Today’s class lecture is one of my favorites. The students have just finished reading Homer’s Iliad and we talk about Achilles’ great and terrible deeds on the battlefield, his battle with Hector, and his ultimate restoration to the values of the political community through his empathetic connection with Priam.
It’s a pretty great culmination, if I do say so myself, of two and a half weeks of intense discussions about an ancient epic that none of the students have read quite the way I ask them to read it. But I hope, also, that it highlights for them the value of literary masterpieces. I spend about five minutes talking about the scene depicted above, of Achilles and Hector in battle. I ask the students what they saw in their minds when they read the passage about the two warriors facing one another before the fighting began. But that’s not how they’re reading … yet. They’re reading the words, but they’re not picturing the drama as it unfolds. And so they missed this scene.
The image that Homer presents, of course, is of Achilles facing himself. Hector has stripped Achilles’ armor from Patroclus in a recent battle and Achilles is wearing new armor fashioned for him by the gods. So when he finally stands against Hector, he is embracing the fate that he described in Book IX and that his mother reiterated after Patroclus’ death: If he fights before the walls of Troy, he will earn a lasting glory but never return again to his father’s house. In making his choice to fight Hector and avenge Patroclus, Achilles seals his fate. Killing Hector, as he says he must, means killing himself and, as he faces his enemy before the gates of Troy, he looks at a vision of himself and attacks.
After class, I overheard one student say to another, “That was intense.”
This was one of those days when it’s hard to believe I get paid to do this stuff.