Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture


Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture


Article excerpt

HOMER'S ILIAD FAMOUSLY EXHIBITS the power of anger to destroy communal values, made especially evident in Book 9 when Achilles says of Agamemnon: "No, I'll never set heads together with that man--no planning in common, no taking common action" (9: 264). (1) But a closer look at the condition of Achilles indicates that it is not anger alone that has overcome him. Underlying the many refusals expressed by Achilles in that book is a condition that in Homer's time does not seem to have had a name but that would come to be recognized as a capital vice in later Christian times--acedia, misleadingly called "sloth" in English. Remarkably, a form of the root word from which the term "acedia" would later be derived (a-kedos, lack of care) is applied to Achilles by Nestor: "But Achilles, brave as he is, he has no care"--ou kedetai (11: 787 in translation, 11: 665 in the Greek text). Acedia is a lack of care for the good, the loss of the capacity to respond warmly to the highest good, a condition of sadness and distraction. The anger of Achilles quickly leads him to sadness and distraction as he withdraws from his comrades after his quarrel with Agamemnon in Book 1: "Achilles wept, and slipping away from his companions,/ far apart, sat down on the beach of the heaving gray sea/and scanned the endless ocean" (1: 89). Later when the three Greek ambassadors sent by Agamemnon to make peace encounter Achilles, he is sitting alone with his lyre, "lifting his spirits with it now,/ singing the famous deeds of the fighting heroes" (9: 257). His efforts to lift his spirits have been limited in effectiveness, we soon see.

Nestor says that Achilles has no care for his comrades, and the term acedia becomes especially fitting when we see that his loss of care extends even to the highest values that motivate the warriors in the Iliad on both sides of the conflict. The warriors strive to achieve the honor and glory acquired in battle (in the ethos of the epic poem) when a man in the moment of his peak performance seems to push up against the border between the mortals and the immortals and become godlike in stature. But in Book 9 Achilles, lost in his acedia, seems to disparage these values: "One and the same lot for the man who hangs back/and the man who battles hard. The same honor waits for the coward and the brave" (9: 385-87). These words spoken by Achilles in response to the speech of Odysseus express a loss of the capacity to respond to the highest values, an inability to care for the mortal aspiration to be godlike that is the key characteristic of his acedia.

Achilles arrives later at a mad delusion of detachment and autonomy in the world, an indication that a loss of care for others (in the charge directed at him by Nestor) and a loss of care or even impiety toward the divine are interlocked vices. He addresses Patroclus in Book 16 as he prepares to send Patroclus into battle in his place and imagines a terrifying final state of victory in which he and Patroclus are the sole survivors:

Oh would to god--Father Zeus, Athena, and lord Apollo--
not one of all these Trojans could flee his death, not one,
no Argive either, but we could stride from the slaughter
so we could bring Troy's hallowed crown of towers
toppling down around us--you and I alone! (16: 115-19)

That he should call upon the gods to endorse the slaughter of all other warriors, enemies and allies alike, is to ask the gods to project upon the world as a whole his own complete detachment from others and his mad illusion of dwelling alone (save for one friend) in the world.

It is remarkable that Homer focuses with such intensity on a spiritual condition experienced in the midst of war that will in early Christian times become associated with the challenges of the monastic life, as acedia explicitly came to be understood in the writings of the desert fathers (more about this later). But the transposition of values from the ancient Greek context to the early Christian monastic context becomes more understandable if we observe that in each case the central spiritual issue is both the deep detachment of a person from any sense of participating in community and the weariness of the soul in its approach to the divine, a certain refusal of the soul to embrace the beauty of the divine, even though such beauty comes to appearance in radically different life contexts. …

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