Of possessions cattle and fat sheep are things to be had for the lifting, and tripods can be won, and the tawny high heads of horses, but a man’s life cannot come back again, it cannot be lifted nor captured again by force, once it has crossed the teeth’s barrier.
– Achilles to Odysseus in Bk. 9 of the Illiad, lines 405-410, trans. Richard Lattimore
I have been writing at length about the importance of speech in a society with institutions that can be deliberative – we can be a better people if we so choose, or we can allow the use of speech as a substitute for violence merely, and eventually destroy the institutions we have from the inside out. It would seem that this quote is something I should readily accept, given that it likens the finality of speech to the finality of death: once words have been said, they cannot be taken back.
But then again, we do have the capacity to apologize and forgive, as well as explain. The beauty of speech lies in the promise of speech – more can be had from words simply by paying closer attention to them, whether we are crafting or analyzing. A few good words are a fountain, really, and if you think I’m being too romantic, remember that Creation is ascribed to the Word.
The problem isn’t speech or even death, really. The problem is “finality,” that looking for an ectasy which will never go away, or a resolution that cannot be gone beyond. People want answers in this modern age, which is defined by a science which has at its basis material acquisiton, and they don’t really care for questions. Those possessions dismissed as trite by Achilles are what they want, in the same way Achilles “wants” them: not at the cost of their life. That’s the key insight into why we don’t have politics in any real sense – we fight a lot, but we’re really not ready to compromise with each other, to acknowledge that working with other people and getting some good is a lot better than fighting every single other person to claim all goods. If we aimed at “some good” together, after all, we might have to work to get and give goods to another, to make them happy.
What is remarkable about Achilles’ words is that they are not final – they are the product of anger at Agamemnon, and when a greater anger is roused in him by Hector, he will fight and win his glory, for every other reason except his own glory. An anger with no finality opens up a number of questions we do not dare to ask nowadays; our softness is in our comfortable numbness (to paraphrase “The Departed”), and to rob speech of promise, to rob it of meaning, is to really say that nothing matters, and nothing should matter.