Odysseus and Individuality

The Iliad is the story of Achilles moving from rage with an ally to sympathy with an enemy. Many other characters appear and the extremism of Achilles’ character, which leads him to remove himself from battle and therefore the narrative, lends itself to allowing other characters to present other possibilities of human personality.

The Trojan characters, particularly Hector, provide on obvious source of alternatives, but so do the other Greek hero warriors, and one of those who emerges most distinctly is Odysseus. Though Odysseus is a fierce remorseless warrior, inclined towards killing the enemy, particularly when the enemy can be seen as socially inferior, he is also characterised by his intellectual resources. It is highly indicative that one of the major appearances of Odysseus in The Iliad is on a spying trip into the Trojan camp. This early appreciation of the role of intelligence of in warfare is part of what makes the Homeric epics a classic of the theory of war, as well as a class of many other kinds.

Odysseus we see in The Iliad is the best adapted of the Greek kings to moderating disagreements, speaking with a constructive purpose in assemblies and councils, and thinking about the conduct of the war. This does not always make him sympathetic, but it does show that the human individual can exist in a very vivid and alive way through speech and thought as well as through anger and violence.

It is fitting then that Odysseus get his own epic, The Odyssey, which contrasts the very communal, even hyper communal, world of men at war, with the growing isolation of a man separated both from the brothers in arms community of Troy and from his family community back in Ithaca. The journey from Troy to Ithaca takes him right across the Greek world of the time, conveniently for symbolising other kinds of distance between the world of war and the world of human community. That is in part the distance between a world of plunder and slave girls on one side, and a world of productive labour and marriage on the other side. The Homeric poems does not make the contrast as favourable to the home community, as that might suggest.

Clearly the Heroes at Troy in some way feel most alive at war, straining their human faculties most in that endeavour. The Iliad also suggests other ways in which individuals can heighten the sense of life, the athletic competition at the funeral of the Patroclus and the desire to be remembered in poetry are the most obvious. These are not separate activities from war in Homer. Odysseus participates in games and weeps at poetic performance about himself in the land of the Phaeacians. In both cases war is very close. The games nearly turn in to violence between Odysseus and a Phaeacian who ‘accuses’ him of being a merchant and the poetry refers to the Trojan War.

With all due qualifications, we can still say that The Odyssey shows the value for an individual of getting back to the peaceful world of productive labours and familial affections. It also shows an individual losing all of the normal social bonds that define the self and finding other aspects of the self, which are not obviously present in the community of war and plunder or the community of family and labour. These are the aspects of the self which are part of ‘individualism’, of the idea as an individual as having an existence behind and, to some extent, separable from the most deeply entrenched social roles and connections. The appreciation of such aspects of the individual is the ethical foundation of political ideas of liberty, and Homeric poetry, though apparently the product of very communal communities, does much to establish that ethic (in some ways more than later philosophers in the antique world).

Odysseus confronts the possibility of a lonely death at sea after losing all his men in the long journey from Troy. The fault is partly his and partly his men. The vital passage for many of these issues is the adventure in the land of the Cyclops. Odysseus is thoughtless of danger when he takes some of his men to a cave whose occupant is absent, where they feast on the available food. Odysseus is taking assumptions about the applicability of laws of hospitality to an imprudent extreme here, and even tips over in plunder when it seems he plans to return to the ships with much of what is in the cave before the occupant returns.

The occupant, Polyphemus, returns too soon for that and is inherently more inclined to consume his guests than give them presents. Odysseus evades death through cunning, partly by telling Polyphemus that his name is ‘No man’. This idea of Odysseus that he might be taken as anyone and therefore no one, is itself a comment on how being some thing depends on being recognised as someone. It is also a resourceful individual thinking of how to use these abstractions to evade danger. Odysseus, however, guarantees ten more years of danger by boasting of his name and demanding it be known when he is sailing away from the island, incurring the enmity of Polyphemus’ father the god Poseidon.

The danger of the name and the desire for a name is emphasised later in the Sirens episode where malevolent demigoddesses try to lure Odysseus to his death with songs of the glory of Odysseus. To only want to live by your name as warrior heroics is dangerous. Odysseus has to resist this to live and again be thrown back on a very individualised kind of individuality.

The Homeric role in the origins of liberty is then partly bound up with the sense that even an individual very tied to the basic forms of community in his society can only fully thrive and live, if wiling to experience and play with, or suffer, separation from social bonds, and that the strength of those bonds itself rests most strongly on characters who can confront and live from encounters with extreme and even traumatic loss of communal bonds, and without becoming addicted to such situations and there dangers either.


2 thoughts on “Odysseus and Individuality

Please keep it civil

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s