Beyond Reciprocity: The Akhilleus-Priam Scene in Iliad 24
The main objective of this paper is to argue that Book 24 of the Iliad presents Akhilleus as behaving with a degree of what even modern thought would recognize as altruism. More specifically, it argues that Akhilleus transcends the institutionalized reciprocity which the epic presents as the dominant ethical orientation of the heroic society which it depicts; furthermore, Iliad 24 prescriptively commends, through the description of Akhilleus' behaviour, a recognizable form of altruism, as a foil to the reciprocity-based values described as normal in the poem's society. The argument requires, first, an attempt to describe the nature and function of reciprocity in the Iliad as the major operative ethical factor governing co-operative behaviour in the poem's thought-world, and to establish some framework within it for the possibility of altruism, the meaning of which I shall make clear. Against this background, secondly, I analyse Akhilleus' behaviour towards Priam, and 'calibrate' this behaviour, which I have elsewhere ( 1994, 127-54) called 'magnanimity', on the scale of altruism thus established. I thus intend to demonstrate that altruism formed an ongoing element in Greek thought and society from Homer to Aristotle, sometimes working in association with reciprocity, sometimes in a state of tension with it.
Walter Donlan's seminal article, 'Reciprocities in Homer' ( 1981-2), makes the task of defining 'reciprocity' comparatively straightforward. Donlan draws on the categories of reciprocity elaborated by Marshall Sahlins ( 1968, 1974): generalized, balanced, and negative reciprocity. Generalized reciprocity involves 'the pure gift', and a benefit conferred on this basis is not subject to