Kleos, Revisited

Franz Matsch (1861–1942) | The Triumph of Achilles, 1892 | Fresco

[Before we start, two notes. Firstly, all quotations and line numbers are from Robert Fagles’ translation, which I find highly readable and recommend to anyone who wants to explore the Iliad. Secondly, I’m not a classicist, and a classicist would probably point out just about a million flaws with what I’m about to say. Nonetheless, I feel the topic deserves exploration, so let’s get started.]

Lately, I’ve been reading the Iliad, and I was struck by how different the world of Achilles and Odysseus was. Essentially, the Achaeans are a bunch of piratical warlords here to slaughter, loot, and rape as much as the force of their arms will allow. They are no heroes, in our sense of the word. To these illiterate banditti, women are tradable commodities, raped either for pleasure or as a weapon, and children are threats to be enslaved or executed. They fear not the judgement of a benevolent creator, only the threat of superior force, from either gods or men. And as violently as they lived, so they will (usually) die after a brief life on the earth that feeds us all.

Yet despite their utterly despicable behavior, they do have a code- the heroic code (“heroic”). The heroic code essentially revolves around the concept of kleos- both in its attainment and in showing an appropriate level of respect towards those who have it.

But what is kleos? Kleos is commonly translated as “glory”, and therefore means something akin to honor (note that kleos, as implied earlier, is amoral). But to define it so narrowly is to fail to capture what it meant to the long-haired Achaeans and the stallion-breaking Trojans.

Kleos, literally translated, means “what one hears about you”, which is to say that it is a measure of worth. And it’s in this respect that kleos really becomes interesting.

Today, the dominant metric for esteeming men (again, amorally) in worldly terms is net worth. In society today, we broadly believe that purchasing power is equivalent to worth; net worth is therefore a fairly good approximation for it. But is money really the measure of a man? Surely there is something missing- the human side. In its annual “most influential” list, Forbes tries to factor this in by including measures of influence and connections. But something is still missing- what about one’s physical and intellectual attributes? Or one’s social standing? Or one’s cultural knowledge?

What the Greeks realized was that all these things hang together, all bundled within the concept of kleos. To get a proper handle on what this means, let’s start at the top.

Firstly, the idea of kleos includes recognition of one’s aretês (“excellences”), one’s attributes and skills. Epithets, quite literally what one hears about a person, frequently accompany the names of great heroes, preceding them with an acknowledgement of their aretês: the “swift runner Achilles”, “Diomedes strong with the war cry”, the “great tactician Odysseus”. These epithets recognize their genetic capital, the aretês embodied in their very being. Yet the epithets of the Iliad not only recognize these genetic aretês that help win victory in battle, but also those aretês that embody cultural capital, the products of a civilized society, as illustrated by the title of Merops, “adept beyond all men in the mantic (prophetic) arts”.

For the hero with great aretê, his kleos also includes an accompanying level of timê (“honor”) in the form of wealth- kleos made tangible and visible in the eyes of men. Wealth, financial capital, must be earned, and to do so requires the exercise of one’s aretês. In the context of the Iliad, that often means victorious combat against enemies on the battlefield, whose fruit is the stripping of the fallen’s valuable arms and armor.

The successful accumulation of skill and wealth leads naturally to rank and station, the aspects that most strongly comprise kleos. The kleos that each hero holds is directly linked to his social capital, his station. Before addressing the assembled Achaean captains, to ensure that his words won’t be ignored as coming from a man without kleos, even great Diomedes must offer a reminder of his rank:

“I too have a noble birth to boast — my father,
Tydeus, mounded over now by the earth of Thebes . . .
He married one of Adrastus’ daughters, settled down
in a fine wealthy house, with plenty of grainland
ringed with row on row of blooming orchards
and pastures full of sheep, his own herds.
And he excelled all Argives with his spear —
you must have heard the story, know it’s true.
So you cannot challenge my birth as low, cowardly,
or spurn the advice I give, if the plan is really sound.”

-Book XIV, 139–140, 148–155

Note how Diomedes mentions his father, wealthy, skilled in combat, and a prince of Argos, as proof of his kleos. Throughout the Iliad, heroes are often preceded by mention of their fathers and often their fathers’ fathers, for the Greeks understood how kleos is passed down. The ties of blood, of kinship, are stronger than anything else. When Ares limps into the halls of Olympus, wounded from Athena’s assault, before Zeus heals him, he proclaims:

“You — I hate you most of all the Olympian gods . . .
But I cannot bear to see you agonize so long.
You are my child. To me your mother bore you.
If you had sprung from another god, believe me,
and grown into such a blinding devastation,
long ago you’d have been dropped below the Titans,
deep in the dark pit.”

-Book V, 1030–1041

It’s natural, therefore, that like genetic capital, social, financial, and cultural capital flow intergenerationally through the ties only family can provide, no matter how strained such relations may be.

It is also precisely because kleos is passed down intergenerationally that it takes on a special significance far beyond simply “glory”. In place of his given name, Agamemnon is often referred to as Atrides, or son of Atreus, and likewise with Pelides (Achilles, son of Peleus). Earning great kleos is immortality through the memory of one’s descendants; those without such patrimonial kleos, like the common soldier Thersites, are referred to only by their given names. Their fathers are lost to history, fully realizing their fate, as Phoebus Apollo puts it, of being

“Wretched mortals . . .
like leaves, no sooner flourishing, full of the sun’s fire,
feeding on earth’s gifts, then they waste away and die.”

-Book XXI, 528–530

In its complete meaning, therefore, kleos drives men to care for their children and rear them well. For without children who grow into the full flower of heroic manhood, one’s kleos disappears or is tarnished by association with a disgraceful heir and forgotten. That’s why Phoenix, Achilles’ mentor, went into a murderous rage against his father, who cursed him to never sire a son- for all his great deeds, Phoenix will never be immortalized in his sons. His mentorship of brilliant Achilles may have earned him his ward’s undying loyalty and love, but he will never see his kleos live on in him; in the Iliad, Achilles is sometimes referred to by others as the son of Peleus, but never as the son of Phoenix.

With this in mind, it becomes clear that the concept of kleos is a very useful one, even in today’s society. Compared with our dry valuation of the individual using net worth, kleos is a far more complete measure of worldly worth, in all the connected manners that it is earned, manifested, and transferred. And because it is a better measure of worth, it captures so much more of what men desire. Take Achilles’ address to Agamemnon's embassy:

“My mother tells me,
the immortal goddess Thetis with her glistening feet,
two fates bear me on the day of death.
If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy,
my journey home is gone, but my kleos never dies.
If I voyage back to the fatherland I love,
my pride, my kleos dies . . .
True, but the life that’s left me will be long,
the stroke of death will not come on me quickly.”

-Book IX, 497–505

Achilles has chosen to die here at Troy, earning kleos everlasting, rather than go home to Phthia and live peaceably until old age takes him. We can scarcely imagine somebody forgoing life itself for mere wealth, but for kleos, men will give everything.

As a comprehensive object of human desire, kleos conversely gives us greater insight into the nature of indignity and humiliation. Achilles refuses to enter combat not simply because Agamemnon has stripped his wealth (in the form of Briseis) from him, but because the very act robs him of his kleos. He has been humiliated, denied recognition of his proper worth within society as the greatest warrior of the Achaeans. A similar dynamic exists with those whose communities who do not sufficiently esteem the work they do, like some military veterans upon their return home, or those who are under-employed far beneath their aretês. They suffer not necessarily for want of money (though that too can be an insult against one’s kleos), but because their situation or occupation robs them of the kleos they feel is owed their aretês and efforts.

In addition, the use of kleos as opposed to net worth allows us to focus our attention on the ways worth, in every sense, is passed down. Using net worth gives our minds a focus on purely financial wealth, a frame of mind that is especially significant when we consider the concept of inequality. Inequality of worth takes on multiple forms- genetic, financial, cultural, and social. Yet our focus on net worth naturally leads us to the conclusion that measures such as wealth taxes and progressive income taxes will solve inequality, as if only financial inequality existed in a world of multiple types of capital. Adopting kleos as a framework to value human worth would allow us to engage with the broader problem of inequality of kleos, in all its forms, and lead us to more deeply consider how to address the problem of inequality in the non-transferable assets of genetic, cultural, and social capital.

But most critically, kleos, as such a powerful object of desire, is capable of being a powerful motivator, one we can use ourselves to push men to do more than they would for mere money. For example, in the Achaeans’ desperate defence of the beaked ships of war, instead of offering prizes and baubles to his troops (useless to men about to die), the noble old horseman Nestor urges:

“Be men, my friends! Discipline fill your hearts,
maintain your kleos in the eyes of other men!
Remember, each of you, sons, wives, wealth, parents —
are mother and father dead or alive? No matter,
I beg you for their sakes, loved ones far away —
now stand and fight, no turning back, no panic.”

-Book XV, 769–774

To be sure, kleos is not used only to steady the Achaeans’ resolve in battle. For them, it’s motivation to do terrible things- to kill, rape, and pillage not just Troy, but countless other cities and villages, as Nestor relates in his frequent reminisces of his youth. But men, however driven, are constrained by law- we govern ourselves by the laws we create, and it is our task, through laws, to make kleos into a socially beneficial force, just as we have (arguably) done with greed within the confines of a free market economy.

Indeed, while the Achaeans are motivated by kleos to loot and murder, within the structures of their far more civilized society, Hector and his stallion-breaking Trojans are spurred by kleos to defend their wives and children from the marauding Argives. Even knowing that Troy will fall, faced with certain doom, kleos drives Hector forward into battle:

“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 kleos, kleos for myself.
For in my heart and soul I also know this well:
the day will come when sacred Troy must die,
Priam must die and all his people with him,
Priam who hurls the strong ash spear . . .”

-Book VI, 522–533

What greater courage, what greater deed, can be asked of a man? It is kleos in full flower, stirring men against their nature to give their lives for the greater good.

Kleos, that ancient concept, therefore merits consideration as an idea for our age, indeed, for all ages. It not only provides a fuller accounting of the measure of a man, but allows us insights into the nature of indignity and humiliation as well as that of inequality. And perhaps most importantly, it may serve as a better tool to move men for the advancement of society, one far more potent than the lure of lucre, propelling men to do the perilous and the impossible, all for the sake of kleos.

As great Hector vowed, charging on to meet the strong force of fate at the hands of brilliant Achilles:

“And now death, grim death is looming up beside me,
no longer far away. No way to escape it now . . .
So now I meet my doom. Well let me die —
But not without some struggle, not without kleos, no,
in some great clash of arms that even men to come
will hear of down the years!”

-Book XXII, 354–355, 359–362




Guitarist, cinephile, and sometime intellectual. Join me on a journey through ideas, music, and film as I read PPE at the University of Oxford.

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Perry Aw

Perry Aw

Guitarist, cinephile, and sometime intellectual. Join me on a journey through ideas, music, and film as I read PPE at the University of Oxford.

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