Most people would probably respond positively if asked: “Would you like to become a hero?“ Many of them would probably think they are heroes already, but were not recognized by other people. They might also feel that they did not get enough opportunity to show their heroism yet. However, if the same people were asked whether they would be willing to pay the price for becoming a hero, definitely not so many would be willing. It is because the price for heroic reputation is the high risk of death. People from times immemorable faced the question: “Do I value my honor and reputation more than my life?“
The response to this question divides people between “heroes“ and “average people“. One of the oldest examples of this dilemma we can find in Homer´s Illiad. The greatest hero of Troy was prince Hektor who perished by the hand of Achilles. Face to face with Achilles, Hektor´s death comes almost as something inevitable. Could Hektor avoid his death and still remain a hero? Was the decision about Hektor´s life and death still in his hands? Was Hektor in Homer´s presentation a victim of his people, the designs of gods, or did he have a tragic “flaw“ which brought him his own ruin? It is possible to bring arguments in favor of each of the three possibilities.
We shall try to give a short analysis of all of them in following text. The objective of this essay is to show that gods or other people are not the ones who make or kill heroes. Heroism is not in most cases made from the outside of heroes. The analysis will tell us more about the true nature of heroism.Let us consider the idea that Hektor´s death was the result of pressure of other people expecting him to achieve more than he was able to, leading to his destruction. This hypothesis looks reasonable.
The motivation to become a hero in Homeric times was in winning respect from peers and other people. There was an enormous moral pressure put on Hektor who had to be concerned with the reaction of his fellows if he dodged the fight with Achilles. He would loose a lot of respect and cease to be a hero in their eyes. We can expect that their opinion most probably played a major role in Hektor´s decision making. On the other hand, there is no single note of an inhabitant of Troy encouraging Hektor to face Achilles. The opposite is true. His father king Priam bade him, “stay not to face this man alone and unsupported, or you will meet death at the hands of son of Peleus“ (XXII, 36-40). His mother Hecuba cried bitterly, “come within the wall to protect us from this man, stand not without to meet him“ (XXII, 80-85).
Nobody in Troy told Hektor a word of encouragement to go and face Achilles, not to speak about an instruction or command. Despite great moral pressure, it was Hektor´s decision to do the fight. He could decide otherwise, but he did not. That is why Hektor´s people are not directly responsible for his death.There is a lot of supporting material showing that the death of Hektor was a design of gods. Did not gods design and decide everything? Intervention of gods all throughout the Trojan War was extremely intense and hardly anything happened without their impact. Did not mother of Achilles, Thetis, try to prevent him an unfair advantage over his enemies? Did she not make him almost invulnerable dipping him in the river Styx? Did she not persuade god of blacksmith Hephaestus to provide his son armor before the fight with Hektor (XVIII 468-617)? More than that, there was a conference of gods before the critical duel of Achilles and Hektor at Olympus where they discussed the fate of the later: “...consider among yourself and decide whether we shall now save him or let him fall“ (XXII, 174-175).
Did not Athena in the guise of Hektor´s brother delude Hektor during the very critical moment of duel with Achilles (XXII, 295-300)? The gods played a role in slaughter of Hektor providing unfair conditions on respective sides. Hektor had a support of some gods like Apollo (XXII, 200-205) and even Zeus, but that was not enough. Hektor was saved from the hand of Achilles once before by intervention of Apollo. He realized at that occasion that he is physically inferior to Achilles and only intervention of gods can change that the score: “I know that you are a mighty warrior, mightier by far than I, nevertheless the issue lies in the lap of heaven whether I, worse man though I be, may not slay you with my spear“ (XX, 434-438).
Hektor was finally killed by Achilles who won more favors and advantages from gods. However, Hektor was neither killed by a hand of a god, nor by an explicit decision of them.There is a third possibility that Hektor had a tragic “flaw“, which brought him his own death. My point is that Hektor has consciously chose the life of a hero for himself with everything that comes with it – including the high risk of violent death. Honor was more important to him than life. His honor was determined by his courage in the first place. That is why he had to ignore advice to avoid life-threatening situations. The only choices for him were to get involved or to cease to be a hero. When Hektor's wife, Andromache, tries to dissuade him from going to war, he answers: “I would feel deep shame before the Trojans... if like a coward I were to shrink aside from the fighting“ (VI, 441-443).
He is aware of the risk he undertakes (VI, 460-465) but he does it proudly. He believes this is the noblest way of life. He takes his son into his hands and articulates a prayer: “Zeus, grant that this my child may be even as myself, chief among the Trojans; let him be not less excellent in strength“ (VI, 475-480). On the other hand, Hektor´s courage was not limitless. He did not make the decision to fight Achilles easily. He was afraid of death. He even considers to give up and retreat. However, the higher value of honor and glory prevails over fear of death: “Surely it would be better for me to return after having fought Achilles and slain him, or to die gloriously here before the city“ (XXII, 105-110).
He is even chased by Achilles around the city in an effort to escape him before he takes the final decision to fight. Paradoxically, Hektor´s fear to fight Achilles makes him more heroic than if he was completely fearless. Aristotle, a few centuries later, claimed that all virtues are located between two vices. If there is an insufficient courage, you get cowardice. If there is more courage than appropriate, you get irresponsibility. A hero who is not afraid of death at all is either a suicide or a fool. Hektor is neither of them. Hektor is afraid of death, but he is more afraid of the loss of his good name . He tries to avoid unnecessary risk, but is ready to die when preservance of honor demands that. Honor was Hektor´s highest concern. He was almost obsessed with it. Even before the fatal fight he tries to come to an agreement with Achilles that the winner would deliver the corpse of the loser to the family (XXII, 250-260). He asked for the same when he was dying after he lost the fight (XXII, 335-355).
Homer´s heroes were very individualistic. They did not care too much about the welfare of their community. Besides their close family, they cared only for themselves. Though, when honor was in question, Achilles ignored objections of his family too. He believed that his cowardice would bring shame and damage to his family. That is why the sense of honor was the “flaw“ which caused the death of Hektor. This “flaw“ of his was inherent and made him a hero. The fact that he had that “flaw“ does not decrease his heroism, and vice versa. And last but not least, for our argumentation it is important to recognize that it was always Hektor´s decision to act in accordance with honor, not decision of other people or gods.There is no heroism without a free decision of a hero to do a difficult right thing. This definition of heroism says that to be worthy of becoming a hero, or to not be deserving of becoming one, is in principle on the respective individual, not beyond him. A hero has to overcome great odds. They may come from people who are close to a hero, even relatives. The very fact that hero does something that most people would not do, may make him look as if he had a “flaw“ in their eyes. Odds may come from circumstances. Paradoxically, unfavorable circumstances of life are favorable for the cultivation of heroes. Defeat of Hektor by a superior hero did not destroy his reputation because he acted in accordance with honor. A hero is similar to a saint in the sense that all people should strive to be one, but only few are ready to pay the price.