Tag Archives: From Villain to Hero

Odysseus and the Epicureans

Odysseus between Scylla and Charybdis

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.

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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.”

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.

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