Odysseus was one of the classic role models for the Stoics. And he was my favorite mythological hero when I was a kid. Both excellent reasons for this mini-series on the legendary Greek hero and how he has been interpreted through the lenses of a number of Hellenistic philosophies. These notes are based on my reading of the excellent From Villain to Hero: Odysseus in Ancient Thought, by Silvia Montiglio. We have looked at how the Cynics and the Stoics tackled the question of Odysseus, and it is now the turn of the Epicureans. I am skipping Montiglio’s treatment of the Platonists, but I will conclude next time with a jump forward in time, to Dante’s take on Ulysses in the Divine Comedy, where Cato the Younger — another Stoic role model — is also featured, as the only pagan outside of Hell.
Montiglio begins the chapter with Heraclitus’ famous accusation that Epicurus used Odysseus’ praise of feasting and singing to further his nefarious philosophy: “What Odysseus said falsely, unwisely, and hypocritically at the court of Alcinous, Epicurus pronounces as the goal of life, and claims to be speaking the truth.” But this doesn’t make much sense once we consider that the Epicureans’ praise of pleasure was not at all concerned with feasting and singing as if there were no tomorrow: “the kind of pleasure Epicurus deems the end of life is a permanent repose of the mind (‘katastematic’ pleasure), not the enjoyment derived from pleasurable activities (‘kinematic’ pleasure).”
Indeed, Montiglio adds, the only Epicurean author of which we have inherited a direct treatment of Odysseus is the Syrian Philodemus, who actually mocks the Greek hero “for his bottomless belly”: “By dissociating his Epicurean value-system from Odysseus’ parasitic hunger, Philodemus strongly suggests that Odysseus’ supposed hedonism was targeted by opponents of Epicureanism as evidence for the ‘shamefulness’ of that doctrine, rather than being exploited by the Epicureans themselves to defend it.”
Turns out, it is the Stoic Seneca who probably correctly described the Epicurean take on Odysseus’ stories, when he pointed out that the Epicureans “praised the condition of a state at peace” in their treatment of the episode in which Odysseus arrives in the country of the Phaeacians.
Indeed, the same Philodemus mentioned above wrote On the Good King, where he criticizes the Phaeacians as “luxurious” (thus, again, rejecting the image of Epicureans as hedonists), but praises them for their rigorous physical training and the consequent securing of peace. And Odysseus is likened to them and in particular to their king Alcinous, because he, too, was physically vigorous and presided over a peaceful kingdom. All of this makes sense, for Montiglio, because Philodemus was writing within the historical context of the late Roman Republican period, in the midst of civil war.
“Philodemus [made his treatise appealing to the Roman elite] by avoiding any reference to a specific political contingency and by drawing his examples from the Homeric world, whose multiple rulers could be proposed as models to a Roman aristocrat less offensively than a single monarch. Of all the Homeric heroes Odysseus was the most suitable to embody the ideal ruler in this context because he was not the king of kings but a primus inter pares, as it were, and the most effective and cooperative of all his peers.”
Philodemus in turn influenced a young Virgil, whom he knew personally, and consequently Virgil’s picture of Ulysses in the Aeneid is — Montiglio claims — less negative than it is often assumed.
Philodemus praises Odysseus for the firm intervention he makes in the Iliad to restore order to the Greek camp, thus helping to secure Agamemnon’s imperiled leadership. This very much appealed to Virgil, who wrote his poem within the context of the Pax Romana imposed by the first emperor, Octavian Augustus.
In On the Good King, Philodemus, an Epicurean, praises Odysseus for not claiming to be better than the heroes of earlier times, in contrast with Hector’s prideful defiance of the gods. Odysseus also corrected Achilles, for both his anger against Agamemnon and his excessive grief over Patroclus. His appeal to moderation in mourning is proverbial, and would have been appreciated by the Stoics as well.
Both Plutarch (a middle Platonist, not an Epicurean) and Philodemus, moreover, approve of Odysseus’ reassurance of his companions when they are steering their ship near the monster Charybdis. At first glance, it may appear that the hero is vaingloriously boasting of the wit that got him and his shipmates out of trouble in the episode of the Cyclop Polyphemus, but “this kind [of] self praise belongs to a man who offers his virtue and knowledge to his friends as security to lift their spirits. For at critical moments an important element for success is the respect and confidence placed in a man who has the experience and abilities of a leader.” Odysseus, that is, is boasting for the practical purpose of injecting courage in his crew, not out of vain pride. Moreover, for the Epicureans it was also important that Odysseus was praising intellectual, not merely physical, talent, since the emphasis on the former is what distinguished the sect from that of the Cyrenaics.
As Montiglio writes: “This preference for mental qualities over physical ones even on the battlefield resonates with the Socratic tradition, especially with Antisthenes, who reconfigured the very notion based on Odysseus’ intelligence against Ajax’s brutish force.”
In an “interlude” within the chapter, Montiglio seeks to explain why Philodemus presents Odysseus to his fellow Romans not as an impossible ideal, a Socrates, say, but rather as a practical model of political virtue. Throughout the Homeric poems, Odysseus acknowledges the mutability of human affairs, and braves whatever Fate throws at him in the best way he can.
Again in the episode of his visit to the island of the Phaeacians, his compassion shines through: “This picture of Odysseus accords with the humane sympathy he shows for his victims already in the Odyssey. At the court of Alcinous he asks the bard to sing of the ruse of the Wooden Horse, his major feat in the war. His response to the song is poignant and disquieting: he weeps like a woman who clings to her dying husband while the enemy drags her into slavery … As many a reader has seen, by means of this simile Odysseus is portrayed in the act of identifying with the victims of the war he won, especially the weakest ones, the Trojan women doomed to be enslaved. The celebration of his major achievement in the war draws tears of empathy from him. He feels no joy or pride.”
For the Epicureans, friendship and mentorship were crucial to a life worth living. Accordingly, Philodemus also sees Odysseus as a good teacher and friend, who knows when it is time to speak frankly and when that is not, in fact, appropriate: “His ideal is not an Achilles-type, for whom outspokenness is a rigid principle, but a flexible, sensitive teacher-friend-doctor, who knows when and how frank speech is beneficial.”
Moreover, Ulysses repeatedly deflects flattery, because he knows himself, and a man who is following the Delphic Oracle’s advise to Socrates needs no flattery. Odysseus is also praised for his solitary and rather unemotional stance: “This role of Odysseus as unemotional friend is in keeping with his fundamental solitude. In the Iliad Odysseus has no personal friend and shows no special attachment to anyone. There is no Patroclus, no Pylades, no Pirithous, no Euryalus at his side. His association with Diomedes is no intimate friendship, but the relationship between a mature man and his young and ambitious apprentice.” There is a big difference between this sort of solitary demeanor and that of Achilles, a tragic figure. Achilles cannot be anyone’s mentor, because he is unconcerned with other people’s welfare (except that of his lover and friend, Patroclus).
Overall, then, we have seen that the three sects we examined — the Cynics, the Stoics, and the Epicureans — each found a way to interpret the figure of Odysseus, sometimes twisting the earlier sources a bit, in a way congruous with their respective teachings. The Cynics emphasized the episode of Odysseus in rags. The Stoics paid particular attention to his ability to accept circumstances and deal with them in the best way he can. And the Epicureans emphasized his humility and love of peace.
Of course, there is no truth of the matter about who Odysseus really was, since he is a mythological figure. Accordingly, it makes little sense to criticize, say, the Cynics for twisting the “facts” to fit their philosophy, as that is the role of mythological figures: to be reinterpreted in new ways by successive generations. Indeed, what we learn from Montiglio’s philosophical journey is how members of different Hellenistic schools saw themselves and what they thought was important or valid, in a sense using their treatment of the story of Odysseus as a mirror through which to better understand the differences among those schools. It is a testament to the art of Homer and the ancient poets who put together the original Epic Cycle, of which the Iliad and Odyssey are two of the twelve parts, that three millennia later we can still appreciate one of the most enduring creations of their lyrical imagination.