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Since the advent of bartering, materialism has been a prime concern for human beings. Inherent in our human nature is the desire to improve ourselves. This originates as an individualist need for improvement. The only way the individual can measure their standard of living is through comparison with others. This inspires competition in human beings as each person attempts to accrue as much wealth as they possibly can. Over the years, what determines wealth has varied, but its effect has always remained the same; wealth secures the social well being of an individual and that of their progeny. In Homer’s Iliad human materialism is conveyed beautifully, but it is also contradicted by the actions of Achilles and Priam towards the end of the poem. This contradiction only serves to reinforce the predominance of human materialism, as it is a byproduct of the extreme circumstances that both Achilles and Priam must endure.
The first confrontation with human materialism occurs at the very outset of the poem. During the argument between Achilles and Agamemnon, the question of capital is consistently coming into question as an important part of the debate process. Achilles is angry at Agamemnon for being villainous in his greed: “my arms bear the brunt of the raw, savage fighting, true, but when it comes to dividing up the plunder the lion’s share is yours, and back I go to my ships, clutching some scrap, some pittance” (p.83). Achilles feels that Agamemnon is stripping all his labor and becomes furious about it. The two both debate with each other as to who is truly the greatest of the Achaens and this question of materialism constantly looms overhead and presents itself as a possible determinant to their question.
Even the gods use materialism as a form of intervention. When Diomedes and Glaucus trade armor as a signal of friendship, it is explained that “Zeus, stole Glaucus’ wits away. He traded his gold armor for bronze with Diomedes, the worth of a hundred oxen just for nine” (p.203). This shows that human materialism skews even an attempt at friendship. Diomedes undermines his effort through his greed and treachery which is characteristic of almost all the humans in this poem. Also it is interesting that the importance of this trade is contingent on the value of the armor in material terms, but not in terms of how well the armor provides protection. A more solid example of the use of materialism with the deities is the offering system. The gods consistently desire offerings from humans and humans find it an easy way to curry favor. Zeus exemplifies this in his lament over the death of Hector “I loved him, at least: he never stinted with gifts to please my heart” (p.590).
In this poem, women are often used as material objects as well. The whole war was started over a social well being fight between Athena, Hera, and Aphrodite where Paris agreed to choose Aphrodite over the other two in exchange for Helen who is seen as a commodity. Also, when Paris is considering bartering with Menelaus to call off the war, he tries to equate Helen with material goods that he expects Menelaus to accept in lieu of her; however, Helen is worth more to him than Paris could ever offer. If he was willing to start a war for her, then the only logical conclusion is that she is the only compensation he would be willing to accept.
Later on when Agamemnon is trying to convince Achilles to come back and fight for him, in addition to massive amounts of treasure, Agamemnon adds Briseis, the girl Achilles loves to the list of rewards. She is considered just another token who is described as a prize by both Achilles and Agamemnon. Achilles says, “I loved that woman with all my heart, though I won her like a trophy with my spear” (p.263). But by that point, even his reported love for her is insignificant next to the ongoing rivalry of relative well being between Agamemnon and Achilles. By this point it is far more important that he remains better than Agamemnon which is the true value of the material wealth. Agamemnon too is not ready to give up his presumption of being “the greater man” (p.256). Even though he humbles himself to the point of asking Achilles to come back and offers him great military compensation, he still wants Achilles to submit to his will and accept Agamemnon as a superior man.
Although Achilles’ refusal of Agamemnon’s offer appears to point towards Achilles’ disregard for material wealth, this is not the case for two reasons. Firstly there is the explanation that materialism needs to translate into social welfare. By not returning, Achilles retains his position of superiority whereas by making this offer, Agamemnon has humbled himself. Secondly, Achilles knows from his mother that if he returns to aid the Argives that he will die. Therefore, even material wealth is no incentive to return to battle, as he will never have the opportunity to reap the benefits from it. The only consideration for him now is whether a long undistinguished life or a short glorious life would grant him the greatest utility in life.
It is not until the death of his beloved Patroclus that Achilles returns to battle. Upon his return, Agamemnon attempts to provide Achilles with all the material wealth, but at this point, Achilles no longer cares for it. The death of Patroclus is worse to Achilles than his own death. Since now he is beyond death, the importance of things such as material gain are now nonexistent. For this reason Achilles refuses all the things that Agamemnon tries to provide for him. Agamemnon is taken aback by Achilles’ refusal and perhaps believes that this is a continuation of the epic battle between them. For that reason he insists that Achilles accept the gifts that had been promised him. But at this point Achilles is beyond caring about even the things, which mattered to him most previously. Achilles refuses to accept any form of sustenance until he has adequately avenged Patroclus. This further acts to separate Achilles from humanity. Even his love for Briseis, the main source of conflict between him and Agamemnon, is now not even a trifle in comparison to his emotion for the martyred Patroclus.
After Patroclus is avenged through the death of Hector, Achilles holds funeral games in honor of Patroclus. These games all show the elite of the Argive warriors competing with one another for material goods which Achilles provides. Amongst these goods are oxen and women. Again women are just seen as material gains. It is interesting that during these games, Achilles rewards Antilochus with an extra half a bar of gold for flattery; “Antilochus, how can I let your praise go unrewarded?” (p.584). It is unclear whether Achilles does this because he cares nothing for the gold and he remembers that Antilochus does, or whether the flattery somewhat reminds him of his humanity and brings him some sense of satisfaction in this time after his rage has been somewhat satiated. At the end of these games, Achilles cajoles Agamemnon into accepting an inferior prize by using his pride, “Atrides – well we know how far you excel us all…Take first prize and return to your hollow ships while we award this spear to the fighter Meriones” (p.587). Agamemnon is tricked into accepting a lesser material gain. Achilles is essentially taking advantage of Agamemnon’s humanity by sacrificing the very same material gains that used to be so important to him.
Zeus, apparently still not understanding the transformation Achilles has gone through, wants to send someone “bearing gifts to Achilles, gifts to melt his rage” (p.592). Since by this point he has moved past rage and into sorrow, he is willing to accept the terms, but only since Zeus insists. Priam, Hector’s father, brings a priceless ransom to Achilles in return for the body, but this is more of a representation of how much Hector is worth to him rather than how much Achilles wants for the body. The fact that Priam had not allowed sustenance to enter his body until he had received the body of Hector is reminiscent of Achilles after the death of Patroclus. Perhaps Achilles allowed the return of Hector, since he understood that Priam had exited humanity as he had and that only the return of Hector would satisfy his sorrow. Achilles tries to reconcile returning the body of Hector with the spirit of Patroclus and of himself. Since he cannot bring himself to admit that he returned the body based on his empathy with Priam, he tries to rationalize his action through material grounds: “Feel no anger at me, Patroclus, if you learn…I let his father have Prince Hector back. He gave me worthy ransom and you shall have your share from me” (p.607). Achilles says this even though he truly knows that the ransom is physically inconsequential for Patroclus, and mentally inconsequential for himself.
Materialism is a predominant theme in the Iliad. Its significance is best understood when united with its purpose. The importance of materialism is that greater material wealth implies greater social standing which is the ultimate goal. All the characters, even the deities, are subject to this overwhelming lust for materialism. The only exceptions to this come at the end with Achilles and Priam. Achilles is forced to endure the death of the person he loved more than life itself. This causes him to lose his humanity making material gains insignificant. Achilles is ultimately unable to resolve his emotions and only capable of calming his rage. Priam is merely a repetition of the scenario that developed around Achilles, except that Priam is unable to use his rage in the same manner that Achilles does. Priam is willing to offer whatever ransom Achilles desires, since his most important son is dead, and thus his material worth is no longer important. The exceptions of Achilles and Priam occur under extraordinary circumstances making the importance of human materialism all the more exciting. All the other humans, who have not suffered such heart wrenching agony, are all still very materialistically driven. With Achilles, the story is much more compelling since he initially is very interested in his own social welfare, but later finds himself staring death in the face and welcoming it when it comes. At the end of the poem, Achilles once again sleeps with Briseis. This signifies that he is rehabilitating himself and trying to return to his humanity. Furthermore, he accepts the ransom which is a step towards materialism, even if the value of the ransom is inconsequential to him presently. The beautiful irony is that his efforts to return to humanity will be in vain as he will soon be killed.
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