The Reading Room
Homer’s Odyssey: Reason vs. Desire
Today, we will consider appearance vs. reality in Homer's Odyssey. When Odysseus returns home to Ithaka after his ten year long journey, 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 characters he encounters.
On the one hand there is obstreperous and stubborn Melanthios, the goat-herd. Not only does he, a mere servant, condescend to deny hospitality to the incognito Odysseus, he even suggests that King Echetos, known for dismembering and castrating guests, may well receive Odysseus if he dares approach the house of Penelope which is occupied by ignoble and dangerous young suitors. We also observe Arnaios (also called Iros), the self-proclaimed "king of the beggars", and Odysseus shows quickly the value of that claim with a powerful and leveling punch. But this all goes to show that the men lowest in rank sometimes put on the grandest airs in Homer’s works, and the man highest in rank and ability presents himself in quite another way when he returns home, humbly.
The next question, one which is brought up in the first thirty four lines of Homer’s Odyssey, is: what is the root of recklessness in mortals? When Odysseus first returns to Ithaka and speaks directly to Athene for the first time since he fought alongside her at Troy, Odysseus accuses her of not being there for him, but she quickly corrects him, reminding him that his all-too-human perception has left him blind to the truth:
"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 more 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."(Ody.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."
(Ody.13.330-332; my italics)
All this goes to show that if Athene is not an anthropomorphized representation of "the rational mind" or that spontaneous and saving thought necessary in a new or dangerous situation, she is at least serves the same function. We are thus prompted to consider the Platonic framework of the human soul, dividing it, as Plato does in his Phaedrus, into (1) the rational soul (charioteer), (2) the spirited (noble horse/lion), and (3) desirous soul (ignoble horse/hydra). Which part of this soul, then, governs the decisions of Odysseus? Obviously, even in Odysseus' temptation by the Sirens, his rational mind largely governs his desire (though, notably, his thumos seems to control him as he shouts his name to Polyphemus 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. But which one?
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, the "more warlike companions" of the Kikones reinforce their allies’ position. During the renewed fighting, 72 of Odysseus' men are killed (Ody.9.39-61). Later, Odysseus' men again run into trouble when their desire for gold causes them to open the bag of Aeolian winds (Ody.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. It has been suggested that the beauty of Circe turns men, through their desire, into animals. It may also have been, like Chihiro’s parents in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, that the men were gluttonously eating like pigs. In any case, the men again choose what they desire (Ody.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 because of their desire for food, though each had sworn not to eat these sacred beasts (Ody.12.339-365) (they had even chosen to stop on Thrinakia against Odysseus' wishes in order to satisfy their desire for rest (Ody.12.307-332). One sees, then, that Zeus was correct in Book I 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..."(Ody.1.32-34; my italics)
If one briefly then reflects on the suitors occupying Odysseus' house, one sees the clear connections 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, they stubbornly persist in their folly. Though each suitor maintains 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 dire fate.