Achilles is the best of the Greeks in the Iliad: the fastest, the strongest, the most warlike. He fights like a god (Zeus is his great-grandfather, after all), he excels at winning, he excels at taking – men’s lives and their booty. He is the best his world has to offer.
But he cannot handle loss. When robbed of his spear-won prize Briseis, the best he can do is cry out to his goddess mother, and sulk, hopefully robbing Agamemnon of his victory. And when he loses the great love of his life Patroclus, he flies into murderous rage: he slays horse-breaker Hector in revenge (fair enough), but also horribly abuses the corpse, and even burns alive 12 Trojan boys in his bereavement. When he loses, when things are taken from him, he responds the only way he knows how: double down and take right back.
But it doesn’t satisfy him. None of his taking back soothes him; but he is finally soothed when grey-haired Priam begs for the desecrated corpse of his son, and Achilles – godlike Achilles – gives in, and gives the body back to the grieving father. This is the climax of the world’s oldest war story.
If all’s fair in love and war I would say the same goes for life and war – and in many ways is not war simply life at its most distilled, raw, and primal? It’s the survival of the fittest, it’s performance to the peak, it’s dog eat dog, it’s pain and entropy, confusion and betrayal, horror and uncertainty.
And even when it doesn’t reach these extremes, life (and the world which represents it) is about taking. Time is taken, money is spent, health deteriorates, lives are lost. Circumstances shift, good things don’t last.
So we look at the basic rules of the world, and we look at ourselves and see we are frail and naked. What can be done then?
We take. We fight.
We lose, and so we take back. In our grief we indulge in addictions. We take out our frustrations on others because we can.
It doesn’t soothe us. It’s madness. It’s wearying.
Maybe Homer and his predecessors were truly onto something then, when they had the Muses sing how godlike, grieving Achilles plumbed the depths of his taking, and in the end gave it all up.
He didn’t just give back Hector’s cadaver. He gave up his right to have it. He gave up his victory, he gave it all back.
It was madness – but only about as mad as the rules of his world. And in the end it soothed him.
Maybe this is what makes the gospel such good news, such a powerful idea: that in a warlike world which demands victory and taking, but also takes everything in the end from those who live in it, there is another way to live. A man who gave everything away for people he had never met, and was given in the end not a stinking grave, but everlasting life and glory – he is good news, he is hope. He’s the reason why his followers can give away everything they have: bad things like sin, addiction, idolatry, but also good things like wealth, comfort, entitlement.
And in that giving back, giving away, we follow that man. We have soothing, we have hope. We have life.