On the Iliad and Excellence

Sophia Miretskiy (’20) discusses her changing understanding of the Iliad in relation to her own life and that of her immigrant parents.

Intaglio: Minerva throwing her aegis over Achilles early 19th century. Source: Metropolitan Museum
Intaglio: Minerva throwing her aegis over Achilles, early 19th century. Source: Metropolitan Museum

Every child has a “thing,” one irrational obsession, a subject in which they feel they are an expert. For some it is sharks or snakes, for me, as for many other children, it was classical mythology. I would pride myself on knowing every god in the Greek pantheon and memorized every Roman equivalent. In third grade, I set my sights on a career that I deemed perfect for my interests—archaeology. My family assumed that this was just a phase and humored my interests, gifting me mythology books and allowing me to pester them with my “fun facts.” However, the longer this phase lasted, the more concerned they became. They began encouraging me to choose a different, more prestigious career path, while pressuring me to strive to be better than my peers. Instead of taking their advice, I chose to dive deeper into my fascination with mythology. I found comfort in gruesome stories of extravagant heroes. A little later I discovered the works of Homer. The Iliad in particular became my favorite mythological work. It wasn’t until quite recently, however, that I discovered the reason behind my fascination with the story of Achilles. I realized that I see myself in Achilles, and the heroes in Homer, because my battle with the need for excellence, impressed upon me by my family, is reflected in the values of these heroes. The pursuit of excellence, being the greatest among my peers, was pushed upon me by my parents, and their parents. This mentality, however, is a product of their own environment and the lasting legacy of war that can also be seen through the Iliad.

My parents immigrated to the United States with their parents from the Soviet Union, fleeing lifetimes of persecution and institutionalized anti-Semitism, ingrained into society. They joined the waves of Soviet refugees, settling in a community where they would continue to be surrounded by people who were culturally similar. Though they left on the cusps of their adult lives, they were still not entitled to the same opportunities given to those who had lived here longer. They had the typical immigrant story: they, along with my grandparents, worked hard so that my siblings and I would have better lives. My family hoped to give me everything that they were deprived of—an education, financial stability, and the opportunity to be free and independent. Yet they themselves unintentionally hinder my freedom and independence by imposing their own notions of what my achievements and accomplishments should be.

As with most other children of immigrants, the mentality that I must be the best was something instilled on me from a young age. In school I was constantly compared to my peers and children of my parents’ friends, and I, of course, was never good enough. I was constantly reminded of the shame that I brought upon my family among their friends when I failed to live up to the expectations that they had set. Why was it that Tanya’s son got an A on his math test, when I got a B? However, I have realized that earning success was not simply about bragging rights for my family, but was something they used as a means of survival. They grew up, as many in the Soviet Union, impoverished in a failing economy, and though they have lived in the United States for almost 30 years, they retained their old mentality, living as though there is still a chance that they might walk into the grocery store and find the aisles empty. They subconsciously used my potential for success as a means to guarantee that they would never again have to experience the same conditions that they were raised in.

However, I soon began imposing the same notions of perfection on myself. My expectations of myself were different than those of my family. They expected excellence in a practical manner, hoping that I would be successful enough for financial stability, to provide for myself and all of them. I, however, strove to be like the heroes in the stories that I had become so fascinated with in my childhood, deciding that if my legacy was not as monumental as theirs that I have failed both myself and my family.

Much of the Iliad celebrates the competitive, toxic pursuit of excellence and perfection. Heroes strive for glory over survival, with the risk of being a detriment to their family legacy. In one famous exchange, the Lycian warrior Glaucus, fighting on the Trojan side, meets the Greek Diomedes. In response to a challenge from Diomedes asking who he is, Glaucus tells the long story of his descent from the hero Bellerophon, and concludes:

Hippolochus bore me, and I declare I am his son.

He sent me to Troy and charged me earnestly

to be the best always, superior to the others,

and not to bring shame on the line of my ancestors

who were the best men in Ephyre and wide Lycia (Iliad 6.206–210)

Ἱππόλοχος δέ μ᾽ ἔτικτε, καὶ ἐκ τοῦ φημι γενέσθαι:

πέμπε δέ μ᾽ ἐς Τροίην, καί μοι μάλα πόλλ᾽ ἐπέτελλεν

αἰὲν ἀριστεύειν καὶ ὑπείροχον ἔμμεναι ἄλλων,

μηδὲ γένος πατέρων αἰσχυνέμεν, οἳ μέγ᾽ ἄριστοι

ἔν τ᾽ Ἐφύρῃ ἐγένοντο καὶ ἐν Λυκίῃ εὐρείῃ.

Heroes must present themselves before battle, stating their father and grandfather’s name, ensuring that they continue the glory of their ancestors. This constant invocation of fathers and grandfathers by heroes in the Greek tradition, makes a powerful statement in presenting the values of the text. It seems that success in battle is always tied to family pride.

I found that, like myself, Achilles grapples with these ideas of honor and excellence. In the Iliad, Achilles’ fate was forced upon him from a young age. When he chooses to question the idea that he is destined to solidify his legacy at Troy, he is met with backlash and pleas to reconsider. After Briseis is taken from him my Agamemnon, Achilles decides that he would rather return home than continue to have his honor taken from him. He outlines his decisions and potential fates to Odysseus when he attempts to convince him to stay and fight, saying

If I remain here and fight beside the city of the Trojans,

then lost is my return home but my renown will be imperishable.

If I return home to my dear native land,

then lost is my glorious renown yet my life long will endure,

and the doom of death will not come so soon of me.

εἰ μέν κ᾽ αὖθι μένων Τρώων πόλιν ἀμφιμάχωμαι,

ὤλετο μέν μοι νόστος, ἀτὰρ κλέος ἄφθιτον ἔσται:

εἰ δέ κεν οἴκαδ᾽ ἵκωμι φίλην ἐς πατρίδα γαῖαν,

ὤλετό μοι κλέος ἐσθλόν, ἐπὶ δηρὸν δέ μοι αἰὼν

ἔσσεται, οὐδέ κέ μ᾽ ὦκα τέλος θανάτοιο κιχείη. (Iliad 9. 412–416)

He decides that he no longer needs glory and chooses to return home and live out the rest of his life in peace. However, Odysseus, sent by Agamemnon, begs him to reconsider his decision, claiming that the Greeks need the “greatest of the Achaeans” to win the war, pushing the narrative of excellence over survival. Though he holds steady in his decision, Achilles is later pushed into battle by the death of Patroclus, and ultimately fulfills his destiny and kills Hector, solidifying his legacy.

To the ancient Greeks, these events proved that no one was able to escape destiny, and portrayed the glory of their predecessors. For my younger self, however, they demonstrated that sacrificing yourself to leave the greatest legacy was always better than settling for healthy mediocracy. I focused on this outcome of the Iliad, and many of the other ancient myths that emulated these same themes, because these values were already stressed by my family.

It wasn’t until I analyzed the Iliad in an academic setting that I began to realize that the ancient Greek ideal of a hero should not be idolized. It was in the analysis of the aristeiai that I learned of the flaws of both Achilles and the Homeric concept of heroism. The aristeia was the climax of the ancient hero’s greatness, when he demonstrated his power in battle and destroyed his enemy, and was often what solidified his legacy. Achilles’ aristeia, for example, was him killing Hector. However, these feats of greatness were often war crimes in disguise. Achilles’ aristeia continued after the death of Hector, when he proceeded to mutilate the body of the hero, dragging him behind his chariot around the walls of Troy. These demonstrations of so-called greatness show an alternative side to perfection, demonstrating the toxic nature of the expectation of excellence.

Despite this realization, I continue to struggle with the expectations imparted on me by both my family and myself. I have long held the idea that I too must leave a legacy, in this overextending myself to the point of exhaustion and bending myself to the will of my family, in an attempt to meet their standards, and eventually my own. While at the same time, I have known from a young age that I will never live up to the expectations that my family set for me. I instead decided that perhaps if I am successful on my own terms, I would fulfill the dreams that all immigrant parents wish for their children. This however, has not proven to be effective. My accomplishments are not something that they can understand or accept.

My reading of the Iliad has allowed me to better cope with my upbringing and the expectations that I set for myself. My younger self was able to find comfort in Achilles’ story, and used it as an escape from my own world of expectations. I still find comfort in the Iliad, but a different kind of comfort. I now use it, not as escape, but as a way to understand that the achievements anticipated from me, and that I anticipate from myself, are not always feasible. It has helped me see that the pursuit of excellence can be dangerous, and that, since I am not a Homeric hero, I must find motivations other than perfection.

I feel that reading the Iliad will benefit my family, just as it allowed me to better understand my motivations, actions, and flaws. A closer reading of the Iliad has shown me that this drive to perfection and excellence stems from war, something that has had an immense impact on the mentality of the society that shaped my family. In his 2010 book Achilles in Vietnam, doctor and clinical psychiatrist Johnathan Shay captures this connection between the Iliad and themes of war. Focusing on veterans of the Vietnam War, with whom he has worked extensively, he analyses the lasting psychological effect that this catastrophic event had on those who saw combat, and connects those stories with the narrative of war in the Iliad. He interprets the Homeric text as an “account of men in war,” not in an attempt to modernize the ancient story, but as a way to both further understand the Iliad and legitimize the experiences of veterans.

In his analysis, he finds that, in many ways, Achilles’ psychological character is not unique. The motivation behind his decision to desert, his reliance on Patroclus, and his issues with authority are all characteristic of soldiers in combat. However, the Achilles’ aristeia is something that cannot be found in modern warfare. Though the death of a comrade could cause an American soldier to “go berserk,” on top of the grief that they were already suffering through, they were often pushed by their superiors to thirst for revenge. Achilles’ rampage, however, came solely out of grief, and was cruel even for Homer.

Shay finds that the Iliad is representative of many other aspects of war. In addition to the psychological impact of war on those facing combat, he also discusses the impact of war on civilians. He points out women and children face the risk of immense suffering and complete devastation upon defeat, something the Trojans knew during the war. The impact the lasting psychological effects of war, not only in veterans, but also in these civilians is dangerous.

These lasting psychological effects are ultimately what shaped the society that my parents and grandparents were born into. My grandfather, born in 1940, lived to see the aftermath of World War II, and constantly, to this day, recounts stories of famine and death. From an early age, I learned of the atrocities of the Holocaust and the effect that the war had on my predecessors. It seems that post-Soviet states have still not recovered from the memory of a war that took place over 70 years ago. Their governments idolize victory, not allowing their citizens to distance themselves from their war-torn past. It is in this environment where this mentality of excellence is able to thrive. My grandparents were raised in this environment, where glory and victory were worshiped. My parents were constantly pushed to be the best, with the reminder of the sacrifices that their predecessors had to make in order for them to have the opportunities that they had.

In reading the Iliad, my family may be able to finally understand where their values come from. Though they dwell on the atrocities of war that have affected them personally, they are unable to see that these lasting effects are dangerous. They praise success in war and see it as a necessity, rather than a danger. By reading the story of Achilles, and comparing their values to those of Homeric heroes, they may be able to recognize that war should be understood as something purely violent. They may also be able to see that their mentality, pushing toxic pursuit of excellence, is a remnant of war, and therefore itself is inherently dangerous and violent.

They might also find comfort in reading the Iliad, as I did, using it to look back on their own childhoods and cope with their experiences. They could even finally understand my obsession with classical mythology, and gain an appreciation for the stories that have always fascinated me.

This, of course, is all hypothetical. Realistically, even if my parents, or grandparents, do read the Iliad, they may not come to same conclusions as I have. Their interpretation of the text may be completely different than what I have come to understand. This, however, will not take away from the comfort that I find in reading the works of Homer. The Iliad has allowed for me to better understand myself and my environment. It has allowed me to look inward and find my flaws and motivations and has served as an escape from expectations when I needed it to. Though my parents may still hope that my love for the classical world is just a phase, I know that I will continue to read, and be fascinated by these texts, just as they will continue to help me understand myself and the world around me.




St. Augustine, Teaching, and Piety

Carl Hamilton (’21) discusses the impact on his life of reading Augustine’s Confessions.

Dickinson’s seal is emblazoned on mugs, envelopes, and Britton Plaza, but its Latin motto is little understood by the community at large. Pietate et doctrina tuta libertas, is simple Latin: “Through piety and learning liberty is (made) safe.” But the ease of translation belies the difficulty of understanding. What is piety? What is learning? And finally what is liberty itself? Such pregnant concepts lie in so few words.

photo of the college seal with Latin motto
In the summer of 1784, as the college’s founders discussed the formation of the college, Benjamin Rush and John Dickinson were asked to create a suitable seal for the institution. The resulting seal consists of an open bible, a telescope and a cap surrounded by the inscription “Pietate et Doctrina Tuta Libertas.”

“Liberty is made safe through character and learning” is the translation on a wall in the registrar’s office, and on the college website. There is no need to consult a Latin dictionary to be  struck by the 21st-century individualism of translating pietas (piety) as “character.” As if the ambiguity already present in the words properly translated was not enough, here the school itself is officially promulgating an incorrect translation of its motto.

To communicate my views on the motto, specifically the words doctrina and pietate, I must enlist the aid of St. Augustine through my personal experiences with his autobiography, Confessions. By reading this book, I learned that learning and piety, formerly two very separate concepts in my mind, depend wholly on each other, such that one cannot be separated from the other without losing the integrity of both.


Teaching, learning, academicism, however you may translate doctrina, has always been a prominent part of my life. From an early age I had loved books, learning to read The Cat in the Hat before ascending to more refined works such as Encyclopedia Brown and, later, Shakespeare. In elementary school, I was always excelling in the highest level classes. As I progressed in my schooling, math became a challenge. I failed a math final in tenth grade and gladly took a much lower level class as a junior; but, when it came to humanities, I was always performing at the highest levels.

And oh, how I delighted in such subjects! Nothing would please me more than causing aesthetic or literary conflagrations of opinions. As one of a conservative bent, my very liberal senior-year English class provided fertile ground for this squabbling.  If I left class shaking my head in disgust or victory, it had been a good day. Through sheer knowledge, I was able to dominate most arguments, or, as Quintilian quotes Cicero as saying, to “throw dust in the eyes of my jury.” I remember haughtily correcting someone across the class who claimed that Shakespeare lived under Queen Victoria with a snobbish, “Actually, you mean Elizabeth.”

In high school I found Latin, which subject shamefully became the primary outlet for this intellectual pride. At that time, I could think of nothing so pleasing as having others recognize my wide erudition. Although I loved learning, I desired academic mastery mainly for the sake of myself, not the material per se, and certainly not for any moral or intellectual good. I sought to understand so that I might show off for rewards on tests, in classroom competitions, or in discussions. In Latin 4, the other seniors and I so dominated discussions that on the mid-year evaluations one of the juniors wrote, “Why do the seniors have to be so intimidating?”

I question now whether I would have been as zealous for learning had those direct benefits not existed? If you had asked me the purpose of Latin and liberal learning at the time, I probably would have propounded lofty Arnoldian platitudes that learning enriches the soul with “the best that has been thought and said in the world.” But such would have been a deception: I was greatly advancing in doctrina, or so I thought, blind to any higher aims than my own success.

It was during high school in fact when I first picked up Confessions but stopped reading somewhere in the second or third book. The impact it had on my immature self was minimal, for I remember thinking, “How could he dare assert the vanity of Vergil and classical learning in general?” I recall expressing this alarming thought to my Latin teacher, who responded, “Well, I guess he realized he had found something greater.” I walked away unimpressed with his answer. The irony was mine though, for less than two years later I would take and read Augustine again, wherein I would find something far greater than Vergil indeed.

As to piety, religion certainly was not absent from my life at this time. I began attending the Latin Mass, the rite of Catholic Mass in effect from 1570 until 1969. Being very wary of the liberal reforms in the Church after Vatican II, I was constantly researching and trying to practice Her traditional ways. But my learning and my piety, except for the Latin connection at Mass, were almost entirely separate at this time. From Monday to Friday I boasted in the classroom; on Sundays I was humble at Mass, and never the twain shall meet.


In the fall of 2017, my freshman year at college, I once again took and read the Confessions. I know not why, but I sat in the library and read the first book, getting lost in time as I got lost in the truth of what I was reading, with each sentence being a carefully mounted attack against the once impregnable fortifications of my pride.

Augustine, an academically talented boy, found himself, I realized, in a very similar situation to my own. Born in Thagaste, North Africa, in 354, he was raised in the Catholic faith by his mother, Monica (later St. Monica). In adolescence he drifted from the faith and came in adulthood to hold a chair of rhetoric in Rome. Eventually, hearing angelic voices in a garden telling him, tolle, lege, (“take and read”), he left his career to be welcomed back into the Church. He rose to become a priest and then in 396 a bishop in Hippo, less than 60 miles from his native Thagaste. In this position he wrote his theological masterpieces, On Christian Teaching, On the Trinity, and On the City of God against the Pagans. These, among his other works, did more to intellectually buttress the Church than probably any others until St. Thomas’ Summa in the 1200’s.

But while his theological works received the greatest attention in the Middle Ages, they present very little of Augustine the man. Only since the 19th century, the age of the Romantics, has Confessions received a large amount of attention (See Garry Wills’ 2011 book, Augustine’s Confessions: A Biography, p. 137). Nevertheless, much comment on Confessions neglects its personal aspects, or perverts its personal aspects for selfish ends, as the Freudians do whose “Psychobiography,” as Wills says, “found Confessions irresistible,” by asserting that his mother Monica was a dominating force throughout Augustine’s life. Some used the historical-critical method, such as Harnack in the 19th century and Courcelle in the 20th, to carp at the work for inconsistencies with his letters, ironically mirroring Augustine’s own meaningless historical fault-finding in the Old Testament (Wills, p. 141). Other philosophers focused on the abstract parts of Confessions, such as Wittgenstein on language acquisition, or Heidegger on the meaning of time as discussed in the last, non-autobiographical section of the book (pp. 145–146).

Most of these are important avenues of study, ones which Augustine encourages through Confessions and from which I have benefitted in my own theological thought. But in order to reach the noble heights of such works I needed the milk of Augustine’s personal reflection, not yet the strong meat of his theology. I found such reflection in the early books of his Confessions, where Augustine describes in lacerating detail his encounters with schooling during boyhood and adolescence. These meditations of his pierced my being on that day in the library.

In Book 1 Augustine expounds most fully his unpleasant schooling experience. He describes being taught grammar by the grammatici, the first teachers in a boy’s Roman education to “get on in the world and excel in the handling of words to gain honor among men and deceitful riches.” He continues in this condemnatory vein saying that, “the idling of men is called business; the idling of boys [ball playing], though exactly like, is punished by those same men” (1.9.15). While I agreed with these criticisms of his own political society, ambitious as ours is, the last point in this section brought the condemnation onto me: “if on some trifling point [the teacher] had the worst of the argument with some fellow-master, he was more torn with angry vanity than I when I was beaten with a game of ball.” (Confessions 1.9, trans. Sheed). What does that describe but my classroom experience, especially in high school, where I can think of countless times being either piqued by someone’s better knowledge, or proud that I had just displayed my own voluminous knowledge? Like Augustine, these bouts had earned me applause of “Well done! Well done!” (1.13.21). But it is a tragic irony that the external flatteries of the world cause the internal swollenness of the soul.

At this early stage in Augustine’s career, he was being taught the grammar of Latin and Greek, which, as most students attest, is a miserable and grueling process. But, when his class starts reading literature, especially Vergil, he becomes wholly taken and “weeps for the death that Dido suffered…and not for the death” which comes “through not loving God” (ibid.). This love of literature he counts as a worse evil than oratorical pride because an emotional immersion in Vergil turned his attention away from an emotional connection with God. What purpose, Augustine frustratingly asks, do the fictional stories of Aeneid serve? Nothing, he would say, save to avert attention from God. Hearing the harsh finality of this condemnation, I the reader stood doubly condemned. While he had loved Vergil for his poem, I loved Vergil both for his poem and for what he could give me, mainly academic honor and prestige, such as a 5 on the AP Latin test.

To remove myself from this condemnation of literary vanity, Augustine taught me to focus on teleology. Book 1 is essentially a study of these ends, a meditation upon why people take certain actions. He finds that, when he reads Cicero’s Hortensius, “Suddenly all the vanity [he] had hoped in [he] saw as worthless, and with an incredible intensity of desire [he] longed after immortal wisdom. [He] had begun the journey upwards by which [he] was to return to You [God]” (3.4.7). Thus, looking back, he condemns his reliance on Vergil and his schoolmasters’ pride because their teleology was misplaced in “superfluous and self-indulgent” fictions, as he calls them in On Christian Teaching, and useless desires of personal gain (On Christian Teaching 2.25.39, trans. Greene). Augustine realizes that he should have cherished the grammatical teaching, which he called “the surer,” because Truth can arise from writing, such as in the Scriptures or theological writings, but not from pagan works, especially fictional ones such as poems: “Which loss would be more damaging to human life-the loss…of reading and writing or the loss of these poetic imaginings-there can be no question…” (Conf. 1.13.22)

These readings showed me, so puffed up in intellectual pride, that I was putting my justification in “so much smoke and wind,” false stories and vain pride, not upon truth, which is God (3.4.7). Augustine’s Confessions was my Hortensius, showing me that Truth, as Christ said He is, should be the aim of all intellectual endeavor. I will be good, but there will always be some Latinist better than I. I will understand Vergil, but someone will always have more insight than I. It was only through Confessions that I truly saw the vanity of all my fruitless pride and anger from intellectual superiority.

It was easy for me to read all these ideas and replace academic pride with a sharp anti-intellectualism. As The Imitation of Christ, a medieval devotional work, states, “Learned words do not make anyone wise or holy: it is a good life which draws us closer to God” (The Imitation of Christ 1.1, trans. Jeffery). But, I thought, while my love of learning for my own sake was misdirected, certainly there had to be a place for learning? How else was I to apply my naturally eager mind? Surely the great intellectual saints, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Anselm, St. John Henry Newman, and of course, St. Augustine, had found a way to use their active minds in a manner efficacious for the faith and for salvation, not for their own vanity. But I found it hard to balance piety and learning, for it seemed the deeper I went into the one, the further I got from the other.

Doctrina pietate

To work out my Augustinian dilemma we must return to Dickinson’s motto. I have realized that learning and piety, doctrina et pietate, cannot work separately. As Augustine and I can attest, learning without piety leads to vanity, and piety without learning causes an unformed, undisciplined faith. Rather, I must borrow the syntax of that venerable Ciceronian phrase, otium cum dignitate, (leisure with dignity), to formulate a new motto which says doctrina cum pietate tuta libertas (By teaching with piety, liberty is safe). Salvation and justification do not come by displaying academic achievements, how much Greek history I know, or how many epic similes of Vergil I recall. They have their place in this earthly life, but they must eventually give way to Truth. If I, through some writing or study, might elucidate or communicate to someone a mere morsel of that truth, then I will not have labored fruitlessly.

I expect a conscious reader to ask, “Why are you a budding Classicist? Why would you ever read another pagan word in your life?” I can indeed read such things, because I do not share Augustine’s very strict views on art, which seem to restrict any art not directly efficacious for salvation. Rather, taking his teleology which submits all things toward salvation, I think non-religious art and entertainment is acceptable so long as one does not allow it to distract from the faith, as Vergil distracted Augustine. Neither I, nor St. Augustine, profess Fideism, which seeks to sever the bonds between Athens and Jerusalem, pagan and Christian art. One only has to read On Christian Teaching to see how indebted indeed Augustine’s homiletic theory is to Cicero’s Orator. So, I shall study Vergil’s metrical brilliance, stand in awe of Bach’s counterpoint, marvel at Van Gough’s vital globs, but recognize that all of this will pass away, but the words of Christ, who is the Word incarnate, will not pass away.

Confessions taught me to understand why Augustine wrote all his other theological works: out of love of God, not personal ambition. His writings, as St. Francis’ asceticism, St. Monica’s prayers, and St. Francis Xavier’s missionary work, were his way of living that love, a love of God which he cultivated, not as a mere tradition blindly handed down, but as a gift which received him and which he strove all his life to pay back through writing. And in turn Augustine’s writing, though separated in a dark manner through centuries, is a gift which I myself have received face to face, and which anyone could receive, if he should be willing to, like St. Augustine in the garden, tolle, lege.