How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
“Each generation must translate for itself”: Few works better illustrate T. S. Eliot’s observation than Homer’s Odyssey. Since the epic was first translated into English by George Chapman in the early seventeenth century, it has been cast into our language some 60 times—with every version colored by the sensibility, vernacular, and values of its time. Each generation, in a word, gets the Odyssey it deserves.
Inevitably, each generation also gets the Odysseus it deserves. The ancient Greek hero is so complex and multifaceted that even a single interpreter can see him multiple ways. Sophocles portrayed Odysseus in one work as an exemplar of restraint and toleration while in another as slippery to the point of slimy. Two millennia later, Dante was similarly torn, consigning Odysseus to an innermost circle of hell for the sin of lying even while praising his virtues of wonder and curiosity.
Inevitably, perhaps, twenty-first-century readers are no less torn. In her recent and revolutionary translation of the Homeric epic, Emily Wilson tweaks the celebrated opening line. Rather than following the traditional rendering of polytropos, the adjective applied to Odysseus’ character, as “many-turning” or a “man of twists and turns,” she instead presents him as a “complicated man.” With that simple change, Wilson casts Odysseus as a man whose character is tailored for a world of moral ambiguity and political uncertainty. As a “complicated” man, Odysseus becomes less a hero than an antihero, a man whose ethos is strikingly unethical—a man who deceives, dissembles, and defrauds. He is, perhaps, the Odysseus best suited to our post-truth, post-fact, and post-shame era.
The beginning of every story harbors its end. Here “end” can mean not only finality—how the tale finishes—but also function, or why the tale is meaningful. In the version of the Odyssey translated by Robert Fagles in 1996, Homer begins by calling the Muse to sing of “the man of twists and turns . . . / driven time and again off course.” This man fought, through suffering and heartsickness, to preserve his men and bring them home: “But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove— / the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all.”
What appears to be a straightforward sketch of the story’s arc is in fact a thematic prompt of startling complexity—as well as perhaps the first instance of an unreliable narrator in Western literature. The reader begins to understand the meaning of this opening only halfway through the epic. At that point, a desperate Odysseus washes up on an island called Phaeacia in the Ionian Sea. He tells his rescuers his story, offering a dazzling account of encounters with sex-addled goddesses and drug-addled peoples, ghostly shades of dead warriors and ghastly creatures with a weakness for human flesh. But a funny thing has happened on the way to Phaeacia. As the commander of an equally misbegotten foreign adventure a few millennia later would put it, “Mistakes were made.” We begin to realize with horror that these mistakes were made not by the crew, as Homer has told us, but instead by Odysseus.
Mistakes were made not by the crew, as Homer has told us, but instead by Odysseus.
By this point in the epic, Odysseus has emerged from a series of trials unscathed, unbowed, and ultimately unburdened of his men. First came his visit to the land of the Cyclopes. Homer tells us that Odysseus views the land’s inhabitants as lawless and savage because they live in isolation from one another. Yet Odysseus also reveals—unwittingly—that the Cyclopes are lawless because they have no need for laws. Rather than living short and savage lives in a Hobbesian war of all against all, they flourish by minding their own affairs in the splendid isolation of a Rousseau-like world. Odysseus steals into a Cyclops’ cave and demands a gift. The Cyclops—a shepherd who had been minding his own business—responds by treating a handful of Odysseus’ crew like human sushi. The action is grisly but understandable. The conclusion, though unstated, is unavoidable: we need laws to protect us from people who break into our homes and lay claim to our possessions.
Then there is the visit to the island of King Aeolus, who bestows upon Odysseus a bag of wind to help speed his return home. Not only does Odysseus neglect to tell his men what is inside the bag, he insists on remaining at the tiller until the ship reaches Ithaca. By the tenth day, our hero predictably falls asleep, exhausted from his reckless decision to remain at the helm. A true leader knows not just that his crew depends upon him but that he must also depend on his men. No less predictably, his selfish behavior leads his crew to suspect that the bag contains treasures that Odysseus plans to hoard. They rip open the bag and before you can say “rosy-fingered dawn,” they find themselves blown back across the wine-dark sea to where they had started ten days before.
As a despairing Odysseus and his men struggle to find their bearings, they reach the land of the Laestrygonians. Eleven of their boats enter a towering cove, while a 12th boat instead moors outside. Not surprisingly, Odysseus commands this boat. He does not explain his decision, but he does not need to: such coves along the Mediterranean coast are deathtraps when controlled by a hostile force. As his men disembark, the Laestrygonians attack them, then proceed to spear them and eat them like fish. Odysseus frantically cuts anchor and escapes with his crew, leaving behind a blood-red patch of sea.
This last surviving boat makes its way to the island of Helios, the sun god. Though Odysseus has been told repeatedly not to eat the island’s sacred cows, he fails to pass the warning on to his shipmates. Confronted by the stark choice between starvation and steak, unsurprisingly, the crew plumps for the latter. As a result, Zeus conjures a storm when the men leave the island, and the crew members drown, albeit with full bellies. Clinging to a shard of his broken ship, Odysseus eventually washes up on the beach at Phaeacia. Tragically, but also conveniently, he alone can now tell his tale.
Odysseus peddles what we can call “Phaeake news.”
How did matters come to this? One need not consult the oracle at Delphi for the answer: Odysseus’ miscalculations and mistakes landed him here. The more interesting question is, How do Odysseus and Homer present these events? Not surprisingly, Odysseus peddles what we can call “Phaeake news.” When not fobbing off responsibility for bloody events on those he provoked, such as the Cyclops, our man in Phaeacia shifts it to his dead crewmates. They were, he insists, either rebellious in his presence or reckless in his absence.
In a word, Odysseus lies and lies some more. When not lying to his men, he lies to dead men. For example, he tells the shade of Achilles that the dead hero’s son, Neoptolemus, has carried out heroic deeds. He artfully neglects to add that Neoptolemus has also slaughtered women and thrown infants off the ramparts of Troy. Odysseus lies even to the gods: fooled by Athena disguised as a shepherd, our cunning hero fibs to her face, telling her that he is a Cretan on the lam from local justice, and the cunning goddess chuckles in return.
Odysseus seems to lie so freely and frequently that he could not recognize the truth even if it hit him like the flat side of a sword. But at the end of his journey, we discover that he is still capable of acknowledging the truth. He is reunited with his wife, Penelope, but she isn’t certain if he is who he claims to be. So she tests him by telling him that the marital bed Odysseus had carved from a massive olive tree has been moved. Odysseus explodes in disbelief; only a god, he blurts, could budge such a bed. He passes Penelope’s test, to her relief and the reader’s, reminding us that while the truth might not always set us free, it is nevertheless a necessary precondition for freedom.
The Odyssey is a song, as Homer declares, “for our time too,” in part because of the poet’s subtle misdirection: by laying the blame for the death of Odysseus’ men at their own feet, Homer lays a trap for his audience. We gradually discover that the blame must instead be assumed by someone else. Homer thus forces us to reconsider Odysseus’ heroic stature. Is a hero someone whose recklessness and greed endanger the lives of his men? Who cherry-picks information in order to persuade others to do what they should not? A man who lies so much that he risks becoming incapable of telling fact from fiction, truth from falsehood?
These questions are important, and more complicated than they might appear. In On Bullshit, the best-selling book he published at the turn of the millennium, an old but not ancient philosopher, Harry Frankfurt, made a crucial distinction between lies and bullshit. A liar engages in a conscious act of deception—he knowingly dissembles, deliberately falsifying something he knows is true. He knows the difference between lies and truths, fiction and fact, and at least implicitly cares about the difference.
A bullshitter, on the other hand, is either ignorant of or indifferent to the truth. All he cares about is shaping the beliefs and actions of his listeners. The bullshitter is thus more dangerous than the liar for a simple reason: he dismisses the importance of truth. In a world of bullshit, truth becomes meaningless—something that can be blotted out by a black Sharpie or buried under a mountain of tweets.
Dante did not, of course, read Frankfurt. If he had, though, he would have created a tenth and deepest circle of hell for bullshitters. After all, what could be more toxic for truth than those incapable of recognizing it? Neither did Homer read Frankfurt, but he foresaw the problem with bullshit. He gives us a hero who, while willfully trespassing most everywhere else, does not cross over that final and fatal line. As with the olive bedstead Odysseus made, so too with truth: it roots and centers us. A world where truth is uprooted is more terrifying than a sea teeming with the likes of Charybdis and Scylla. Rarely has a nearly 3,000-year-old poem been more of our time than it is today.