Ethics in Homer

The Homeric world is not a world of ethical theory, but it did inform the ethical theories developed in fifth century BCE Athens and has provided an idea of an ethical world to be compared with later ethical world views up to the Enlightenment, where Homer still appears as source of what we would no call anthropological information, and then on through Nietzsche into more recent thinkers in ethics like Bernard Williams (who died in 2003) and Alasdair MacIntyre (who was born in the same year as Bernard Williams, 1929, but who is happily still alive). Though since the nineteenth century the use of Homer has been more constrained by the sense that the poems are literary evidence of a world rather than the direct survival of that world.

In some respects the world of The Iliad and The Odyssey may seem to be one lacking in ethics. Mass slaughter in a war provoked by a personal matter (Helen of Sparta running away from husband with Paris of Troy), the destructing and looting of cities, the massacre of enemies, piracy, slave dealing, theft, and sexual relations with slave women taken prisoner in war, are all presented as highly acceptable at least when directed at people outside one’s own  community or who have in some way broken their social obligations.

Still the sense that a Homeric individual would not do these things against members of the community to which that individual belongs does introduce some kind of moral restraint. Morals standards at least apply within ones own communities and even beyond that community to certain individuals or communities with whom one has a significant social bond.

The bond going beyond one’s community, where one recognises reciprocal obligations, is most obviously defined in terms of hospitality and that is maybe the basic ethical standard of the Homeric world with regard to those who are not members of one’s most immediate community. The Trojan War of The Iliad  is provoked by Paris’ abuse of the hospitality of King Menelaus of Sparta. Not only did Paris take Helen back to Troy with him, he added treasure from the palace of Menelaus to the spoils of his abuse of hospitality. Paris does offer to give back the treasure in The Iliad, but Menelaus refuses the offer. The fact that the stolen treasure is mentioned at all tends to reinforce the negative presentation of Paris, since we see that he was not only moved  by love for Helen which might arouse our sympathy, but by greed for the material possessions of his host.

Odysseus’ misfortunes in The Odyssey  are often associated with lack of hospitality though one might also think sometimes by abuse of hospitality on the part of Odysseus or his men. There sequence of his misfortunes is set off when a raid on the city of the Ciconians meets a more deadly response than Odysseus had anticipated, largely because his men linger on the shore feasting near their ships, rather than making a quick escape by sea. One might think that the subsequent misfortunes of ‘suffering’ Odysseus and his followers are a kind of punishment for the extreme opposite of good guest behaviour that Odysseus shows towards the Ciconians. He did not seek their hospitality or offer gifts in the hope of establishing a bond, but used unprovoked violence against property and persons. None of this is condemned in Homer and Odysseus is often referred to as ‘sacker of cities’. The sacking of Troy, though horrible and certainly highly criminal by our standards, was at least excused by Paris’ violation of his status as guest of Menelaus. Should we think the Homeric poems are oblivious to such moral considerations or that some measure of the questioning of Odysseus’ morals is obliquely present in the poetry? It is not a question I am ready to give a clear answer to, but we should certainly not overlook the way that the misfortunes of Odysseus begin with his extreme non-guest behaviour.

The most direct way in which Homer establishes that hospitality is a fundamental violation and that the lack of hospitality is monstrous is the encounter with the Cyclops Polyphemus, who kills his guests rather than offer them gifts. It should also be noted that Odysseus intrudes into the home of Polyphemus while he is out and that Odysseus seems very ready to help himself to ‘hospitality’ by taking Polyphemus property back to his ships before Polyphemus can get home. So is this just the story of Polyphemus’ monstrous lack of hospitality or is it obliquely the story of how Odysseus is punished for his own violation of the laws of hospitality from the side of the guest.

The point at which it becomes clear that Odysseus will not get home easily or quickly is when his men waste the gift of the bag of winds from King Aeolus. After a month staying in the floating island of the king, Odysseus receives a bag of winds, which will take him quickly and safely to Ithaca (from what is usually presumed to be an island off the north coast of Egypt or Libya). Odysseus approaches the palace of Aeolus  after his men open the bag just off Ithaca, sending them all back. However, Aeolus will not offer hospitality, of offer a similar gift, an extension of hospitality, to Odysseus. In some sense Odysseus himself breached the laws of hospitality by failing to use the gift properly and coming back to a place he had just left. Guests presumably should not be too hasty about a repeat visit.

The story of Odysseus’ final return to Ithaca itself revolves around hospitality with regard to the hospitality shown by good people to strangers including beggars and the lack of hospitality shown by bad people. Beggars who benefit from hospitality are also shown to be bound by its laws, as in case of the beggar who unsuccessfully attempts to beat up Odysseus because he thinks Odysseys, disguised as a beggar, is competition for hospitality. Charity towards beggars is very much defined as hospitality, confirming the basic ethical nature of the hospitality relation. Odysseus himself refers to Zeus as the protector of strangers seeking hospitality and suggests that strangers may be gods testing respect for the laws of hospitality. So hospitality is something divine and the person seeking hospitality is an expression of divinity.

That divine force expresses itself in a negative way when guests abuse hospitality, as in the hundred suitors of Penelope who stay uninvited in Odysseus’ palace feasting on his resources. Clearly the stranger or guest is not so divine as to be able to stay somewhere for ever and can be dangerous. It is clear that the palace of Odysseus is a place where anyone might eat in the banqueting hall, so the Suitors have crossed a line between making use of the hospitality expected of their overlord and consuming hospitality in a way which creates a drain on economic resources, and which overturns the authority rankings in the palace.

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