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Examination of Virtues in Homer's Odyssey

Updated on March 26, 2013


Hostility in nature is what compels us to develop the virtues which define us as humans and separate us from animals. In reference to Homer’s Odyssey, these virtues include endurance, a cunning mind, the ability to create technology, problem-solve and think up tricks, and incredible self-control. All of these characteristics are repeatedly expressed through the adventures of the main character, Odysseus. In multiple instances in the story, Odysseus’s virtues are the only things which keep him alive in the face of incredible danger at the hands of natural threats. This is very different from today’s modern world, as today we live insulated and protected from hostility in nature. Although we retain these virtues, we have altered versions of them; we do not have these virtues in the same capacity as those which enable Odysseus to survive.

Hostility in nature is what causes us to develop the characteristics which separate us from animals, and the easiest way to demonstrate this is to examine how Odysseus uses these human abilities to survive natural threats, and then to examine how others do not have these characteristics because they don’t live in hostile environments. The clearest example of the importance of these virtues to Odysseus’s survival in the face of a natural threat is his confrontation with Polyphemos, the Cyclops. When Polyphemos starts to eat Odysseus’s men, Odysseus almost kills Polyphemos, but the “second thought” stays him. He knows that he and his men won’t be able to escape the cave if he kills Polyphemos. This knowledge of the consequences of his actions forces him to exercise immense self-control and instead think of a way to trick the Cyclops and escape. This self-control is the first of many virtues Odysseus must exercise in order to survive the encounter with the natural, monstrous beast.

When Odysseus and his men decide to blind Polyphemos, they use the symbols of the three most important technologies at the time, metalworking, shipbuilding, and agriculture. The fact that the weapon they use is an olive branch is an allegory to agriculture, the method of heating the branch is a reference to metalworking, and the twisting motion they utilize to drive the stake into the Cyclops’s eye references one of the methods used in the process of shipbuilding. These references to technology are deliberate—they not only show how humanity’s ability to create technology helps us survive, but it shows how Odysseus uses his cunning mind and his knowledge of preexisting technologies to create a solution to a new problem. This ability to apply previous knowledge to solve new problems is a rational ability which belongs solely to humans, and which is essential to our survival.

The next demonstration of Odysseus’s use of his virtues to survive the natural threat is when he uses his mind to think up the trick of hiding under the sheep to escape the cave. His ability to think up tricks is one of his most defining characteristics, although without the threat that Polyphemos and other natural dangers pose to him, this virtue may never have developed. The trick of calling himself “Nobody” is also a demonstration of his cunning mind. By telling Polyphemos that “Nobody” is doing this injury to him, he ensures no other Cyclopes will help Polyphemos. When the other Cyclopes come to see why Polyphemos is screaming, Polyphemos tells them that “Nobody” is injuring him, so the other Cyclopes believe nothing is amiss and leave him alone. A final demonstration of the importance of these virtues to the survival of humans is when Odysseus loses his self-control and calls out to Polyphemos from his ship to boast, and tells Polyphemos his true identity. This costs Odysseus the lives of all of his men and seven more years away from home.

The Cyclopes are more like animals than humans because their environment is not hostile to them, and thus they have not developed any technology, self-control, or other such virtues. They do not have agriculture, as their food is provided for them naturally, and the fact that Polyphemos does not have self-control is demonstrated by his impulsive killing and eating of Odysseus’s men. Without any threat in their environment, they have no need to develop technology, self-control, or cunning minds because they live in a relative paradise. Another example of an alternative to humans who do not have the virtues humans have is the gods, who live in paradises just like the Cyclopes. A specific example in the story is that of Calypso. She lives on an island paradise, and does not have the self-control or concept of consequences that Odysseus has because she has never had reason to develop them. This shows how a hostile environment is crucial to the development of these innately human characteristics.

Another example of a natural threat that Odysseus must overcome using his virtues is the storm he endures when he leaves Calypso’s island. In order to stay alive, he must use his incredible endurance and self-control to hold onto the rocks on the shore to keep from being swept out to sea, even when it skins his hands.

Today we have very different virtues from those which allow Odysseus to survive in The Odyssey. Although they are technically the same virtues, they have been dramatically altered as our advance in technology has distanced us from hostility in nature. We don’t endure everyday hardships as a result of natural occurrences, and even natural disasters have a vastly reduced ability to damage us. Today the ability to think up tricks does not help us escape wild animals or monsters, it helps us play tricks on each other for mundane or manipulative reasons. The creation of new technology is oftentimes less to help us survive nature’s hardships, and more to simply make our lives easier and lazier. Today when we think about the ability to exercise self-control, it’s not a life-or-death situation we imagine but the ability to resist eating that chocolate pie after dinner. Insulation from the harsh reality of living unaided by technology in nature has led to a vast redefinition of our virtues, and a severe decrease in the importance of these virtues. Getting lost while hiking today does not have the same consequences as getting lost would have in Odysseus’s world, as a helicopter can come and find us. Technology insulates us from the consequences of our actions, so we no longer place much value in virtues such as self-control or a cunning, tricky mind.


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