Caring for the Psyche: Classical Origins and Modern Paradigms

Jules Bemporad, Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis, 1996, 24, 353-363.

Excerpt: I would like to begin this article with a somewhat unusual
illustration, Agamemnon’s apology. It is the same example used
by E.R. Dodds (1957) to open his brilliant book, The Greeks and
the Irrational
. As you are well aware, the plot of the Iliad is set
into motion by Agamemnon, the leader of the Achean expeditionary force against Troy, deeply insulting Achilles, one of his
major chieftains, by taking away Achilles’ concubine after Agamemnon has to return his own war prize to her father. This father,
after his pleas were ignored, as a priest of Apollo, has entreated
the god to cast a plague on the invading army. Achilles responds
to this extortion by wanting to kill Agamemnon on the spot, but
he is restrained by Athena and so instead goes to sulk in his tent,
refusing to participate in further warfare. Without Achilles and
his troops, the Acheans find themselves no match for the Trojans
and Agamemnon soon realizes he and his army are in deep
trouble. Therefore, he offers an apology for his expropriating
‘Achilles’ woman in an attempt to mollify the latter. And this
apology, to our modem ears, is a very strange justification, for it
admits not only no guilt but no responsibility for the act. “Not I”
says Agamemnon of his theft “not I was the cause of this act.”
Rather he asserts that Zeus blinded him and took away his
understanding, so he could not do otherwise than expropriate
Achilles’ prize. Zeus inflicted him with wild “Ate,” a destructive
passion, which overwhelmed his reason. And the deity will always
have its way. Agamemnon, however, is prepared to grant abundant compensation even though he claims no responsibility for his
actions. Dodds concludes that this apology epitomizes the form of
early Greek justice: the intent meant nothing, it was the act and its
consequences that mattered. A similar view of the situation is even expressed by the victim Achilles, who likewise believes that
Agamemnon’s behavior was basically the will of Zeus and his
commander merely the instrument of that divine will.