The main theme of the oldest work of Western literature is as relevant today as it was then. The Iliad contrasts two ways of being a man, two ways of expressing aggression. Achilles’ anger is steeped in pride. His lack of humanity makes him nearly invulnerable (in his creation myth, it’s the other way around—his invulnerability making him inhuman—but with the same effect), and when he does suffer a setback, the only emotion he knows is wrath. Hector is a family man, also accomplished in battle, but defending his city and loved ones rather than his own pride. A reader who admires Achilles will find his killing of Hector a satisfying payback for Hector’s successes in battle. The poem seems designed to awaken this response since it is a Greek poem for a Greek audience and Achilles is the Greek hero of it, while Hector is one of the Trojan enemy. But a reader who admires the manly virtues of love, protection, and integrity will admire Hector. Indeed, the poem has no hint that Hector should become more like Achilles. Instead, when Hector’s father risks his own life to entreat Achilles to release Hector’s body for burial, it’s Achilles’ ability, finally, to feel moved and therefore to be vulnerable that completes the psychological arc of the story. The Iliad ends with the burial of Hector, not for example with the victory over Troy.
Every man (and, really, every woman considering her masculine side) has these two models of aggression to contend with. When you are moved to anger out of pride or by demonizing an enemy that is not in fact demonic, your anger has you. When you are moved to anger to right an injustice, to protect your ideals and your network of loving relationships, you have your anger. When you are afraid of looking like a sissy, and when you cannot acknowledge feeling hurt, you are Achilles—gloried, invulnerable, alone. When you summon your aggression to motivate you to do what’s right for people you love, you are Hector. It all comes down to virtues with vulnerability and virtues without it.
Men and boys get a lot of messages in our culture that Achilles is the preferred role model. Much lip service is spent on the Hector model, and indeed it was apparently the false adoption of Hector as a role model by swaggering young ruffians that turned his name into a verb that means to bully. But when the masculine heat is up, the victor in battle is typically celebrated regardless of motivation. Real men are alone, or certainly not with women, certainly not empathic. Think of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude and the gulf his powers create between him and other people. Think of the demonization of lawbreakers, as if they are all full-blown psychopaths. Think of the crimes against humanity done in the name of Jesus.
Many men (and women) get the message that all masculine aggression is prideful, vengeful, and cruel. They try to live without it, so as not to be mistaken for Achilles. They celebrate what Nietzsche would call their own weakness because they don’t know how to be vulnerable and strong at the same time. The contemporary quandary seems to me to be more organized around this question than around the Achilles/Hector question: Can I be virtuous and assertive without turning into Achilles?
David Hicks’s new novel, White Plains, explores this question in a way most readers will relate to. Like all great literature (in my view), this novel is also a pleasure to read—gossipy, insightful, and funny. Its protagonist is at first barely a protagonist at all, reacting as he does to events in a way to maintain his posture as a nice guy, not realizing all the harm he does to those he loves by constantly making concessions. I don’t want to give away too much (seriously, the book is brilliant and a kick to read), but just as it was a father’s love that turned the invulnerable Achilles toward humanity, Hicks’s main character is also transformed towards the model of Hector by a father’s love. It comes as something of a surprise to him who that father turns out to be.
Both The Iliad and White Plains emphasize the importance of fathering to guide aggression toward virtue. By “fathering,” I don’t mean parenting by someone with male genitals. A child can grow up in a household with a man and receive very little fathering; a woman can provide all the fathering a child needs. Instead, I mean the parental use of constructive aggression to shape and guide the child. And by aggression, I don’t mean hitting or hurting the child. I mean imposing and maintaining a bedtime, roughhousing, taking the child’s variable functioning in stride, occasionally putting one’s own needs ahead of the child’s, and providing an idealized figure to complement the attunement of mothering.
The aggressive impulses look very different when expressed under fatherly guidance. The figure of the warrior is accompanied by a figure who provides warm mentorship that keeps the warrior from engaging in compensatory violence, a figure who thinks empathically about the object of the warrior’s rage. We treat ourselves as we were treated. If we were treated like royalty, we do not question or guide our wrath. If we were treated like sheep that are occasionally possessed by the spirit of the wolf, we do not make a home for our aggression. If we were ignored, we think it doesn’t matter what we do. Mothering and fathering give us the relational models to manage ourselves and our aggression kindly, firmly, and on occasion approvingly.