Self-worth, self-esteem, and self-interest are not modern inventions: we find them in the thought and literature of the ancient world as well. Homer’s Iliad, which students read in our class on “Heroes of Ancient Greece, Rome, and Today,” is a story all about personal pride and glory. The heroes of the Iliad fight above all so that their deeds may bring them honor (and thus immortality), and refuse to fight if that honor is besmirched. Interestingly, though, while ancient heroes share with us a desire for fame and along with it self worth, they don’t (mostly) think about themselves from the sort of meta perspective captured so perfectly in the modern selfie.
Only two characters in the Iliad – Achilles and Helen of Troy – show any ability to step out of themselves and to view themselves as characters in a story. What is startling for many students is the fact that this meta view of themselves that Achilles and Helen display does not bring them any joy or sense of their own power or importance. Just the opposite: it leaves both feeling powerless before the fate that has hold of them. In this, as in many things, the ancients are both very like and very unlike ourselves.