The Judgment of Paris: A Myth of Moral Corruption

The myth is world-famous. At the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, the parents of Achilles, Eris, Goddess of Discord, throws a golden apple intended “for the fairest.” Three goddesses – Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite, claim the prize for themselves. Zeus, wisely obeying the laws of power, delegates the task to some other fool, and Paris, Prince of Troy, is chosen to award the apple. It’s a choice that sets the world on the road to disaster, but the Judgment of Paris Myth wasn’t merely a device to get the main tragic action rolling. It was a myth that illustrated moral corruption and serves as both a warning and an invitation to the men of today to perform noble deeds.

The Bribe

Not confident enough to win the contest on their own merits, each of the goddesses offered Paris a bribe. Hera offered him the lordship of Asia (and in some accounts Europe as well), which would make him the richest and most powerful man in the world. Athena offered him unparalleled wisdom and might which would bring him victory wherever he went, ensuring his name would be immortal. Aphrodite offered him Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world, as a wife.

Paris didn’t take long to make his judgment. He chose Aphrodite, and in doing so, the myth reveals his debasement.

Judgment of Paris Myth

Paris’ Immoral Judgment

If we look at the myth from Cicero’s perspective on morality, the choice to award Aphrodite the golden apple was corrupt because it broke the bonds upon which society functions. Helen was already a married woman and his scheme, along with Aphrodite, to steal her, undermined the trust husband had in wife. If all wives behaved similarly, civilization wouldn’t be able to reproduce itself.

Paris also violated the sacred laws of hospitality, stealing not only Menelaus’ wife, but other treasures besides. This violation undercut trust in Greek society. It also broke a sacred rule. The laws of hospitality were sacrosanct because all mortals were subject to the whims of fortune. Undermining them meant undermining the ability for others to find safe refuge if their fortunes started to ebb. This was the reason why the suitors were so dishonorable in the Odyssey.

This would be bad enough, and yet, the myth also illustrates a debasement of Paris’ character as a man.

By favoring Aphrodite in the judgment, Paris chose empty lust instead of noble action. He was offered the opportunity to achieve something great and turned it down so that he could spend his days in hedonism with the trophy wife that he did nothing to earn. If a man can attain one of the most beautiful and desirable women, it usually means that he has a strong character and has achieved something notable, putting in the work to earn his reward. Paris did none of this. As we see in the Iliad, his lack of masculinity is almost a running gag, even among Helen by that point.

His judgment revealed a debased, ignoble character, one only worthy of scorn, both by Greeks and Trojans alike.

Athena: Patroness of Heroes and Greatness

Athena and Diomedes
Stand by Athena and she will stand by you with all of her benefits, as she proved with Diomedes.

What about Hera? What role does she play in the myth? What would a judgment in her favor reveal about Paris’ character?

Hera’s offer would indeed be a hard one to turn down. One would think that it would make the further benefits of glory and lust possible. And yet, there’s something imperfect about it. To choose it over the alternative would reveal a greedy character.

Greed was the vice that classical writers associated with old men, men whose vigor had left them, leaving them unable to do anything else but accumulate power and riches. Accumulating wealth is fine as a tool, but for it to be the end goal reveals a narrow character. Anyone can be in love with money and power. You’ll note that Homer never celebrated wealth for its own sake. It was only good if its owner had a good character.

One modern example that stands out is George Lucas, who sold Star Wars to Disney. Since then, Disney has released lackluster sequel movies that stand out for their brand name more than anything else. Lucas took the money, but the result will ultimately be a black mark on his legacy, as his brainchild gets taken in disreputable directions.

Money and power are secondary. As Cicero would tell us, those who chase it don’t live well. Hera presents a tantalizing option, but making a judgment in her favor would only be slightly better than Aphrodite. It would still reveal an incomplete character, given that there was a third, nobler alternative.

Instead, in the myth, one goddess stands out as being associated with heroes and great men – Athena.

It was Athena who stood beside Odysseus in his noblest actions. It was Athena who stood beside Diomedes when he sent the Trojans packing into their walls. When Odysseus and Diomedes made a night raid on the Trojan lines in book 10 of the Iliad, they were courageous and dedicated their spoils to Athena. The antagonist in the chapter, Dolon, made his own foray through greed for wealth, was disreputable, and died. He is the type that might have made a judgment in favor of Hera.

And of course, it was Athena who encouraged Achilles when Agamemnon slighted him and gave him strength in his greatest moment of glory, which earned his eternal glory.

The aim of Homer’s heroes – the protagonists in his stories – was always to make their names known to posterity, to have their fame “stretch even into heaven,” as Odysseus says to his Phaeacian hosts. To do this, they needed to perform deeds worthy enough to survive them after their deaths, which could only stem from an enduring character, forged through mental and physical toughness. These are precisely the type of men worthy of the most desirable women, as the relationship between Odysseus and Penelope makes clear.

And it’s these men who Athena champions, always. These are the men who would make a judgment in her favor. They wouldn’t even think of judging in favor Hera or Aphrodite. Athena is the patroness of greatness in the myth. By spurning her, Paris not only earns her enmity, but reveals his own debasement as a man.

This is what it’s all about. Noble men, who want to do great deeds, choose Athena over Hera and Aphrodite. The benefits that Hera and Aphrodite provide will come with the wisdom, might, and glory that Athena offers, as Odysseus, Diomedes, and Achilles prove. Athena’s benefits don’t necessarily come from what Hera and Aphrodite offer, which can descend into a life of wasteful hedonism (certain in Aphrodite’s case, highly possible in Hera’s).

Always choose Athena. Reading Lives of the Luminaries will help to imbue you with her wisdom about human nature, solidifying your choice.

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