The poet Homer famously described his hero Achilles, whose “wrath” is the subject matter of The Iliad, as having been given a stark choice by the gods early on in life. He could live a short life in which he was guaranteed to achieve immortal glory. Or he could opt for a long life that would forever be shrouded in obscurity. That we still speak of Achilles today may underscore which option he chose, even if it took Homer’s artistry to ensure Achilles’s glory survived. But the point is Achilles saw in glory something of supreme value, while perhaps recognizing that a long life by itself, no matter how pleasurable, did not necessarily measure up.
You might wonder if Achilles ever regretted his choice. Not during his lifetime. In Homer’s Odyssey, however, Odysseus—or, as we call him, Ulysses—claims to have visited Achilles in the underworld, reporting that Achilles then preferred the obscure life of a serf on earth to the glorious reign of the King of all the shades in Hades. This was true even with his worldly glory still intact. Even setting aside that Odysseus was a notorious liar, is glory not what it is cracked up to be?
Is glory or fame something of real value? Is it, as it was initially for Achilles, the superior choice? Shakespeare takes up the same issue in his Henry IV, Part One. There, Hotspur, an Achilles-like figure, has such great prowess and courage that he inspires the admiration even of his rival, King Henry. Notwithstanding Hotspur’s defiance and disloyalty, Henry muses about how he prefers Hotspur to his own son, Hal, the future Henry V. Hotspur is fixated on glory, deciding to fight at an inopportune time so as to heighten his glory, even in death.
To sharpen the problem, Shakespeare also gives us an alternative to Hotspur, an extreme at the other end of the spectrum. This is the character of Falstaff. Falstaff lives for his sensual pleasures—eating, drinking, and whoring his obscure life away. As the rapt attention of the commentators proves, his life seems an attractive one too, even when he shows abject cowardice on the battlefield (“the better part of valor is discretion”) or spurns the honor Hotspur worships (“honor is a mere scutcheon”). He uses all his wiles, including warfare itself, only to make money to fund his debauches. But he appeals nonetheless. We might note that the aims of both Falstaff and Hotspur allow for the senseless slaughter of innocent men—which may be Shakespeare’s ultimate comment—but they do so in the pursuit of seemingly worthy but dramatically opposite ends, one for glory, one for seemingly baser physical pleasures.
Homer and Shakespeare give us these ancient and modern characters to have us reflect on what is most valuable in life. How shall I live, as Socrates might ask? Is honor necessary to make life meaningful? Or should the goal be self-preservation and bodily stimulation, which requires the pursuit of money making. In our world of rich celebrities, not to mention the celebrity of wealth itself, it would seem possible to have both. But those outliers should not be allowed to obscure the problem. Midas and Croesus notwithstanding, the ancients still understood that one of the key life choices is between different understandings of what is valuable in living one’s life, and both fame and money making have their claim to superiority and their advocates.
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