| November 14, 2016

A Man's Life, On Manhood

Hector and Achilles: Two Paths to Manliness

ancient trojan hero hector holding baby son painting

For the Ancient Greeks, Homer’s Iliad was the Bible on andreia — that is, manliness, particularly manly courage.

Alexander the Great was said to have kept a special edition of the epic poem (prepared by his tutor Aristotle) under his pillow during his conquests and he’d read from it often. For Alexander, Achilles was andreia incarnate, and so the young king patterned his life after him. When he began his conquest of Asia, Alexander made a detour to pay homage to Achilles’ tomb. Whenever he experienced bouts of self-doubt, he’d pray to Achilles’ goddess mother, Thetis, for comfort. When his best friend and general, Hephaestion, was killed in battle, Alexander mourned deeply, just as Achilles had grieved for his best friend, Patroclus.

Many young men since Alexander have also found inspiration from Achilles, the mighty, swift-footed warrior. For he embodies an ideal that they, deep in their gut, keenly desire: undaunted courage and physical prowess.

Yet while Achilles may be the perfect embodiment of andreia, and get all the attention and adulation, there is another character who exemplified manliness in the Iliad as well, and actually provides a better roadmap on how most men can achieve it.

Achilles: Being Manliness

Nothing could stop Achilles in battle. He feared no one, not even King Agamemnon, the elected leader of the Greek hosts at Troy.

Achilles was fast, agile, and strong. He made heroic feats look easy.

His thumos, or spiritedness, burned white hot, so much so that it would often overtake him while he unleashed carnage on the battlefield.

Achilles’ reputation for andreia was so great that the Trojans cowered in fear when they saw Patroclus walking towards the battlefield wearing his friend’s armor, mistaking him for the legendary warrior himself.

Achilles was also a handsome fella to boot. Homer described him as “beautiful.” It’s fitting that Brad Pitt played Achilles in the film adaptation of the Iliad.

Of course, Achilles did have some major flaws. His uncontrollable rage, a hyper sense of honor, and a vulnerable heel all led to his early downfall. But it was a price he had to pay to immortalize his perfect andreia and secure a legacy in which people still today talk about his excellence in courage and warfare.

Yet, making Achilles one’s exemplar poses a significant difficulty for us mere mortal men…because Achilles wasn’t a mere mortal.

His mother was a goddess, making him a warrior demigod. Achilles didn’t have to work at andreia. He couldn’t help not being brave, virile, and good looking; it was built right into his divine DNA. Achilles came out of the womb a man. Andreia was just a part of his being.

So while the andreia of Achilles can certainly serve as an ideal, his life isn’t a very useful pattern for most men to follow, unless of course, your mother happens to be an immortal Olympian goddess.

There is, however, a character from the Iliad who does provide a helpful model for men on attaining andreia. And he happens to be Achilles’ mortal enemy: the Trojan prince, Hector.

Hector: Learning Manliness

For nine long years, Hector led the defense of the city of Troy against the Greek onslaught. He was a battle-hardened warrior, and, like Achilles, had a reputation for andreia.

But Hector was different from Achilles. He was 100% mortal.

Unlike Achilles who was born with andreia, Hector had to learn it.

He even admitted so in perhaps one of the most touching scenes of Western literature.

Hector, battle weary and covered with dust and gore after preventing a Greek route of his forces, comes back inside the protective walls of Troy for rest. There he meets his loving and loyal wife Andromache who begs him not to go back into battle, afraid the next time her husband returns, it’ll be on his shield, rather than with it.

Hector, still in his armor, confesses to his wife that he shares the same fear. How un-Achilliean! Achilles would have responded with a chortle, a boast, a patronizing retort to his wife not to worry her sweet little head about it. But Hector is human and has some humility about his ability and his bravery.

As he reflects to Andromache:

“All this weighs on my mind too, dear woman.
But I would die of shame to face the men of Troy
and the Trojan women trailing their long robes
if I would shrink from battle now, a coward.
Nor does the spirit urge me on that way.
I’ve learned it all too well. To stand up bravely,
always to fight in the front ranks of Trojan soldiers,
winning my father great glory, glory for myself.”

Did you catch that? I italicized it to help you out.

Hector says he had to learn how to be brave and fight. He experiences courage not as a lack of fear, but the practiced ability to feel fear, and then decide to move forward anyway.

The Greek word for “learn” is didaskein and English professor David Mikics astutely notes that didaskein is never used anywhere else in the Iliad to describe learning about bravery or manliness. Just in this instance. Homer is clearly setting up a contrast between Hector and his instinctively fierce rival, Achilles.

While Achilles was born manly, Hector had to learn andreia. He had to learn how to be fierce and strong, which suggests it wasn’t in his nature to be so.

Instead Hector was probably by nature a nice guy. No, not the insufferable nice guy nice guy. I’m talking niceness in terms of being genuinely kind, compassionate, and considerate to others. There’s evidence for this characterization in the Iliad; for example, while others blamed and resented Helen for starting the Trojan War, Hector went out of his way to show kindness towards her.

Further, following Hector’s admission to his wife that he had to learn andreia, his young son, Astyanax, catches sight of him in his blood-stained armor, and, not recognizing his father, begins to scream. Laughing, Hector takes off his helmet, picks up his boy and tosses him in the air while giving him kisses, just like you see dads do today.

Hector was a good guy. A caring husband and a loving father.

But he understood that goodness must be backed with strength. Hector recognized, like Theodore Roosevelt did millennia later, that “unless we keep the barbarian virtues, gaining the civilized ones will be of little avail.”

And so he spent his life learning that which didn’t come naturally to him, but which he desired in order to live with andreia. He learned from observation and from practice how to be brave, daring, and strong. Hector dedicated himself to an education in virile manhood.

Hector: A Fellow Traveler on the Path to Manhood

I relate with Hector.

I think of myself as a “good guy.” I’m naturally inclined to be kind and friendly towards others. And like Hector, I’m a family man.

But being an andros? A courageous, fierce, thumos-driven, physically adept, and strong man?

That’s something I’ve had to learn and am still learning. It’s not in my nature. If I just followed my druthers, I’d probably do a lot of sitting around on a beanbag chair, playing video games and eating nachos. But because I believe that developing andreia is essential to achieving arête (excellence) and eudemonia (flourishing) as a man, and because I value goodness and desire that others have the chance to pursue arête as well, each day I strive to develop the strength and courage to protect that possibility.

I’ve come across some men who are more like Achilles. They were born with andreia. They were naturally courageous, physically adept, and comfortable with risk, even as boys. When I’ve met these sorts of men, I’ve found myself being awestruck. Like Achilles, they embody an ideal of virile manliness that I can’t help but respect, even if they’re a bit rough around the edges.

But inspiring as these men can be, they don’t provide useful insights on how to develop that same sort of andreia. It’d be like asking Usain Bolt how to become a faster sprinter. First step: be Usain Bolt. Not very useful.

Instead, I prefer looking for the men who are by nature good guys like Hector, but who had to learn how to become fierce. Those guys will have some pointers.

Theodore Roosevelt, Frederick Douglass, Winston Churchill, my grandfather, and Eric Greitens are just a few of these “Gentleman Barbarians” that I look to for insights on how to gain an autodidactic education in andreia.

Most men I’ve encountered are fellow Hectors. They’re good guys who have to work at being manly. It can be easy to feel insecure about the fact that you have to constantly learn and re-learn how to be a man. Achilles-types sometimes scoff at the idea of actively trying to learn the art of manhood, and evince disbelief that other men haven’t known how to do certain skills since they were young boys, and don’t embody certain traits intuitively.

But such insecurity is misplaced, and such criticism wrong-headed. Few men emerge from the womb with hair on their chest, or simply absorb the skills and traits of manhood from the ether. Lots of great men throughout history have had to intentionally set out to learn manliness, including Hector.

Being or learning. Those are two paths towards andreia. For most of us, learning is the path we must take. It’s the path I’m on, at least. The Art of Manliness is where I’ve shared some of the ideas I’ve picked up along my journey towards that goal. And it’s been great meeting other Hectors — good guys — along the way who’ve made the conscious decision to learn manliness too.

Note: Post inspired by Mark Edmundon’s What Football Matters

Last updated: November 22, 2016

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