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Professor : Lauren Kozol
26 October 2018
Will of a Puppet
Imagine being stranded thousands of miles away on a foreign land. You have been
shipwrecked and have lost all your possessions and belongings. Such a
predicament would make many people despair and curse their awful fate. But for
Zeno of Cyprus it became the foundation of his life’s work and legacy. He founded
the philosophy ‘Stoicism’ which was built on the foundations of tolerance, virtue and
self control. It has inspired generations of leaders and thinkers all around the world.
‘Odysseus’, King of Troy from “The Odyssey" written by Homer is a living
embodiment of stoicism. Like Zeno, he too gets lost from home unable to find a way
back. Yet he displays stoic virtues which helps us in understanding and analysing
his character on a three dimensional level.
According to the stoics, anything and everything around us functioned by a cause
and effect web resulting in a rational structure of the universe. This resulted in the
creation of logos. We cant control the things around us, we can only control how we
approach these things. For instance, Emily Wilson, in her translation of “The
Odyssey”, begins her narration as :
“Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
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and where he went, and who he met, the pain
he suffered in the storms at sea, and how
he worked to save his life and bring his men
back home.” (I. 1-10)
The author beings the description of Odysseus as a "complicated man”. Without
revealing too much about the character, the author cleverly makes him seem like an
enigma thereby drawing her readers attention right from the beginning, She gives
us insight into the character as one who is about to face several conflicts for the
rest of the story. This enables us to figure out the physical and mental hardships he
is about to suffer. “The Odyssey” is narrated from a third-person point of view by a
narrator who has invoked the divine authority of the Muse, which allows the narrator
to know everything and understand all the characters’ thoughts and feelings.
Descriptive phrases such as “wandered and was lost” and “pain he suffered in the
storms at sea” further provides more insight towards his strenuous journey. Thus a
recurring motif of story telling is used throughout the poem in a similar manner
drawing on his pain and suffering. The journey he takes has its up and down, twists
and turns, which results in a much more entertaining story for the audience. In this
way the author gives Odysseus greater narrative authority in the reader’s eye as
they are able to sympathise with him. There is only one question that the reader is
left with at the moment. How did Odysseus manage to get through this journey ?
How did he manage to have hope ? Homer uses the story to educate the readers
on the practice of stoicism through its values. One can interpret the three cardinal
virtues of life through the poem.
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Time is a challenging game. We all want to play it but eventually we end up losing
the race. Odysseus starts to play ever since he set sail for Troy. There were times
when he tried to get the best of it with his wits and valour but he wasn’t playing
alone. Wilson subtly addressees the concept of time in, “ For too long he has
suffered, with no friends…from his own homeland, and he wants to die”(I. 49-59).
Here Athena is trying to persuade Zeus on showing mercy to Odysseus. However,
Zeus and Poseidon fail to understand the implications it might result on his life. For
Odysseus is a mortal being unlike the gods. Here the author implicitly builds the
idea of the pain and suffering faced by Odysseus. But immortals don’t understand
time as mortals do. Zeus fails to understand how Odysseus has been stuck in
Calypso’s island for several years. Instead they choose to debate and ponder on
how his fate should be decided. Shakespeare once said, “All the worlds a stage
and men and women are mere players”(As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII). For them
exercising control is a rush. Odysseus suffered a great deal on his journey back
home and that had a lot more to do with the influences of the supernatural.
Immortal beings displaying mortal characteristics. A rare moment of imperfection
from the virtuous. Be it Poseidon’s rage or Athena’s grace, they all ended shaping
up his journey. When he arrived on Itacha for the first time he was perplexed and
mortified that he could no longer remember the home he once left behind (XIII).
Thats the funny thing about time. It shows no compassion or mercy. It doesn’t
discriminate one over the other. Eventually it brings everything to an end. In the end
Kronos is coming for us all.
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Honesty is a challenging game. The truth always ends up being what we want to
see. Everyday we all end up wearing masks to deceive the ones closest to us. The
author playfully showcases Odysseus’s lack of truth when he writes, “To outwit you
in all your tricks…I am known among gods for insight and craftiness” (XIII.
292-300). The character arc of Odysseus is constructed in such a way that when he
arrives in Ithaca he feeds falsified information to Athena whose in disguise. He
spins a web of how he arrived to the island. This catches Athena’s attention as she
appreciates his lack of honesty. For she isn’t one to miss an opportunity to try on a
new costume. Throughout the book we can follow a similar pattern of deceit and
trickery the protagonist portrays. The author thus draws a line and differentiates
between the Iliad and the Odyssey. If the former is about power and strength, the
latter is more about mind over muscle. Although he may not possess incredible
strength, his cunningness always gets him over the line. These instances not only
brings out the wit that Odysseus possessed but also opens the most fearful
question we have all been meaning to ask. Why is Odysseus glorified as a greek
hero, even though he is not an honourable man ? The concept of kleos or glory that
was much talked off at those times was flawed immaculately. His house was known
for their honour, valour and hospitality. Yet somehow the gods and the readers have
to come to peace over his methods of winning. We will never get to know how he
was forgiven by his faithful wife Penelope for his loyalty or by his countrymen for
slaughtering their own. We only do know that he would go on to live a happy and
peaceful life and is destined to die in peace (XXIV).
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Morality is a challenging game. There are many who question the righteousness of
our central character of the story Odysseus. The author states that, “He has already
punished all the suitors…and let them live in peace and prosperity” (XXIV.
479-485). Here we can see that, Zeus gives the verdict for all of Odysseys's
compatriots, to forget the murders of their own kin and live in peace and prosperity.
The author thus depicts Zeus as an unjust king signalling, that the times called for a
change in beliefs. The author showcases Odysseus as someone who lies and
manipulates people for his personal gains. He massacred the women who laid with
the suitors. He demanded Xenia or hospitality when he didn’t reciprocate his part in
it. He slept with other women while his wife was being faithful to him all along.
These are not qualities that we assess as morally just. However we are unaware of
the morals that existed back then. In todays time we have good and bad. Two sides
of the scale. However what if there was no scale back then. Aristotle did say that
“Good is the mean between two bad” (Organon). One in excess and one of
deficiency. Courage for instance, is the mean of excess rashness and deficit of
cowardice. Incredible idea that changes the way you look at, whats right and wrong.
According to stoics there were four morals that were necessary for one to live.
Wisdom, Temperance, Courage and Justice. All four of which we seem to identify in
Odysseus’ journey back home. He displays wisdom, with his deceit and
cunningness to get him through several obstacles. He shows high levels of
temperance over his time at being a prisoner. Courage when he takes on the
suitors on his own and justice when he kills them in the end. The important lesson
we learn from him is that we cant control the things around us, we can only control
how we approach things.
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Morality, Honesty along with Time form as the base for our analysis of identifying
stoic instances throughout the poem. Epictetus in his book states that, “Some
things are in our control…whatever are not our own actions” ( I Enchiridion
translated by Elizabeth Carter ), the only thing in our own control are our actions.
Thus we are able to understand “The Odyssey” through the eyes of the stoics.
Homer displays Odysseus as a man of character as opposed to caliber. A character
so nuanced and intricate that there’s enough to learn for everyone. There could not
be a better example of a man displaying stoicism. Through him, the concept of
stoicism have crossed the borders of time and today we learn them as ways of
living. As Senaca once said, “Sometimes even to live is an act of courage”(Moral
Letters to Lucilius LXXVIII). And thats what Odysseus did. He survived. He used
every point of adversity as an opportunity. We can draw conclusions that the
journey of Odysseus, might have inspired one of the greatest stoic preachers,
Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor (Meditations). His journals guided Nelson
Mandela through his twenty seven year imprisonment during his struggle for racial
equality in South Africa (Conversations with myself). People face hardships and
personal struggles everyday throughout the world. We might not be able to prevent
the struggles, but we must learn to endure it.