Odysseus does not desire to go home during his epic journey, but rather, like a Taoist, his home is the journey. The notion that he wishes to be in a particular place called home is but a projection which we throw onto him based on our own desires. Let us think about this. When we first meet him on Kalypso’s Isle of Ogygia in Book V of Homer’s Odyssey, he is crying on the beach. Many have interpreted Odysseus’ crying as parallel to Penelope’s own, and as Penelope cries for Odysseus, they assume that Odysseus cries for Penelope, or for home represented through her. This is not quite right. For one, let us consider the sort of man Odysseus, of the many-ways and devices, is. Is he the sort of man that would enjoy repose, like Laertes, out on his farm? Or simply to administer to his men? Perhaps if we look to Odysseus’ actions and the prophecy by Teiresias, we will figure out that the only “desire for home” we truly see, is our own desire for home, which as Agamemnon shows us, is simply a desire for the past.
Let us venture to the underworld. There we speak to Agamemnon, and boy does he have something to say:
“When Proserpine had dismissed the female ghosts in all directions, the ghost of Agamemnon son of Atreus came sadly up tome, surrounded by those who had perished with him in the house of Aegisthus. As soon as he had tasted the blood he knew me, and weeping bitterly stretched out his arms towards me to embrace me; but he had no strength nor substance any more, and I too wept and pitied him as I beheld him. ‘How did you come by your death,’ said I, ‘King Agamemnon? Did Neptune raise his winds and waves against you when you were at sea, or did your enemies make an end of you on the mainland when you were cattle-lifting or sheep-stealing, or while they were fighting in defence of their wives and city?’
“‘Ulysses,’ he answered, ‘noble son of Laertes, was not lost at sea in any storm of Neptune’s raising, nor did my foes despatch me upon the mainland, but Aegisthus and my wicked wife were the death of me between them. He asked me to his house, feasted me, and then butchered me most miserably as though I were a fat beast in a slaughter house, while all around me my comrades were slain like sheep or pigs for the wedding breakfast, or picnic, or gorgeous banquet of some great nobleman. You must have seen numbers of men killed either in a general engagement, or in single combat, but you never saw anything so truly pitiable as the way in which we fell in that cloister, with the mixing-bowl and the loaded tables lying all about, and the ground reeking with our-blood. I heard Priam’s daughter Cassandra scream as Clytemnestra killed her close beside me. I lay dying upon the earth with the sword in my body, and raised my hands to kill the slut of a murderess, but she slipped away from me; she would not even close my lips nor my eyes when I was dying, for there is nothing in this world so cruel and so shameless as a woman when she has fallen into such guilt as hers was. Fancy murdering her own husband! I thought I was going to be welcomed home by my children and my servants, but her abominable crime has brought disgrace on herself and all women who shall come after- even on the good ones.’
The lesson of Agamemnon’s story, typical of his speech, does not come until his final sentence. Just as in Homer’s Iliad Agamemnon blames delusion and not himself for his dispute with Achilleus in Book XIX, so here does Agamemnon blame others for his death. Of course it is literally true that Klytaimestra (Clytemnestra) and Aigisthos (Aegithus) did kill Agamemnon, he reveals that it was his own thoughtless assumption that happiness would be waiting for him at home which led to his demise! His own recklessness! For if he thought through his return, he would remember that he had sacrificed his own daughter, Iphigeneia, for the sake of good winds to Troy against the will of Klytaimestra, and that in killing Aigisthos’ father, Thyestes, that ill-will existed and was waiting for him in Mykenai (Mycenaea). And typically, rather than blaming himself for his own thoughtlessness, directly after winning a war with the conspiratorial help of Odysseus, Agamemnon decides to blame all women. Odysseus’ response is priceless:
“And I said, ‘In truth Jove has hated the house of Atreus from first to last in the matter of their women’s counsels. See how many of us fell for Helen’s sake, and now it seems that Clytemnestra hatched mischief against too during your absence.’ (Ibid, XI 435-439)
If one reads closely, it almost appears as if Odysseus is making fun of Agamemnon for (1) his bad luck with women! (Briseis/Chryseis, Helen, and Klytaimestra!), and (2) for his inability or unwillingness to consider the possibility of having “mischief” hatched against him while he was gone. Naturally, Odysseus will not fall in such a thoughtless way.
Then let us consider the prophecy which Teiresias tells to Odysseus about his future:
“You want to know,’ said he, ‘about your return home, but heaven will make this hard for you. I do not think that you will escape the eye of Neptune, who still nurses his bitter grudge against you for having blinded his son. Still, after much suffering you may get home if you can restrain yourself and your companions when your ship reaches the Thrinacian island, where you will find the sheep and cattle belonging to the sun, who sees and gives ear to everything. If you leave these flocks unharmed and think of nothing but of getting home, you may yet after much hardship reach Ithaca; but if you harm them, then I forewarn you of the destruction both of your ship and of your men. Even though you may yourself escape, you will return in bad plight after losing all your men, [in another man’s ship, and you will find trouble in your house, which will be overrun by high-handed people, who are devouring your substance under the pretext of paying court and making presents to your wife.
“‘When you get home you will take your revenge on these suitors; and after you have killed them by force or fraud in your own house, you must take a well-made oar and carry it on and on, till you come to a country where the people have never heard of the sea and do not even mix salt with their food, nor do they know anything about ships, and oars that are as the wings of a ship. I will give you this certain token which cannot escape your notice. A wayfarer will meet you and will say it must be a winnowing shovel that you have got upon your shoulder; on this you must fix the oar in the ground and sacrifice a ram, a bull, and a boar to Neptune. Then go home and offer hecatombs to an the gods in heaven one after the other. As for yourself, death shall come to you from the sea, and your life shall ebb away very gently when you are full of years and peace of mind, and your people shall bless you. All that I have said will come true].’
If we look at the structure of this prophecy, Odysseus’ homecoming, in the traditional meaning of the word, is not at the end of the prophecy, but at the middle. Often, here, the students shout that it is unfair that Odysseus does not get to “return home” and “live at peace,” but have we not already forgotten Odysseus’ sadness on peaceful Ogygia? Have we so quickly forgotten his active, persevering, and cunning nature? Would he even be happy continuing to live at home? Or is the point that home, for Odysseus, resides squarely within him acting in the way he was meant to, his energeia as Aristotelians tell us, or is home simply a physical place to which one returns? Obviously, the first choice is correct if we look at the definition of energeia and entellecheia: acting as an end in itself, or an action which is its own end. So one who acts in such a way is like a tortoise carrying its own shell, its own home, on its back. Thus is Odysseus always at home whenever he acts in accordance with his nature, which is all the way through his journey except when (a) he is with Kalypso, and (b) challenged to a simulated discus contest by the young Phaiakians Laodamas and Euryalos in Book VIII.
Given that when one acts in accordance with one’s nature or essence, one “carries one’s home with one,” it is curious how Plato interprets the journey of Odysseus, and potentially incorrectly. During Book X, the final book of Plato’s Republic, he recounts the so-called “Myth of Er,” which is a myth about how life ends and begins at the very end of the book. The long section which tells the myth and includes Odysseus and a little more is contained below. If you only wish to read the part about Odysseus, it is the italicized portion in the first paragraph below:
“And according to the report of the messenger from the other world this was what the prophet said at the time: ‘Even for the last comer, if he chooses wisely and will live diligently, there is appointed a happy and not undesirable existence. Let not him who chooses first be careless, and let not the last despair.’ And when he had spoken, he who had the first choice came forward and in a moment chose the greatest tyranny; his mind having been darkened by folly and sensuality, he had not thought out the whole matter before he chose, and did not at first sight perceive that he was fated, among other evils, to devour his own children. But when he had time to reflect, and saw what was in the lot, he began to beat his breast and lament over his choice, forgetting the proclamation of the prophet; for, instead of throwing the blame of his misfortune on himself, he accused chance and the gods, and everything rather than himself. Now he was one of those who came from heaven, and in a former life had dwelt in a well-ordered State, but his virtue was a matter of habit only, and he had no philosophy. And it was true of others who were similarly overtaken, that the greater number of them came from heaven and therefore they had never been schooled by trial, whereas the pilgrims who came from earth, having themselves suffered and seen others suffer, were not in a hurry to choose. And owing to this inexperience of theirs, and also because the lot was a chance, many of the souls exchanged a good destiny for an evil or an evil for a good. For if a man had always on his arrival in this world dedicated himself from the first to sound philosophy, and had been moderately fortunate in the number of the lot, he might, as the messenger reported, be happy here, and also his journey to another life and return to this, instead of being rough and underground, would be smooth and heavenly. Most curious, he said, was the spectacle –sad and laughable and strange; for the choice of the souls was in most cases based on their experience of a previous life. There he saw the soul which had once been Orpheus choosing the life of a swan out of enmity to the race of women, hating to be born of a woman because they had been his murderers; he beheld also the soul of Thamyras choosing the life of a nightingale; birds, on the other hand, like the swan and other musicians, wanting to be men. The soul which obtained the twentieth lot chose the life of a lion, and this was the soul of Ajax the son of Telamon, who would not be a man, remembering the injustice which was done him the judgment about the arms. The next was Agamemnon, who took the life of an eagle, because, like Ajax, he hated human nature by reason of his sufferings. About the middle came the lot of Atalanta; she, seeing the great fame of an athlete, was unable to resist the temptation: and after her there followed the soul of Epeus the son of Panopeus passing into the nature of a woman cunning in the arts; and far away among the last who chose, the soul of the jester Thersites was putting on the form of a monkey. There came also the soul of Odysseus having yet to make a choice, and his lot happened to be the last of them all. Now the recollection of former tolls had disenchanted him of ambition, and he went about for a considerable time in search of the life of a private man who had no cares; he had some difficulty in finding this, which was lying about and had been neglected by everybody else; and when he saw it, he said that he would have done the had his lot been first instead of last, and that he was delighted to have it. And not only did men pass into animals, but I must also mention that there were animals tame and wild who changed into one another and into corresponding human natures –the good into the gentle and the evil into the savage, in all sorts of combinations.
All the souls had now chosen their lives, and they went in the order of their choice to Lachesis, who sent with them the genius whom they had severally chosen, to be the guardian of their lives and the fulfiller of the choice: this genius led the souls first to Clotho, and drew them within the revolution of the spindle impelled by her hand, thus ratifying the destiny of each; and then, when they were fastened to this, carried them to Atropos, who spun the threads and made them irreversible, whence without turning round they passed beneath the throne of Necessity; and when they had all passed, they marched on in a scorching heat to the plain of Forgetfulness, which was a barren waste destitute of trees and verdure; and then towards evening they encamped by the river of Unmindfulness, whose water no vessel can hold; of this they were all obliged to drink a certain quantity, and those who were not saved by wisdom drank more than was necessary; and each one as he drank forgot all things. Now after they had gone to rest, about the middle of the night there was a thunderstorm and earthquake, and then in an instant they were driven upwards in all manner of ways to their birth, like stars shooting. He himself was hindered from drinking the water. But in what manner or by what means he returned to the body he could not say; only, in the morning, awaking suddenly, he found himself lying on the pyre.”
(Plato, Republic Book X, 614B-621B)
At first glance it is unclear whether Plato is agreeing or disagreeing with the above interpretation of Odysseus’ nature or tao–for if Odysseus truly were happy, or living a meaningful life, through acting in the way he did during life, why would he choose another sort of existence in his next life? Well, one might respond to this by saying that Odysseus correctly lived his first life in the manner proper to it, and in his next life he will do the same. Why, though, does he choose the life of a private man, if not to show Plato’s progression from Homer–the spirit of the Homeric adventurer in the world is met by the adventurous spirit of the mind which the philosopher engenders. Therefore, the Odysseus from Homer in one age embodies the scurrilous, cunning, and adventurous hero. And a few hundred years later that same spirit is embodied in a new way and in a new pursuit, and though the pursuit, on the face of it, looks different, it is simply adapted to its time, as it eternally is, just like one’s home, which one eternally carries with himself.