In Book VIII of Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus begins to tell the tale of his journeys and sufferings from Troy up to the present time, nearly ten years later. During this story, which spans Books VIII-XII, Odysseus famously tells the story of the cyclopes, and Polyphemos. A curiosity, which many fail to notice, is that earlier Alkinoos, king of the Phaiakians, mentioned that once the Phaiakians, who are descended from Giants (7.58), themselves descended from Poseidon, lived on an island named Hyperia alongside their brother cyclopes. Since, then, however, the Phaiakians have chosen to leave and colonize Scheria. What one ought then to see, and to imagine, is that the Phaiakians and the cyclopes come from the same gigantic race of beings. Why, then, are they now so different?
For example, the cyclopes have barely changed at all–they are still large, and they have acquired no new skills, nor even new laws (they are anomos), afterall. They have changed in one way, though–they now only have one eye, rather than two. What could this mean? Well, it means simply that the cyclopes have not evolved or developed as a people, but rather they have devolved or degenerated. Though they remain large and seemingly immortal, they have lost perspective. So, though they live so long, have such size and have such might, they have not bettered or added to themselves at all. And in fact, due to the lack of recognition of eternal laws, like the xenia (guest-host relationship), the chief cyclops whom we meet, Polyphemos, is blinded due to his own blindness to the threat of small Odysseus and the fulfillment of the prophecy that one day Polyphemos would be blinded by some man.
The Phaiakians, in contrast, embrace their fate. After conveying Odysseus home, Poseidon, who is angry at Odysseus, enraged, turns the Phaiakian ship to stone, and then he covers the island with a mountain, which means that he either destroys it, or at least forever hides it. In any case, the Phaiakians will never offer conveyance home again. It turns out that Alkinoos, their king, knew that there was a prophecy that this would some day happen, and yet he still gave conveyance home to all travelers who reached Scheria. But why? Should not he have barred all travelers from coming or sent them away? Well, no. As the students suggested, because the prophecy indacted that the Phaiakians have a fate, and fate will come true no matter what. The Phaiakians, therefore, acted exactly as they ought, because what could they have changed by worrying about the future and denying visitors passage home? Their specific gift to the world is that their ships know all lands, move fast as thought, and require no oars to travel. Had they stopped conveying wayfarers home, they would have failed to prevent the prophecy while also acting against their nature, purpose, and the xenia.
But how and why have the Phaiakians changed since they were once a single race of giants with the cyclopes? They are now human-sized, have incredible ships, and they honor the eternal laws of gods, even when an eternal god is personally mad, and willing to destroy them for doing what is right. Then, might one suggest that due to the fact that the cyclopes continue to live, though without law and not subject to divine order, that they are actually rewarded for their godless ways?
Though the cyclopes continue to live, and the Phaiakians are destroyed, the Phaiakians stay true to their purpose to the end, where the cyclopes, who have given up their second eye, corrupt theirs, and fail to see eternal things, while themselves becoming eternal, though forever de-natured and corrupted. Rather than seeing and understanding what is eternal, therefore, they become eternal, and remain forever an object of thought which itself fails to know itself.
The lesson is this: if one chooses to act against one’s purpose or nature in the pursuit of longer life or in defiant dismissal of eternal principles, one might well achieve that goal. But in so doing, what does one’s life and its defining actions become, but one long respiration machine which prolongs life, without adding to it? So, though the Phaiakians die, their actions tie them eternally to the principle of the xenia which they embody. And thus they are truly immortal, connected by virtue of an immortal principle to both past and future. While though the cyclopes continue to live in the present, their connection is made to that which, like them, has no past and future, and thus will pass away.