Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, October 5, 2009

Odysseus, Why?

My English 215 students are beginning serious work on their first essays now. Most of them will write on the Iliad or the Odyssey, though a few will pursue Aeschylus’s Oresteia. As I talk with them about their ideas, I am reminded of something that I’m reminded of every year at this time: that students are primarily interested in writing about characters — which is good; that they very much want to decide whether a given character is “positive” or “negative” — which is simplistic; and that they are absolutely fascinated by the issue of motivation — which is the subject of this blog post.

I would say that well over half my students, when they think about fictional characters, focus mainly on what they think motivates those characters: Why do they do what they do? Sometimes I try to suggest that Homer may not even have had a conception of motive — there’s no evidence in the poems, as far as I can see, that he thinks that way — and that in any case motivation can't be nearly as important in the archaic Greek context as it is in a culture shaped by Christianity’s interest in the inner person. Odysseus, when disguised as a beggar, tries to decide whether to kill that obnoxious braggart Iros with a single blow or give him a “light tap” that just breaks his jaw, but that’s a simply practical internal debate: he never wonders who he really is, after the fashion of the seventh chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans.

And then there’s the problem of treating fictional characters as though they were real people, people who have traits that the authors never wrote about or, perhaps, even imagined. . . .

But I digress. I think students (people in general) are concerned about motives because they believe that if they know someone’s motives, they know whether that person is a “positive” or “negative” character. But as Rebecca West once said, “There’s no such thing as an unmixed motive.” We all act out of complex and often contradictory motives, and all of us are mysteries to ourselves. Why should we think we can scope out the motives of other people when we’re largely in the dark about our own?

(This topic is one of recurrent interest to me: I wrote about it in relation to political figures here.)


  • I only just read the Odyssey shamefully on a recent trip to Greece. I guess the thing for me that would be interesting to explore would be something like "The Poetics of Tact: Measuring Thought and Action in the Immediate World." It's the success of Penelope, Athena, and Odysseus to (almost) always do the clever thing in the right moment, and the failure of others to seize the critical moment that is fascinating to me. So, not motive but habit, an ability to see when and where situations hinge, and measure the implications of every possible scenario. To call it "wisdom" might be too high a praise. "Tact" might better capture the ambiguity of motive you referred to above. Any thoughts?

    Cheers and hope you're well.

  • I agree about Odysseus, but isn't Achilles' motivation a central idea of the Iliad? ("Sing, muse, of the unmotivated decisive actions of Achilles . . ." would have produced a rather different work.) Indeed, I have always seen this as one of the essential, striking differences between the two Homeric epics: one steadfastly resists the probing of motive, where the other invites or even demands it.

  • I think an interesting question to explore would be how "Christianity's interest in the inner person" is different and/or similar to an interest in "motives."

  • Andy, I would say that Achilles has passions, but not motives. In fact, I think it's fair to say that the archaic Greek psychology of passion — which is a kind of possession by external powers, whether rage (in the case of Achilles) or sexual desire (as we see repeatedly in Sappho's poems) — is incompatible with the psychology of motive.

    And Wes, you raise an important question as well. When, for instance, Jesus speaks of committing adultery "in the heart" is he talking about anything resembling the notion of motive? I am getting more and more tempted to think that motive as a general psychological term — as opposed to its use in criminal law, which is valid — is useless.

  • Michael Straight said...

    What about something like Oedipus? Isn't the whole point there have to do with his motivations? It's ironic because he didn't want to kill his father and marry his mother.

    Or is that so much later that it's a different world from Homer's

  • MIchael, I think the point of the Oedipus story — compare also many myths — is that the moral world of the archaic Greeks takes no account of motive. What matters is simply what you do, not what you meant to do. Consider also the Odyssey, where Odysseus is persecuted for years because he put out the eye of Poseidon's son, Polyphemus the Cyclops. That he only did so in order to save his life is completely irrelevant to Poseidon, and no one in the story suggests that Odysseus's motives or intentions are relevant. Even when Athena tries to get Zeus to get Poseidon to back off, the question of motive or intention never comes up. It's just "Okay, enough is enough. Let it go." I can't think of a story from archaic Greece in which the question of motive or intention comes up. There may be some I haven't remembered, of course.

  • The best book ever written about what we usually call "motive" is Middlemarch — but I think even there it's more helpful to talk about "desires" than "motives."

  • The deft phrase that arose during the Donatist controversy (5th cent) has been guiding my thoughts in a similiar direction, -
    'Ex Opere Operato'
    (The most poetic translation being: In the doing the deed is done)
    Though they weren't applying this broader than administration of the Eucharist, by analogy I think it is appropriate to the discussion - agreeing with you that 'motive as a psychological term is useless'. Taking actions as the most definitive descriptor of a person and taking those actions on their face value. No suspicion necessary.

    - Ben Jefferies

  • Michael Straight said...

    I always thought the audience for Oedipus was intended to side with Oedipus against that uncaring moral order. If intention doesn't matter (or if the very idea of intention is irrelevant) then why does the story make a point of Oedipus doing all that unknowingly? Are you saying that to the Greeks the play would have been essentially the same if, upon hearing the prophesy, Oedipus had said, "Okay, sounds good," and gone straightaway to kill his father and bed his mother?

    And with Odysseus, it's not surprising that Poseidon doesn't care why he did it. But do you think that the audience didn't care? That for them a hero who butchered foes indiscriminately was the same as a hero who killed in self-defense?

    Are you saying that in ancient Greece, if a man stepped on his friend's toe, he couldn't have said "Sorry, I didn't intend to do that, it was an accident" because they didn't have those concepts?

    (Obviously, I don't think you're saying those things, but I'm trying to wrap my head around what you are saying, which I don't seem to understand.)

  • Michael, of course the archaic Greeks understood the difference between an accidental and a purposeful action — the suitors in the Odyssey think that Odysseus (disguised as beggar) has accidentally or carelessly killed one of them, before he slaughters the rest — but the distinction doesn't seem to have the same moral force for them that it has for us. As I understand it, if a man in archaic Greece killed another man, the price he (or his family) had to pay was the same whether the killing was intentional or not. The loss was the same (a life) so the price should be the same. I'm sure people felt sorry for Oedipus — Aristotle thinks they did — but nobody ever says "Wait, that's unjust! He didn't know that was his father when he killed him!" They just accepted that you're going to get punished for doing something that offends the "uncaring moral order" of the gods and that your intentions have no relevance to the case. So my point is not that they couldn't understand the difference between accidental and intentional acts, but rather that they don't seem to have thought that distinction important. As far as I can tell.

  • The situation with homicide in Homer appears to be as follows: people talk about the possibility of blood-price, but it never actually happens in any of the stories. Instead, the dead man's relatives take revenge and kill or drive out the offender. (There are exceptions, where the offender is a foreign outsider already.)

    So the actual situation in the early archaic period is unclear, because we have no idea under what circumstances the relatives might accept blood-price instead of revenge. It might be that unintentional killing would be the sort of thing that would in "reality" be taken into account.

    (The matter is complicated by epic distancing: Homer's heroes explicitly aren't meant to be the same as men of his own day.)

    Homer and tragedy are in somewhat different worlds here. 5th century Athens, obviously, did divide homicide into intentional and unintentional, and it has important consequences in law.

    It does seem likely that Greeks did in fact view what happened to Oedipus as in need of justification. The "usual" version of the story appears to have been the one in which Oedipus was being punished as part of an inherited curse due to his father's horrible crime - a classic Greek answer to problems of theodicy. (The curse manifests itself more spectacularly in the next generation.)

    Sophocles has gone out of his way to suppress this element, perhaps precisely to put those unsettling questions of theodicy at the forefront and deny them any easy answer. (Unless the background was so well known as to be unnecessary.)

  • Gavin, I've actually been looking for evidence about Athenian law and homicide, so if you know of anything, do please pass it along to me.

    Wouldn't the notion of an "inherited curse" take us even further from a "justification" of what happens to Oedipus than Sophocles' version of the story? At least in that case Oedipus himself actually did something.

    As for blood-price, the people in the "city of peace" on the shield of Achilles (Iliad XVIII) accept just such a price, which is — importantly — what makes it a city of peace.

    Also, Athena imposes terms of peace on the feuding families in the last lines of the Odyssey, in order to avoid an endless cycle of vengeance. And she does the same when she intervenes in the case of Orestes in the Oresteia, first by establishing the Areopagus and then by breaking the tie with her own vote. In both cases she threatens the reluctant with punishment, by invoking her power over the thunderbolts of Zeus. So presumably people accept blood-prices and other settlements because they're afraid of what will happen to them if they don't.

  • I don't think either of those cases of peaceful settlement give us a solid sense of what would actually happen in the real world, especially not the second... As for inherited guilt, it may not be a good answer to the question of why the gods seem to be OK with horrible things happening to innocent people - but that is, I think, the - or at any rate one - question that it is trying to answer.

    On homicide law: the crucial intentional/unintentional distinction goes back in Athens to Drakon's homicide law. The place to start there is Ronald S. Stroud Drakon's law of homicide.

    On Athenian homicide law in general, I'd start with D. M. MacDowell Athenian homicide law in the age of the orators.

    If you want something more recent to begin with, I haven't actually read David Phillips Avengers of Blood: Homicide in Athenian Law and Custom from Draco to Demosthenes, but it's been reviewed positively.

    Given your particular interests, you should probably look at Michael Gagarin's recent Writing Greek Law, which does what it says on the tin.

  • "I don't think either of those cases of peaceful settlement give us a solid sense of what would actually happen in the real world." Agreed! But you had said earlier that we don't see examples of such "in the stories," and I wanted to suggest that we do see in Homer ways of ending the cycle of vengeance.

    And many thanks for the recommendations — sounds like just what I need.

  • Michael Straight said...

    Alan, would it be better to say that the ancients were unlikely to extend mercy or show leniency based on motives? Because caring about other people's motives is a basic survival skill, both for an individual and for a society.

    If my neighbor's horse gets loose and ruins my garden, I might be very angry and make him pay me back in full, with interest, etc. But it would be insane for me to not care whether or not he did it on purpose.

    If a man kills another man in a drunken brawl, then maybe his life is forfeit. But it would be an insane society that didn't sit up and take a different sort of notice if there were men in their midst deliberately plotting murders for some sort of personal gain.

    I'd also like to see you say more about your agnosticism about motivation. It seems to me that there's huge chunks of human behavior where the meaning of an action depends very much on a person's motives.

  • I suspect part of the reason students look for motives is because that's how we tend to read modern novels: in terms of characters who have interests, ideas, and purposes.

    But as Rebecca West once said, “There’s no such thing as an unmixed motive.” We all act out of complex and often contradictory motives, and all of us are mysteries to ourselves.

    Indeed: one activity I do with my students gives them a bare outline (Blake and Martin walk into the University of Arizona pool. Blake goes up to Chelsea and says, "Where's Stef?") and ask them to impute motives, purposes, possibilities, etc. They easily find a dozen purposes, some at odds with one another, in this; it seems to be a useful way of getting them to think about the mixed motives characters sometimes have, and often leads into useful discussion on points of view.

  • Michael, as I mentioned earlier, the archaic Greeks tended to think in terms of passions rather than motives, and tended to believe that people in the grip of passions are, in a sense, possessed. If you believe those things, it really complicates the distinction between doing something "on purpose" and not on purpose. I think that's why the Greeks didn't worry about it too much, and focused instead on the costs and consequences of people's actions. I think that makes sense if you share that particular psychology.

    And about motives, I just think that our motives — or as I prefer, our desires — tend to be very mixed, changing over time, and even self-contradictory; and I don't believe that we stand much of a chance of knowing the particular mix in the mind of another person at a given time. If we could read minds with real depth and specificity, the notion of motive might be more useful. So (for instance) I don't worry about what President Bush's motive was in deciding to invade Iraq; I just worry about whether it was good idea with an acceptable cost/benefit ratio.

  • jseliger, that's absolutely right — thus my earlier reference to Middlemarch, which shows better than any book I know just how complex our desires and influences are. The best example: when Lydgate has to decide his vote for the chaplaincy of the hospital. Eliot shows just how astonishingly complex even a small decision like that can be. (But I don't think Homer thought that way.)

  • Off topic somewhat, but you mentioned Jekyll and Hyde in an earlier post which I think is also relevant to this. Of course, Stevenson was working through the Calvinist interpretation of Romans 7 he'd been raised in as a child. But he is, I think, one of the best writers there is in probing what it is that makes a character "good" or "bad." Perhaps leading us to wonder if our attempts to make ourselves good by ourselves alone are not always doomed to failure.

  • Imposing motive on ancient Greek characters is a modern psychological gloss that says more about us than them. According to Julian Jaynes in The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, our modern style of consciousness was only just beginning to coalesce with the ancient Greeks. They had no inner dialogue and wouldn't relate to concepts such as the mind's eye. The voices they heard in their heads were taken to be the gods (note the plural), emanating from everywhere and nowhere, and came in the form of commands. In this light, to say the ancient Greeks were absorbed with passions makes sense.

  • My understanding was that Jaynes thought that this was true as late as the Iliad (and the early books of the Old Testament) but had already started to change as early as the Odyssey. I've never actually read him (and I'd be curious to know what an Ancient Near East person thought of all that) - but is that correct?

    Thinking about it a bit more, I think that casting this so exclusively as a matter of "passions" slights the moral importance of "knowing." I believe this is older than the Greeks -unless I'm misremembering, the passage in Exodus 21 that establishes the distinction between a man who knows that his ox is a goring ox and one who doesn't know this has antecedents in Hammurabi and the like and was therefore a very old principle.

    Knowledge is of no great importance in the Iliad, I think, but this is one of the main ways in which the Odyssey is different.

    Knowledge isn't quite the same as motive, of course - I agree that this is an inaccurate category to apply to Homer. I don't really think that these are "characters" in a novelistic sense in the first place.

Post a Comment

[Basic HTML tags can be used in this comment field.]