Conversations with Students VI: The Deaths of Heroes

The main text discussed during this most recent seminar was Book XVI of Homer’s Iliad. Three major events occur during this episode: (1) Achilleus allows Patroklos to don his armor and go out into the fighting looking as he would; (2) Patroklos kills Sarpedon, son of Zeus and King of Lykia, and (3) Apollo, Euphorbos, and Hektor all take part in the killing of Patroklos.

This might be a useful point, as well, to briefly mention the purpose of this “Great Books” with high school student project that is here being recorded and is ongoing in the classroom. The point is that when a student asks me, “why do we read these books?” for me to be able to answer. “Well, in this transitory time when all around you changes–media, houses, people, language, all that you believe makes you the person you are in the world you live in–these books and the ideas within them will still remain. And though how they are perceived and bound and packaged will of course always change, what is within them serves less to differentiate us, as people, from each other, and more to connect each generation to those which came before it in solidarity, though never uniformity.” That brief waxing philosopho-poetic complete, let us move on to the seminar and the questions considered therein.

1) Fate and its relationship to the deaths of Sarpedon and Patroklos (and soon Hektor and Achilleus).

2) Aristotle’s four causes and the etiology of Patroklos’ death–who, really, are we to blame for this? An immortal? Zeus or Apollo? Or one of the men who directly killed Patroklos: Euphorbos or Hektor? Or one of the men indirectly responsible: Achilleus or Nestor, or even Patroklos himself?

3) In allowing Sarpedon to die, was Zeus valuing his role as king over his role as father? Or truly was he valuing his promise to Thetis over any other responsibility? Was he truly persuaded by Hera’s comment that the gods would resent him that action as the majority of them (sans Apollo) were still restricted from interfering on the battlefield? That said, as ruler of the gods, is Zeus then less subject to the laws he upholds or moreso? A strange and perturbing question.

A theme today will be applying Aristotle’s four causes to the deaths of Patroklos and to Sarpedon because that may be a useful way to determine the precise roles which each person, god, and intangible fate plays in the end of each. A brief explanation of Aristotle’s causes comes from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

“In Physics II 3 and Metaphysics V 2, Aristotle offers his general account of the four causes. This account is general in the sense that it applies to everything that requires an explanation, including artistic production and human action. Here Aristotle recognizes four types of things that can be given in answer to a why-question:

  • The material cause: “that out of which”, e.g., the bronze of a statue.
  • The formal cause: “the form”, “the account of what-it-is-to-be”, e.g., the shape of a statue.
  • The efficient cause: “the primary source of the change or rest”, e.g., the artisan, the art of bronze-casting the statue, the man who gives advice, the father of the child.
  • The final cause: “the end, that for the sake of which a thing is done”, e.g., health is the end of walking, losing weight, purging, drugs, and surgical tools.” (

The reason we delve into Aristotle here and this brief explanation of his causes is because really the deaths of Sarpedon and Patroklos are that complex. First and foremost there is a prophecy in Book 15 that both will die in a grand sweep of formal causality in the service of Zeus keeping his promise to Thetis. He speaks the following prophecy to Hera:

“Let [Apollo] drive strengthless panic into the Achaians, and turn them back once more; let them be driven in flight and tumble back on the benched ships of Achilleus, Peleus’ son. And he shall rouse up Patroklos his companion. And glorious Hektor shall cut down Patroklos with the spear before Ilion, after he has killed many others of the young men, and among them my own son, shining Sarpedon. In anger for him brilliant Achilleus shall then kill Hektor. And from then on I would make the fighting surge back from the vessels always and continuously, until the Achaians capture headlong Ilion through the designs of Athene.” (15.61-71)

So, we will consider the place of fate within Aristotle’s concept of the four causes. Just as Patroklos is clearly the efficient cause of the death of Sarpedon and his spear the material cause. So, is it clear that the final cause is in order to be part of a succession of events which lead to inevitable return of Achilleus to the battle and the fall of Troy. The formal cause might be “the account” of the death of each of the men, whatever that means. The collateral damage, as it were, of this are the lives of Sarpedon, Patroklos, Hektor, and Achilleus, as well as the countless men whom each of them kill. All this though goes to show us that within Aristotle’s framework there are several different factors which led to the death of each of these men–the material cause which for both was a spear (16.480-481; 16.816-820), the efficient cause which was in the case of both men was another man using the spear against him, and the final cause which was Zeus’ plan to allow Troy to fall from all the way back in Book IV (4.30-69). Since Sarpedon’s death was foretold but also caused by Patroklos alone, let us consider the example of Patroklos, as it offers far more complexity than Sarpedon’s death.

First and foremost, we know from above that Patroklos is doomed to die by the hand of Hektor due to the prophecy and will of Zeus. Secondly, we know that Nestor is the one who even suggested that Patroklos take the battlefield wearing Achilleus’ armor in the first place (would him giving that idea make him also an efficient cause?) (11.790-803). Thirdly, we know that Achilleus accepts Patroklos’ request but himself refuses to return to the fighting because he still bears a tremendous grudge towards Agamemnon. That said, he does warn Patroklos to return to his tent after driving the Trojans back from the ships for fear some god might crush him (or that he might dishonor Achilleus). (16.48-100). Fourthly, there is the fact that Patroklos himself gets caught up in the heat of the battle and does not return as Achilleus requested that he do, but the reason for this is itself ambiguous: “But Patroklos, with a shout to Automedon and his horses, went after Trojans and Lykians in a huge blind fury. Besotted: had he only kept the command of Peleiades he might have got clear away from the evil spirit of black death. But always the mind of Zeus is a stronger thing than a man’s mind.” (16.684-688) So, whether Zeus or Patroklos’ own battle-fury is cause of his death in this case is subject to question. Then of course, fifthly, there are the two men and one god who strike him: (1) Apollo knocks off his corselet, shield, helmet, and splits his spear and mazes his wits at 16.788-807, and then Euphorbos strikes him with a spear in his back (16.812-814), and Hektor, his “third slayer” strikes him in the midriff 16.821-822. So, with these five causes laid out, who is it exactly that is responsible for the death of Patroklos? Do Aristotle’s causes ultimately help to determine who is most responsible? Zeus seems to have the final cause covered, but it is unclear whether Patroklos’ own motivations, Nestor’s prodding words, or simply the killing throws of Euphorbos and Hektor are the efficient causes of Patroklos’ death. And what chance had he, really, to stand up to Apollo? And could he have really avoided being crushed by Apollo had he gone back to the ships, or was he doomed to be “besotted” by the will of Zeus, who is too strong?

Though question three, about Zeus’ role as a father is a fair one for the students, beyond Hera’s argument that the gods will resent Zeus, Athene in Book 15 gives a response to Ares who wishes to avenge his son Askalaphos very much like Glaukos’ speech to Diomedes in Book VI which seems to satisfy why a god must allow his mortal son to die: “Therefore I ask of you to give up your anger for your son. By now some other, better of his strength and hands than your son was, has been killed, or will soon be killed; and it is a hard thing to rescue all the generation and seed of all mortals.” (15.138-141) Such a fact must be accepted by the gods, regardless their relationship and love of their children who are mortal. Those are who mortal are doomed to die, regardless their gifts or lineage, just as the commoners–such is a recurrent and ever prevalent theme in Homer’s Iliad, the common lot of man.