Today, like usual, we talked about appearance vs. reality in Homer’s Odyssey. When Odysseus returns home, he does so in disguise. He comes as a beggar, a dismal vagabond, and though he is a war-hero, a king, and the craftiest man alive, he presents himself humbly, unobtrusively, and quite differently from several he encounters. On the one hand there is obstreperous and stubborn Melanthios, the appropriately assigned goat-herd. Not only does he, a mere servant, condescend to deny hospitality to Odysseus incognito, but he suggests that King Echetos, known for dismembering and castrating guests, may well receive Odysseus if he dares approach the house of Penelope, occupied by ignoble suitors as it is. We also observe Arnaios (Iros), self-proclaimed “king of the beggars”, and well, Odysseus shows quickly the value of his words (it is unclear whether Odysseus kills him with one punch as Achilleus did to Thersites during the Trojan War), but this all goes to say that the men lowest in rank put on the grandest airs, and the man highest in rank and ability, presents himself, quite counter to Agamemnon when he returned home, humbly.
We also discussed the root of recklessness in mortals. When Odysseus first returns to Ithaka and speaks directly to Odysseus for the first time since Troy, Odysseus accuses her of not being there for him, but she quickly corrects him through two meaningful quotes:
“It would be a sharp one, and a stealthy one, who would ever get past you in any contriving; even if it were a god against you. You wretch, so devious, never weary of tricks, then you would not even in your own country give over your ways of deceiving and your thievish tales. They are near to you in your very nature. But come, let us talk no ore of this, for you and I both know sharp practice, since you are far the best of all mortal men for counsel and stories, and I among all the divinities am famous for wit and sharpness; and yet you never recognized Pallas Athene, Daughter of Zeus, who is always standing beside you and guarding you in every endeavor.”
(Homer. Odyssey, 13.291-301. Lattimore tr.)
“Always you are the same, and such is the mind with you, and so I cannot abandon you when you are unhappy, because you are fluent, and reason closely, and keep your head always.”
All this goes to show that if Athene is not a representation of “the rational mind” or that spontaneous and saving thought necessary in a new or dangerous situation, that she is at least quite close. We then considered the Platonic framework of the human soul, dividing it, logically, into (1) the rational soul (charioteer), (2) the spirited (noble horse/lion), and (3) desirous soul (ignoble horse/hydra). We then considered which part of this soul governs the decisions of Odysseus. Obviously, even in Odysseus’ temptation of the Sirens, his rational mind largely governs his desire (with a notable exception during the Cyclopes episode). The crew-mates of Odysseus, though, and the suitors in his home, however, seem to be guided by a different faculty of soul. Let us consider.
Early on Odysseus’ voyage, he set sail to Ismaros to sack a local ally of the Trojans, the Kikones. After having defeated and sacked their city, Odysseus suggest to his men that they leave. They demur, end up staying, and during the night they remain, the “more warlike companions” of the Kikones reinforce the position, and during the renewed fighting, 72 of Odysseus’ men are killed (9.39-61). Later, Odysseus’ men again run into trouble when their desire for gold causes them to open the bag of Aiolian winds (10.1-75). They soon after run into trouble again under the leadership of Eurylochos (a strong foil to Odysseus’ intelligence with his seeming reasonableness which causes no end to trouble) when they eat the food of Circe on Aiaia and are turned to pigs. Some have suggested that the beauty of Circe turns men, through their desire, into animals. They may also have been eating like pigs. In any case, the men again choose what they desire (10.202-227) regardless of the intelligence of their choice. And of course during the Thrinakia episode, one observes the men allowing reasonable Eurylochos to convince them to eat the Cattle of the Sun which each had sworn not to eat because of their desire for food (12.339-365) (they had even chosen to stop on Thrinakia, again against Odysseus’ wishes, in order to satisfy their desire for rest (12.307-332). One sees, then, that Zeus was correct in Book I of the story when he said that it is the recklessness, of mortals, or their irrational choosing of what they desire in a moment against what is intelligent or correct in accordance with their destination, that leads to the downfall of the crew-mates of Odysseus:
“Oh for shame, how the mortals put the blame upon us gods, for they say evils comes from us, but it is they, rather, who by their own recklessness win sorrow beyond what is given…”
If one briefly then reflects on the suitors occupying Odysseus’ house, one sees the clear connections then between the recklessness or desirousness of the crew-mates of Odysseus and the suitors. The suitors claim to have been waiting for Penelope to choose one of them for three years, and like those subject to the gambler’s fallacy, stubbornly persist in their folly. Though each suitor maintain free will, each shows up to Ithaka every day to eat Odysseus’ food, sleep with maids, listen to Odysseus’ singer, hassle Penelope, and to insult Telemachos or any guest he might have. These men, like Odysseus’ crew-mates, are also completely subject to their own desires, and like each of Odysseus’ crew-mates, they will share the same fate.