Oliver Stone’s memoir Chasing the Light, which I began reading two weeks ago, relates an interesting anecdote. After returning from military service in Vietnam, the future director enrolled in film school at New York University; one of the classes he attended, taught by a professor named Tim Leahy, dealt with classical drama.
During one session of the class, Leahy probed the moral and psychological bases of Homer’s Odyssey. We will allow Stone to describe the details:
That’s why Professor Tim Leahy at NYU, whose class I’d taken outside of film school, struck lightning with me in a classical drama course; he’d rage about the fate of Odysseus.
“Why,” he’d thunder, “did Odysseus alone return to Penelope after nearly twenty years? Why him of all the heroes that went off to Troy?”
He waited for his answer—silence. “Nine years! On the beaches of Troy, and nine more years returning to Ithaca. No one else in his crew made it home. Why? Why Odysseus?
“Consciousness!” he wrote, as his fist banged the chalkboard, his voice carrying. “Because he had consciousness,” he repeated. “That, people is what kept him alive. That’s the difference between each one of us—how conscious can you remain in this hard world? How often do we forget because we…what? We want to—” He banged the board where he’d written the word “LETHE” in big block letters. “Sleep! Lethe. Forgetfulness.” In the silence that followed, I sensed several of the students were already practicing their form of “lethe” in this sparsely attended class.
“What are the Lotus Eaters about? Why are men turned into swine by Circe? Because they forgot they were men. They became beasts. But not Odysseus. Why does he order his men to tie him to the mast, no matter how much he’d plead to be released? Because, while his men stuff their ears with wax, he wants to hear the voices of these sirens! Knowledge—that is what Odysseus is after.” He was gone deep into the recesses of Odysseus’s mind. No one was taking the bait, most of them terrified of interrupting this intense man…
“Because he wants to know! To hear—to know all things! To go to the end of things. Consciousness, people, consciousness. That is the difference between life and death. That is what makes the modern man. Pay attention, I implore you!”
He is right, of course. But what struck me about Leahy’s views was how closely they resembled those of Cicero on this subject. What concerned Cicero were moral problems; that is, the origins, mechanisms, and goals of human behavior, and the search for a rightly-lived life. In his treatise On Moral Ends, he gives us his own thoughts on Odysseus’s encounter with the fabled sirens:
It seems to me that the poet Homer had something like this in mind when he imagined the songs of the Sirens. For it appears that it was neither the seductiveness of their voices, nor the uniqueness and variety of their singing, that used to divert unwary mariners; rather, it was because they claimed to have a storehouse of special knowledge. It was man’s lust for learning that caused him to become ensnared by the Sirens’ fateful rocks. This is how they called out to Ulysses (I have translated these relevant verses below, as well as others):
O Ulysses, great man of Argos, will you turn your ship
And your ears, so that you can learn our sacred songs?
For no one has ever passed through this blue-watered causeway
Who could not first linger, held in rapture by our sweet voices,
And having then satisfied his eager soul with all kinds of special music,
Sail away much wiser back to his homeland’s shores.
We know well the dark truth of conflict and the devastation of war
That the Greeks brought to Troy by divine command,
And the secrets of all things manifested on this earth.
Evidently Homer saw that if a man could be mortally ensnared by some middling song, his fable would not be accepted. The Sirens are promising knowledge; and it is no wonder that this would be more precious to a lover of wisdom than his own country. To wish to know everything under the sun, with no regard for boundaries, is to wish to be counted among the meddlesome; but to be guided by the contemplation of great ideas to a genuine love of knowledge must be recognized as a mark of the greatest of men. [V.49]
The point is very similar to that made by Stone’s intense instructor in classical drama: the search for knowledge is the mark “of the greatest of men.” The search for knowledge is humanizing, civilizing, and ultimately a preserver. But a preserver of what, exactly? A preserver of our consciousness; a preserver of our souls. It is this unending quest that keeps man out of the abyss; it is what enabled that canny seeker, Odysseus, to prevail where so many of his peers had not. But here you will say, “Well, yes, but he had luck and good fortune, and was favored by the gods!” And my response would be that the gods never backed a loser; they had no use for feckless dunces. As Pope says, in his Dunciad (IV.137-138):
Dunce scorning dunce beholds the next advance,
But fop shows fop superior complaisance.
Certainly the gods toyed with man, and found it uproariously funny to toss obstacles in his way; but in the end they wanted someone with the acumen and dexterity to provide them a good show. Luck follows in the wake of the virtues; it is not a substitute for them.
Elsewhere, in his Tusculan Disputations, Cicero again emphasizes the redemptive power of the quest for knowledge. Leon, the tyrant of the Greek city of Phlius, admired the brilliance of the philosopher Pythagoras, and asked the old man what art he trusted the most. Pythagoras, slyly dodging a question that might have landed him in serious trouble, answered that he was a philosopher, and “not familiar with any art.” But the tyrant was not to be put off; he pressed Pythagoras, and asked him the meaning of the word philosopher. Who were they, and what did they do? Cicero describes the old man’s nimble response:
Pythagoras’s alleged response was that the life of man appeared to him to be like those commemorative games celebrated with the greatest assortment of sports and the general assembly of participants from all of Greece. At this grand event, some men sought the glory and nobility of a laurel crown through physical exercises. Others were enticed there by the possibility of financial gain through buying and selling. And then there was another kind of person there, who composed the best type, who sought neither profit not public acclaim, but were there only to observe. They carefully paid attention to their environment to see what was happening and how things were taking place.
In the same way, Pythagoras continued, just as if we were coming from some provincial city to a well-attended festival, so we ourselves have come from another life and nature to this life. We see that some men are slaves to glory, and others to money. Yet there are those rare few who, looking upon everything else as insignificant, systematically probe into the real nature of things. These men refer to themselves as “devoted to wisdom,” or in other words, philosophers. And just as that crowded festival, said Pythagoras, where the most honorable men observe their surroundings without any fixation on material gain, so in life the contemplation and understanding of things is thoroughly superior to all other activities. [V.3]
So here again, we have this idea of the curative and redemptive power of knowledge: the quest itself is the saving grace. Odysseus was possessed of a higher level of consciousness than his peers. He wants to wander, to know all things; and he is willing to put himself in harm’s way to achieve this knowledge. It is exactly as we noted in the quotation from On Moral Ends provided above, which I will repeat: “To wish to know everything under the sun, with no regard for boundaries, is to wish to be counted among the meddlesome; but to be guided by the contemplation of great ideas to a genuine love of knowledge must be recognized as a mark of the greatest of men.”
And if this is true, which I believe it is, then the greatest sin must be forgetfulness. And what is forgetfulness? The permitting of the mind to slide into a torpid state of inactivity. It is the acceptance of ignorance, and the finding of satisfaction in ignorance. The victory of the Greek idea of lethe–the triumph of oblivion. It is the call of death, really: it is death itself. He who has forgotten his purpose, his origins, and his destiny, has lost all. He is like a broken detainee in a prison camp, wandering about with an insensate stare, dressed in tattered garments while gnawing on fragments of bone, waiting for consciousness itself to end.
Yet there is always an escape, always a way home or a way through; no one knew this more than the wily Odysseus. The military historian Polynaeus, in his Stratagems (III.7), describes several amusing ruses of Lachares, a tyrant of Athens of the fourth century B.C. When his city was taken by the forces of Demetrius, Lachares fled the city dressed as a slave. He had with him a basket of money covered with animal dung. He was able to smuggle this precious cargo out of the city because no guard was prepared to endure the stench. Mounting a horse, he slipped through one of the city gates; but he was recognized as he made his way out of the city, and pursuers set off after him. Lachares plunged his hands in the dung-covered basket, and scattered gold coins behind him as he fled. His pursuers dismounted to collect the money; and this delay gave Lachares the time he needed to evade his enemies. In this way he escaped unharmed to Boeotia. Even dung may be a tool of liberation.
Read more on similar topics in the new translation of Tusculan Disputations: