Journey to Ithaca
There’s an interesting article by Jeffrey Tayler about travel, philosophy, and life in general over at World Hum. Taking its main idea from Homer’s Odyssey, the piece is about finding one’s own Ithaca to set at the center of one’s life as a destination. Using the Odyssey as a touchstone but relying mainly on “Ithaki,” a poem by Constantine Cavafy, Tayler ruminates on a great philosophical concept, the importance of the journey.
But, of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t find a way to disagree with something in the piece. And, in this case, it’s something of a big issue. Tayler writes,
A 24-chapter opus in dactylic hexameter, “The Odyssey” daunts any who would approach it in ancient Greek; and even translations can be intimidating. And Odysseus, however inspiring, is a too larger-than-life hero, facing mythic challenges we aren’t going to see the likes of.
My disagreement is not that Tayler’s piece ought to encourage readers to learn ancient Greek rather than scare them away from it or something like that; ancient Greek is a scary language that seems to defy anyone to try to learn it. Instead, I want to argue that, if he wants to use Odysseus’ journey to Ithaca as his touchstone to make his broader point about the journeys we all undertake, then he really ought to come to a different conclusion about Odysseus’ relevance to Homer’s readers.
To my mind, Tayler is wrong on two counts here:
- Odysseus’ deeds don’t really inspire us;
- Odysseus is very much like each one of us.
With regard to the first point, I should say that Odysseus — as a Greek hero — has to be seen as somewhat lacking, especially in comparison to the great action heroes of Homer’s Iliad. Rather than a ferocious warrior, Odysseus is cunning; he’s a survivor rather than someone who throws himself time and again into the thick of battle. He wears disguises, he kills sleeping enemies, and he is typically portrayed with a bow and arrow rather than a sword or spear. What’s more, if Odysseus inspires us at all, it’s for his perseverance in the face of great suffering and this isn’t the sort of life that anyone would choose for himself. I wouldn’t want to be Odysseus unless I absolutely had to be; in other words, only when faced with suffering and humiliation might I say to myself, “I hope that I can endure all of this, like Odysseus.” This is quite different from saying, “Odysseus inspires me and I hope for a life like his.”
On the second point, it’s important to recognize that Odysseus does confront a number of larger-than-life challenges that we aren’t likely to face: there are a wide variety of monsters, witches, gods and goddesses who all want to murder him or delay his journey. But these aren’t the central features of Homer’s story: at its heart is the character of Odysseus, a cunning man who is devoted to achieving his homecoming at all costs. Though we aren’t likely to run afoul of the Sirens or Poseidon, we are all beset by challenges and Odysseus presents us with a model for dealing with the difficulties we face. Odysseus is a model for us — much more than Achilles, the other Homeric hero — because, like us, he is fully human. He has no divine lineage and he has no illusions of immortality after death; indeed, Odysseus stares headlong at the possibility of immortality, offered to him by Calypso, and does not blink. Knowing exactly what it means to pass into the afterlife, since he has been there on his journey and conversed with the souls of his dead comrades-in-arms, Odysseus makes the choice to live a mortal life with all of its difficult twists and turns.
This is the Odysseus that Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno complain about in their Dialectics of Enlightenment, the bourgeois hero whose life story is dominated by suffering and sacrifice in order to achieve his eventual homecoming where he will once again rule over others as Ithaca’s king. While I disagree with Horkheimer and Adorno’s reading of Homer and their claim that Odysseus’ journey can give us insight into the Enlightenment project, I agree completely that Odysseus ought not to be seen as so different from any of us. His circumstances are unique and his challenges larger-than-life, to be sure, but he works as a model of heroism precisely because Homer presents him as a human being who finds ways to endure the suffering and survive the dangers that life puts in his path on the journey that he undertakes.
Odysseus wouldn’t be a hero without his journey and without his endurance of suffering. And he wouldn’t be a hero for us without his mortality. In other words, the journey — and his surviving it — is critically important, but not more important than the fact of his humanity. Making Odysseus, rather than his deeds, larger-than-life also threatens to make him completely irrelevant.