end his life as an old man. Instead he chose to die for Patroclus -- and more than that, he did it for a man whose life was already over...

    Aeschylus talks nonsense when he claims [in a lost play, The Myrmidons] that Achilles was the lover; he was more beautiful than Patroclus -- more beautiful than all the heroes -- and still beardless. Besides, he was much younger, as Homer says. (Symposium 180A)

    Phaedrus, the speaker of these words, says that Patroclus was the lover and Achilles the beloved, and criticizes Aeschylus for reversing these roles. Among well-to-do Greeks in Plato's day it was common for older men to fall in love with, and seek sexual gratification from, adolescent boys. In these relationships, which existed side by side with conventional marriage, the older man (the erastês or "lover") played a sort of mentor role for the younger man (the erômenos or "beloved"). The younger man was supposed to be beautiful, not too forward, and won over with great difficulty; and he got from the relationship the benefit of the older man's wisdom and experience. Once the youth reached a certain age, he was no longer suitable as a beloved, and became a friend.

    What do you make of this account of the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus? Is it plausible? Does it make sense of the text? What light does it shed on Achilles' actions after he learns of Patroclus's death?

  3. At one point in the Apology (28B-D) Socrates compares himself to Achilles. Discuss this comparison, considering some of the following questions as possible starting points: What point is Socrates making -- about himself and about the Greek understanding of Achilles as mythic hero? What force does his comparison have as an argument in his defense? How does he expect his comparison to change his audience's perception of himself (and of his accusers)? Is Socrates claiming heroic status? (Notice that later, at 41A-B, Socrates compares himself to Ajax in certain respects. It might be helpful to take this passage into consideration as well.)

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