As its title suggests, my book Becoming Achilles explores what is involved in making a certain kind of hero—a human being who manifests godlike excellence, superiority to ordinary mortals. It also explains an improbable conjunction: the archetypal Greek hero, Achilles, a paragon of violent hyper-masculinity, is a precursor of Socrates. Achilles is a plain speaker, who ostensibly—even ostentatiously—says exactly what he thinks, hiding nothing, regardless of the opinions and feelings of others.
The Iliad presents Achilles, and he presents himself, as a speaker of truth to power who refuses to accept injustice. Although aged Socrates’ comparisons of himself to Achilles at his trial are freighted with irony, Plato’s Socrates is modeled on Achilles—the public hero who braves the wrath of his irresponsible commander, Agamemnon, and calls him to account for failing to protect his troops. But the images of Achilles and Socrates as speakers of truth to power are fundamentally misleading in ways that are consequential for political thought and philosophy.
I’m going to discuss four “anchors” for my book’s argument, corresponding to the four interconnected subject areas in which it is based: psychology, mythology, literature, and philosophy.
But first, a few words from the Introduction:
The Iliad’s defining myths begin with childrearing. Divine mothers attempt to immortalize sons but are interrupted. As a result, sons are superior to ordinary mortals, but fall short of divine power and perfection. They are heroes.
Remarkably, the myths that depict these forms of childrearing contain critiques of them. Mortal parents view divine mothers as having covert agendas that preclude loving nurture and harm infants. Insulted by mortals’ impertinent questioning of their childrearing practices, goddesses proclaim that they provide superior nurture; critics are witless fools. Faced with goddesses’ anger, critics quickly recant.
The analysis presented here is rooted in research into attachments that infants form with their primary caregivers, usually, but not necessarily, mothers. The type of bond differs according to the quality of care. Attachment theory suggests that perceptions of parents sacrificing children’s needs to their own, which the Iliad’s myths discount, may be accurate. In order to avoid further alienating unreliable or rejecting caregivers, children disavow or repress their own perceptions of the relationship and adopt caregivers’ versions. Sons’ defensive exclusion of information about maternal failings avoids provoking angry maternal reactions like those dramatized in myth.
Many schools of psychology have drawn on ancient Greek myths, producing conflicting interpretations of them. The research on which I rely marries family psychology to attachment theory. The basics are simple.
Family psychology focuses on parent-child boundaries. When intact, these boundaries demarcate benign parent-child hierarchies. Parents provide for children’s needs, rearing them to adulthood. But parents can instead use children to meet their needs. In one form of sacrificial parenting, fathers turn from disaffected wives to impressionable daughters for validation; in another, parents use children’s competitive success to validate their own claims to superiority.
Attachment theory’s forte is explaining how children respond to non-nurturant care. Rather than questionable retrospective reconstructions of adverse childhood experience, attachment research begins with observations of parent-child interactions; it uses theory to predict effects on children’s behavior; then it tests predictions—and theories—with follow-up observations. Studies extend over years or even decades. In the examples I’ve cited, parents reverse roles with children, making them into de facto caregivers. For their own protection, children suppress perceptions of parental unresponsiveness or hostility to care-seeking and idealize parents who exploit them.
Think about it: children who experience fundamental human relationships as harmful and wrong construe them as extraordinarily beneficent. Is it any wonder that such a process could affect not only psychology but cultural and even philosophical values and belief systems?
Divine mothers’ attempts to immortalize sons are a distinctive feature of Achilles’ and the Iliad’s mythology. These myths are important because, incredibly, they dramatize the process by which children (and complicit spouses) respond to harmful parenting. First, they perceive it for what it is and react accordingly. But in the face of caregivers’ anger, they disavow their own experiences and perceptions, and adopt views preferred by caregivers, who wish to be perceived as providing loving nurture.
I use attachment theory to analyze myths in which the goddesses Thetis and Demeter attempt to immortalize mortal sons:
Forced by Zeus into the marriage bed of Achilles’ mortal father, Peleus, Thetis gives birth to the glorious and dangerous son whose prophesied superiority to his father caused Zeus and his brother Poseidon to break off their pursuit of her.
Myths contradict the Iliad’s idyllic picture of Thetis’s “best of childbearing.” [She gave birth to a son, who was “without fault and powerful,” who “shot up like a young tree,” “the pride of the orchard.”] In myths, Achilles does not spontaneously manifest his divine superiority. He requires special maternal fashioning that appears to violate norms of maternal love and care. Barely alluded to in the Iliad, Thetis’s attempts to immortalize Achilles suggest that sons must undergo harsh postnatal fashioning by mothers in order to become emblems of maternal superiority.
Thetis tries to immortalize her son in a variety of ways. In the most revealing account, she anoints her infant with ambrosia by day to make his flesh immortal. By night she places him in a fire in order to, as one mythographer puts it, “destroy the mortal element which the child inherited from his father.”
Peleus leapt up from his bed and saw his dear son gasping in the flame; and at the sight he uttered a terrible cry, fool that he was; and she heard it, and catching up the child threw him screaming to the ground, and herself like a breath of wind passed swiftly from the hall as a dream and leapt into the sea, exceeding wroth, and thereafter returned not again. Wherefore blank amazement fettered his soul. [Apologies for the archaic language of this free, public domain translation.]
In these myths, Peleus’s intervention is represented as folly, for which he and his son pay dearly. Peleus loses his divine wife and lives in bleak solitude (18.434f.). Yet the goddess’s interrupted ministrations leave their mark. Virtually invulnerable, Achilles is superior to all mere mortals and wins imperishable glory.
A parallel set of myths recount how Demeter takes a break from searching for her missing daughter Persephone to hire on as a nursemaid in the household of the king of Eleusis. She attempts to immortalize the king’s son—in a similar way with similar results.
Both sets of myths present the hero as a product of maternal fashioning. Both are similar to narratives in which children idealize rejecting or unresponsive caregivers.
Psychologists distinguish defensive idealization of a parent from innocuous exaggeration of parental virtues, on the basis of “seemingly unconscious discrepancies between positive general descriptions of the mother or the relationship and actual negative experiences of the parent as described in specific episodes.”
These myths freely acknowledge the lack of ordinary maternal nurture, love, and care involved in the mothering of heroes. Some also register the son’s suffering. But the myths invert these inversions: not only does lack of nurture count as superior nurture, but [in Demeter’s story] the nursemaid is counted the real parent while the mortal siblings and mother are reduced to “inferior nurses and handmaids.” The goddess is rightly indignant at being held to ordinary standards of nurture, which, for mortal mothers, would accord with themis (order). She is kourotrophos, a nurturer and protector of her hero-son.
The conclusion seems inescapable: by styling hero-making mothers as divinities and bestowing the epithet kourotrophos on them, while subtly alluding to their shocking inversions of nurture, the mythic and epic traditions afford a striking example of defensive idealization at the level of culture.
It is not only sons whose needs for care go unmet. The mythology of mothers of heroes suggests that they are subjected to similar forms of exploitative care as they engage in with their sons.
Psychology can help us to assemble, from jumbled fragments in the Iliad and myth, a narrative of the lives of daughters who become mothers of heroes.
The full story of how Thetis comes to be the mother of Achilles is complicated and confusing. It involves Zeus’s amorous pursuit of Thetis while she is being raised as a daughter in his house, prophecies and counter-prophecies about powerful sons who can save or threaten fathers, and her forced marriage to a mortal. But disentangling her myths explains a lot. Not only why daughters like Thetis need glorious sons, but how lowly Thetis comes to command the power of a son “greater than his father in might” who can overthrow—or save—Zeus.
Decoding Thetis’s and Demeter’s mythologies yields the following narrative:
Fathers favor daughters over wives but exchange them for the services of other men in strategic marriages. These evidently superior daughters surmount the humiliation of their marriages by rearing superior sons. In this way, they prove that the sense of superiority they enjoyed as father-favored daughters was real, not laughable pretense. These daughters’ air of superiority and destiny to rear powerful sons epitomize feminine allure in the Iliad and its myths. But husbands who want strong sons to ‘ward off devastation’ from them are liable to come into conflict with the superior wives and sons on whom they depend to protect their honor—as Agamemnon depends on Thetis and Achilles.
My subtitle, Child-sacrifice, War, and Misrule in the Iliad and Beyond, links sacrificial parenting to the pursuit of honor and glory in war.
Children whose bids for love and care are welcomed by responsive caregivers experience themselves as valuable and deserving of love. Heroic nurture involves the rejection of ordinary, needy, care-seeking children. Although purportedly superior mothers may favor sons over mortal fathers, sons learn a devastating lesson: their real, needy, care-seeking selves are worthless, insignificant. So they aspire to mete out rather than suffer devastation; to prove themselves glorious and worthy, not shamefully weak and defenseless.
The surreal violence of Achilles’ rampage, in which he slaughters myriad Trojans, kills a supplicant, fights a river god, kills Hektor, and abuses his corpse, follows on the killing of Achilles’ friend Patroklos by Hektor. The motivations for Achilles’ violence are complex. Not just revenge but the loss of the nostos, homecoming, that Achilles supposedly sacrificed to mother-validating glory—but in fact invested in his friend. And fear of dishonor. A companion who fights well enough to be mistaken for Achilles, and who can only be killed with the help of Apollo, has been reduced to a defenseless victim.
The most shocking killing in the Iliad is Achilles’ murder of the unarmed supplicant, Lykaon, whom Achilles had previously spared, selling him into servitude. Before impaling him, Achilles grimly jokes that if barrier of the sea did not prevent Lykaon’s return from captivity, perhaps the men Achilles has killed will rise up from Hades. Achilles will kill Lykaon to see whether he can come back even from death.
Achilles’ joking masks anxiety–that the boundary separating the hard, impervious killer from his soft, vulnerable victim (or the “huge and splendid” hero from his ordinary human counterpart) might dissolve. Achilles’ fear of dishonor—being exposed as indistinguishable from merely mortal, more human others—proves lethal for Lykaon and a string of other alter-egos in the last third of the Iliad.
Achilles isn’t only a virtuoso of lethal force, however; he’s also–as I’ve mentioned–a proto-Socrates.
As Plato’s Socrates will do, Achilles says what he thinks, questions traditional verities, and speaks truth to power. As a result, he is falsely accused of disrespecting legitimate authority and encouraging others to do the same, and he is unjustly punished—or so it seems.
Viewed through the lens of attachment theory, Achilles’ self-presentation as a speaker of truth to power appears fundamentally misleading.
The confrontation between Achilles and Agamemnon dramatizes elements that attachment researchers posit for exploitative parent-child relationships, but at key points the Iliad’s narrative diverges from what attachment theory would lead us to expect.
Rather than insulting Apollo’s priest and exposing his army to the god’s killing plague, Agamemnon should ensure the safety of the men under his command.
Achilles’ call for responsible care infuriates Agamemnon—a literal child-sacrificer—because it highlights the disparity between Agamemnon’s behavior and kingly norms that are extensions of parental ones. Although he is an adult, not a dependent child, and Agamemnon is not his parent, Achilles experiences the king’s anger as a total negation of his value, against which he is utterly defenseless. Outrageously, it reduces him to a “dishonored vagabond.” His life as a loved and respected member of a community in accord with themis is effectively destroyed.
These elements correspond to but also diverge from the formative experiences and psychology hypothesized for hero-sons.
For one thing, it is not Achilles’ mother whose angry response to his bids for care deals a crippling blow to his self-esteem. It is not even Achilles’ mortal father, threatened by his son’s superiority. Rather it is Achilles’ would-be pseudo-father Agamemnon. [After insulting Achilles, Agamemnon tries to win him back by offering to honor him like his own son, Orestes–an offer that Achilles can easily refuse.]
Achilles is equally uncooperative with my thesis. The hero-son is supposed to overlook parental exploitation and idealize child-sacrificing parents. Achilles has nothing but contempt for Agamemnon and he pointedly refuses to gloss over or suppress knowledge of this parent figure’s offenses. Instead, he braves Agamemnon’s anger by bringing to light the king’s violations of themis.
The way Achilles tells it, his fellow Achaians act like dependent children. They avoid provoking their parent-figure’s anger by suppressing information of his offenses. As far as they are concerned, all is themis and dikê, order and justice. In this way they maintain their relationship with an abusive caregiver on whom they shamefully depend.
What is going on here? From the standpoint of attachment theory, we have the “right” actions, effects, and responses, but they are assigned to the “wrong” people. The son of Thetis alone has the independence of mind and self-respect to call attention to his parent-figure’s failings.
It is as if the narrative of Achilles’ quarrel with Agamemnon is constructed to establish that the paradigmatic hero, Achilles, is totally unlike the dependent, fearful hero-son posited by attachment theory.
That is precisely my argument in Becoming Achilles.
I’ll finish up by viewing Socrates’ emulation of Achilles’ example in the light of attachment theory.
When Socrates braves the anger of the leaders of Athens to heed a divine command to save his fellow Athenians, he follows in the footsteps of Achilles, who risks the anger of a powerful king in a divinely ordained attempt to save his community (1.178–83). Like those of Socrates’, Achilles’ actions in service of the community assert Apollo’s claims to honor in the face of the hubris of mortal authorities. (At the beginning of the Iliad, the Achaians urge Agamemnon to honor Apollo by granting his priest’s supplication, but Agamemnon abuses the old man and mocks the god’s ability to protect his servant [1.21, 1.25–32, 1.28; hubris: 1.203, 1.214]. Achilles, by contrast, is “the first to urge the god’s appeasement” [1.386].)
Achilles’ altruism and piety, like those of Socrates, are brushed aside as mere pretense. His innocent claim to be discovering the cause of the divine anger that threatens to destroy his community does not fool Agamemnon, who tells him not to “strive to cheat, for you will not deceive.” According to Agamemnon, unbridled ambition lies behind Achilles’ pose of disinterested concern for his fellows’ well-being. Does Achilles wish to strip Agamemnon of honors and give him orders (1.131–34)? The question is rhetorical. Achilles “wishes to be above all others, /. . . to hold power over all and to be lord of / all and give them their orders” (1.287–99). Like Socrates’ accusers, Agamemnon justifies Achilles’ punishment as necessary to deter youthful imitators: “so that another man”—most likely another hotheaded youth like Achilles—“may shrink back from likening himself to [Agamemnon] and contending against” him (1.186–87).
Since Socrates’ noble efforts to save his community are unjustly maligned in much the same terms as Achilles’, we might expect him to sympathize with a fellow victim of outrageous slander. Yet Plato’s Socrates condemns Achilles in terms that echo Agamemnon’s. Seeing through the smokescreen of Achilles’ feigned innocence to the illicit ambitions underneath, Socrates charges him with “youthful impertinences” toward his sovereign and with setting an example that corrupts the young (Rep. 390a).
Even if Socrates’ own claims to serve Apollo could be shown to mask impiety and exert a corrupting influence on the young, can there be any doubt of Socrates’ autonomy? In Plato’s account, the philosophic hero who follows arguments wherever they lead, who commits himself to abide by the conclusions of rational inquiry, and who absolutely refuses to commit wrong, or to abandon his philosophic vocation, even under threat of execution, epitomizes independence of mind and autonomy. In contrast to him stand stolid democrats like Socrates’ accuser, Anytus, who unquestioningly accept traditional ideas of wisdom and virtue.
Yet our analysis cautions against uncritical acceptance of what by Socrates’ time had become a traditional motif: the defiant independence of the hero versus the herd mentality of the mass of men. The Achillean hero, who makes a show of fearlessly speaking his mind, even if it contradicts received wisdom or angers powerful authorities, may be trying to prove he is something he is not. Dependent on a mother’s image of him as an extension of her superiority, he is afraid to own up to his ordinary aspirations and his dismay at her failure to provide ordinary nurture. Desperate to appear superior in her and others’ eyes, he makes a show of indifference to appearances. Disclosure of his ordinary human self would alienate a superior mother; he presents himself as transparent, hiding nothing. On this reading, scholars—and lay readers—who accept Achilles’ and Socrates’ self-presentations, and their praise poets’ representations of them, at face value mistake hero-sons’ defensive self-constructs for reality.
If the personae of Socrates and Achilles serve to deny realities of heroic character, what difference does it make for political thought and philosophy?
Heroic childrearing produces philosophic blind spots. Heroic wisdom lacks a foundation in adult competences, gradually acquired with the help of parental nurture, guidance, and models. Such parenting is unavailable or discredited for hero-sons and for the daughters who become mothers of heroes. As a father-favored daughter is apparently superior to her mother, so the favored son of a ‘divine’ mother is apparently superior to his mortal father. These inversions of parent-child hierarchies instill deep confusion about crucial questions for political thought and philosophy: What constitutes legitimate authority? When should authorities’ actions be deemed unjust? When do they forfeit their claim to obedience? What sort of wisdom, sophia, should philosophers—and citizens—lovingly pursue? Knowledge of the divine? Or something more down to earth? A major consequence of heroic childrearing is an inability to recognize the capacities of ordinary human beings to govern themselves.
All that I’ve said here today may be true.
Achilles and Socrates may protest—and project—too much. But when modern psychologists describe children’s responses to harmful care in terms that echo those Achilles uses to chastise his fellow Achaians, they build on cultural foundations set in place almost three millennia ago in the Iliad.