In my travels over the last week drumming up support for a Royal Commission into the Australian Federal Police I found myself in the pub at Bribbaree. While sitting barracking for the ‘Pies’ over a beer or more I was joined at the table by a former client, a Native American, a Cherokee to be precise who lives on a small farm nearby with his beloved horse and motorbike, avoiding his fellow man as much as possible. While watching the game the discussion naturally got around to what makes a hero in modern culture. More specifically, we started wondering why so much adulation is given to our so-called sporting heroes at the expense of others and possibly more deserving others in the community. Eventually the beers started to lubricate the cogs in our brains and we moved onto Homer. This repositioning of our conversation is not as strange as it may at first appear; this being said, I have decided to share some of our thoughts on Homer with the readers of Blak and Black. Yes, there is a point and perhaps even a barb at the end!
Unlike the Hebrew ethic of righteousness, Homer’s ethical vision and therefore the Ancient Greek’s ethical vision, which has been in one form or another teleported into the modern west, is quite different and turns in large part on the concepts of arête and kleos, that is, virtue or excellence and the glory that results from such virtue or excellence. To Homer and to the Greeks in general, to be good was not so much to be kind and considerate as to be strong, powerful, beautiful, skilled and smart. The prototype above all is Achilles, who in the Iliad is unquestionably and by a wide margin “the best of the Achaeans,” above all because no one comes even close to matching him in battle. Hence the conflict that dominates the story is not so much between Greeks and Trojans as between the leader of the Greek (or Achaean) coalition, King Agamemnon of Mycenae, and his greatest warrior, Achilles. Agamemnon has a sort of arête as king and leader of the Achaean host, and Achilles was another sort as, so we are told, the most terrifying man alive on the field of battle.
What has been forgotten as the concepts of arête and kleos have been teleported across the millennia and redefined by Christianity, Nietzsche and Freud is that arête and kleos were themselves refined by the Ancient Greeks in the Odyssey, to the extent that interior excellence—mental excellence and moral excellence—and the achievement of that sort of excellence became as important, if not more important, than martial excellence as civilization progressed from a warrior society to a proto-democracy. As the Odyssey repeatedly reminds us, interior excellence is not defined by age, class, or gender.
In the Odyssey, Odysseus is repeatedly characterized as “polytropos”, as a man “of many turns.” In one sense,this epithet refers to Odysseus as a man to whom many different things and many different kinds of things happen. More profoundly though, it signals Odysseus’ multifacetedness. He is a splendid speaker, a splendid strategist, deadly in battle not only because of his raw prowess, but even more because of his cleverness. As Athena herself appreciatively remarks, he is one of the great liars of all time. He can rule, he can farm, he can build and sail ships. He can do pretty much everything. He is, evidently, all but irresistibly attractive to women — and for that matter, to goddesses. He is, in short from a Greek perspective, a complete human being, able to do anything well and at his absolute best in speaking and in thinking. He is in that sense a kind of idealized self-portrait of what the Greeks themselves wished to be, what in fact at their best they were.
But the Odyssey not only extends the range of arête as we find it celebrated in the Iliad as something achievable at their best by warrior-kings. In the Odyssey arête can be achieved it seems, by anyone in any social position. One of the heroes of the Odyssey is the virtuous swineherd Eumaios, who is in fact a slave. And yet Eumaios demonstrates hospitality, loyalty, courage and a respect for the gods and for custom, combined with a careful and dutiful attention to his work and a calm geniality that Homer finds wholly admirable.
Wholly admirable too is Penelope, the woman for whom Odysseus gave up immortality, and so too Eurykleia, the old nurse who with Penelope keeps the suitors at bay for years. So too, if perhaps not quite so persuasively, Odysseus’ son Telemachus. And so, in what is to me one of the most touching passages in the Odyssey, is Odysseus’ old hunting dog, Argos—Argos who, neglected and abandoned to die on a dung-heap, too weak even to rise, recognizes Odysseus even when Odysseus is in disguise and with his last breath does his best to greet his much-loved master, home at last after twenty years.
The callous and disrespectful treatment of Argos, in fact, is a small exemplification of what is wrong with the horde of suitors who have besieged Penelope on the assumption that Odysseus is dead and in hopes not only of bedding Penelope, but of ruling Ithaca as her consort. Unlike Odysseus and Eumaios, unlike Penelope and Eurycleia, unlike even Argos, the suitors do not show arête, even though by virtue of their social position they are the ones we would expect to show it. Their fundamental failure is their violation of nomos or “custom,” the way things are supposed to be and the way that people are supposed to behave. The world of the Iliad and the Odyssey is a world without enacted laws, but that does not mean that it is a world without rules or expectations. You are supposed to be respectful of the gods; you are supposed to be hospitable to strangers and wayfarers. The suitors are not. And when Telemachus grows to an age when he is able to realize what is going on, is potentially able to take over as king, the suitors’ response is to attempt to kill him. And they pay the price. Odysseus cleans house with a vengeance when at last he returns and reveals himself. Instead of in the suitors, we find arête in Ithaca among people whom it would not traditionally have been expected — in Penelope, in Eumaios, even in old Argos, who is in the usual sense of the term not even a person at all.
One final point. In later antiquity, the Odyssey was often read in allegorical terms, read as a discussion of how one goes about achieving excellence and once achieved, how one uses what one has gained to build a viable society. The Odyssey, in fact, divides neatly into halves, the first half concerning Odysseus’s travels and the travels of Telemachus to find out what has happened to him, the second half concerning events after his return to Ithaca. Over the course of his adventures, both before returning to Ithaca and after, Odysseus demonstrates that he is a man of many turns indeed, able to overcome the desire for ease and rest, as in Lotos-land; able to keep his head when confronted by desires that would turn most men into animals, as on the island of Circe; able, through foresight, both to hear and to resist the song of the Sirens; able to cut his losses and to deceive when necessary, as in confronting the Lestrygonians and in sailing past Scylla and Charybdis; and above all, perhaps, a man who can survive and prosper, when necessary, by simple, resourceful, long-suffering persistence. All of these virtues go to make up the sort of many-faceted, complete human being that came at last to comprise the Greek ideal.
It is worth remembering that just because someone is good at something doesn’t make them a good person. What makes a more dangerous person is when someone is not even good at what they think they are good at, but somehow manages to browbeat, bully and cajole others into ‘believing’ their lie. These untalented narcissists ‘swill’ and move up the ranks of the public service on the back of their false celebrity are the ones who create the tension in society which in turn results in the diminution of everyone’s freedoms.