The Paradox of Heroism in Homer’s Iliad

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The Paradox of Heroism in Homer’s Iliad

The Iliad presents a full range of valorous warriors: the Achaians Diomedes, Odysseus, and the Aiantes; the Trojans Sarpedon, Aeneas, and Glaukos. These and many others are Homer’s models of virtue in arms. Excelling all of them, however, are the epic’s two central characters, Achilleus, the son of Peleus and, Hector, the son of Priam. In these two, one finds the physical strength, intense determination, and strenuous drive that give them first place within their respective armies. Further, in their inner struggles they together present a complete archetype of the hero. The Homeric vision of the hero presents Achilleus and Hektor resolving the paradox of embodying the ideals of their communities and at the same time standing utterly apart from their fellow humans. This conflict between alienation from and integration with all of humankind first arises in the question of the heroes’ motives; this implies different choices of Other or Self, in which one finds implications for leadership and response to human fate, respectively. It is the struggle of interests and destinies—their own against their communities’—that takes them beyond the frame of ordinary human life.

The basis for the heroes’ actions arises from the conflict between concern for self and concern for others—their egoistic and altruistic impulses. The former draws them to seek eternal glory for themselves, establishing a corpus of deeds that men will recount in song and story for generations. The latter places the safety and wholeness of the community as the highest cause, fulfilling the role of protector and preserver. While one first encounters Achilleus and Hektor formally fighting for someone else’s honor—Achill...

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...or perfects this balance; that they experience both aspects of each self-combat brings them to the very limits of humanity. Moreover, each is made complete by the other, since each spurs the other to supreme glory and tests his resolve to attain greatness. The image of the final confrontation between Achilleus and Hektor crystallizes the heroes’ place in the natural order: even as they stand just beyond the walls of the city, so they stand just outside the gates to endless life. Though they cannot ultimately escape their deaths, they nevertheless journey farther than any man on the path to immortality in the present—experiencing humanity in its fullest degree, yet also touching the divine.


1. The author wishes to dedicate this essay to Mrs. Martin Luther King

2. Homer, Iliad, trans. Richard Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951).

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