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.