Sunday, June 13, 2004


Pity and Cruelty

In the sixth book of the Iliad (lines 36-65), the Trojan Adrestus falls out of his chariot on the field of battle. The Greek hero Menelaus is on the verge of killing him when Adrestus clasps Menelaus' knees, begs for mercy, and promises ransom if he is spared. At first Menelaus is inclined to take pity on Adrestus, until Agamemnon persuades him otherwise, arguing that the Trojans should be destroyed root and branch. Menelaus kicks Adrestus away, and Agamemnon kills him with a spear thrust.

With nearly two thousand years of Christianity behind us, we are apt to regard cruelty as the temptation and pity as the virtue that overcomes the temptation. But in this passage from the Iliad, pity is a weak, unmanly impulse, and the unswerving resolve to destroy the enemy is seen as virtuous. Homer describes Agamemnon's advice to Menelaus as 'aisima,' proper or righteous.

The hero par excellence, Achilles, routinely rejects pleas for mercy (from Tros, 20.463-483, and Lycaon, 21.64-135). When Hector falls beneath Achilles' spear, he pleads not for his life, because he knows that his wound is fatal, but for his body to be released to his mother and father for burial (22.337-354). Achilles rejects his supplication and does his utmost to mistreat Hector's corpse, dragging it behind his chariot around the tomb of Patroclus (who was slain by Hector). Achilles finally relents, however, and gives up the body to Hector's aged father Priam in the final book of the Iliad. Pity has at last vanquished cruelty.

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