Property Rights in The Odyssey

I finished Homer’s Odyssey a few weeks ago, and something that impressed me in its second, domestic half is just how consistent the politics are.

Everyone knows the story: Odysseus returns home but must hide from the army of suitors that’s been leeching off of his fortune and abusing his family.  He must use his wits to trap and slay them all.

I was discouraged at first upon seeing just how many pages there were between the famous journey with its monsters and the final slaughter at the end.  It’s several sections long.

But as a middle-aged, middle class husband and father, those sections spoke to me most of all.

That kingdom, with its wealth and people, belonged to Odysseus.  The suitors had no right to encroach upon it, but not only did they do so, they did so with horrifying arrogance.  When Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, asks for the basic care that custom required for a stranger, they react with shock that anyone would dare to ask for some of “their” riches.  They sounded like trust fund babies.

Odysseus, on the other hand, when assailed by another beggar who doesn’t want Odysseus moving in on his handout racket, says that they’re both welcome to prosper as their luck and effort dictate, and berates him with this: “You’ve got no call to grudge me what’s not yours!” (Book 18, line 22).  The beggar has a scarcity mentality; Odysseus’ worldview saw agency and abundance.  The beggar resented and feared the success of others, and violently demanded his “fair share,” while Odysseus was content to live and let live.

And when the hour of reckoning came, and Odysseus was beginning to slaughter the suitors in the locked room, their leader’s plea is typical:

“So spare your own people! Later we’ll recoup

your costs with a tax laid down on the land,

covering all we ate and drank in your halls…” (Book 22, lines 57-59)

…only then suggesting that they themselves also offer something for that collection.

They expected the productive class to bail them out with a reactionary tax hike!

I think the political implications of The Odyssey are clear.  “Suitors.”  Ayn Rand would have called them by a better name: looters.

Advertisements

More of The Odyssey on Living Well

From the Robert Fagles translation:

On Patriotism:

Mine is a rugged land but good for raising sons–

and I myself, I know no sweeter sight on earth

than a man’s own native country. (Book 9, lines 30-32)

On Appreciating Life:

[Spirit of Achilles speaking in Hades]

“No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus!

By god, I’d rather slave on earth for another man–

some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive–

than rule down here over all the breathless dead.”  (Book 11, lines 555-558)

On Sharing Memories:

We two will keep to the shelter here, eat and drink

and take some joy in each other’s heartbreaking sorrows,

sharing each other’s memories.  Over the years, you know,

a man finds solace even in old sorrows, true, a man

who’s weathered many blows and wandered many miles.  (Book 15, lines 447-451)

On Eating and Sleeping:

With the roasting done, the meal set out, they ate well

and no one’s hunger lacked a proper share of supper.

When they’d put aside desire for food and drink,

they remembered bed and took the gift of sleep.  (Book 16, lines 530-534)

 

The Odyssey on Living Well

From the Robert Fagles translation

 

On family:

“And may the good gods give you all your heart desires:

husband, and house, and lasting harmony too.

No finer, greater gift in the world than that…

when man and woman posses their home, two minds,

two hearts that work as one.  Despair to their enemies,

a joy to all their friends.  Their own best claim to glory.”

Book 6, lines 198-203

On sports:

“It’s fit and proper for you to know your sports.

What greater glory attends a man, while he’s alive,

than what he wins with his racing feet and striving hands?”

Book 8, lines 169-171

A Latter-day Odyssey

Last summer, the LDS Church sponsored a short story contest; entries were supposed to be about pioneers and had to be under, I think, 500 words.  I had an idea and quickly threw together the draft below.  However, I never revised it properly, and the deadline passed.  I forgot about it entirely until tonight, as I’ve been sorting through old documents on my hard drive. 

This is more of a rough outline than a story.  Obviously, I wanted to draw a parallel between pioneers trekking across the desert and Odysseus struggling back home after war.  I also had to throw in a reference to Joyce’s take on the epic.  I count eight good references to The Odyssey, just in a few short paragraphs–not too shabby. 

Actually, I think the idea has some merit, and the analogy is pretty clever.  Sadly, even if I fleshed it out, the story itself would have huge problems in reconciling the analogy with historical accuracy, as is probably evident from the snippet I drew up.  And the writing’s pretty clunky, even for me.  Still, it’s cute enough to post here.  Enjoy!

I even called the protagonist “Ulysses Mann.”  Geez, John Bunyan’s symbols are more subtle than mine…

**********

16 June 1848

May the most holy Spirit of the Lord our God be with me as I endeavor to chronicle my journeys, both spiritual and temporal, and preserve in the memories of all posterity those choice events that have brought me nearer to my fellow kindred saints, brethren, and our Father.

He set down the pen, not reviewing the opening words of this new journal so much as reflecting on all that they implied. Ulysses Mann had emigrated west with a company of saints after having consecrated ten years to the service of the Church—two missions, constructing the Nauvoo temple, and other assignments from the Apostles that had kept him exhausted and in danger but, worst of all, away from his wife and son.

When he had returned to Nauvoo from a mission to Canada he found that his family had already left for the Salt Lake Valley with one of the first companies, their finances growing smaller in his absence and their best opportunity to safely travel being as soon as they could possibly go. The long-expected reunion was delayed. The sealing of his family in the temple just four years before had kept him strong during the hardships of his work, and it sustained him through the journey across the land to join his people and his family in their new home.

His travels across the dust-dark desert had been arduous, trying him and testing him, but he found that his exodus prepared him to be a better man upon his settling back home. With his company of handcarts and walkers, he had faced numerous temptations: other travelers who invited him to abandon his journey and stay with them in their hedonistic frontier settlements, the loose women there who made it far too clear that they noticed he was without his wife and would welcome his adulterous companionship, and the outright savages who attacked their group in the night, assailing them with violence and terror.

But he had made it back to his wife and son, who was now a young man in his own right, and they were ready to settle in and enjoy the rest of their lives together in this harsh new land, made a pleasant paradise by their blessed coming together.

The Lord had other plans, though. In mortality, it seemed, there would be no permanent respite from trial and trouble. The prophet had called him to take his family and establish a settlement, to aid other travelers and to defend the territory from any who would seek to take the land they’d tilled and wrestled out from under them. No such interlopers would be tolerated.

Ulysses had already staked out an area for the buildings and had designated it Fort New Ithaca. He had presented his plans to his wife and she had heartily assented to support him in their calling together, saying again and again, yes.

(Don’t) Be Yourself

In an episode of The Simpsons, Lisa tries to warn Homer about becoming obsessed with revenge on an animal, citing Moby Dick as an illustration of such a foolish course of action.  “Oh, Lisa,” Homer breezily corrects her.  “The point of Moby Dick was ‘be yourself.'” 

The joke is based on Homer’s character–a lazy, entitled idiot who swallows whole everything Hollywood feeds him (remember his movie-addled mindset in “Homer Goes to College?”) and, therefore, thinks the world revolves around him.  Homer thinks the point of everything is “be yourself.”

Many a Simpsons episode has poked fun at our tendency to accept ourselves as we are, conveniently declaring that our natural state is good enough.  For example:

  • “Bart’s Inner Child”–After being suckered by a self-help guru, Springfield puts on a feel-good festival which nobody prepared properly because they felt their automatic impulses should be validated, i.e. nobody wanted to work and nobody should judge them for it.  The festival is a chaotic disaster.
  • “Simpsoncalifragilisticexpiala(Annoyed Grunt)cious”–After suffering a nervous breakdown from stress, Marge hires a Mary Poppins-like servant to help the family.  Despite her magical powers and inspirational attitude, the Simpsons persist in dysfunction, until the nanny gives up and tells them just to do what’s natural, suggesting (for instance), sweeping garbage around the house under the rug, because, “It’s the American way!”
  • “Homer’s Enemy”–After a life of suffering, sacrifice, and hard work, the new guy at the power plant can’t believe how successful Homer is despite his total incompetence, which nobody else seems to care about.  At the episode’s end, he goes insane and dies; at his funeral, Homer is childish and oblivious, and everybody laughs with him.  My favorite episode. 

These jokes work for the simple, obvious reason that our culture is awash in the message that we’re entitled to high self esteem, that the American Dream now encompasses self-realization and total, universal acceptance.  Continue reading