Homer’s epic poem, the Odyssey, and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, are two classic works that have withstood the test of time. Odyssey is a very lengthy poem tackling the journey of the Greek hero Odysseus back home to Ithaca after the city of Troy has fallen. The ten-year trek back to his wife and son is perilous and blocked with several obstacles, like monsters, gods and human foes alike. Meanwhile, the Nicomachean Ethics is a work by the philosopher Aristotle believed to be named or dedicated after his son, Nichomacus (Barnes in Nagy). It is primarily concerned with virtues and moral character, and how acting virtuously habitually would result to a virtuous character. It is also here that he named the ultimate goal in man’s life, which is happiness, or, as is known in Greek, eudaimonia (Book I, Ch. 4). This happiness, according to Aristotle, can only be achieved by the habitual practice of virtuosity throughout one’s life. But living virtuously will not suffice in attaining this goal. Another ingredient is needed, and this is good fortune. This good fortune is what will aid one in achieving happiness by providing the person the tools to get to the endgoal.
Although these two works were created thousands of years apart, it can still be seen that they do share common interests and themes that can be universally appreciated. Serving as the conjunction for both works in this paper is the theme of temperance, which can be both found in the Odyssey and the Nicomachean Ethics. In Aristotle’s work, he heavily discussed the notion of the Golden Mean, where he scales characteristics according to extremes, and finds the middle ground, which he defines as the virtue. Aristotle believed that striking a balance is most important in achieving a balanced state, be it in the physical condition or in one’s temperament. For him, equilibrium is the right feelings at the right time about the right things, toward the right people, for the right end, and in the right way (1106b). One must not act rashly, but should strive to weigh his actions according to what is the most intermediate method.
There always ought to be a middle ground in man’s practices in life in order for him to grow and flourish healthily, and so therefore, be able to attain his ultimate goal of happiness. It must also be observed, however, that Aristotle did not advocate for an active pursuit of this endgoal. Instead, he believed that it is “attained by ordering a pursuit of all the other goods in the right manner. Happiness, which is the highest and final goal of human striving, is, in other words, something of a by-product of carrying out our pursuit of all the other goods (wealth, fame, learning, and so on) in the proper manner” (Johnston).
Putting this notion in the context of the Odyssey, it is important to note that Odysseus, the main character of the story, is well known not only for his strength and cunning, but also for his character flaw of arrogance and pride. Tempering this trait of his became a primordial axis wherein his story revolved, seeing as how it was because of his pride and arrogance that placed him in the less-than-good graces of the god Poseidon.
In an episode in his journey, Odysseus, tempted by his desire to investigate the Kyklops’ (Cyclops) lair, gets trapped. Caught by Polyphemos, Odysseus then exhibited his cunning by telling the Cyclops that he is named “Nobody”. Later on, in his escape, he defeated Polyphemus, who then cried out in pain. Having called the attention of the other Cyclops, they then asked who hurt him. Of course, Polyphemus gave the name that was given by Odysseus, “Nobody”. Upon hearing this, the other one-eyed creatures then resumed to doing their own business, thereby allowing Odysseus to escape. However, not content with having conned the Kyklops, our hero could not resist calling out his real name to them as he escaped, shouting his boastful claim that no one can defeat the “Great Odysseus”. Hearing this, the Cyclops retaliated by throwing the mountain’s top half at him, and by telling Poseidon how Odysseus blinded Polyphemos. This, of course, enraged Poseidon, and thus resulted to Odysseus having an even more treacherous journey along the way, as plotted by the vengeful god of the seas.
While there are several other instances where Odysseus’ pride and arrogance got him into more trouble, such as falling prey to the seductive song of the Seirenes, in his encounters with Kirke, the bag of winds from Aiolos, and with the oxen of Helios, this one encounter with the Cyclops clearly portray what detriment an imprudent temperament can bring about. Had Odysseus went about his way quietly, then Polyphemos would have told on his father, Poseidon, the same thing that he told the other Cyclops: that he was being hurt by “Nobody”. That certainly would have made his journey a lot easier since Poseidon won’t be after his hide. What makes his vices (arrogance and pride) even more dangerous is that he is putting others in the line of danger as well. Although it did prove to serve him well later on, like when he encountered the bag of winds, his cunning inevitably led to the destruction of his crew, people who were helping him in his journey. Of course the epic is all about Odysseus’ grand journey back home, but his character as a model does remain to be wanting of temperance, and thus virtue.
However, that is not to remain for the rest of the story. He does learn to be more prudent as more challenges approach him, such as when he disguised himself as a beggar in Ithaka. While he may have been very tempted to reveal his true character and unleash his real strength, he suppressed this feeling and instead recognized that he would have to be patient and play the part of a helpless beggar, if he indeed wanted to pull off his disguise well. And so he let the men beat him up until he found his proper timing.
Examining the story of Odysseus, it can then be said that his ultimate goal for that particular journey was to get back to his life with his wife and son, which, for the purposes of Odyssey, is his ultimate goal, albeit the very active nature by which he pursued it. But despite of that, the point where the story of Odysseus and Aristotle’s teachings on practicing the Golden Mean for the attainment of the ultimate goal is clearly seen.
Intelligence, pride and arrogance may help in one’s self-esteem and confidence, but to leave these unchecked and practiced in excess will surely lead to the downfall of a person, precisely because there is no virtue for him to stand on. For a strong character like Odysseus, it did certainly help him at the end of the day to be virtuous about his actions, which then allowed him to get back to his family and to be welcomed home. Aristotle’s Golden Mean, therefore, is not merely the road that brought Odysseus home, but is actually, his character’s ultimate home as a hero.
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