Achilleus Now: Core Texts, the Good Life, and Democratic Society

Robert T. Miller

When I was in graduate school at Columbia University, I taught a section of a course called Literature Humanities, a year-long course in western literature required of all first-year students in Columbia College. Beginning with Homer and the Greek dramatists and historians, the syllabus continues with the Hebrew and Christian scriptures and then moves on in the second semester to Virgil, Augustine, Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Austen, Dostoevsky, and others in the twentieth century. The first text on the syllabus is the Iliad. Although I am now a law professor at Villanova University, this fall I lectured on the Iliad to the first-year undergraduate students of a friend of mine who teaches Villanova’s Augustine and Culture Seminar, a course very much like Literature Humanities. Teaching Homer again after almost a decade—and teaching him to college freshman—reminded me of the nobility of my profession as a teacher.

As I teach it, the Iliad is primarily about a fundamental choice Achilleus must make. When Odysseus urges Achilleus to accept Agamemnon’s peace offering and return to the battle, Achilleus explains thus the decision he must make:

I carry two sorts of destiny toward the day of my death. Either,
if I stay here and fight beside the city of the Trojans,
my return home is gone, but my glory shall be everlasting;
but if I return home to the beloved land of my fathers,
the excellence of my glory is gone, but there will be a long life
left for me, and my end in death will not come to me quickly. 1

Achilleus is pondering, in other words, what kind of life is best for human beings, or, at least, what kind of life is best for him. Given the constraints of Homeric society, he sees his choices as either a short life crowned with immortal glory arising from extraordinary exploits on the battlefield at Troy, or else a long life of quiet enjoyment with wife and family back in his homeland. The decision is greatly complicated by the fact that one alternative—the life of heroic deeds and immortal glory—is the one that the conventional morality of Homeric society categorically commends. Sarpedon, for example, expresses the conventional view of the good life in his conversation with his companion and fellow Lykian Glaukos:

Glaukos, why is it you and I are honoured before others
with pride of place, the choice meats and the filled wine cups
in Lykia, and all men look on us as if we were immortals . . .
Therefore, it is our duty in the forefront of Lykians
to take our stand, and bear our part of the blazing battle . . .
let us go and win glory for ourselves, or yield it to others. 2

In even considering the possibility, therefore, that the life of quiet enjoyment with family might be best, Achilleus is suggesting a radically new understanding of the good life, an understanding that may even undermine the political foundations of Homeric society. Achilleus is leaning towards this radical alternative and is persuaded not to sail back to his homeland in Phthia only when Aias appeals to him in terms of these new values, accusing him of forgetting his friends’ affection for him and averring that they desire most of all his love and friendship. 3 Achilleus postpones his decision, agreeing to remain at Troy, though not necessarily to reenter the battle. Of course, as the battle continues, Hektor kills Patroklos, and in his explosive wrath, Achilleus effectively loses the opportunity to choose. His only option is to kill Hektor—and thus to die himself on the plains of Troy.

Read in this way, the Iliad is an ideal text to help young people begin thinking about the central philosophical and moral questions about the good life for human beings and the relation of these questions to the conventional morality of our society. Students taking core courses like Columbia’s Literature Humanities or Villanova’s Augustine and Culture Seminar are generally only eighteen years old (about the same age as Achilleus, incidentally), and, self-consciously or otherwise, almost all of them are asking themselves for the first time the same kinds of questions that Achilleus is asking: they want to know what makes for a good human life, what kind of life is worth choosing, which things are good and should be pursued, which are bad and ought be avoided. They want to know how they should live. The alternatives Achilleus saw are, of course, quite different from the alternatives young people today see (though in balancing the demands of career and family, our modern problems can sometimes bear an eerie resemblance to Achilleus’ dilemma), but the problem of determining which is the best kind of life is essentially the same. Read in this way, the Iliad is very much their book.

Questions about the nature of the good life are, of course, the central philosophical questions in the Socratic moral tradition, and they are arguably the most important questions that any human being ever asks. They are also questions that every human being has to answer. For even if some people never give the subject a single conscious thought, nevertheless everyone must decide how to live, must decide to pursue this and avoid that. In making these choices, we are implicitly asserting that what we choose is better than what we avoid, and thus our life choices implicitly contain an account of the good life. Every human life ever lived, therefore, is an answer to the question about which kind of life is best. It is as if life itself poses the question, and we all have to answer.

But our liberal democratic society offers young people very little help in answering these most important questions. Discussions of the good life are almost completely absent from our public discourse, and they are certainly not generally seen as related to morality. Indeed, we tend to think of morality as being about rules of justice that govern the interactions of individuals seeking to fulfill their personal desires. Morality is what mediates the inevitable interpersonal conflicts arising as individuals each pursue their various desires. These desires themselves are often thought to be beyond moral criticism, either absolutely or at least provided only that they are pursued in accordance with the rules of morality. Questions about the good life are generally not discussed because we are uncomfortable making value judgments on such matters. It seems wrong to us to say that one person’s way of living is better than another’s.

Nor is avoidance of such issues limited to the popular culture. It infects our high political philosophy as well. For example, John Rawls, who was probably the leading political philosopher of the twentieth century, expressly argues that citizens of a liberal state must purge public discourse of disputable questions about the nature of the good life and may not even allow their views on such matters to affect their public actions, such as voting or attempting to influence by argument the votes of others. 4 Some people would even write this view into our constitutional law. For instance, in a notorious passage in their opinion in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, Justices O’Connor, Kennedy, and Souter state, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under the compulsion of the State.” 5 Granted, it is hard to make out just what this passage might mean, 6 but at the very least the sense seems to be that, in a well-functioning liberal democracy, talk about the good life should not affect outcomes in the debate in the public square.

Another contemporary philosopher argues that what is good for a person is whatever that person freely decides is good. 7 But this amounts to saying that whatever conclusions a person reaches on these most important issues will of necessity be correct, at least for that person: a conclusion will be the correct one precisely because it was the conclusion that the person reached. This doctrine is highly congenial to a public ethos of liberal individualism, but it is utterly useless as advice to a person who does not yet know what is good and is trying to find out. This kind of subjective view of the question of the good life implies that there are no good reasons for preferring one kind of life to another, that all human lives are equally good and equally bad, and thus, in the end, it makes no sense even to ponder the question of the best way to live. If thinking about the question cannot result in getting better answers, why bother thinking?

So the public institutions of liberal democratic society have largely abandoned these fundamental questions. As far as I can see, if young people today do encounter a systematic explanation of what constitutes the good life, it likely comes from a religious body that, entirely appropriately, elaborates its own beliefs but does not generally seek to explore the relative merits of competing views. Young people today, therefore, are trying to answer the most fundamental and perhaps the most difficult questions about human life, and our society has given them almost no help at all.

This brings me back to courses like Literature Humanities and the Augustine and Culture Seminar. A university’s core curriculum in literature and philosophy may well be the only social institution that an individual in our society ever encounters that seeks to discuss, in a rational and critical way, a variety of views about the good life. It is certainly the only such social institution that any appreciable number of our citizens ever encounter. The core curriculum, therefore, has an immensely important social function in providing the forum and materials for discussions about the good life. University professors who teach core texts should, I think, teach them primarily and explicitly as being about the quest for the good life; if core texts are about anything else, they are not so very important to students after all, even if they are intensely interesting to people like me, who make a living studying all manner of obscure things. By teaching core texts as treating questions about the good life and by helping students reading them to think about these questions in relation to how they themselves will lead their lives, we will be giving them perhaps the only significant help they will ever get in making the most important decisions in their lives. I, at least, cannot think of anything more important teachers might do.

The choice of canonical texts for core courses should, in my view, be guided by an analogous principle: if the text does not lend itself to a discussion of the good life useful to the students, we should drop it, whatever its other merits. I do not suggest that this principle will settle disputes about the content of the canon; on the contrary, it will probably exacerbate them. But at least the disputes will be the right kind of disputes, disputes obviously relevant to the students’ lives.

This way of understanding the function of core texts and courses in our society has another important virtue. Precisely because every human being without exception must decide how to live, questions about the good life span all social and cultural divisions, whether of race, ethnicity, sex, religion, class, or intellectual tradition. All the proposed answers to questions about the good life have, of course, been given in particular cultural contexts and so are not necessarily equally universal. But the questions themselves are universal, and by emphasizing that the rational examination of these issues can help us lead better lives, we shall be teaching our students that, on the most fundamental level, we are, all of us, in the same human predicament.

One final thought. In my course in Literature Humanities, I taught several of the core texts as arguing that the good life is essentially interpersonal, that it necessarily involves helping other people to live the good life too. That is, the good life for me necessarily involves helping other people attain the good life for them. If I am right about this, then we university professors have an even more pressing reason to teach core texts as being about the good life. We need to do so in order to live the good life ourselves.

Robert T. Miller is Associate Professor of Law at Villanova University. His writing has appeared in First Things, Dappled Things, and many prestigious academic journals.


1. Iliad 9.411-416 (Richard Lattimore, trans., 1951).

2. Id. 12.310-328.

3. Id. 9.624-643.

4. John Rawls, Political Liberalism (1993) 225-226.

5. 505 U.S. 833, 851 (1992) (opinion of Justices O’Connor, Kennedy, and Souter).

6. As Justice Scalia says, the “famed sweet-mystery-of-life passage” either “casts some doubt upon either the totality of our jurisprudence or else (presumably the right answer) nothing at all. I have never heard of a law that attempted to restrict one’s ‘right to define’ certain concepts; and if the passage calls into question the government’s power to regulate actions based on one’s self-defined ‘concept of existence, etc.,’ it is the passage that ate the rule of law.” Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558, 588 (2003) (Justice Scalia dissenting) (some internal quotation marks omitted).

7. Judith Jarvis Thomson, The Right and the Good, 96 J. Phil. 273-298 (June 1997).