03/01/2013 11:46 am ET Updated May 01, 2013

Achilles and Moses Go Postal: A Lesson From the Ancient World on Gun Control

Although the Iliad and Bible do not address the gun control issue directly, they do have a lesson for us. First a bit of exegesis; then an implication; and finally a proposal.


Achilles has anger-management issues. Sparked by an insult in book I, Achilles' rage waxes and wanes throughout the Iliad, causing many unnecessary deaths and injuries.

Moses, too, has a temper. His first recorded act in Exodus is a murder, prompted by witnessing an Egyptian overseer beating an Israelite worker (2:11-12). Moses then flees to Midian, and the next thing we know, he is brawling with some shepherds on behalf of some shepherdesses (2:2:16). Moses is angry with the Israelites who didn't finish their manna (16:19-20), with those who ask for water to slake their thirst (17:1-4), with those who lust for meat rather than manna (Numbers 11:4-10), and with those who capture rather than kill women during the Midianite war (Numbers 31:14-15). Arguably, it is anger that causes Moses to get water from a rock by striking rather speaking to it, an act that keeps him from entering the Promised Land (Numbers 20:11-12).

Admittedly, some of these are clearer cases of anger than others, and none are unprovoked. Nevertheless, together they paint a picture of irascibility, especially when combined with Moses' most familiar and extreme display of anger. When he sees the Israelites worshipping the golden calf, Moses breaks the tablets (32:19), and orders a massacre of 3,000 people (32:26-28).

Whatever the Israelites deserve, the massacre is a result of passion, not premeditation. Both before and after the massacre, Moses urges God to forgive the Israelites, to forgo His anger, to withhold punishment (32:10-14, 32:31-32). Ironically, although Moses cannot control his own anger, he manages to calm God down.

Of course, Achilles' anger and Moses' anger are very different. Achilles is childish and selfish. He is furious over a slight to his honor, and indifferent to the horrible consequences of his anger for his friends. By contrast, Moses' anger is always righteous indignation. His anger is always on behalf of other people or God. He is indifferent to possible bad consequences for himself because he is focused on improving the lot of others. Unlike Achilles, Moses is a sophisticated adult with great humility (12:3).


Achilles and Moses are common character types today. We all know people with similar sorts of irascibility. Roughly 3,000 years have come and gone, and these guys still seem familiar. Maybe we will someday eliminate poverty, but the hotheads will always be with us.

All parties to the gun-control debate must agree that childish, selfish, anger-prone people like Achilles are a public menace when armed. If there was a policy which would reduce the number of such people with easy access to guns -- a policy which infringed no one's rights, cost almost nothing and generally had no objectionable consequences -- then we should implement that policy. After all, when you cut in front of someone on the highway, and he takes it as an insult to his manhood, you want his display of anger be a finger rather than a bullet, don't you?

Moses' anger is not such a clear case. He lives in a world of extreme, institutionalized injustice -- slavery. And Moses has a fine feel for justice, as exhibited by his willingness to take the case of Zelophehad's daughters before God (Numbers 27:1-5). But many who are currently enraged at what they take to be injustice are just wrong about justice. The John Birch Society, for example, is filled with righteously indignant people. Today, people who are prone to violent acts of righteous indignation are a public menace when armed. Again, an unproblematic policy which would reduce the number of such people with easy access to guns should be implemented. After all, you don't want furious vigilantes righting what they think are wrongs with bullets, do you?

However, the gun-control measures currently on the table would do nothing to keep guns out of the hands of irascible people like Achilles and Moses. Background checks rule out some criminals and mentally ill people, but lots of contemporary hotheads are neither. Hotheads are a big part of the problem, but covered by no currently discussed solution.


I suggest an education campaign with two parts. Common sense says that if you, or someone living with you is an alcoholic, you shouldn't keep liquor in the house. Similarly, the first part of my education campaign would get out this message: "If you are a hothead, or have a hothead living in your house, don't keep a gun in the house." (Of course, some hotheads don't acknowledge that they are hotheads; my message is aimed at those who do.)

Some alcoholics develop rationalizations for squirreling alcohol away in their homes. Debunking these rationalizations is helpful. Similarly, the second part of my education campaign would debunk bad reasons for keeping guns. For example, it would widely publicize the evidence that keeping guns in one's home increases, rather than decreases, one's risk of becoming a homicide victim.

One great advantage of my proposal is that it is uncontroversial. I am proposing persuasion, not regulation. Some might consider education to be a small part of a large package of gun-control measures; others might consider education to be the only sort of acceptable measure. But all parties to the gun control discussion could easily endorse my proposal.

In contentious debates, finding common ground among all parties is not only intrinsically valuable, it can also be a first step -- a confidence-building measure -- which may make future compromise and cooperation on controversial matters a bit easier.

So although my proposal does not address the bulk of the gun control issue, and would not even completely solve the hothead problem, it would make a small dent and could make a big difference.

Politically savvy Moses, though perhaps not Achilles, would be pleased.