Ignoring the Advice of your Friends, Lessons from Homer
By Chris Moultrie
And all ranks of Achaeans cried out in their assent:
“Respect the priest, accept the shining ransom!”
But it brought no joy to the heart of Agamemnon. ¹
In The Iliad, Agamemnon ignores the words of his friends, advisors, and subjugates which brings massive destruction down upon his army. The god Apollo rains arrows, killing many until Agamemnon relents. To appease Apollo, but also serve himself, he then ignores Nestor’s wisdom on how best to resolve the situation. He takes Achilles’ woman, which ignites an anger within Achilles that lasts through the rest of the tale and is still incredibly costly for Agamemnon’s armies. These quoted lines are on the second page of the book, and set up a theme for the rest of this story, and the Odyssey. Ignoring the advice of those you surround yourself with and trust can cause great harm even if you still arrive at your desired outcome.
Throughout the books, Peleus’ son, Achilles rages against the actions of Agamemnon early in the tale. When Agamemnon finally agrees to seek out Achilles and attempt to reconcile, it is now Achilles who refuses to listen to advice from those he trusts the most. Here they entreat him to accept the many treasures offered by Agamemnon and join the fighting.
But now, Achilles, beat down your mounting fury!
It’s wrong to have such an iron, ruthless heart.
Even the gods themselves can bend and change, and
theirs is the greatest power, honor, strength. ²
This does not sway Achilles, as he’s much too angry, instead he rebukes Agamemnon again and sends the convoy of generals back without giving any ground. Achilles knows that he has the option to fight and die in glory, or abstain and die of old age, forgotten. This, given our knowledge of the Greeks doesn’t seem like much of a choice, as the reader knows he will eventually join the fray for glory. Because he won’t join the fight immediately, he has to suffer the loss of many of his friends from other battalions, and eventually his dearest friend Patroclus before he joins the battle himself. Achilles still dies in battle, but he could have saved many and still had his final glory had he relented in his anger as many advised him to do. Not everyone in these books ignores advice they’re given, some choose to selectively apply it. In the Odyssey, Odysseus seeks and follows the advice from Circe in order to find his way home.
… You must travel down
to the House of Death and the awesome one, Persephone,
there to consult the ghost of Tiresias, seer of Thebes… ³
He travels in his black beaked ship to visit the House of Death, and follows Circe’s instructions to the letter, even ignoring the ghosts of those he loves at first, to be able to consult Tiresias. After he gathers the information needed from the Seer of Thebes, Odysseus is still able to visit with the ghost of his mother and many others. Following the advice yielded results that could not have been better for him. He gets necessary information on how to return to his homeland, with special orders to avoid the cattle of Helios, which his men later slaughter for food. Considering how well this advice has worked for him, you would hardly think he would ignore any part of it.
Odysseus is his own man, though, and when it suits him he will act in a manner according to his own desires. He will disregard any advice, no matter how expert the advisor is. As they travel in their ship towards the rock, Charybdis and the hard place, Scylla, Odysseus dons his armor.
But now I cleared my mind of Circe’s orders —
cramping my style, urging me not to arm the men at all.
I donned my heroic armor, seized long spears
in both my hands and marched out on the half-deck ⁴
In this case, Odysseus and his men are no worse off for him ignoring Circe’s advice and donning his armor. They lose 6 men, as expected, but no more to Scylla. This is likely because, at closer inspection, he partially follows Circe’s advice. She warns about not pausing before the area to have the men prepare for battle. This could have wasted valuable time, slowed the men down who were rowing, and potentially caused them to suffer a larger volume of casualties. Alternatively, the advice could have been just to indicate the futility of fighting Scylla, as there was no way to win, and thankfully for the hero, he did follow that advice. The context in which the advice was given is very important here, but Odysseus lacks that and makes the decision that feels best for himself.
This outlines the difficulty in following advice given by those we should or do trust. Context can be vitally important for the ability to evaluate the worthiness of the information given. Those giving advice may have ulterior motives which may not align with our own path or we may not understand the reasons for the advice and may stumble in to success without doing as suggested. Knowing when to listen and when to ignore may be the greatest difficulty in our own odyssey on this planet. We must all learn to discern what is valuable advice and what serves only the purposes of others.
Homer’s epics contain many themes and lessons like this for us to mull. One of those is the role of experts, advisors, and friends within our lives. It is clear that in this book, following the advice to the letter would yield desired outcomes, but this is a problem itself. Blindly following the advice of others might lead to easy paths, but lessons may not be learned. There is also a lack of personal responsibility if you defer to others explicitly for your decisions. Instead, thoughtfully examining advice, understanding the risks for ignoring it, and doing what we feel as best may hurt more, but will truly be your own action. Would Odysseus really be an epic hero if he did everything he was told at every turn?
1. The Iliad Page 78 Lines 25–27
2. The Iliad Page 268 Lines 600–603
3. The Odyssey Page 245 Lines 538–541
4. The Odyssey Page 278 Lines 245–248
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