Friday, January 03, 2003


The Odyssey: At first Odysseus wants more and is ungrateful. This costs him many years of his life and the death of most of his friends. The gods teach Odysseus to accept what is the case and to feel grateful for whatever life he has. Also, he chooses half a life of traditional values over an eternity of exotic and simple bliss. He could have an eternal life of sex with a beautiful goddess and service by her maids. But he chooses to live a broken life with his family in his position as king of Ithaca, though half of this life - 20 years of it - have been destroyed. Odysseus accepts what is but also chooses to devote himself to certain norms and ways of life. He learns how to keep his standards while finding what falls short of them less irksome.

The lesson that natural fact is acceptable is difficult to learn. Natural fact is irksome to us; finding it unsatisfactory is our naturally selected-for disposition. The basis of the lesson is that the totality of what is is good. But you aren’t to sum goods to check this. The world is good willy-nilly. Odysseus’s sacrilege is naturalistic; he doesn’t value the fact that this world exists. He prefers a variant. He challenges fate. But to devote oneself as ardently as he does to such a change implies that one doesn’t find this world and one’s place in it supremely valuable. The sacrilege is nihilistic.

Yet, there are values to be promoted, good ways of life to be pursued with considerable eagerness. While the world, just as it is, is good and acceptable, utter passivity and sloth are not. Odysseus could have stayed on island with Calypso. If what is is good, whatever it is, then why not stay and enjoy simple bliss for eternity? Action of any kind, as an effort to change circumstance, would seem to be nihilisic.

It isn’t so. Only action flowing from a deep sense of rejection of the world qualifies as nihilism. Desire, intention, and action are all consistent with deep acceptance and gratefulness for the fact that this world exists. Odysseus eschews a life of pleasure with a goddess because it isn't desireable to him. He is self-directing and acts on his own preference. This is consistent with a disposition to accept the final outcome.

This lesson has been treated with considerable mystery by the writer of the Bhagavad Gita, Kierkegaard, and Chuang-tzu (to name a few). But I think it needn't be so mysterious. What Odysseus learns is how not to find so many things irksome, how not to feel so wounded by them. In the end, he finds that even rage has a place, but it is he who calls the tune, and not it. He is angered by what ought to anger, and he delivers the terrible punishment, but he is in control of this motive and is never driven by it to despair. He is at home. The lesson is that natural facts are our own home, and, at best, only complete catastrophe warrants despair, and perhaps not even that. There is no mystery in the fact that the world is good.

The paradigm in the Odyssey is therefore a man who is on an even keel even when what he wants most - a life with his family and friends - is half destroyed. He stands steadfast for what is good but is never dejected by failure. The next question is whether the wisdom of such a person extends also to the mundane. Is such a one more trustworthy in judgments of value - political policy, everyday ethics, and the like - than those who are deeply wounded, depressed, or scandalized by the sort of world the gods have given us? This is a question of folk wisdom about which tenor of voice is a mark of one to listen to.