The Price of Survival: The Odyssey

Maybe you knew someone like this in high school. He was the guy who organized the parties, the guy who somehow procured the beer. He was the leader. The instigator. He was the reason everyone showed up at Heather Morgan’s house to get buzzed on Milwaukee’s Best Light the Saturday her parents were out of town. But when the police showed up, he was nowhere to be found. Sure, he broke the rules, but so did everyone else at the party. The difference between him and everyone else was that this guy somehow survived.

Maybe you know someone like this at your job. Someone who effortlessly lies to advance his interests. He can’t be trusted. And yet somehow he’s the one getting promoted… multiple times. Like Jim Valvano’s NC State basketball team in 1983, there’s a certain type of person in the world that seems to be able to “survive and advance.”

Odysseus, “the man of twists and turns,” was nothing if not a survivor. But the Odyssey invites us to ask the question: what is the price of survival? Odysseus made it back home, but should he be admired for his persistence or shamed for the bodies he left behind? Was Odysseus a great man? In order to answer this question, we might need to consider exactly what a great man is.

Late in the story, Penelope offers Odysseus (disguised as a beggar) an interesting way to think about this question:

If man is cruel by nature, cruel in action,
the mortal world will call down curses on his head
while he is alive, and all will mock his memory after death.
But then if a man is kind by nature, kind in action,
his guests will carry his fame across the earth
and people all will praise him from the heart. [Fagles, 19.378–383]

According to Penelope, there is a direct relationship between someone’s nature and their actions. A person is either cruel in both nature and action, or kind in both nature and action. Because she is speaking to Odysseus, you can’t help but wonder which category he belongs to. As the guy who has struggled to reunite with his family for 10 years, you might think someone had called down “curses on his head” (you would be right — Polyphemus did just that earlier in the story). On the other hand, we know that Odysseus’s fame did, in fact, carry across the earth. Whichever category he belongs to, we should pay close attention when his own wife draws such a close relationship between a person’s nature and actions.

By this point in the story, it has been well established that Odysseus is a prolific liar. After telling a particularly detailed lie to Athena in book 13, she replies:

Any man — any god who met you — would have to be
some champion lying cheat to get past you
for all-round craft and guile! You terrible man,
foxy, ingenius, never tired of twists and tricks — 
so not even here, on native soil, would you give up
those wily tales that warm the cockles of your heart! [13.329–334]

Most of Odysseus’s lies serve a strategic purpose. His famous “nobody” lie allowed him to escape the Cyclops. In Phaeacia, his lies to Arete protected Nausicaa from needing to tell her own lie to her parents. Finally, in his encounter with Penelope, his lies about having met Odysseus in Crete allowed Penelope to remain hopeful for his return. (“Falsehoods all, but he gave his falsehoods all the ring of truth.” [19.234]) These were all instrumental lies — lies that helped Odysseus accomplish some goal.

Compare Odysseus’s actions to those of the Phaeacians. The Phaeacians, and Alcinous in particular, were perfect hosts and acted without any hint of guile. Not only did they welcome Odysseus, but Alcinous showed particular sensitivity to his guest. The Phaeacian king always noticed when a situation was causing Odysseus sadness or anger, and he kept shifting the scene for the sake of his guest. In other words, the Phaeacians seemed to be “kind by nature” and “kind in action.” Sadly for them, in the world of the Odyssey such naive kindness is repaid with violence. The Phaeacian sailors are turned to stone at the very moment Odysseus at last wakes up in Ithaca. Contrary to Penelope’s claim, the guest Odysseus did not carry the Phaeacians’ fame across the earth. He survived and advanced.

All lies are easily justified by the teller. Any given lie can be seen as a means to an end. But how many lies does it take to become a liar? We all tend to think that only other people are actual liars. We tell ourselves that we only lie when necessary. In other words, there are liars by action (ourselves) and liars by nature (everyone else). But even an instrumental lie does damage — and the one who is most damaged may be the liar. To see another person as a mere instrument is to reduce them to something less than human — and to deprive oneself of a real relationship. Surely Odysseus understands this, given what he said about marriage to Nausicaa:

No finer, greater gift in the world that that…
when man and woman possess their home, two minds,
two hearts that work as one. Despair to their enemies,
A joy to all their friends. Their own best claim to glory. [6.200–204]

And yet despite this lovely sentiment, when reunited with his own father after 20 years away, Odysseus can’t help himself. The lies pour out of him as if by instinct:

Long enduring Odysseus, catching sight of him now — 
a man worn down with years, his heart racked with sorrow — 
halted under a branching pear-tree, paused and wept. 
Debating, head and heart, what should he do now? 
Kiss and embrace his father, pour out the long tale — 
how he had made the journey home to native land — 
or probe him first and test him in every way? 
Torn, mulling it over, this seemed the better:
test the old man first, 
reproach him with words that cut him to the core. [24: 257–266]

We are at the end of the story, and while Odysseus has survived, he seems to be missing something essential for a good life. Homer takes pains to paint Laertes as an especially pitiable figure (“worn down with years, his heart racked with sorrow) — and yet despite his father’s sad state, Odysseus is incapable of seeing his father for what he is. Instead, the man of twists and turns sees another potential threat, an obstacle to be overcome, an instrument to be manipulated.

Was this always his nature? Or did his actions throughout his journey transform him? Should we admire him for what he endured or pity him for what he’s missing? At the beginning of the epic, Homer tell us that Odysseus suffered many pains “fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.” By the end, he has succeeded at one of these goals and failed at the other. He may not be a perfect man, but neither were his shipmates or the Phaeacian sailors that brought him home. The difference between him and the rest of them, however, was that Odysseus survived.

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