Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

HOMER: The Odyssey (Books 9-12)

What kind of man is this stranger visiting the Phaeacians? He’s shown himself to be an outstanding athlete. He speaks well and is courteous to his hosts. The recitation of the poem about Troy brings tears to his eyes. This is obviously no ordinary man. In Book IX he finally reveals himself: “I am Odysseus, son of Laertes, who for all craft am noted among men, and my renown reaches to heaven.” He may well be noted among men and famous in heaven but is he a good man? You can almost hear Socrates asking – what do you mean by “a good man”? One answer may be that he was effective for his time. If achieving success in your own culture is your definition of a good man then Odysseus would be considered a good man. He was famous and eventually he got what he wanted – to get back home. What more can you ask from life? He’s certainly human. Here’s what he says he likes best: “For more complete delight I think there cannot be than when good cheer possesses a whole people, and feasting through the houses they listen to a bard, seated in proper order, while beside them stand the tables supplied with bread and meat, and dipping wine from out the mixer the pourer bears it round and fills the cups. That is a sight most pleasing…A sweeter spot than my own land I shall not see…Nothing more sweet than home and parents can there be…” But as soon as he lays out his idea of a good time he goes on to tell about the Ciconians: “There I destroyed the town and slew its men; but from the town we took the women and great stores of treasure.” Is this the same guy who is so devoted to his own home and his own parents? If Odysseus had made it to Phaeacia with the rest of his men would the Phaeacians have suffered the same fate as the Ciconians? We don’t know. Odysseus lost his men. Not a few of them; all of them.

Which leads to a second question: forget worrying about was he a good man – was he a good leader? Socrates would have the same question as before: what do you mean by “a good leader”? If defending those under your protection is the definition of a good leader then Odysseus failed miserably. What kind of leader loses EVERYBODY? Of course some readers might argue that it wasn’t Odysseus’ fault. Most of those guys brought destruction on themselves. And you can make the argument that Odysseus did his best to save them. In the Land of the Lotus-eaters, for example: “…the Lotus-eaters had no thought of harm against our men; indeed, they gave them lotus to taste; whosoever of them ate the lotus’ honeyed fruit wished to bring tidings back no more and never to leave the place, but with the Lotus-eaters there desired to stay, to feed on lotus and forget his going home. These men I brought back weeping to the ships by force…” Bad men can obviously be bad leaders and good men can probably be bad leaders too. But the really interesting question is whether a bad man can be a good leader.

In the Greek world after you died it didn’t seem to matter if you were good or bad. Everyone in The Odyssey ends up in the same place. It’s a strange sort of underworld quasi-life. The spirits are recognizable as individuals but they have no material existence. When Odysseus meets his mother he tries to hug her three different times. Each time his arms enveloped only emptiness. Achilles is so unhappy that he says: “Mock not at death glorious Odysseus. Better to be the hireling of a stranger and serve a man whose estate is small than ruler over all these dead and gone.” The “dead and gone” are just that. They no longer inhabit bodies so their spirits have become something like shadows with a shadowy existence. The only thing left behind is the memory of their former deeds of glory. It’s a dark, bleak vision of life and death.


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