this endlessly fascinating, endlessly multiple hero


The problem with Odysseus’ intelligence, for many philosophical readers, is that it looks too self-serving. Odysseus is willing to put his mind to anything, and adopt any available means, in order to achieve his own selfish goals. This is the sophistical Odysseus damningly represented in Sophocles’ Philoctetes, the man who is perfectly willing to trick a sick, lonely old man into giving up his only weapon and only means of livelihood – and do it without compunction, if that’s what it takes to win the war. No moral philosopher wants to taint himself with that particular kind of cleverness. Philosophers who focus on Odysseus’ intelligence, then, had to make extremely clear that the hero does not use his intelligence at the service of his own gain. Rather, he subdues his selfish passions for the sake of wisdom. The Calypso episode is a key piece of evidence for Stoics such as Epictetus. Odysseus’ behaviour in leaving Calypso is taken as a sign that he subordinates mere pleasure to the higher calling of wisdom – despite the fact that, as Montiglio notes, Odysseus in Homer doesn’t seem to be having any fun with Calypso at all (he is crying; he wants to go home).

more from Emily Wilson at the TLS here.