Against Odysseus

Wiliness needs to be confined within limits.

Brad DeLong reflects thoughtfully on the differences between classical Greeks and modern liberals in their views about war. Given the choice among the honorable but unstrategic Hector, the skilled but slaughter-mad Achilles, and the wily Odysseus, Brad opts for Odysseus, though with reservations.

I see his point: Odysseus is committed to what Sheldon Wolin (writing about Machiavelli) called “the economy of violence”: i.e., shedding as little blood as possible given the situation. That’s an improvement compared to Achilles, or Agamemnon for that matter.

Still, as a hero for liberals Odysseus just won’t do.

The Odysseus who fights before Troy isn’t nearly as nice as the charming hero of the Odyssey, courageous in the face of long suffering and devoted to the wife and child he hasn’t seen for twenty years. Odysseus in the Odyssey is resourceful, but he keeps his resourcefulness within decent limits: he’d rather starve than eat the cattle of Helios (Odyssey, V). He seems to have learned, somewhere in the course of his wanderings, that there are some things you just can’t get away with.

The Trojan War Odysseus knows no such limits. Having unsuccessfully feigned madness to duck out of his commitment to fight, he:

— uses poisoned arrows (or so Athena tells Telemachus in Odyssey I, 350);

— promises to spare the captive Dolon in return for information, stands by while his confederate Diomedes kills the prisoner, and then piously dedicates some of what he and Diomedes loot from the corpse as an offering to Athena (Iliad X, 330-405);

— and, of course, comes up with the idea of the Trojan Horse, combining treachery (a false peace agreement) and blasphemy (the horse is sacred to Poseidon, and the wooden horse was presented as an sacrificial offering).

So the wily Odysseus is both a coward and a war criminal.

Yes, different cultures have different standards, and the Homeric ethos admired successful deceit more than we moderns do. But Odysseus isn’t just a scoundrel by our standards; he’s a scoundrel by those of his own time. As Athena says to Telemachus, the first person Odysseus went to for the arrow poison wouldn’t give it to him, “because he feared the gods.” (On one interpretation, Odysseuss’s sufferings in the Odyssey represent the expiation of his earlier wrongdoing and can be seen as the cause of his moral regeneration.)

So liberals can’t justly lay claim to Odysseus: he is the lawful property of the terrorists and the scoundrels who write memos justifying torture.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

3 thoughts on “Against Odysseus”

  1. The Homeric Doctrine

    Check out Brad DeLong and Mark Kleiman's discussion regarding which Greek hero makes the best liberal role model. I'd say that Kleiman's criticisms of Odysseus's liberal ideological purity would make an excellent launch for a case defending Aeneas, if …

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