"The Odyssey," wrote the great Homer scholar G.S. Kirk, "can be read without having to try too hard and without special preparation." Compared with the heroic grandeur of the Iliad, the adventures of the wily Odysseus can indeed seem a mere crowd-pleasing romance: travelers' tales, folklore monsters, exotic islands, femmes fatales both mortal and divine, and domestic drama complete with a happy ending—these are the stuff of boys' novels and other light diversions. Yet for all its entertaining accessibility, the Odyssey is conceptually very ambitious. Homer's theme in the Odyssey will become the central question of later Greek philosophy: what makes us human beings?
In their classic efforts to answer this question, 5th-century Greek philosophers follow Homer in pondering how culture and nature (in Greek, nomos and phusis) relate to each other as they converge in human identity. How do our time- and body-transcending minds relate to our physical bodies with their passions and appetites rooted in space and time and subject to change and chance, suffering and death? As a point of departure for their wide-ranging inquiries, the philosophers return again and again to Homer's poetry.
Homer's first insight into human identity is that it is created in part by our existence in an inhuman natural world. Like the Aegean and Mediterranean seas Odysseus must sail, where sudden storms can destroy a ship in minutes, nature is an arena of powerful destructive forces, a harsh world of storms, predators, and plagues, a place where sustenance is scarce and grudgingly given, where even a rich king like Odysseus must wander, begging for his bread. We survive in this world not because of our physical strength, for compared to nature's power and the other animals we are pitifully weak, slow, and soft. We survive and flourish because of our minds and what our minds create—cities, laws, institutions, and technology—culture, in short, all those things that purely or merely natural creatures do not enjoy.
These existential facts explain Odysseus's defining qualities, cleverness (polymêtis) and endurance (polytlas). Unlike the typical iliadic hero—"swift-footed" Achilles or "huge" Ajax—Odysseus's most important characteristic is mental, not physical, which partially explains the antipathy to Odysseus on the part of both Achilles and Ajax. Those heroes prefer to make their way in the world through sheer violence, whereas Odysseus relies more on trickery, rhetoric, and disguise. This contrast between cleverness and violence is frequently dramatized in the Iliad, especially when Achilles and Odysseus quarrel over how Troy will be taken, by brute force or trickery. As we all know, it is Odysseus's trick of the wooden horse that brings about the city's fall.
Odysseus, then, is an intellectual hero of sorts, his journey not just a physical movement through space and time but also a journey of knowledge—"many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of" (quotations throughout are from the Richard Lattimore translation, which is the most faithful to the Greek). But this knowledge has a practical purpose: given the overpowering forces of nature, human physical strength alone is not sufficient for survival. We rely instead on our artful minds and how they can learn and adapt to and alter what we find in the world to make it serve our ends.
Odysseus's other representative quality, endurance, is also made necessary by the harsh world into which we are thrown. Before we can figure out how to survive, we first have to be able to take the pain and suffering we experience. No scene in the Odyssey shows us Odysseus's endurance better than the 200-line description in Book V of the storm that destroys his raft and forces upon him a desperate struggle to reach land. Nearly drowned by waves that drag him over rocks that tear the flesh from his hands, Odysseus keeps on fighting until he reaches the shore. But it is not just his prowess at swimming or even his ability to endure pain that saves him: he would have perished, Homer tells us, "wretched, beyond his destiny,/had not the gray-eyed goddess Athene given him forethought," the mental sharpness that sees the mouth of a river into which he swims to safety. We must be able to endure the suffering inflicted by a hard world until our minds can figure out a way to survive.
Yet the destructive forces out there in the world that we have to endure and use our minds to circumvent are not the only challenges we humans face. For within us are the equally destructive passions, appetites, and irrational impulses of our animal-like bodies. They too must be endured and resisted, compelled to give way to the mind's control. Throughout the Odyssey, disaster is visited on those who do not control their appetites and impulses, and hunger is the natural need that Homer most often emphasizes. On practically every page, someone is eating or talking about eating, and destruction often follows for those who eat the wrong things or at the wrong time. Odysseus's men eat the lotus-flower and forget their home and identity; they eat the forbidden oxen of the sun-god Helios and die; they eat the feast of Circe and are turned into pigs. For more than any other need we have, hunger—what Odysseus calls the "wretched belly,/ that cursed thing, who bestows many evils on men"—makes us dependent on a natural world that begrudges us the means of survival.
Sexual desire and greed, too, bring destruction on those who cannot resist their force. The 108 suitors occupying Odysseus's palace are monsters of consumption, devouring his flocks and cattle, corrupting his maids, plotting to murder his son Telemachus, and attempting through force to possess his wife Penelope—just about every time we see them, they are feasting and drinking amidst the remnants of slaughtered animals. When she appears before the suitors in Book XVIII, "their knees gave way, and the hearts in them were bemused with passion," Homer writes, using the same metaphor he uses in the Iliad to describe a warrior's death. Indeed, Odysseus will "loosen their knees" when he slaughters all the suitors, their deaths the direct consequence of their appetites.
This strength to endure one's own "slavish and brutish" appetites, as Aristotle calls them, this power not to act on those bestial impulses, no matter how painfully insistent, because the mind can see the destructive consequences of such action, is the virtue the Greek philosophers will call sôphrosunê, the "rational self-control" only humans possess. Odysseus's qualities of endurance and cleverness converge in this most humanizing virtue, and throughout the epic his survival is clearly a consequence not just of physical endurance and mental cleverness, but also of his ability to resist his own powerful passions and subordinate them to what his mind knows is the best course of action.
One of the best illustrations of this virtue occurs in Book XX. Disguised as a beggar, Odysseus has just had a conversation with Penelope in which has been hatched the plot to destroy the suitors the next day. As he beds down for the night in his courtyard, he witnesses the treacherous maids sneaking out to sleep with the suitors. "His heart was growling within him, like a bitch defending her puppies," goading him to kill the maids for their outrage. But Odysseus
struck himself on the chest and spoke to his heart and scolded it:
"Bear up, my heart. You have had worse to endure before this
on that day when the irresistible Cyclops ate up my strong companions,
but you endured it until intelligence got you out of the cave."
In this simile, his righteous anger originates in an animalistic impulse, as the comparison to the dog makes obvious. Yet that irrational impulse is not choiceworthy, since the plot has been laid to destroy the suitors the next day, and if Odysseus were to act now he would be exposed and the plot would fail. He knows this, and so he must scold that impulse, control it the way a man does a growling dog with a cuff or a kick, and subordinate it to the mind's knowledge of context and consequence. For the moment, he must endure the anger within him aroused by the treachery of his maids, and then he must rely on "intelligence" (Lattimore's translation of Homer's mêtis, "contrivance" or "trick") to prevail in the rigged contest with the bow that will take place the next day. Like Odysseus, we humans survive and flourish because we have such a rational virtue that restrains our natural impulses, and because we have minds that can think up ways of getting around the destructive forces of the natural world.
Cyclops and the Second Thought
The most popular adventure in the Odyssey, the encounter with the monstrous Cyclops Polyphemus, also happens to be the one where Homer's vision of human identity is best illustrated. Every detail in the description of the Cyclopes emphasizes how inhuman they are, for everything Odysseus tells us they lack is precisely what makes humans human. They have no technologies like agriculture and shipbuilding, no laws, no political institutions, and no communal "ties that bind." In short, the Cyclopes have no culture to mediate their savage natures. They are pure natural force and appetite, which is why Homer makes them physical monsters, giants with one wheel-like eye, "endowed with great strength,/and wild, with no true knowledge of laws or any good customs." When Odysseus and his men encounter Polyphemus, the inhuman savagery of the Cyclopes is made explicit by the monster's action: he suddenly snatches up two of the Greeks
and like a lion reared in the hills, without leaving anything,
ate them, entrails, flesh, and the marrowy bones alike.
Such a monster is not going to be defeated by force alone. But before Odysseus can figure out how to get his men out of this death trap, he must resist his own impulsive wrath aroused in his "great-hearted spirit" by this brutal and contemptuous challenge to his honor. After Polyphemus falls asleep, Odysseus creeps up to him and feels for the vulnerable spot to plunge his sword—"but the second thought stayed" him. With the monster dead, there is no way Odysseus and his men could drag away the huge stone blocking the mouth of the cave. Nothing better illustrates our defining essence as human beings than what Homer calls the "second thought," the consciousness of consequences that restrains our passions and thus prevents us from foolish actions.
What saves Odysseus is not violence alone but the trick he thinks up, which requires for its execution every defining human characteristic we are told the Cyclopes lack. After getting the monster drunk on wine, Odysseus sharpens with his sword an olive-wood stake, then puts it into the fire until it glows red-hot—a use of nature that is the essence of technology. Then aided by his friends, encouraging them with his words to endure their fear, Odysseus rams the stake into the monster's eye while his men twirl it, "like a man with a brace-and-bit who bores into/a ship timber," and the hot stake burns and sizzles in the eye like hot iron plunged into cold water by a blacksmith. At the very moment Odysseus overcomes the brutish Cyclops, Homer introduces two similes that appeal to technologies critical for human civilization, ship-building and iron-working. We may be physically weak and slow, but our minds and the alterations our minds can work on the stuff of nature, our ability as "social animals" to work together, and our virtues of endurance and self-control all help us to triumph over the brutal, devouring forces of nature.
Odysseus and Us
In some respects, we moderns can identify with the scrappy survivor Odysseus. The honor, clan loyalty, revenge, and warrior valor of the Iliad seem like relics of a benighted age. But Odysseus, the sly democratic everyman, seems like us: he just wants to get back home in one piece. In other respects, of course, Homer's vision of what we are and how we relate to the natural world cuts against the grain of modern prejudices. Our idealization of nature as the true home we have lost because of civilization and technology, a place of beauty and spiritual sustenance with which we must harmonize ourselves to be more authentically human, would strike Homer as delusional, the luxury of people liberated by technology from nature's quotidian cruelty. Nature in reality is a brute force indifferent to our pathetic species—it is a one-eyed monster that will devour us raw.
Nor does Homer sympathize with the modern demonization of civilization, the Romantic notion that the modern world has alienated us from our true selves and that, as Freud wrote, "our civilization is largely responsible for our misery." The Odyssey sees civilization as our salvation, what separates us from the brute existence of animals and allows us to be recognizably human in the first place. Five centuries after Homer, Aristotle will agree when he calls human beings "polis-dwelling animals," creatures defined by a communal political-social order of laws, language, and institutions. To be anything else, Aristotle adds, one must be a beast or a god. But one will not be human.
Most important is Homer's insight that what is best and most admirable about human beings is to be found precisely in how we meet the challenges and risks of the hard natural world of pain and suffering. This is a notion intolerable to therapeutic moderns who believe that suffering and hardship are unfair anomalies to be corrected by progress, rather than the immutable limits that help to define us and create the conditions for our nobility and achievement. Odysseus accepted this paradox of human identity, which explains his rejection of Calypso's invitation to remain with her and stay young forever, an offer she spices up by emphasizing the hardship and suffering Odysseus must undergo before he can get home and win back his wife. Odysseus's response is a powerful assertion of the dignity of human life, of the value of living a life of meaning even at the cost of suffering and death:
And if some god batters me far out on the wine-blue water,
I will endure it, keeping a stubborn spirit inside me,
for already I have suffered much and done much hard work
on the waves and in the fighting. So let this adventure follow.
Here is wisdom that we moderns, dazzled as we are by utopian dreams of a perfect world, need to relearn.