Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Quote of the Day: Odyssey 15.69-71

Here is a little morsel that we discussed in my class, Literature Humanities:
I would disapprove of another
hospitable man who was excessive in friendship,
as of one excessive in hate. In all things balance is better.
(Odyssey 15.69-71; Trans. Lattimore)

This statement is made by Menelaos to Telemachos. My students know why I think this statement concerning hospitality or guest-friendship or xenia is significant. Xenia, or guest-friendship, was an extraordinarily important custom and ancient Greece and in the ancient Mediterranean and ancient Near East as a whole. It would have been especially important for itinerant bards who would rely very heavily on the institution. It follows certain procedures. Usually, when a stranger comes, the host will give them food and drink, perhaps a bath, perhaps a bed to sleep on, and then and only then will they ask who they are, where they come from, etc. In the end, if they are social equals, or both people of high rank, they will exchange gifts. This quote demonstrates the balance that the entire story of the Odyssey seeks to strike between the Phaeacians (Phaiakians) who are so excessive in friendship that they take it to absurdity. Firstly, at each point they are a bit excessive. But when it comes to the "gift," the king of Phaiakia offers his own daughter to a stranger he does not even know--at this point it is good to note that they are out of order: they have not learned who the stranger (happens to be Odysseus) is and are offering their daughter in marriage as a present. This pushes the limits of guest-friendship to absurdity.

On the other end is usually placed the Cyclops, Polyphemos. He is isolated and untrusting. While Odysseus breaches things a bit by going into the cave and beginning to eat Polyphemos' food uninvited, the Cyclops clearly has no respect for the institution of guest-friendship nor its patron, Zeus. He asks who they are before offering anything (although Odysseus and his men helped themselves). For the "meal" here, though, the Cyclops begins to eat Odysseus' men. His "gift" to Odysseus is that he will eat him last. This parody on guest-friendship demonstrates the opposite of the Phaeacians. But both positions are excessive. The Phaiakians are exceedingly trusting and hospitable, the Cyclops is exceedingly distrustful (he is afraid Odyssues is a pirate, and, well, he is not far off since Odysseus had just sacked a city) and inhospitable. Both groups, however, are somewhat naive, or, at least have a certain innocence about them. They both contrast Odysseus in their lack of cunning and guile. Whereas Odysseus is always cunning, resourceful, the "man of many ways (polutropos)."

The key to all of this, however, is that Odysseus is telling the Phaiakians the story about the Cyclops. He seems to relish in telling them, the most naive people imaginable, just how cunning and deceptive he is, and, yet, in the end, they refuse to believe that he is so deceptive (11.362-9). This puts things in a pickle, however. Since Odysseus is telling a story about how deceptive he is, if the king of the Phaiakians (Alcinous / Alkinoos) is right in saying that he cannot be so deceptive, Odysseus has been telling a deceptive story about being so devious. Or, if Odysseus' story is true, then his deceits throughout are true. Either way, he has been deceitful.

Do we believe anything that Odysseus says?


Angie Van De Merwe said...

Whether one trusts or mistrusts, one will be taken advantage of by people such as Odyssues.
When people write such things as "Cheat to Win", it is about the bottom line, which does not happen to care about the means to the end, even if it a person that is used for the end. This always happens.
But, that does not mean that we just accept our "fate", but we resist being used, in whatever way would make the point to Odyssues that he must change or suffer consequences.
It is growing up without becoming embittered by evil people or those that think they are "bigger or better" than another person.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

By the way, certain cultures and relgions do teach that it is okay to lie to the ones that are not part of their "lot"....either the religious, as in "infidels" or culture, as in "saving face"....

Jared Calaway said...

The issue of deceit is very common in ancient greek literature--the Hymn to Demeter is basically a series of deceptions. And it is not always clear how it is being evaluated. I think that they thought deceit was something that could be used for either good or evil ends. Some might praise Odysseus for his cunning, but, at the same time, think he could occasionally go too far with it.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I imagine that is what Jesus meant when he said that the righteous take the Kingdom by force...and how the friends of the world know how to make friends of unrighteous mammon.
It is unfortunate that the rules are not clear when it comes to religious conviction in American culture. Some would take the Bible literally, as affirming deception for "good ends"...
Pragmatists also would affirm the "ends justifies the means" argument. I think others have found it terribly offensive that working in "secular" environments can be more healthy in regards to knowing what is coming down the pike, than, working in Christian contexts.
My husband's father was offended like this...