[ExI] re Odyssey, hero

Flexman, Connor connor_flexman at brown.edu
Wed Sep 30 15:44:26 UTC 2015

> If we can assume that Homer's epics underwent no change, I can assume that
> the morals of that society were barbaric.  OK< so Greeks have had great
> philosophers, but that says little about the common man.
> I am not lacking understanding of viewing things according to the
> historical context, but nothing prohibits me from viewing them according to
> me, either.​

I think the point here is less that you prescriptively "should not" apply
your moral standards to any history, but that descriptively it becomes
boring, in that essentially everyone was as immoral as you say. To first
approximation, every single civilization throughout history has been
stupendously barbaric—it's possible there was one that wasn't, but it
frankly seems unlikely.

Odysseus killed a bunch of people because they were trying to take over his
household and seize his possessions from his wife through conniving, not
supporting her as Odysseus had himself supported them. Killing seems
overzealous to us. But the spanking and bodily punishment of 50 years ago
seems overzealous to us too. So does slavery, human sacrifice, and the
massacres of the Roman legions (who built the modern world and an orderly,
disciplined empire that lasted for hundreds of years).You can apply our
ethical standards to the others, but it is a one-dimensional standard that
returns their failure every time.

As we gain better technology and can be more comfortable with the resources
we have, including not being forced into deathly altercations with others
because they are consistently trying to steal our means of subsistence, we
have the luxury of progressing with our ethics too. Looking back at history
through our current ethical lens is overwhelmingly helpful for spotting how
we might today be overconfident about our moral decisions: let he who has
not sinned cast the first stone, and in 40 years, will we look back on
torturing animals just as angrily as we look back on segregation? It's
unclear, but history has lessons to teach.

In this sense, it is wrong to say you "should not" apply our ethics to the
past. But we "should" also probably not be passing ex post facto moral
judgments on actions that were well within the central portion of the
Overton Window at the time. Only Bentham might pass our harsh eye, and
aside from learning little to nothing, we end up with a simplistic
understanding of what customs ancient cultures used to grope toward better
ethics. Odysseus was wrong to kill by the Future Universal Moral Standard,
but for the purposes of the epic, he is situated in different
circumstances, and we can still appreciate his heroism in the place he was

>  Did you know that there is a theory that Homer did not 'write' those
> epics?  That they were written by another blind poet also named Homer?​  I
> am not quite sure what this says about English departments, but it's not
> good.  (I am so happy that I did not choose to be among them when I fled
> law school.)

The prevailing discussion is based on whether they were written by one
person, loosely called Homer, or whether they were added onto over a period
of centuries by multiple authors. It is not a silly idea either: in the
Iliad, there is a whole book that's not mentioned in the rest of the epic
(very atypical compared to the standard) and other anomalies (in one scene,
3 named characters suddenly become "the pair"). We don't have enough
information about Homer to be debating whether he was one single human or
in fact a different single human, but we do have enough literary knowledge
to be able to debate to what extent the "original" poems were altered and
added to by successive generations.

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