Odysseus as an exemplar

The tragic man affirms even the harshest suffering: he is sufficiently strong, rich and capable to do so.”
– Nietzsche, The Will to Power

Homer’s Odyssey is the classic tale of errantry. Set after the Trojan War and The IliadOdyssey is the story of its eponymous character’s adventures as he tries to return home. For ten years Odysseus faces adversity of mythic proportions: being trapped in the Cyclops’ cave; avoiding the monstrous Scylla; being strapped to mast to hear the sirens; being held as a sex-slave by a demi-goddess; a brief sojourn to the underworld. And, of course, being caught up in the schemes of the Olympians at almost every turn. In his fantastic adventures we find the wisdom of the ancients.

Odysseus as a model for the virtuous life

Homer pre-dates Aritstotle by some 400 years and it is clear that the latter’s ideas on ethics are indebted to Hellenic tragic mythology. While Greek mythology is full of gods, monsters and superhuman feats, the characters found therein are very human: thus, the myths provide insights into human nature. The semi-divinity of heroes such as Achilles and Hercules in fact does not reduce their humanity but amplify it: in Greek tragedy, virtues and flaws are accentuated. Greek myth often portrays its heroes as super-human, but all the more human for it.

Odysseus therefore can be seen as a model, an exemplar. Further, Odysseus is an exemplar of a specific kind of life, the virtuous life that Aristotle would expand on centuries later. As I outlined in my article here, a foundational idea in virtue ethics is that of balance. All virtues must be practised in balance, and virtue itself is the balance between extremes – for example, courage is the balance between cowardice and foolhardiness. Odysseus is not the greatest warrior (Achilles and Ajax are surely greater), nor the greatest leader (Hector probably bests him), nor the ‘wisest’ (Nestor is praised most by Homer for his wisdom). However, Odysseus is a great warrior, leader and is possessed of wisdom and prudence. It is because of his many virtues that he is able to survive ten years of hardship and return safely home, whereas others perish (including the king, Agamemnon, who is murdered on his return).

Odysseus and the value of phronesis

Phronesis is used by Aristotle to mean practical wisdom, or prudence. Phronesis does not mean wisdom, of the beard-stroking variety, or intelligence — Aristotle refers to these as episteme and techne: related but not identical intellectual virtues — but rather a kind of wisdom that translates to good practical decision making. Phronesis is common sense, but it is not common. The clichéd genius who forgets to pay the utility bill and can’t change a tire does not have phronesis, whatever his IQ. Odysseus, who is a capable soldier, diplomat, sailor and ruler, in addition to his other virtues, is the epitome of phronesis. His fast-thinking cool-headedness gets his men out of Polyphemus’s (the Cyclops) cave alive, lets him listen to the beautiful Sirens’ song without going mad and ensures that when he does make it home he isn’t murdered by his wife’s numerous suitors and would-be pretenders to his throne.

Odysseus is crafty and resourceful. Combined with his other virtues he is able to achieve much in trying circumstances. His most famous stratagem is the Trojan Horse. After ten years of fruitless, bloody siege, his ability to think creatively to find a solution, and inspire in others the confidence necessary to execute it, tells us that not only was Odysseus intelligent, he had the wherewithal to get things done. Phronesis is such an important concept in virtue ethics as without it the other virtues are worth little. Courage is less valuable if not backed up by skill in battle. Good ideas are worth little if they cannot be communicated.

“To have a complete life we must combine action with virtue.”
– Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

The quote above gets to the essence of virtue ethics: it is a philosophy of action, not just thought and abstraction.

Phronesis contra modernity

We can contrast the focus on completeness and balance found in Aristotle and Odyssey with the focus on specialisation and division found in the modern world. Our society is built around the division of labour. Economically this makes sense: one man cannot do everything, so there is greater efficiency and greater prosperity if we each pursue our comparative advantage. However, history is full of men who could do everything, and it is often these to whom we owe great advances. Aristotle made contributions to metaphysics, physics, biology, theology, rhetoric, zoology, politics and more. Leonardo da Vinci was a scientist, inventor and artist. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a writer, statesman, biologist, geologist, colour theorist and inventor. Ralph Waldo Emerson identifies others of this ilk in his book Representative Men, which considers what makes for greatness and why greatness is important. Such people been called polymaths, Renaissance men, Enlightened thinkers and so on, but they are all similar in their combination of action with virtue and the breadth of that activity.

Today, however, we have moved away from greatness. Certainly the ‘great men’ theory of history has fallen out of fashion. We have moved to speciality. The discoverers of today rarely make discoveries beyond one highly specialised field: the cutting edge requires equipment and expertise that takes many years of tertiary education to acquire. This increasing specialisation runs down from the top. University education in general is commercial-oriented, focused on getting people jobs rather than educating them. Students usually take subjects in high school that will put them in the best position for their chosen university degree, culling excess subjects that might unduly broaden their knowledge base.

Humanity’s adaptability and ability to do all has been eroded since the Industrial Revolution, a trend that increased with the invention of production lines, outsourcing, sub-contracting, globalisation and the ever increasing esoteric-ism of information (increased availability of information notwithstanding). At a personal level this means a loss of opportunity to develop phronesis. At a societal level this means a loss of polymaths, of people who define a generation by their thoughts and deeds across a range of fields.

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
Robert Heinlein

Odysseus is Heinlein’s competent man. He is a mythic hero in a world of gods and monsters. He is a role model. But he is not a fantasy, for we see his virtues and his phronesis in all the greats since Homer’s time.

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