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.

Liberty and Homer

The ‘Expanding the Liberty Canon’ label is not adequate for some texts that ought to be discussed with regard to liberty, since they have something important to say about liberty, but even on an expanded inclusive definition cannot be said to put forward a case for liberty, certainly  not from the perspectives of classical liberalism, libertarianism, the liberty movement, or any other label for thinking which favours liberty understood as individual rights, markets, voluntary association, and rule of law over communalism, collectively directed distribution, state domination of society, and administrative rules.

I have plenty of further texts to discuss under the ‘Expanding the Liberty Canon’ heading, but here is a beginning to the ‘Liberty and…’ sequence. It is an appropriate starting point in that the epic poems associated with the name of Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey are at the very beginning of European literature, culture, and knowledge. This is not say that there is pure beginning to Europe’s cultural and intellectual heritage with no precursors and no outside influence. It is to say that these are the first big texts in the history of anything that can be labelled European history. The name ‘Homer’ conceals considerable uncertainty about whether these poems have a single author and if so who.  What can be safely said is that these are long poems written down in approximately 800 BCE, drawing on a long oral tradition of sung poetry, referring to a world of Mycenaean late Bronze Age Greeks, who traded with and fought with the peoples of Anatolia, in a civilisation that disappears from the archaeological record in about 1 100 BCE.

On the side of Homer not being a hero of liberty is the apparent endorsement of a world where war and piracy have greater respect than trade and manufacture, the greatest role for a man is to defeat enemy armies and sack their cities, women’s role is to stay at home, do a lot of weaving, and obey their husband. Political authority is patriarchal-monarchical, based on the claim that kings are warrior-hero aristocrats are close to the gods. Ordinary people are deprived of choices and influence, subordinated to the hero-aristocrat class and may even be slaves. In The Iliad, a league of Greek kings lays siege to Troy for ten years, purely for reasons of honour connected with a Trojan Prince taking a Greek queen from her husband back to Troy. The violent destruction on enemy cities, the enslavement and murder of civilians, the organised theft of property are all part of the value system of Greeks and Trojans. In The Odyssey after various adventures on the way back from Troy, Odysseus massacres a group of aristocrats who have been trying to marry his wife during the twenty years of his absence, living in his palace using up the wealth, and follows this up with a massacre of those servant women who were too friendly with the massacred men.

So where does liberty come into this world of violence and traditionalist authority? One part of the answer to this question is that maybe the Homeric epics are critical of this world, at least in some part. The exploration of where there might be a critical distance in the Homeric poetry from the most disturbing aspects of the world it depicts gets into much detailed and questions of ambiguity to pursue here, but is something to bear in mind when reading Homer. Leaving that aside, there is the underlying issue of the formation of a world of poetic creation, which in some degree must be distant from and reflect on a world, so raising the possibility of individual critical perspectives.

Anyway, even staying at the level of the more direct and literal meaning, it portrays different possibilities of individual character and ways of being. In The Iliad we are see Achilles the proud angry warrior who lives to become the hero of song, even if that means dying young. His devotion to violence co-exists with a belief that he has rights as an individual against his overlord, a passionate devotion to his best friend, a capacity to overcome his angry nature when he allows the father of the Trojan hero, Hector, who killed his friend to take the body for honourable burial.

Hector himself has a near Achilles level of ‘heroic’ violence combined with a deep and self-effacing attachment to his wife and child. Many other possibilities of human individuality are explored including that of the most intelligent and cunning of the Greek leaders, Odysseus, who understands that war is won by stratagems as well as devotion to violence. This man of reflection, forethought and an early form of the life of the mind, becomes the centre of the second Homeric epic, The Odyssey, which recounts the ten years of his journey back from Troy to his homeland of Ithaca.

Odysseus starts back with his own fleet of ships carrying an army of Ithaca, by the time he gets back to Ithaca all of this is lost, and he is alone, in disguise playing the part of a vagabond when he arrives on his home island. Early in his adventures he described himself as No-man to trick his way out of danger from the giant Polyphemus and then proudly shouts his real name at the giant on his escape. This is at the base of his ten year journey since the god Poseidon is the father of  Polyphemus and takes revenge on Odysseus when Polyphemus can tell his father how Odysseus harmed him. Again and again Odysseus has to struggle with his own impulses and with the need to play a part, stretching his identity, in order to return to his island kingdom. So he is growing as an individual, exploring all the possibilities of individuality, including self-concealment, self-invention, and self-transformation.

The extreme violence of the return of Odysseus is followed by the brief description of a new beginning in Ithaca, an order of social peace in which a possible cycle of revenge is pre-empted through oaths and the prospect of justice settling differences rather than violence. This reconciling ending of The Odyssey itself builds on the sombre peace at the end of The Iliad, when a truce is agreed so that the city of Troy can bury and mourn its hero Hector, so that the values of peace and acknowledgement of individual suffering can stand up against the cycle of destructive violence.

In these and many other ways, Homeric epic offers much to stimulate thought about the nature of individuality and the kinds of social form which might allow individuals to flourish together, even in its depiction of the most destructive outcomes of human passions.