The Good Rogue Odysseus
t is not difficult to see why the Odyssey and its famously adaptable hero have spawned such a rich reception history. Other Homeric heroes (like Agamemnon the king, Achilles the warrior, Ajax the tough guy or Nestor the wise old counsellor) are far more strictly tied to a specific, and limited, set of times, places and social roles. Odysseus, by contrast, is multiple. He is a king like Agamemnon, an adviser like Nestor, a defensive fighter like Ajax and an aggressor, like Achilles. But he is far more than any of these roles. He is also a poet, a beggar, a lover, a husband, a father, a son, a pirate, a sailor, a giant-killer, a military strategist, a hunter, a spy, a politician, a fierce general, a carpenter, a shipwright, a liar, a thief, a polite guest in either a king’s hall or a pigsty, a victim of fortune and its master – to name but a few. Unlike either Achilles (shot in the heel) or Agamemnon (killed in the bath), or Ajax (suicide), he is a survivor. Not coincidentally, he is also a master-storyteller, or poet. The beginning of the Odyssey repeats words for “many” and its cognates four times in as many lines (“the man of many turns … had many wanderings … saw the cities of many different people … and suffered many things”, before he finally got back home). Odysseus goes to many places, knows many things, adapts to many situations, and has many tricks up his sleeve.
The post-Homeric reception of the Odyssey and its hero, the man of many turns, is an oft-told tale. Edith Hall recently published a wide-ranging account of the cultural reception of the poem (The Return of Ulysses: A cultural history of Homer’s “Odyssey” (2008)), building on many other studies of the literary reception of the hero. The landmark work was W. B. Stanford’s The Ulysses Theme: A study in the adaptability of a hero (1954). Stanford mapped much of the territory: he traced an increasingly negative set of responses to Odysseus in (mostly literary) sources from Homer onwards, and suggested that there was, in ancient literature after Homer, an increasing suspicion of the hero’s primary qualities. His cunning (metis in Greek), his patience and his adaptability (polytropia) seem to be entirely positive qualities in the world of the Odyssey itself. He is able to survive the long journey home because he is smart enough to adapt to multiple different unexpected scenarios, to talk his way out of any situation (including a giant’s cave and a witch’s bed), and to present himself in different ways to different audiences. He is also patient enough to be able to sit things out, for the sake of a long-term goal; one of his most important epithets in Homer is “long-suffering” or “much-enduring” Odysseus: polutlas Odysseus.
But in the extant literature of fifth-century Athens – especially, in Athenian tragedy – there is an increasing suspicion that Odysseus’ good qualities are not really good at all. As Silvia Montiglio notes in From Villain to Hero, “in all his significant appearances in extant tragedy except in Ajax … Odysseus is a rogue”. Moreover, his villainy is linked to many of the same qualities for which he is admirable in Homer, such as his ability to tell lies when the occasion demanded, his cleverness, his eloquence, and his ability to keep his eye on the prize and use any means possible to get it. Odysseus in Athenian tragedy is associated with all the bugbears of contemporary society: he is a demagogue, a man with an eye only for the main chance; he favours might over right, the end beyond the means; his brains are all used in the service of self-interest. The exception, Sophocles’ Ajax, proves the rule: the audience is expecting that Odysseus will be contrasted in entirely negative ways with the stubborn, aristocratic nobility of Ajax himself. It is a deliberate surprise that this Sophoclean Odysseus turns out to be noble in a new, democratic way, and that his famous flexibility allows for real generosity. It is he, at the end of the play, who persuades the other Greeks to give a proper funeral to Ajax, who was his enemy in life, but was also, he acknowledges, a noble man. This flexibility of mind is at the root of Odysseus’ appeal in Homer, but also the reason for much later ambivalence and suspicion of the hero’s morals.
Montiglio’s contribution to the crowded field of Odysseus studies is to trace, in far more detail and depth than has been done before, the evidence for the reception of Odysseus in specifically philosophical ancient sources. Stanford devoted relatively little space to philosophical authors. Montiglio shows persuasively that – unlike poetic and dramatic sources – the philosophical response to Odysseus in antiquity was both more varied, and more positive, than one might expect. Philosophical writers seem to want to claim the patient, long-suffering, wise and goal-oriented hero for themselves, and therefore strive to give a positive spin on his character. The interest of the story lies in the recalcitrance of the myth to these philosophical appropriations. Philosophers want Odysseus’ wisdom and asceticism, but without his selfishness and mendacity – which, in Homer, comes as a complete package.
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