July 27, 2008

The Glory of Achilles and the Glory of God

Nearly three years ago, I wrote about the idea of a “life worth living”. Last week, one of my short topics discussed my own insecurity about my life’s worth. There’s a part of me that longs to be great. To be the best, to be the hero. I discussed this during my meeting with Dr. Stewart this week. And I related this story: at the beginning of Troy, there’s a short scene that grabbed my attention. Agamemnon, one of the great Greek kings, is attempting to conquer somebody. The armies meet on the field of battle and prepare to slaughter each other. To forestall the bloodshed, one king proposes that the contest be settled by single combat between the greatest warrior on each side (reminiscent of David and Goliath’s battle). The one king summons his greatest warrior, a confident giant of a man. Agamemnon summons Achilles. But Achilles isn’t with the army. A small boy is sent to find Achilles and bring him back.

Once the boy finds Achilles, there’s an interesting exchange while the boy helps Achilles into his armor. The boy nervously says that Achilles’ opponent is a giant, ending with the plaintive phrase: “I wouldn’t want to fight him.” Achilles looks at the boy and answers “And that is why no-one will remember your name.”

That story isn’t from the Iliad. At least, I don’t remember it being there. But Achilles is given a clear choice at the beginning of the Trojan war: he can go to war and die there before his time, yet win undying glory as the greatest warrior of all time. Or he can stay at home, marry a lovely woman, raise children, and have a long and happy life ... and be utterly forgotten in a few generations. He chooses to go to war.

“What a colossal ego!” the psychologist interjected at this point. I was surprised. He seemed to believe this dilemma a simple one: you obviously choose to stay at home. I however, do not feel this a simple dilemma at all. A very significant part of me agrees with the choice of Achilles. He chose glory.

This is in line with one of the defining values for the Greeks, the concept of areté. Quoting from this page, “Translated as ‘virtue,’ the word actually means something closer to ‘being the best you can be,’ or ‘reaching your highest human potential.’” As I understand it, the Greeks longed for greatness and glory. To be the best. I think one of the driving forces for this is the universal human fear of death. Every culture must come to grips with the mortality of its members. And I think the Greek answer, at least in part, was to strive for greatness. To do something so great that your name would be remembered forever.

Our own culture owes much to the Greeks and we have inherited this desire as well (though not to the same extent as the Greeks, most likely). How many times in books and movies have you seen people do things to be remembered? “Eternal remembrance” is a common selling point used to get the elderly rich to invest in something: you offer to name the project after them. This is employed for all sorts of things, large and small. The larger the better. People like to believe that their achievements will be remembered.

Of course, they will not. Almost all people are utterly forgotten within a generation or two of their death. Almost every accomplishment, no matter how laudable, is forgotten. Yet still we press to be remembered. At least partly because there are some people who are remembered ... we’re still telling the story of Achilles. And George Washington. Yet even these monuments will fade. And I guarantee you the glory of Achilles will not outlast the heat-death of the universe.

The hope of doing something great enough that your name will live forever is a cheat and a mirage. But, as with all hopes, its roots are in something true. We humans find death unacceptable. Some counsel us to reconcile ourselves to death, to the void. Yet we cannot. “God has set eternity in the hearts of men.” We were not meant to die and be forgotten forever: this is the cry of the human heart. And if the Christian belief is correct, the human heart is right. We were not meant to die and be forgotten forever. And we don’t and we aren’t. No one is forgotten forever. No one really dies (in the sense of ceasing to exist anywhere). God remembers the housewife, the tailor, the boot maker. They too have a place in the kingdom of God, along with the “great”. Actually, they will enter much sooner than many of the great. For God measures greatness differently.

Striving for a Prize

So is there anything to strive for? Anything to pour your heart and mind and soul into? Is there nothing to compete for? Is there no true greatness, no real undying glory?

I think our love of heroes springs from more things than our fear of death and being forgotten. It also springs from a genuine admiration for great deeds. God may measure greatness differently, but measure it He does.

“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’” (Revelation 2:7, ESV)

“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’” (Revelation 2:11, ESV)

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.’” (Revelation 2:17, ESV)

And there’s always the parable of the talents.

“For it [the kingdom of heaven] will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

(Matthew 25:14-30, ESV)

Beware of wasting the talents God has given you.

Posted by Leatherwood on July 27, 2008 at 06:32 PM