Thoughts on Odysseus and Achilles

The Education of Achilles by Chiron, fresco from Herculaneum, 1st century AD

Achilles is a man of many passions. He is often described as quick, or “swift-footed.” For Achilles –the warrior– his life is short and grim. His unfettered rage is drawn out and directed toward those who have offended him, especially those who have offended him most recently. He knows only friends and enemies. Rather than pursuing a strategy of diplomacy, of weighing the advantages and disadvantages among both friends and enemies, Achilles knows only contest and battle. Friends and enemies are without qualifications –they are, so to speak, plain and easy to distinguish to a warrior like Achilles.

Achilles also demands moral perfection. He expresses dislike for men who give speeches and commit acts that do not reflect the truth concealed in their hearts. He wants honesty and authenticity. Any lie is a bad lie for Achilles –he does not approve of such a thing as a noble lie. He is skeptical of poets, especially tactful poets like Odysseus. This is why he fails in the realm of politics. He lacks the will to negotiate with Agamemnon, and his decision leaves his Myrmidon men muttering to themselves. The Iliad is a text explicitly dedicated to the passion, the rage, of Achilles. The bard calls to the goddess in the Iliad, but in the Odyssey, he calls to the Muse about “a man.” Who is this man, to whom an entire Homeric epic is dedicated?

Odysseus, on the other hand, is filled nostos, the root for nostalgia meaning homecoming. His deep longing is to return home to reclaim the house of his fathers. This is in contrast to Achilles, who is described as longing to return home to garden and live a long but quiet life. In the second line of the Odyssey, Odysseus is identified as the winner of the Trojan war. This is of course contra Achilles, the great warrior, whose rage is not credited with winning the war. Instead Achilles’s rage is characterized as leading many Achaeans to their deaths. Notably, the killing of Hector is considered inferior to the wooden horse ploy in conquering the city of Priam. Odysseus, on the other hand, is identified as the man of many twists and turns. He speaks in different ways to different groups. Toward the noisy masses, like Thersites, he forcibly punishes them. Toward men of renown, such as Agamemnon, he persuades them, appealing to their capacity for reason. As an example, Helen explains to King Priam that Odysseus’s wise council is second only to Zeus. He is crafty and cunning, a man of many disguises. He is also a dangerous poet to his foes, a pleasant liar who speaks and acts with reason, rather than passion. He is favored by Athena, goddess of wisdom.

Perhaps the differing educations of both Achilles and Odysseus bear significance on their divergent characters. Achilles is a properly educated man. The centaur, Chiron, is the legendary teacher who educates Achilles as his own disciple. Achilles, however, can only be reared to a certain limit. His heel, after all, is the only body part not dipped into the river Styx by his mother Thetis. On the other hand, Odysseus received no formal education, he was presumably trained in the art of war, and also in music and poetry. In addition, Odysseus, who is perhaps a genius, has the gift of interpretation. While Achilles responds to events, typically with rage, Odysseus analyzes and then responds with tact. For this reason, Odysseus endures through many twists and turns while Achilles lives a short life but memorable life.

Now to turn the page, the two heroes notably share a common bond on the final point regarding durability. Achilles strives to make an enduring name for himself by, somewhat ironically, sacrificing his own life. He knows, according to the prophecy, that by killing Hector, he will remain in Ilium and never return home with the Myrmidons again. Yet he is driven by his ceaseless rage. Similarly, Odysseus is concerned with his name. For in an age of ongoing political problems, war and contest are the ways people build a lasting name for themselves. Odysseus, who nearly drowns at the hands of Poseidon, cries out that his story be not forgotten. It is good and fitting that the life of a man should emulate an epic, such as the epics of Homer, rather than a tragedy, perhaps of those written by Euripides. It is better to be remembered triumphantly and heroically than it is to be remembered as pitiable and tragic. However, to be remembered is what is most important to the Achaean heroes, and this need to search for the enduring qualities in life, is a powerful lesson to learn from Homer, the teacher of the Greeks.

Genesis XI: The Lord versus the City of Man

Try as we might, we cannot ignore the tumultuous relationship between the Lord and the humans throughout the book of Genesis. Routinely, the humans make propositions in order to prevent punishments, and God responds by forcing punishments upon the humans.

Consider the story of the “Tower of Babel” found in Genesis XI. All the earth has become one single language -a phrase echoed five times in the story. In a post diluvian world, the humans have moved from the east, presumably to the west, in order to settle in the valley of Shinar (Northern Babylonia).

Utilizing new technology, namely brick and mortar rather than stone, the humans make a proposition. They propose to build a “city” and a “tower” with the intention of making a name for themselves and also to prevent themselves from being scattered throughout the earth. The humans are concerned with greatness. They yearn to transcend their current condition by forming a city, whose tower reaches into the heavens. They are also concerned with endurance, not unlike Gilgamesh who faces a forgotten legacy. Humans want to endure, because it is powerful, and the way to accomplish this is through politics, or building a great city.

The Tower of Babel by Dutch painter, Peter Bruegel the Elder in 1563

The Lord comes “down” to the city to discover its dangers. If the humans create a city as they propose to do, they will be able to do anything. They will become proud and confident. This prospect is particularly threatening to the Lord. He beckons “us,” perhaps referring to multiple deities, to go down and baffle their language so they will scatter throughout the earth. It is a reminder of God’s prohibitions to the humans in the garden of Eden in Genesis. Recall that he does not want the humans to eat of the Tree of Knowledge, Good and Evil, for they will surely die. God does not want humans to become prideful with knowledge nor a great city.

In order to prevent the humans from achieving greatness, He must confuse them. Thus the need for the Lord to confuse the language, balal in Hebrew like the word babble in Akkadian. It might be said that the Lord finds His authority in direct contest with the human desire to form a city. The shepherd longs to control and regulate the human beings because they cannot be trusted to rule themselves. Human greatness and pride is a challenge to God, and therefore He finds himself in conflict with the humans, opposing their will to power.

For this reading I used Robert Alter’s illuminating translation of the Torah.

Genesis III: In Defense of the Serpent

Michelangelo’s The Fall and Expulsion From Paradise, a fresco from the Sistine Chapel (1510)

In the garden of Eden, we encounter two trees: the tree of knowledge (good and evil) and the tree of life. Both trees presumably represent differing pathways for humanity. In Genesis Chapter III, we start to discover humans in the garden (assuming we accept either the seven day creation narrative of Genesis I, or the ‘soil and rib’ narrative of Genesis II). The humans freely roam in the garden, eating of the vegetation as they please. We have no textual evidence that they are carnivorous at the outset. It is safe to assume that humans in the garden live a simple life like animals. They are given the unique privilege of naming all the animals, and thus humans are distinct among living creatures.

Now, of all the beasts in the field, the serpent is described as the most “cunning” (the original Hebrew employs a clever pun connecting the two words “cunning” and “nakedness”). While the humans are naked, exposed, and vulnerable; the serpent remains concealed, masking his inner intentions like Odysseus. He, thus, has greater power over the humans. Latter theological interpretations of the serpent’s power will find evil, but removing any sense of revisionism, we find the serpent to be a curious character. He demonstrates to us the capacity for persuasion.

Up until Genesis III, we are given no textual evidence that the humans have had greater ambition other than to obey the will of God who commands them not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge, good and evil. The humans up until this point are docile and obedient. It should be noted that God’s commandment carried with it a warning of punishment if the law is disobeyed. If the forbidden fruit is eaten, the humans shall surely be doomed to die. The law is supported by a threat, the potential for punishment. This is the birth of law in Genesis. But how well to humans obey laws?

The crafty serpent successfully persuades the woman that she will not die if she eats the fruit, but rather that she will possess new knowledge of good and evil and she will become “like a god.” What do we make of the serpent in this speech? Surely his motives are at odds with God’s, but could it be in the best interest of the humans to become like a god? The prideful Greeks, after all, were honored at the thought of becoming like a god. The woman rebuts the serpent, yet she cannot resist the lustful temptation of forbidden fruit. Humans respond to incentives rather than punishments. It can be said that the woman, rather than wishing to be like a god, eats of the fruit solely of her own wish. The fruit is so desirous simply for its own sake -but the law has made it even more compelling. She desires to break the law because she forgets about God’s threat of death in order to focus on becoming like a god. She is allured by the promise of the serpent. As St. Augustine later notes in his Confessions, the sin of eating an apple arises merely from the apple being an object of terrible beauty, stemming from its own sinful desire (see also Paul’s discussion of the law in his Epistle to the Romans). The woman’s actions in Genesis, and all human actions for that matter, render perfect obedience to law an impossibility, leaving an Edenic Kallipoli (a la Plato’s Republic) to be nothing more than a city in speech. Perhaps this is why God notably omits labeling his human creation as “good” at the close of the sixth day. Presumably, law and goodness are at least connected. At any rate, the woman’s desire to become “like a god” overpowers her.

The Fall of Man by Venetian artist, Titian (1550)

Upon eating the fruit the woman gives it to the man and, contrary to God’s bluff, the humans do not die. Indeed God does not make good on his vow that the humans shall surely perish. Rather, their eyes are opened, as promised by the serpent, and they see good and evil. The serpent was true to his word unlike God. Ashamed and guilt-ridden, the humans rush to conceal themselves, thereby protecting their vulnerabilities. With new moral knowledge, the humans gain a unique sense of separation from the beasts who are not bound by law. In learning about the existence of evil, it is fitting for the humans to seek ways to protect and preserve their substance. They immediately cling to what we might call personal property -leaves and branches- used to cloak themselves.

Do the humans “become like gods?” Though they are banished from the garden, they produce offspring and become political. The man and woman live for an extended period of time, but they do eventually die seeing their many offspring populate the earth. They die, while gods surely do not die. Because we are not given any textual evidence that the man and woman would have died had they remained in the garden, latter more sophisticated theology suggests this is because the humans were meant to be eternal, thus overturning the serpent’s promise of godlike knowledge.

In closing, is it possible to entertain the notion that the serpent has actually aided the humans by beguiling them with new godlike knowledge, good and evil? Without falling prey to more recent and sophisticated theological interpretations involving comparisons between the serpent and ha-satan, or the “adversary,” let us instead reassess the serpent in Genesis III as a creature of good will, bringing truth, moral knowledge, and also politics to the humans. God, envious and threatened by the humans’ new knowledge, quickly banishes them from the garden before they can eat of the tree of life and become immortal, too. Theology, as confirmed by God’s character in the Torah, remains skeptical of the human quest for knowledge. The desire, or lust, to learn is evil in the eyes of God and can be dangerous to humans. Perhaps there is some truth to these claims, however much we may find them problematic. Jerusalem, in contrast to Athens, is the theological city. One might also call it the tension between God’s law and human law. God desires obedience, absolute invigilation, though latter Christian theology finds hope in life through forgiveness from an entirely different glimpse of the divine than we find in early Canaanite mythology found in Genesis. Theology rejects human greatness in favor of human safety, whereas the cunning serpent encourages the humans to become like gods, in pursuit of knowledge because it is both good and also rewarding, though he notably makes no mention of the dangers in the pursuit of knowledge.

For this reading I used Robert Alter’s illuminating translation of the Torah.