Odysseus and the Cynics

Odysseus and the Cyclop

“The immortal gods had given us in Cato a more assured example of the wise man than Odysseus and Hercules in earlier centuries. For we Stoics have proclaimed that these were wise men, not being conquered by effort, despising pleasure, and victorious over the whole world.” (Seneca, On Constancy, II.1)

The Stoics thought that role models are important, because that’s how you pattern your behavior toward virtue. One can explain, perhaps, what it means to be virtuous, but it is far more efficient and inspiring to study the biographies and follow the examples of great men and women. While the classical role models of ancient Stoicism were Socrates (of course), Cato the Younger, and the demigod Hercules, I want to propose a series of posts on Odysseus, the mythical Greek warrior who single handedly won the Trojan War by way of his cunning stratagem of the wooden horse, and whose further exploits are recounted in the immortal poem by Homer that refers to his name (check this superb translation by Robert Fagles, with an excellent introductory essay and notes by Bernard Knox). Besides, I’ve been fascinated by Odysseus since I was a kid, and a recent book by Silvia Montiglio, From Villain to Hero: Odysseus in Ancient Thought, gave me a perfect excuse to indulge my love for he who the Romans called Ulysses.

The book is a fascinating philosophical history of how Odysseus was perceived by various schools of thought, and I will write essays on the chapters covering the following topics: Odysseus and the Cynics (this post), Odysseus and the Stoics, and Odysseus and the Epicureans — a nice panoramic view not just of Odysseus himself, but of the similarities and differences among those three philosophical schools. I will then add a bonus, Dante’s Odysseus, based on a different source, a paper by Gabriel Pihas entitled “Dante’s Ulysses: Stoic and Scholastic models of the literary reader’s curiosity and Inferno 26.”

“Tell me, Muse, the man of many turns.” (Od. 1.1)

Let’s start with the Cynics, or more precisely with Antisthenes’ take on the mythical hero. Antisthenes was a follower of Socrates, though he had earlier on studied rhetoric with the Sophist Gorgias. He adopted an ascetic life style, and is considered the founder of the sect of the Cynics, even though their most famous exponent was Diogenes of Sinope, who was known as Antisthenes’ “faithful hound.”

Montiglio tells us that Antisthenes was the first philosopher to mount a systematic defense of Odysseus’ character, even though it is well known that Socrates himself admired the hero: “He rebuffs criticisms of Odysseus’ alleged impiety toward Poseidon in the Cyclops episode; praises his choice to reject Calypso’s offer of immortality; and, above all, rushes to defend his versatility, and his inventiveness and serviceability as a leader in war and life” (20). (The source for Antisthenes’ take here is Porphyry, a third century Neoplatonist who wrote a commentary on the Odyssey.)

One reason Greek tragedians had criticized Odysseus is because of his ability to speak fluently (!), thus convincing others to do his bidding. He was, as they said, “of a deceptive and shifty character.” But, replies Antisthenes, Odysseus was no Sophist (and he should know!). Indeed, his ability to discuss a variety of topics from different perspectives, and to express a given thought in a number of ways, is a positive trait: “Discovering the style of wisdom that befits each category is a mark of wisdom, whereas it is a mark of ignorance to use the same kind of speech with people who are differently disposed” (22).

Unlike Socrates, Antisthenes professed to have knowledge, and he thought that so did Odysseus. The latter’s ability to convince others is therefore an example of his skill at communicating the knowledge he acquired: “Odysseus is virtuous at speaking not because he aims to persuade his interlocutors of anything, in Gorgias’ style, but because, thanks to his knowledge of a variety of modes of speech, he can push them to learn what is true and beneficial to them” (23). In essence, the difference between the wise Odysseus and a Sophist lies in their intentions: while the Sophist wishes to manipulate people, Odysseus wants to prod people to do the right thing.

Antisthenes takes up Odysseus’ cause also with respect to a famous scene in the Iliad, the contest between Ajax and Odysseus for the right to the armor once worn by Achilles. In pleading his case to the assembled Greek army, Ajax presents himself as a traditional warrior, powerful in battle, courageous, honorable, and who would never debase himself by engaging in shameful behavior.

Odysseus, by contrast, “emphasizes his readiness to abase himself to help his fellows, for instance by wearing rags as a disguise to deceive the enemy; his willingness to conduct dangerous operations; his indefatigable commitment to the common cause; and his successful inventiveness.”

Antisthenes actually makes Odysseus speak in the style of Socrates at his trial, including a somewhat arrogant disregard for his audience’s feelings. His argument for the prize is his relying on intellectual skills rather than sheer strength. He says to Ajax: “You, who in the first place do not know how one must fight, but are carried by your anger like a wild boar.” (26)

There are precedents in Greek lore for this sort of praise of Odysseus. The famous Athenian general Themistocles, who beat the Persians at Salamis, was nicknamed “Odysseus” in virtue of his cunning and prudence, and the great statesman Pericles famously praised the Athenian people for combining audacity with calculation, instead of acting “confidently in ignorance,” as the other Greeks did.

Back to the Ajax episode: Odysseus’ criticism of the valiant Greek comrade sounds, again, Socratic: “I do not blame you for your ignorance, because, like anyone else, you suffer this condition unwillingly” (28). But why does Odysseus say that Ajax does not know how to fight, a preposterous statement, at first glance? Because Ajax is a traditional warrior, all brawn and no brains, relying only on conventional weapons and his strength, the very sort of thing that had spectacularly failed to beat the Trojans for ten years straight.

Odysseus is welcome into the Cynic fold also because of his willingness to wear rags, albeit temporarily and for a specific purpose, reminiscent of the Cynic minimalist approach to life in general. Odysseus is indifferent to appearances, and moreover “like the Cynic, who is alone but acts for others, [he] emphasizes that the missions he undertook were pro bono publico but that he was alone in pursuing them” (29).

Again, the contrast with Ajax is stark: “Odysseus has no scruples against acting in the most abominable way, in hiding, something Ajax would never dare: ‘there is nothing that Odysseus would do openly whereas I would not dare do anything in hiding.'” Smartly, Odysseus turns the argument against Ajax: “and if some were going to see me, I would not have been daring because I was striving after reputation” (31-32). As Montiglio aptly puts it: “in the competitive world of the Iliad Odysseus is the most cooperative hero, the most concerned with the common good and the least obsessed with honor and glory.” (32)

Antisthenes admired Odysseus’ ability to get out of perilous situations by using his intelligence, as in the famous episode of the Cyclops, where — after having blinded Polyphemus — he and his comrades leave the cave of the giant by hiding below the belly of sheep being herded outside. When Polyphemus asks who blinding him, Odysseus answers that his name was Nobody, so that when the other Cyclops arrive to help out they are told that “nobody” did the deed…

But Odysseus is also virtuous. Antisthenes compares the hero’s decision to leave the goddess Calypso and embrace hardship in order to be able to return home to the similar decision made by Hercules of virtue over pleasure. Indeed, Antisthenes wrote two works on Hercules, of which unfortunately only the titles remain: The Greater Heracles or on Strength, and Heracles or on Wisdom or on Strength. He had, of course, to be somewhat selective about what to emphasize, apparently ignoring, for instance, Hercules’ notorious appetite for both sex and food. Besides, the demigod’s life of hardship is actually reinterpreted by the Cynics (and the Stoics) as the result of choice, contra the earlier versions of the myth. Then again, that’s the point of mythological role models: it’s not like there is a matter of fact about what they actually did!


Categories: History & Biographies, Odysseus


5 replies

  1. One of the things I saw actually, is that people are admiring people that don’t give nothing to this World. I am always trying to to the right things, say the right words, and most part of the times, the others don’t give a …. about that. So, I think people don’t want to fell, so, I say that people don’t want to live in fact…
    Since I am reading posts like this, follow people like You, at least I know and I am sure that i am not the only one thinking like I think…Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Somewhat off topic but…
    My impression of the characters in Homer is that Hector the Trojan was the most noble or having the greatest integrity. First, if it’s true then why is this? Second, do any of the ancient commentators take up the cause of Hector?


  3. Jbonni,

    I had the same impression too, but I’m not aware of much literature on that, ancient or modern. Anyone else?


  4. If my undergrad memories of a term on the Iliad are of any interest, here goes: Hector is unique in the Iliad as he is the only character who fights to protect his home and family. Paris fights rarely and generally in a cowardly fashion (his bow and arrow are used from afar, which is a sign he lacks manliness), but Hector fights in the “proper” manner i.e. hand-to-hand. The Greeks are generally there because the owe allegiance to Agamemnon, the “lord of men”, with the obvious exception of Menelaus. However, while there is occasional mention of Hector’s domestic life, it is not something which is particularly developed in the poem.
    I think it’s clear, however, that it is Achilles who would have been seen as the noblest character to the audience of the time (his usual epithet can be translated as “brilliant” or “godlike”). The society depicted is aristocratic (there is one “working class” character in the Iliad, and he gets roundly abused) and prizes skill in battle which Achilles obviously has in spades. While his refusal to accept Agamemnon’s offer of recompense puts him (temporarily) in the wrong, his return to battle, diplomatic handling of Patroclus’ funeral and later release of Hector’s body show him acting in the ideal manner for a leader in that time. Most importantly, however, he has the favour of the gods, who help him during his battle with Hector, which was the highest mark of nobility at the time.
    I think it’s one of these occasions where different ages will find different characters admirable depending on their own assumptions and societal structures.
    Jasper Griffin’s “Homer on Life and Death” is a good, short, look at Homer’s worldview.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Surprised that Antisthenes doesn’t discuss the Horse, as mentioned at the top by Massimo, as Odysseus was key in pushing that, and of course, in line with Cynicism, the horse’s appearance was deceiving.

    And, Massimo’s note of the Latin version reminds me of the old Cream song, “Brave Ulysses.”


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