Odysseus and Achilles
I just finished reading Homer’s Odyssey, and in it came across a passage which I think is very indicative of the difference between the ancient Greeks’ attitudes and those of the (Plato-inspired) Christian ones which followed. The Greeks thought of life as meaning life on this earth and were the first, and perhaps still the best, practitioners of a true mind-body integration. These fundamental attitudes are instrumental in explaining why the classical world was so culturally and materially successful, and why, when the Christians substituted the opposite approach, they ended up with a thousand years of stagnation and decline.
Indeed, one of the reasons that Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism appeals to me so much is because it re-introduces many of the best features of Greek thought and attitudes, all presented in a systematic and integrated fashion.
In any case, here is the passage from the Odyssey which caught my attention. It occurs when Odysseus makes his way to Hades and meets Achilles (the hero of the Illiad). Here’s what Achilles tells him (my emphasis):
…The soul of Achilles, the great runner, recognized me. “Favourite of Zeus, son of Laertes, Odysseus, master of stratagems,” he said in mournful tones, “what next, dauntless man? What greater exploit can you plan to surpass your voyage here? How did you dare to come to Hades’ realm, where the dead live on as mindless disembodied ghosts?”
“Achilles”, I answered him, “son of Peleus, far the strongest of the Achaeans, I came to consult with Teiresias in the hope of finding out from him how I could reach rocky Ithaca. For I have not managed to come near Achaea yet, nor set foot on my own island, but have been dogged by misfortune. But you, Achilles, are the most fortunate man that ever was or will be! For in the old days when you were on Earth, we Argives honoured you as though you were a god; and now, down here, you have great power among the dead. Do not grieve at your death, Achilles.”
“And do not you make light of death, illustrious Odysseus,” he replied, “I would rather work the soil as a serf on hire to some landless impoverished peasant than be King of all these lifeless dead.”…
PS I read the Penguin classic version translated by the Rieu’s and with an introduction by Peter Jones. I found Jones’ notes quite helpful and would recommend this version (though I haven’t read others to compare it to).