Odysseus and the Stoics

IMG_8352We have recently examined how the Cynics, the cousins and partial inspiration of the Stoics, treated the mythical figure of Odysseus as a role model. It is now the turn of the Stoics themselves, as part of my commentary on From Villain to Hero: Odysseus in Ancient Thought, by Silvia Montiglio (the book also has a chapter on Plato’s view of the Greek hero, which I am skipping for the purposes of this blog).

The Stoics were apparently enthusiastic about Odysseus, beginning with the founder, Zeno, who in fact wrote five books of Homeric Problems. Ulysses, as the Romans called him, embodied a major tenet of Stoicism: the obligation to cheerfully submit to one’s Fate — while at the same time also unequivocally showing that this “submission” doesn’t equate to quietism. Just think of all the heroic efforts that Odysseus makes on behalf of his companions and in pursuit of the ultimate goal to get back home. That is why Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Dio Chrysostom all commented favorably on the legend of Odysseus.

One difference between the Cynic and Stoic treatments is the episode in which the hero dresses like a beggar in order to begin his revenge against the suitors, once back in Ithaca. While the Cynics did like the image of the king-beggar, it did not really fit well with their overall philosophy, because Odysseus didn’t choose a minimalist existence, he simply wore the clothes of a beggar in an instrumental fashion. This was not a problem for the Stoics, however, who taught that one has to adapt to the circumstances, especially in order to follow the will of the cosmos (which in the episode is personified by the goddess Athena, who helps Odysseus).

In fact, says Montiglio, “‘The beggar’ is … one of the many roles Odysseus teaches us to play as directed by destiny. The Stoics exhort us to be like good actors, to interpret as well as we can the part(s) assigned to us by fate.” But she immediately adds: “The Stoic imperative of detachment from externals does not entail that we should be uncommitted to our roles: on the contrary, we should play them as seriously as possible but always remembering that we are wearing masks, and that each mask might be changed.” Moreover, Odysseus is a good role model for the Stoic because he is committed to play well his roles while at the same time not confusing any specific role with who he more fundamentally is: “Odysseus is and is not the character he plays: he is, as a committed performer of life’s script; he is not, because his ‘moral purpose’ extends beyond each role and protects him, so to speak, from them.”

When Dio (who was a Stoic with strong Cynic leanings) writes, referring to Odysseus: “prudence is the safest wall, for it does not fall down or fail; one must set up walls in one’s impregnable reason,” Montiglio reminds us that this sort of talk is very similar to what we find in Marcus Aurelius and his famous idea of an inner citadel: “The mind that is free from passions is a citadel, for man has nothing more secure to which he can fly for refuge and repel every attack.” (Meditations, VIII.48)

Similarly, when Montiglio says that “Odysseus in rags is an athlete of life, training himself to endure so-called misfortunes (of which poverty is a major one) and to reject pleasures,” one is reminded again of Marcus: “The art of life is more like the wrestler’s art than the dancer’s, in respect of this, that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets that are sudden and unexpected.” (Meditations, VII.61) That is why in antiquity Ulysses became the epitome of the dictum that virtue is schooled in misfortune, a theme that also recurs in Seneca: “No wall can be erected against Fortune which she cannot take by storm; let us strengthen our inner defences. If the inner part be safe, man can be attacked, but never captured.” (Letters to Lucilius, LXXIV. On Virtue as a Refuge from Wordly Distractions, 19)

Maximus of Tyre wrote of Odysseus: “he rejected an immortality that came at the cost of inactivity, and the loss of all opportunity to exercise his virtue in action,” which dovetails nicely with the Stoic idea that hardship is to be endured for the sake of virtue, not fame, the latter being a preferred indifferent.

Another reason Odysseus was a favorite of the Roman Stoics in particular is that Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, Favorinus, and Dio Chysostom had all been persecuted and exiled, just like the Greek hero had been persecuted by Poseidon and exiled to a number of places, including Circe’s and Calypso’s islands. “For Musonius,” writes Montiglio, “Odysseus embodies the truth that people can profit from exile: ‘Alone, naked, and shipwrecked’ when he landed at Phaeacia, he ‘gathered enormous wealth.'”

At the same time, Epictetus uses Odysseus to illustrate his idea that we are not meant to stay in one place for our entire existence: “And that human beings, in addition to being noble-minded by nature and capable of feeling contempt for all that lies outside the sphere of choice, also possess this further quality, of not being rooted down or attached to the earth, but being able to move from one place to another, sometimes under the pressure of specific needs, sometimes merely so as to enjoy the spectacle. It was something of this kind that happened to Odysseus, ‘Cities of many men he saw, and learned their ways.'” (Discourses III.24.12-13).

Epictetus — one of the most Cynic-like of the Stoics — however, has a problem with Odysseus’ strong longing for his home and his wife, which are only preferred indifferents, after all. Here Seneca, as usual, comes across as more approachable. Writes Montiglio: “Seneca reinterprets Odysseus’ love for fatherland and family as the call of duty, which Stoically includes service to fatherland and family.”

Another interesting aspect of the myth of Ulysses, as far as the Stoics were concerned, was his relationship with knowledge. Was he curious for curiosity’s sake (which wouldn’t sit well with the practically oriented Stoics), or was his curiosity an aspect of his practical virtue? Both Zeno and Epictetus criticize what they saw as Odysseus’ excessive curiosity, and so did Dio.

And Seneca writes: “We have no time to hear lectures on whether Odysseus was tossed about between Italy and Sicily or beyond the known world (for so long a wandering could not have taken place in such a limited space); we ourselves are tossed about by storms every day, and our badness thrusts us into all the ills Odysseus encountered.” (Letter LXXXVIII.7)

Nevertheless, even for Epictetus, says Montiglio, “Odysseus … turns out to be the paradigmatic pursuer of wisdom because he did not pass by the Sirens with his ears plugged, but both listened to their song and sailed forth: that is, he was able to apply the right dose of dialectics to his philosophical goal.”

Finally, and rather interestingly, the Cynics (and then later the Stoics) had interpreted Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, who was wise and virtuous, as the personification of Philosophy itself. Which explains why Bio the Cynic said: “it is fine to travel around many cities, but profitable to live in the best one.”


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