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  • Fighting Words:How Heroes Argue
  • Matthew Clark

I. Force and Persuasion

According to the French philosopher Simone Weil, "The true hero, the true subject, the center of the Iliad is force" (Weil 1956.3). Weil defines force as "that x that turns anybody who is subject to it into a thing" (Weil 1956.3, emphasis in original). This force manifests itself in three ways. First, there is the force that kills, the force that turns someone into a corpse. Second, there is the force that turns a person into a thing even while that person is still alive.1 And third is the force that intoxicates, that keeps the possessor of force from reflection, justice, and prudence.2

I think that Weil sees something true about the Iliad, but it is not the whole truth. I would not claim that the hero and the subject of the Iliad is persuasion, but I would say that persuasion-its function, its meaning, its [End Page 99] successes and its failures-is an important element of the story. In a way, the Iliad is a meditation on persuasion or, better, on the relationship between force and persuasion. The narrative shows what happens when persuasion fails, and then what happens when force fails.

The contrast between force and persuasion is linked to a continuing theme in the Iliad, the contrast between words and deeds, most famously expressed by Phoenix in Book 9. In his attempt to persuade Achilles to return to battle, he says that Peleus sent him along with Achilles so that Phoenix could teach Achilles to be a speaker of words and a doer of deeds (Il. 9.438-43):3

    Peleus the aged horseman sent me forth with youon that day when he sent you from Phthia to  Agamemnon-a mere child, who knew nothing yet of the joining of  battlenor of debate where men are made pre-eminent.  Thereforehe sent me along with you to teach you of all these  matters,to make you a speaker of words and one who  accomplished in action.

This passage is only one of many in the Iliad that links or contrasts words and deeds.4 Because the linkage of words and deeds, persuasion and force, pervades the Iliad, they can be understood only in terms of each other. [End Page 100]

Moreover, in order to understand persuasion in the Iliad, we have to understand the failure of persuasion-especially since the failure of persuasion is fundamental to the whole story: the Achaeans were unable to persuade the Trojans to give Helen back. If they had been successful, there would have been no need to fight.

An attempt to persuade is not in itself an argument, but argument derives from failed persuasion. If persuasion succeeds immediately, there will be no argument. If persuasion fails, an argument may ensue or it may not. When Chryses tries to persuade Agamemnon to return Chryseis, Agamemnon does not argue the point; he simply refuses and sends Chryses on his way. Nor does Chryses argue; he is afraid, and he leaves without a word.5

Chryses does not remain to argue because he knows that he does not have as much power as does Agamemnon (at least on the mortal plane of action). In general, an argument occurs only when the power of each party is roughly equal. Then an attempt to persuade may turn into an argument. This is the situation in Book 1, when Achilles and Agamemnon argue. In short, an attempt to persuade does not imply an argument, but an argument may develop from an attempt to persuade. The added element is dialogue, conversation, exchange of speech among near equals. Persuasion is a speech act performed by one person in order to influence another person; argument is a speech between two people, each attempting to influence the other. As Egbert Bakker notes (1997a.76-77): "Shared seeing is the aim of any discourse that mediates between two consciousnesses, and very few utterances are made for their own sake or just as statements of certainty, belief, or opinion. The actual use of language transcends the abstraction of it offered by the philosophers or logicians...


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