I can’t recall what brought the topic to mind in the midst of morning coffee (it was not the proximity of September 11, but it might as well have been); but we found ourselves talking (not for the first time) about the relative merits of the Iliad and the Odyssey. This time, however, it devolved into a comparison between the two epic’s mostly contrasting heroes. Achilles and Odysseus are both faced with a fundamental choice, and both make a choice which could be characterized as choosing to be more human. For Achilles, the choice (largely offstage in the Iliad, but nevertheless recurred to) is between a short life with glory, or a long life without it; for Odysseus, the choice is between mortality with his family and immortality without them. In both cases, while there is something human about the latter, unchosen choice—one can easily imagine the appeal of long life, or the appeal of immortality—it is a quisling kind of humanity, which betrays itself in choosing as it does. To put the matter another way: both Achilles and Odysseus choose the nobler path.
It is also, perhaps not coincidentally, the path which is less godlike, at least in the case of Odysseus, who quite literally rejects the option of becoming a demigod with Calypso. Even for Achilles, however, the choice of glory over long-life is in some ways incomprehensible—even if admirable—from an Olympian standpoint: incomprehensible because the Olympian gods are portrayed more often being shamed than earning more glory. Mars and Venus dragged up to the high courts in a net, Venus wounded by Diomedes, Mars shrieking in pain—these are moments of ingloriousness which have more hold on the imagination than all Zeus’s potent thunderings. In some sense it seems that, precisely because the gods are the gods, they are supposed to be glorious—supposed in the sense of supposition, but also in the sense of obligation. They operate a height from which they can fall, but above which they cannot rise. That, perhaps, is why we have a tendency, like Prometheus, to prefer human beings.