Humanism and The Odyssey: An Analysis

Examining the Pursuit of Mans Sense of Self

 

 

Success is a humanistic notion. It is man achieving. One definition describes success as the progressive realization of a worthy ideal. The fact that humans are in control of their success or failure, and essentially their fate, is a unique concept that originated in Greek society. When man loses the will to seek answers he effectively relinquishes control over his circumstances, causing him to accept his circumstances as divinely appointed and beyond his control. He accepts the direction of his fate and deemphasizes the importance of his desires and abilities. The humanist, however, maintains optimism towards his current circumstances and places faith in his ability to change those circumstances. The continual pursuit of refining those abilities to achieve his circumstances is what encompasses the idea of arête—excellence. Aristotle said “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act but a habit.”  The notion of anything less than excellence contradicts humanism and sends man at the mercy of circumstances beyond his control. Homer’s work The Odyssey paints the prescription for all humanists to come as Odysseus battles to overcome circumstances and fulfill his desire to return home.

The humanist is one who cherishes the very highest ideals. At his essence is self-discipline, a persistence and determination that fuels his effort to achieve those ideals. Humanists are concerned with the refinement of their being—their character, intellect, morals—seeking out the very highest reason, virtues, ethics, and ideals in order to aid in the ability of self-actualization. They believe in the cultivation of man to create the most fulfilling life possible.

Throughout The Odyssey Odysseus struggles against harsh circumstances that deter his efforts to return home. He’s buffeted against the waves, stranded on islands, held captive, and blown across seas for more than twenty years. Yet, despite these forces, he continually presses on. The Odyssey shows that while man is subject to circumstances, either external or internal, he is no longer a victim. While gods are present throughout the story they never miraculously save him, nor do they prevent him from achieving. As a whole they are unsuccessful at countering or waiving Odysseus’s strong will to return home.

When examining The Odyssey as a humanistic work, it appears that the gods remain as fixtures of the story that fill in occurrences that would otherwise happen anyway. Homer portrays their acts more as symbols of luck or inspiration that either aid or hinder Odysseus rather than the gods inescapable will to save or condemn him. Interestingly, Odysseus is often compared to Athene in their witty, cunning and sly nature. It seems that the gods are a result of creative explanations for things with unknown origins such as natural occurrences and inspiration. Each time Odysseus faces a set of circumstances and the gods intervene they are shown providing insight and help that Odysseus can choose to heed or ignore. This is also illustrated when Telemachus was approached by Athene to stand up and fulfill his desire to rid his house of the suitors and see his father again. Despite his age and the odds against him he successfully chose to pursue the ideal and overcome the challenges (Homer 90). Illustrating the ability to choose and achieve such choices was a first for a literary work in a world governed by deities and supernatural forces.

A major theme throughout The Odyssey is the idea of light and darkness and it’s symbolism of order and chaos as well as life and death. Humanism is a philosophy of change and the process to achieve that change. It is man coming to know himself and his world, overcoming his savage nature, restoring order, and living life to the fullest.  It is achieved through personal development and refinement by overcoming challenges.  Homer incorporated these elements of humanism not only in Odysseus, but in the overall societal atmosphere of The Odyssey.  Homer used light in association with order and life. King Nestor, Menelaus, and Alcinous had ordered kingdoms, good manners, and tremendous success. They spoke eloquently and maintained high ideals for themselves and their guests. The Phaeacians displayed not only the virtue of xenia, but illustrated the idea of achieving arête through competitive sporting events as well as their unparalleled mastery of the sea. In contrast, darkness represents that of chaos and death, qualities that humanism strives to overcome. The suitors, barbarous and destructive, represent chaos and disorder soon to be overcome by Odysseus, the model humanist. When Odysseus arrives in Ithaca he finds himself in a deep fog that makes his home unrecognizable.  His victory over this darkness comes when he defeats the suitors, showing triumph over chaos and the return of order.

Odysseus can be considered a model for all humanists. The Odyssey displays him maintaining the highest degree of excellence in all his endeavors. His courage is tested time and time again as he approached the most daunting tasks such as facing giants and sorcerers, and even going to Hades (Homer 150). His discipline is displayed in the continual pursuit of his homeland despite the forces he wrestles.  His keen intellect is displayed through his ability to choose his words and actions carefully. His cunning speech deceives his enemies and persuades new friends in order to defeat or win favor. His manners and use of words is so good, that he wins favor with the princess Nausicaa of Phaeacia, despite his nude and ravaged appearance (Homer 81). His physical strengths are seen every time he competes. After all the suitors fail, he is the only one more than able to string the great bow and shoots it precisely through the axe holes (Homer 286). He proves his vastly superior athleticism when he competes at the Phaeacian games and out does all the competition (Homer 99). His knowledge of strategy and war is evident through his conquests of cities and kingdoms (Homer 96). His patience and temperance are evident in the insightful plans to defeat the Cyclops and the suitors (Homer 118, 216). As a whole, Odysseus and his struggles manage to convey a viable exemplar of a true humanist.

The Odyssey also contains, however, contradicting elements of humanism that seem to raise the question of whether or not it accurately portrays humanism. While Odysseus has heroic qualities of achievement, he’s often portrayed as weak and easily fallible to vices such as women and pride, specifically hubris. The obvious cases of his temptation of women can be seen with Calypso and Circe (Homer 66, 133). He easily succumbs to the temptation of women and forgets about his wife Penelope whom, in cases he mentions her, he desperately longs to see.

Odysseus’s pride is another obstacle that interferes with his success many times. While kleos, the Greek word for glory, was something to be sought out and cherished in Ancient Greece, too much can cause devastating effects and invoke hubris, considered the greatest of sins in ancient Greece. Hubris is the overabundance of self pride that causes arrogance and self confidence, usually resulting in showing off or putting someone down for personal gratification. This was illustrated during Odysseus’s encounter with the Cyclops Polyphemus when he taunts the Cyclops after cunningly escaping from his captivity (Homer 123). Odysseus’s hubris almost cost him his life and the lives of his crew members when the giant threw boulders at his ship. Additionally, even after surviving the close call, he gloated even more, disclosing his name to the one eyed giant who later proved to be Poseidon’s son.  His overabundance of pride resulted in causing more problems than any other single factor throughout his quest to return home. Hubris also is seen when retribution is being served. Clear cases of this occurred when Odysseus slaughter’s his betrayers and the suitors. He mutilated and butchered Melanthius and ruthlessly beheaded Leodes even after he asked for forgiveness (Homer 292, 296). He also killed all but twelve maids after they were ordered to clean up the bloody corpses. These examples are presented as paradoxical to the notion of humanism and the honor, virtue and excellence it stands for.

These faults, however, can be cleverly considered one of two ways. At first glance, one can view Odysseus as a proud individual of self-indulgence who does his best to boost his image while disregarding the life of anyone who undermines him. On the other hand, further examination reveals that Odysseus is battling normal human struggles and vices. When considering the cause and effect of his actions, the reader is shown not what to do, but what not to do. His love of women caused him to stay with the beautiful Calypso for seven years while his hubris causes even more immense problems with Poseidon’s fury. The humanistic theme is preserved when the work is read as an honest portrayal of the human condition illustrating the challenges faced when striving to actualize ones desires and achieve arête. It depicts Odysseus as a normal human who’s fallible and imperfect despite his reputation and ideals. His mistakes never prevent him from achieving his desire no matter what the misery. Humanism involves cultivating one’s life through temperance by avoiding the obstacles and vices that hinder fulfillment.  The Odyssey vividly conveys the essence of persisting to overcome struggles through its characters.

The Odyssey further exemplifies the humanistic element as a quintessential work of literature. The complex characters, deep storylines, and metaphorical relationships embody the holistic quality of writing one would expect from a humanistic work. Even its prose and syntax reinforce the idea of arête by providing a concise and relatable text that has endured as an unparalleled work of art. The word andra, or man, placed as the very first word of The Odyssey proves to further signify the importance of man in a Homeric world.

The Odyssey provides the first example of a human’s will being the central component of their fate. Everything about it points to the significance of man in creating his world. This provided the framework of western thought that has propelled so much of our achievement. This Homeric epic shaped the ancient Greek culture that emphasized the importance of man seeking arête to cultivate his world. This introduced the importance of an individual’s thought and ability to reason, prompting the philosophy of modern humanities, modern democracy, and modern science. Whatever Homer’s original intent, he was successful at epitomizing humanism in every element of The Odyssey.

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

Homer, and E.V.Rieu. The Odyssey. 3rd Ed.. London, England: The Penguin Group, 1946.

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