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On Justice

In Book XXII of The Odyssey, Penelope’s suitors are brutally slaughtered by Odysseus and Telemachus in a way seemingly unequal to the suitors’ offenses and transgressions, leading the readers to understandably question the justified nature of the targeted killing.  This question, however, also underscores the uncertainty of whether or not Odysseus, in particular, is justified in taking the suitors’ lives. The second half of The Odyssey seems to focus almost explicitly on Odysseus’ “good sense” and his ability to control himself, especially while in disguise. It is also seen that his “cunning” contributes to an implied sense of control. Yet, we see three distinct types of cunning displayed among Penelope, Athena, and Odysseus, all of whom seemingly have their own reasons to desire “justice” for the suitors. With such unconscious disagreement on the foundations of justice, cunning and control, the idea of a justifiable death for the suitors becomes shrouded in corruption.

The suitors are an evident burden, and it is for this reason they are so heavily disliked by the main characters of Odysseus’ household and by Athena, however, they are spurred into action and deceit by Penelope’s passive type of cunning and the subsequent artificial suspension of time. The suitors saw that “‘day by day she’d weave at her great and growing web . . . Three whole years she deceived [them] blind . . . —unweaving her gorgeous web” each night (24.153-60). Because of Penelope’s scheme, the suitors awake each day with the same hope as the day previous, nothing progresses, but time is not lost either; she appears to suspend time successfully, weaving the same plot, waiting with despair for Odysseus to return and for him to take the substantial and brash action that perhaps Penelope does not feel capable of. Penelope leans more towards subtle manipulation, a tactic towards which her weaving is well suited; she is not merely “‘spinning yarns’”(13.337) as Athena accuses Odysseus of doing, but rather “weaving” and producing something from the yarn. Yet, manipulation is deceitful, untrustworthy, sly, and often not an equivalent or necessary play against the unsuccessfully conniving suitors. The shows of cunning within The Odyssey are not just competitive, but grossly unbalanced, unnecessary, and overall unjustified.

Subtle shows of cunning and calculated behavior are also similar to Athena’s tactics, however, her type of cunning does not just manipulate, but disguises emotions like unrestrained rage, or perhaps unbridled love, that Penelope’s “‘hard heart’” may not suffer from until Odysseus “‘conquers’” it with his return (23.258). Athena’s intentions and justifications are difficult to understand because of the lengths she goes to, to complicate, and thereby, conceal her thoughts. Using the idea that Athena is enraged by Odysseus’ actions at Troy would necessitate Athena holding on and contemplating her rage for ten solid years, of which she would have had much time to weave every extenuating detail of her scheme. We do, however, see when the “bright-eyed Goddess” is angry—a common reference throughout the book—and we see that “Athena hit new heights of rage”(22.234) after suitors make threats against her when she is disguised as Mentor. We also see Athena admit that she “‘is blazing for battle’”(16.193).

Athena’s actions towards Odysseus can also be interpreted as love, as twisted as it may be. Athena, through many trials, takes heed to help him and most notably, to free him from Calypso’s island. Yet, even this notion does not seemingly help justify the slaughter of the suitors. Either Athena is holding an unfathomable grudge for ten years—over something increasingly minimal to the slaughter—a s it would make her decimate two generations of men, or she does it for her own thrill, or Athena loves Odysseus; but love would rarely ask a man to suffer such extreme consequences preceding and proceeding the murder of the suitors. Her cunning ways, used to disguise herself, although showcasing patience, demonstrate as much of a lack of control and good sense as Odysseus’ ill restraint in giving the suitors a death equivalent of their offenses.

This brings us to the final argument exemplifying Odysseus’ deluded sense of control. With Odysseus’ beggar disguise comes many self-proclaimed comments about his “good sense”. He tells Eumaeus, “‘There’s sense in this old head’”(17.307), and at a close point in time Odysseus is said to have “his mind in full control”(17.260), whilst having desires to “beat the scoundrel senseless . . . or hoist him by the midriff, [and] split his skull on the rocks”(17.258-9). Such a thought seems contradictory to having control, even if Odysseus decides not to act on it. This repression along with his own “heart . . . steeled”(17.310) much like Penelope’s, Odysseus retains the ability to cut himself off from the emotion arising from violence. Odysseus only feels emotions of despair regarding himself and his family, and the overwhelming rage he feels from being cheated and insulted from the suitors. The despair he feels for himself and his family, however, does not cross over to relate with the suitors. Instead, he allows his rage to overshadow all regret for the murder of the innocent and good-willed suitors, and allows it to increase the levels of brutality for the suitors he already loathes. As Telemachus matures and becomes a striking parallel to his father, he adopts these similar faults and weaknesses of control. Odysseus also highly prides himself, similar to Penelope and Athena, on his cunning. Yet, his cunning is of a much more active type. As previously discussed, he takes an aggressive approach in nearly all his endeavors, and his cunning exists only to aid him in this. His plotting and scheming, unlike the two women, is assertive and hostile. Because of these qualities, this ability seems to rival wit, more than cunning. Nonetheless, this insurmountable lack of control not only keeps him paranoid, with him feeling the need to test not only his staff, but his family, but keeps him from objectively distinguishing good from bad, a forgivable sin from an unforgivable, and it obscures his idea of what is justice and what it is not.

Penelope, Athena, and Odysseus are all praised for their seemingly limitless amounts of cunning. Used to maximize an outcome, or manipulate a situation, this skill gives the impression, or perhaps the delusion, of self-control and self-restraint. Such a mindset would make the slaughter of the suitors seem justifiable, when in fact the differences in how they use their cunning and the modes in which it mimics, prevents them all from their personal justifications of the suitors’ deaths. Penelope’s passive cunning is not a justifiable mode of action because it is not an equal action to rival the suitors’ transgressions. This is the same with the way Athena uses a disguised cunning to inflame each situation, which also imitates the same lack of control that Odysseus displays in his delusion of “good sense,” and then his decision to proceed to use such a grandiose brutality, that is not equivalent of the suitors offenses, against both the guilty and innocent. Exacerbating the unjustifiable components of the situation, are Penelope, Athena, and Odysseus’ selective lack of human emotion regarding the brutality used against the suitors. These things collectively lead the suitors to die at the hands of three individuals—Penelope, Athena, and Odysseus—who are not justified in taking their lives. So the answer to whether or not the suitors’ deaths are justified, goes beyond the ways in which the suitors died, and progresses to whether or not Penelope, Athena, and Odysseus were justified to take their lives; the answer of which is no, based on the lack of control—possibly out of delusion—they exhibit.

20 Responses to “On Justice”

  1. khoneycutt says:

    Kendall,

    This is a provocative attempt to argue that the suitors’ killing is not quite (if at all) justified and that none of the characters in the Odyssey (perhaps even Athena, if Zeus has really been behind everything) is as clever as he or she thinks.

    Zeus calls the suitors “traitors” (5.27 and 24.530), so it would be difficult to argue that they are blameless. And there are many parallels between the suitors and the Cyclopes–the lack of work, the lack of fear of the gods, and so on. However, whether they deserve the treatment they receive–Antinous, for instance, is hardly shot down in combat but almost ambushed–is another question. There is never any indication that Odysseus or Athena want it to be a fair fight.

    Of course, perhaps all is fair in love and war, even in the Homeric world; Iliad 10 (where Odysseus and Diomedes go raiding in the night) so shocks some scholars that they believe that it is a later addition to the text and couldn’t possibly be Homeric, although I think it is. Maybe the issue with the suitors has less to do with justice in the end than with being a capstone on the war, with sealing the deal on twenty years of sorrow. Maybe the new (Telemachan?) regime requires a complete scouring of two generations of men and traditions in order to get off the ground. The fact that Odysseus lights a sacrificial pyre at the end of the slaughter to “purge” the house is very suggestive.

    But your points about brutality are well taken; as we see in the Iliad, that war got increasingly brutal, and Odysseus has encountered all sorts of monsters on his way home. Telemachus certainly goes off the rails with the maids and with Melanthius. But perhaps the gods have a different standard of justice than that of mortals? Or perhaps the point has never been justice at all.

    I like the focus on lack of control and the lack of self-knowledge (i.e., delusion). Odysseus learns many things on his journeys, but does he ever learn himself?

    KH

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