February 3, 2017

COMMENTARY: Taming the Proud – The Essential Difference Between Odysseus and Aeneas

The basic difference between Odysseus in The Odyssey and Aeneas in The Aeneid is best exemplified by the two heroes’ experiences in the land of the Cyclops. Here we see that Odysseus is primarily motivated by selfish concerns while Aeneas is more altruistically dedicated to saving a society – to healing old wounds, forming new bonds and preserving a race that ultimately will found Rome.

Odysseus and Aeneas have very different adventures in the land of the Cyclops. Odysseus’ adventure is a direct confrontation with Polyphemus, in which his life is repeatedly threatened. More important, his adventure – that is, the threat to his life – is initiated and prolonged by his own selfish curiosity. Safe on a neighboring island, Odysseus and his men are resting comfortably and eating well. However, Odysseus’ inquisitiveness soon gets the better of him as he decides to sail to the land of the Cyclops merely “to find out what kind of men are over there, and whether they are brutal and lawless savages or hospitable and god-fearing people/.”

Once on the island, Odysseus again acts out of selfish desire, compromising the well-being of his men. He has “an instant foreboding” of danger and his men plead with him to immediately return to their ship with a stolen herd. Instead, Odysseus decides to wait in the Cyclops’ cave and goes about making himself at home. In time, Polyphemus returns and the trouble begins as Odysseus’ men are randomly slaughtered and devoured.

Even after his narrow escape from the cave and all of its evil, Odysseus continues to succumb to selfish impulses that needlessly threaten his crew’s safety. As he sails away, Odysseus verbally taunts the blinded Polyphemus despite continued pleas from his crew for his silence. “I was for giving the Cyclops some more of my talk, though from all parts of the ship my men’s voices were raised in gentle remonstrate,” Odysseus says. “But all this went for nothing with me,” he adds. “My spirit was up, and in my rage I called to him once more.” In turn, Polyphemus storms the ship with a barrage of boulders.

Aeneas, on the other hand, never faces such an assault. In fact, he never really confronts Polyphemus. His adventure in the land of the Cyclops is an encounter with Achaemenides, in which Aeneas’ life is never in any imminent jeopardy. At the same time, it should be noted that Aeneas, unlike Odysseus, does nothing to provoke danger.

In the land of the Cyclops, Aeneas and his men come across Achaemenides, “a Greek – one who was sent to Troy with Argive arms,” an enemy who Odysseus himself had left behind. Instead of killing this one-time opponent, Aeneas and the other Trojans spare his life. In a similar situation, Odysseus might have acted to annihilate his enemy; in this episode, Aeneas acts to assimilate his foe.

After Achaemenides’ life is spared, this process of assimilation progresses at a startlingly rapid pace. One of Aeneas’ men, his father in fact, “does not wait long to offer (Achaemenides) his hand.” Then, when the Cyclopes appear, Aeneas and his men rush to their ship, bringing Achaemenides with them. Aeneas notes: “The suppliant, who merited as much, is taken on shipboard.”

The assimilation of Achaemenides under Aeneas’ leadership is soon complete as the Greek becomes a fellow crew member, a trusted navigator. Aeneas says: “These were the coasts that Achaemenides, the comrade of the unfortunate Ulysses, showed us as he retraced his former wanderings.” Once a foe, Achaemenides is now very much a friend.

Interestingly, Odysseus and Aeneas both came to the land of the Cyclops as a matter of happenstance. “Some god must have guided us through the murky night, for it was impossible to see ahead,” Odysseus says. Aeneas states: “But then the sun set, the wind has left our weary crew; not knowing where we go, we drift upon the beaches of the Cyclops.” In effect, Odysseus and Aeneas begin their adventures on the same ground. They’re both victims of circumstance. That they react so differently to that circumstance is most telling.

While Odysseus’ undertaking is marked by selfishness and confrontation, Aeneas’ adventure is notable for selflessness and communion. Odysseus’ weaknesses lead to the brutal slayings of several of his crew. Aeneas’ strengths ensure a safe escape and point to a much larger idea learned from both epics: For there to be progress, selfish concerns must be discarded and compromise must be sought. Odysseus is, perhaps, too proud to fully realize this notion. Aeneas, however, is clearly aware of this concept as it will later be prophesied when the Sibyl tells him, “Roman, these will be your arts: to teach the ways of peace to those you conquer, to spare defeated peoples, tame the proud.”

This taming of the proud – indeed, this taming of the “self” – is an ability Aeneas possesses and Odysseus lacks. Ultimately, it is this capacity to tame the “self” that constitutes the essential difference between these two great heroes.

Books cited: Homer, The Odyssey, translated by E.V. Rieu; Virgil, The Aeneid, translated by Allen Mandelbaum.


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