Essay: Acceptable Deceit: The Manipulation of Morals

Acceptable Deceit: The Manipulation of Morals

by A.D. Shaffer

{Graduate Studies; originally written for Humanities 510 Spring 2014}

Morals, honor, respect, and prestige are core values of ancient Grecian society as displayed by The Odyssey. Odysseus’ journeys are a depiction of the struggle of man to return homeland after discovering himself through war, life at sea, and intense suffering. However, how does the great hero achieve his desires? Odysseus uses deception with his clever wit to out smart his enemies. With the assistance of the goddess Athena, Odysseus is subject to and participant in illusions of disguise. The good-natured characters resort to deceiving their way through the narrative. Homer embellished on the tale to increase the significance of grandeur as means to emphasize the moral issues.   The characters are using lies to discover the truth. The interpretation, translation, and oral history references play a difficult hand for modern acceptance of myth or religion. However, the moral issues present in The Odyssey are still true for today, we just have different monsters. Morals, and prestige there of, are significant factors to uphold reason and a successful community – the purpose of the gods is to instill morality. The good man should be rewarded, and reward his people with sacrifice and feasting. The bad man should be reigned in to justice. The gods are given credit.

Modern science is taking approaches to understand the a priori value inside morality. Paul Zak notes man as a social creature and offers oxytocin as the moral molecule depicting humanity to hold a universal connectivity. In this grain, we are connected to the characters of The Odyssey as man is still rounded by morals. The TED Talk focuses on trust as a moral tester and conducts an experiment. Trust and trustworthiness were established by re-sharing the money. There is a touch of prestige present, that the individual who shared the money felt “good” about his choice, maybe produced some oxytocin. Zak also addresses the statistics of countries that held more trustworthiness than others: they produce more wealth and could eliminate poverty. The money itself was not important. The morals behind the choice are evident that man is obsessed with morality. While sex is the main action that stimulates the brain to create oxytocin, another means is rather simple, Zak says “Give someone a hug. Eight times a day” (TED Talk).  Even Kyklops needs a hug.

The moral issues addressed in The Odyssey are adultery, character, hospitality, and murder. All of these issues rely on trustworthiness. Odysseus trusts that Penelope will be waiting for him faithfully. Telemakhos trusts Athena that his father will return. Morality is considered inside the text and for those reading it. Reece notes on a variant interpretation of The Odyssey in which Telemakhos returns from his original trip with a seer Theoclymenus, who is possibly Odysseus in disguise. Bringing mysterious characters into the epic to announce visions adds depth to deception, “{Theoclymenus} shows up at critical moments to prophesy and then passes out of the story” (Reece 163). Deception is rampant in The Odyssey but most times for the greater good. Tests are presented to judge if one is good or bad.

Athena’s use of disguise propels the journey forward for Odysseus and his son. The gods are noted as all-powerful by Athena, “A god could save the man by simply wishing it – / from the farthest shore in the world” (Homer 451). Yet, Athena does not wish Odysseus home. He would not learn the lesson or suffer enough punishment to satisfy Zeus and Poseidon. Man is meant to struggle his mortal life. Occasional fortune is gifted from the gods. Athena suggests being lost at sea as means of protection from deceit. The moral lesson is in reference to Clytaemnestra’s acts of adultery – the giving in to her suitors – and consequent murder of her returned husband.

The justification of adultery in itself, however, is a crime of woman alone. Custom and culture of the times view man and woman with different conditions. Modern society holds gender reactions to situations, and what is deemed appropriate for each role. Odysseus’ time spent making love to Kalypso is not viewed as adulterous – he lays with her because she compels him to, but over the years he no longer finds pleasure with the nymph, and he weeps for his wife and homeland (Homer 486). How much of his time spent with Kalypso was solely under the influence of her insistence? Odysseus desired her, or he would not have stayed, especially not for ten years. Physically, Kalypso is seen as keeping him vital and youthful as long as he is on the island. While exemptions are made for men, women are not so lucky. Clytaemnestra is viewed as a harlot for committing adultery.

In contrast, Penelope is esteemed for her loyalty – by holding the suitors at bay for twenty years. Agamemnon’s shade praises Penelope who endured the absence of her husband, “The girl you brought home made a valiant wife! / True to her husband’s honor and her own” (Homer 759). Penelope is also noted for being crafty and wise. She tests Odysseus with mention of their marriage bed. This displays Penelope’s devotion to Odysseus, she says “But here and now, what sign could be so clear / as this of our own bed? / No other man has ever laid eyes on it” (Homer 749). The validity of the bed lets Penelope know that Odysseus is not an imposter as she’s experienced years of false hope and loneliness.

Whether a person is good or bad is displayed through speaking with them or monitoring them through disguise. Still true for today, understanding another’s character is relevant to the level of trust issued. Odysseus, disguised as an old beggar man by Athena upon his return to Ithaka, creates a character to go with his disguise, and claims to have word of Odysseus’ return. The beggar notes truth within his deception – for the greater good – and explains his circumstances, “The gods were with me, / keeping me hid; and with me when they brought me / here to the door of one who knows the world.” (Homer 617). The disguise does not cover an old scar from a boar hunt, the “scar’s origin is rhetorically rather representative when it is in fact extremely unusual” (Damon 19). The disguise covers all else of Odysseus yet the scar is exempt so that later he may use it as proof with the maid and his father. Odysseus is ultimately a good person, even though he disfigured the Kyklops and failed to keep his men from feasting on the animals of Helios, he is still a favorite of the gods. The gods come to his aid because he is good, and it would be better for his family if he were to return to Ithaka.

In contrast, Antinoos, a leading suitor, holds bad character as displayed by his arrogance and rudeness to the strange beggar, “You famous / breeder of pigs, why bring this fellow here? / Are we not plagued enough with beggars, / foragers and such rats?” (Homer 666). This suitor is tainted with ill intent. Telemakhos sums Antinoos character up to the forester, he says “With his unpleasantness, {Antinoos} will forever make / strife where he can – and goad the others on” (Homer 667). Antinoos is the first suitor who Odysseus kills, shooting him under the chin with an arrow. Odysseus then reveals himself to the suitors to address the violation of his house, wife, and the gods. Odysseus says, “Contempt was all you had for the gods who rule wide heaven, / contempt for what men say of you hereafter” (Homer 730). Good prevails over bad when Odysseus kills the suitors and fulfills the moral requirements.

Hospitality plays a large part in either direction: a friendly welcome to a stranger is customary because the Greeks believed that a god could disguise themselves as anyone, while rudeness could result in neglect of the gods. The people feared the gods and clung to reason and morals set by example in myths.   The swineherd is welcoming to the stranger even though he has little to share. Telemakhos is friendly with the stranger before he is privately revealed as Odysseus, and grants him passage in the hall. The prince is rewarded with the return of his father. Penelope is interested in the stranger and appalled at how he was treated by the suitors, especially the best contender who threw a stool at the stranger, she says, “they intend / ruin for all of us; but Antinoos / appears a blacker-hearted hound than any” (Homer 670). She invites the stranger to privately converse with her, and to hear his stories.

In The Odyssey, stories are seen as a requirement from travelers – they must explain themselves, where they came from, and what they intend to do as well as leave the foreigner with tales to carry of their own home, gifts, and prestigious acts (Homer 475). The fact that Odysseus tells her some facts and some lies to ensure his disguise makes me question how one holds on to honor if they are keeping their true identity hidden. Being lost at sea could drive a person mad to hallucinate immortal opponents – elemental wonders which dwarf mankind to that of ants – perhaps Odysseus did create many lies to gain esteem, but there needs to be motivation for him to remain on Crete that is not thoroughly provided by “The Cretan Odyssey: A Lie Truer Than Truth” (Reece 160).   This focus on alternative text still holds the same values as the original. No matter the arrangement, the focus is of human morality.

Murder is viewed as good and bad; the latter being an unjust action of man as in the suitors’ plans for Telemakhos, and the former seen as the gods’ intervention of aid on Odysseus’ behalf. Athena reveals the plot to Telemakhos, and she assists in his return to Ithaka. Athena says, “The suitors’ ringleaders are hot for murder / …they mean to kill you” (Homer 623). Later at the hall, to bring justice to Odysseus, Athena imposes fear and sends falcons to attack the suitors.  Leodes, Phemios, and Medon survive and appeal to Odysseus for mercy. Leodes the diviner attempted to marry Penelope; Odysseus chops his head off. Mercy is granted to the other two good men who were loyal to their house. In regards to the slain suitors, Odysseus tells Eurykleia, “Destiny and the gods’ will vanquished these, / and their own hardness. They respected no one, / good or bad, who came their way” (Homer 740). Pride and respect are returned to Odysseus and Telemakhos once the offending suitors are killed.

The gods willed peace for the end of the epic, and Odysseus returned to his wife and homeland. Morals are realized through The Odyssey, by the characters forcing the unreasonable to be righted with the return of King Odysseus. Through means of deception, the gods assisted the warrior’s struggle. Clever wit aids Odysseus’ family as they manipulate the suitors and regain control of their lives. The gods of ancient Greece instilled morality in man whether mythical, imaginary, or literally assumed. Man continues the obsession with morality, and remains a social creature – but ideals could be realized if stronger acts of morals were expressed by more of the population worldwide.

Works Cited

Damon, Phillip. “Dilation and Displacement in the ‘Odyssey’.” Pacific Coast

            Philology, Vol. 5 (1970), pp. 19-23. JSTOR Web. 15 May 2014.

Homer. “The Odyssey.” The Bedford Anthology of World Literature: The Ancient

World, Beginnings – 100 C.E. Book 1. ed. Paul Davis, Gary Harrison, David M.

Johnson, Patricia Clark Smith, and John F. Crawford. New York:

Bedford/St.Martin’s, 2004. pp. 421-768. Print.

Levine, Daniel B. “Penelope’s Laugh Odyssey 18.163.” The American Journal of

            Philology, Vol. 104, No. 2 (1983), pp. 172-178. JSTOR Web. 15 May 2014.

Reece, Steve. “The Cretan Odyssey: A Lie Truer Than Truth.” The American Journal

            of Philology, Vol. 115, No. 2 (1994), pp. 157-173. JSTOR Web. 15 May 2014.

Zak, Paul. “Trust, Morality – and Oxytocin?” TED Talk. Nov 2011. Web. 15 May

Picture c/o:  https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/26/Lotus-eaters.png

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