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In Book IX of The Odyssey, Homer explores human meaning, by characterizing two social constructs representing the views on how life ought to be lived. The Achaeans live a social life, continuously pursuing the desires limited to themselves. Homer favors the cyclops’ have a contemplative lifestyle complete and self-sufficient, freeing from themselves from the need to pursue other desires. Out of function and habit, they find virtue and happiness. Cyclops’ understand themselves and their nature, and from this self-fulfillment they become excellence in their functions. A contemplative life does not have a need for justice or law. Cyclops understand this and therefore the self-sufficient beasts do not fear the gods, for they are not dependent on the gods to determine their fate. Homer illustrates this through Odysseus’ observation of the Cyclops, Polyphemus, who exhibits a contemplative and solitude life filled with meticulous work.

Odysseus’ observations contribute to Homer’s understanding of Polyphemus’ lifestyle. The cyclops’ live “on mountain peaks…in arching caverns..ruling over his wives and children.” (9.125). Odysseus continues to describe a cyclops as “a man-mountain rearing head and shoulders over the world.” (9.213). A cyclops lives a simple life, but also remains wise as he is aware of his body and mind. Cyclops’ lives transcends over the social world. Polyphemus is an orderly, proud, and caring creature. He spends most of the day in the field watching over his flock.Homer depicts the cyclops as a dairy farmer. When Odysseus explores his den, he observes “the large flat racks loaded with drying cheeses the folds crowded with young lambs and kids, split into three groups- here the spring-born, here the mid yearlings, here the fresh sucklings to the side- reached was penned apart.” (9.249). When the Cyclops returns from the pasture he begins his nightly routine, “next he drove his sleek flock into the open vault…he squatted to milk his sheep and bleating goats, each in order, and put a suckling underneath each dam.” (9.279). Polyphemus then separates the milk “And half of the fresh white milk he curdled quickly, set aside in wicker racks to press for cheese.” (9.279). The Cyclops demonstrates order and responsibility through his meticulous work. Polyphemus has pride in his function; and through his affection for his livestock he is able to appropriate excellence. Odysseus describes the flock with admiration, “those well-fed rams with their splendid thick fleece, sturdy handsome beasts, sporting their dark weight of wool.” (9.476). The Cyclops clearly takes great pride in his work, considering Odysseus gives the sheep raving reviews. After Odysseus blinds Polyphemus, he and his men escape from the cave using the rams to shield themselves from the cyclops. Odysseus is the last to leave, riding out on only the finest of the flock. The Cyclops gently pets each animal as it goes by him, but when his prized sheep departs last “Polyphemus murmured, ‘Dear old ram, why last of the flock to quit the cave? In good old days you’d never lag behind the rest, you with your matching strides, first by far of the flock to graze the fresh young grasses, first by far to reach the rippling streams, first to turn back home,keen for your fold when night comes on-but now you’re last of all.” (9.500). Polyphemus show great affection and care for his flock. He understands his animals, and is knowledgeable of their behavior patterns.They are his both physically and spiritually. Polyphemus truly knows his flock, proving that he cares for life beyond himself. Homer uses the cyclops’ to illustrate the value and meaning of a contemplative life. Aristotle argues that a happy life is one that is contemplative, that the “chief good is evidently something final.” (Nicomachean Ethics, Book VII). In pursuing a final one needs to feel the desire “both in themselves and for the sake of that other thing.”(Nicomachean Ethics, Book VII). The cyclops attains peace in his function because his actions are performed for the purpose of something other than himself. Polyphemus and the cyclops’ are able to find happiness through their contemplative conduct. As a result, they cyclops can live in harmony without the need for laws or divine intervention.

The cyclops’ demonstrate that a territory can be orderly without a legal and justice council. They do not have laws because their lifestyle is more contemplative in the sense that it rises above the need for structural laws and judicial systems. Thier living condition fosters trust among neighbors and respect for others’ property. In being able to trust their own, the Cyclops’ can keep order without laws. The first instance Polyphemus and the Achaeans are aware of each others’ presence, the Cyclops instantly distrusts the strangers and accuses them of being pirates, “now who are you?…sea-wolves raiding at will, who risk their lives to plunder other men.” (9.286). Polyphemus’ language sets a tone of disgust for the uncivil manner of raiding thieves. The cyclops’ do not need laws because they do not commit crimes nor do they condone them. After Odysseus jabs Polyphemus, the Cyclops lets out a roaring scream, and his neighbors come quickly to his aid. With confusion the fellow cyclops’ state, “Surely no one’s rustling your flock against your will- Surely no one’s trying to kill you by fraud or force!” (9.452). The neighboring cyclops so easily dismissed Polyphemus’ anguish as a plague from the gods; the idea that a true offence was being executed was inconceivable. The cyclops’ do not need laws to uphold justice because their condition of contemplation fosters a virtuous life, alleviating their fears of the gods.

Odysseus conceives a false perception of the cyclops. He depicts the beasts as savages, and holding no respect for the gods.  Polyphemus, however, points out Odysseus’ foolish notion, “you must be a fool, or come from nowhere, telling me to fear the gods or avoid their wrath! We cyclops never blink at Zeus and Zeus’s shield of storm and thunder, or any other blessed god-we’ve got more force by far.” (9.309). The cyclops are not disorderly due to their absence of fear, nor are they actively trying to disrespect the gods with sinister behavior. By living a contemplative life, the cyclops have inner peace. They do not fear the gods because they are sufficient and complete with their livelihoods. The cyclops’ understand their fate, unlike the Achaeans who remain dependent on the gods’ good will to determine their fate. The cyclops are content and happy living in their unchanging condition, giving them the strength and ability to live without fear of the gods.

The whole purpose of Odysseus encountering the cyclops’ is to teach him that true happiness is found when one contemplatives his life. Unless Odysseus changes his character he will be a nobody; remaining unhappy as a broken man. Its funny that the great Achaean Warrior thinks he is cunning by telling the cyclops that his name was Nobody; for when the cyclops screams in pain he reveals a deeper truth, “ ‘Nobody friends’-Polyphemus bellowed back from his cave- ‘Nobody’s killing me me now by fraud and not by force!’” (9.452). Odysseus, blinded by arrogance, fails to understand that if he does not change his character he will be a sad and broken man; a nobody. Odysseus will remain a “spine-less good for nothing.” (9.573). Polyphemus foretells Odysseus’ fate in his prayer to Poseidon, he will “come home late and come home a broken man- all shipmates lost, alone in a stranger’s ship- and let him find a world of pain at home.” (9.592). Odysseus, conditioned to a social life, values reputation and name, wealth and trade. The Achaean warrior does not understand that his values are the cause of his pain and discontent. Homer uses the cyclops to represent a contemplative lifestyle, giving Odysseus the opportunity to learn such a philosophy in order to attain happiness.

 

20 Responses to “Vida – Vita Activa, Vita Contemplativa”

  1. khoneycutt says:

    Vida,

    This is an interesting and provocative attempt to suggest that the Cyclopes represent philosophers. One might think that it is precisely mind that is lacking–that they are all body, as it were, with no mind / soul. This is partly represented by their lifestyle (which, rather than being contemplative, one might say deals with necessity) and partly by their lack of fear of the gods (which, rather than being contemplative, one might say is impious). Yet you have thoughtfully argued the contrary position. It is noteworthy that the Cyclopes each seem to get along okay on their own and that they do not seem to be punished for their impiety (at least in the aggregate, although maybe Polyphemus is punished).

    Aristotle says that human beings need law and that only gods or beasts could live without law. So normally the lack of politics among the Cyclopes would suggest, on Aristotelian grounds, that they are beasts. But if they are supposed to be more like philosophers then maybe they are more like gods. This would still fit within the Aristotelian framework and would match a certain sense of grandeur that philosophers often have / fall prey to.

    I like your point at the end about Odysseus being given the opportunity to learn about this contemplative life, especially after the trials of war and travel. He certainly lives the active life, it would seem. However, his activity is almost always based in his thought, and contemplation itself is an activity for Aristotle. So where to draw these lines is not always clear.

    Nonetheless, you have thought carefully about an original and interesting idea, and that is the ultimate.

    KH

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