In the film version of Troy, as in the original Iliad, several characters are motivated mainly by their passions and lusts far more than reason and ethics, and as a result bring considerable death, destruction and suffering to all concerned. Both Plato and Aristotle would have been highly critical of this lack of ethics, and actions that they would have regarded as coming from the basest motives of lust, anger, revenge and other passions. Paris, the young prince of Troy, becomes infatuated with Helen, the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, and runs off with her. This destroys the peace treaty with the Greeks that his father King Priam of Troy has spent so many years attempting to achieve, and gives King Agamemnon of the Greeks all the provocation necessary to begin the war of aggression that he really desires. Menelaus, of course, is driven to take revenge on the Trojans for the insult and dishonor he has suffered, although he too will end up dying in the war. On the ship heading back to Troy, Paris’s brother Hector tries to remind him that love is more than simply sexual desire for another person, since there is also love of country, love of their father and civic and patriotic duty, all of which he has ignored because he good not control his passions. Achilles, the greatest Greek warrior, is also motivated by uncontrolled emotions and desires, even though he is also skeptical of Agamemnon’s war and even of the Greek gods. At first, he is reluctant to fight at all, but once persuaded to join the battle he is extremely brutal, bloodthirsty and ruthless. After destroying the temple of Apollo near Troy, he captures Briseis and makes her his slave concubine, and becomes so enraged when Agamemnon claims her that he refuses to fight again. This leads his young and passionate cousin Patroclus (who in the Iliad was also his lover) to put on the armor of Achilles and pretend to be him in the next battle. When Hector kills him, thinking he really is Achilles, he is shocked and appalled to discover that he has really slaughtered a teenaged boy. Achilles nearly goes insane when he learns that Patroclus is dead, however, and he kills Hector in battle and drags his body around the city behind a chariot. It is a brutal desecration of Hector’s remains, but Achilles finally relents when Priam comes to beg for the body of his son. In all these instances, Paris and Achilles have simply abandoned reason, civic duty, or any higher concept of morality as taught by philosophers like Aristotle and Plato, and let their emotions and lusts run out of control.
Achilles and his contemporaries should also be placed into a proper historical context to better understand their actions, and the warrior code and honor culture by which they lived and died. In the Bronze Age, the aristocrats (aristoi) like Achilles were also the ruling class, which is not the case in the modern world except for military dictatorships. They owned the chariots and their exploits were recorded by the poets and singers, while the common soldiers remained nameless and simply filled out the background scenery. All members of the nobility and royalty were expected to show excellence in speech, politics, fighting and athletics, to justify their status as rulers of the society, and they were quick to take revenge to any slight or insult to their honor. Homeric culture was authoritarian, hierarchical and status-based, and was not individualistic in the modern (civilian) sense but offered “punishments and rewards for the fulfillment of one’s social roles” (Hammer 59). Achilles represents “the Homeric governing class, the propertied class, and also the class on which the burden falls of maintaining the community” (Redfield 99). He knew that he would have to face death every day and he did so because this was his duty. Death was fated by the gods, but the warrior could choose to die gloriously and heroically in battle, even as the gods themselves took sides between the Greeks and Trojans. Achilles and all other members of his aristocratic caste would have believed that “the warrior can protect the human world against force only because he himself is willing to use and suffer force” (Redfield 101). As the product of an aristocratic honor culture, he quarreled with Agamemnon because the king had publicly insulted and humiliated him, and in that world, honor could only be satisfied by a duel or personal combat. He does not run away from the fighting because that would appear to be cowardice in the face of the enemy—then as now the worst shame and dishonor that a warrior can suffer—but he goes back into combat with a vengeance when his friend and lover Patroclus is killed (Iliad Books 16-22).
In Book 10 of the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle offers a version of ethics that generally runs counter to that of this aristocratic warrior culture. He defined happiness (eudaimonia) as existing on several levels, the lowest of which was passion, lust and physical pleasure, then a life of civil involvement and practicing virtue, and the ultimate form of happiness which is the contemplation of God and spiritual and eternal matters. Just as there are degrees of pleasure and pain, so there are degrees or happiness and virtue. Happiness is the supreme good and the ultimate goal of life, but not all individuals define it in the same way and it appears that only a few truly reach the highest levels. Most people confuse happiness with physical pleasure and carnal gratification, including food, alcohol, sex, and accumulating money and material things, but Aristotle does not regard this as the supreme good. Far from it, although it probably seems satisfying enough for the great majority of humanity that happiness should be identified with a life of abundance of physical pleasure and the absence of pain. Many people are slaves to passions and pleasures, so the glutton who finds happiness with consumption of food will have no higher goal than good food, and the alcoholic will be happy with an abundance of intoxicants. Even animals exist this way, but for Aristotle humans are rational beings with immortal souls and were therefore created for a much higher and transcendent form of happiness.
Aristotle privileges the higher or rational part of the soul (nous), which able to have communion with the divine, rather than the lower, animalistic lusts and instincts. On the level of civic virtue and the life of the citizen, some people value honor, fame and glory, such as his student Alexander the Great. Their greatest happiness would come from being remembered forever like Achilles as a great hero or conqueror, but Aristotle is skeptical such ethics as well. A better form of civic virtue would be to doing good for its own sake and practicing justice with no thought of reward or fame. True happiness on this level would be to find pleasure in ethical and virtuous behavior as a member of human society and citizen of the state. Good citizens will get pleasure from a life of public service, a way of life in fact, at least for those who are not adept in metaphysics, theology and contemplation of God.
For Plato and Socrates, as well, philosophy was a spiritual quest and an activity of the soul’s longing and desire for God. They disdained the money, power, sex and fame that most mortals (like Paris and Achilles) strove for all their lives. Plato argued in Book 5 of The Republic that the world was made of Perfect Forms, of God and the soul, and was eternal and unchanging. It was far more important to seek these ultimate spiritual truths (wisdom) than material things that are perceived through the senses. Material objects are imperfect, temporary and transitory, and they will change and decay, but this will never happen to God, the soul and the perfect Forms. These will continue forever, while all bodies and objects in the material work will decay and die. Like Aristotle, he most valued the higher or rational part of the soul (nous), which able to have communion with the divine, rather than the lower, animalistic lusts and instincts. Plato highly skeptical of democracy for this reason, since they simply believed the lower classes lacked the knowledge and education to govern the state (Republic Book 5). For Plato, physical appearances are definitely not real, but simply manifestations of the divine or the eternal. They are not perfect or eternal but temporary and transitory, while God and the soul last forever, so while he may not go so far as to deny their existence, they are only a starting point for the true philosopher, not an end in themselves (Ahbel-Rappe 2009).
In the Symposium, the most important aspect of the discussion was to explain how the other participants defined love before Socrates weighs in with his more philosophical and spiritual explanation. All of these participants were wealthy, privileged young men from the aristocratic class, except of course for Socrates who comes from the artisan class. They were arrogant, shallow, and narcissistic, and mainly in love with themselves, and also defined love as Eros or erotic, physical and sexual experiences, and of course love of money, fame and physical beauty. Sometimes they also realized that philos or friendship could also be a form of love, with which Socrates certainly agrees, although he then carried it to the higher level of agape or universal and God-like benevolence, understanding and virtue (Gil 1999). Like Alcibiades, they were a wealthy ruling class with contempt for those not as privileged as themselves, but that is never the political and moral position of Socrates. All the wealthy young men gave their own narrow and materialistic definitions of love and beauty while Socrates says nothing and pretends that he has never heard any of this before. At the end, though, Alcibiades makes it clear that he has already dealt with these questions many times before. Phaedrus commented on famous lovers in history such as the beautiful, young Achilles and his older mentor Patroclus. This gave him the idea that all soldiers should be lovers, since they would fight to the death for each other and generally show great courage in battle. Pausanias praised Eros and Aphrodite as well, cautioning that “the Eros we should praise is the one which encourages people to love in the right way”, which is not simply the sexual act but a love between minds (Gil 19). Socrates relates his own encounter with a wise woman named Diotima when he was their age. According to her love should not simply be and erotic desire for the beautiful bodies and material things of the world, all of which were temporary and transitory. Instead, the highest form of love is that of wisdom and truth, which were eternal, and the love of the immortal soul in seeking after God.
Plato, Socrates and Aristotle were therefore quite explicit in condemning the motives of men like Achilles and Paris in the Iliad, which were based on passions like sexual desire, hunger for fame and glory, or anger and taking revenge for an insult. They valued reason above all other characteristics and argued that it separated human beings from plants and animals, but in Troy, Achilles and his contemporaries were often acting irrationally. Plato, Socrates and Aristotle regarded philosophy as a spiritual quest and an activity of the soul’s longing and desire for God, while he disdained money, power, sex and fame that most mortals strive for all their lives. Their task was to elevate that conversation and steer it away from mere worldly concerns about wealth, fame, power or the purely sexual side of love and beauty and toward the spiritual and transcendent levels. None of this seemed to be of great concern to most of the characters in Troy (or the Iliad) but then again almost all of them ended up dead in the end, destroyed by their own uncontrolled passions and desires.
Ahbel-Rappe, Sara. Socrates: A Guide for the Perplexed. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2009.
Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics. Trans. Robert Bartlett and Susan Collins. University of Chicago Press, 2011.
Gil, Christopher. Plato: The Symposium. Penguin Classics, 1999.
Hammer, D. The Iliad as Politics: The Performance of Political Thought. University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.
Homer. The Iliad. Trans. Ian Johnston. Richer Resources Publications, 2006.
Plato. The Republic. NY: Cosimo, Inc, 2008.
Redfield, J.M. Nature and Culture in the Iliad: The Tragedy of Hector. Duke University Press, 1994.
Troy. Dir: Wolgang Petersen. Prod: Wolgang Petersen, Barbara Huber and Winston Azzorpardi. USA: Warner Brothers, 2004.