The Odyssey of Political Theory: The Politics of Departure and Return, by Patrick J. Deneen
Patrick Deneen, an assistant professor of political science at Princeton University, sets out in this book to assess the contemporary relevance of the Homeric legacy, especially the Odyssey. He wishes to avoid both mere pious praise of Homer as the source of all wisdom in a seamlessly unfolding Western tradition, and also the rejection of him as irrelevant to our time, a “cipher.” To do this, he gives an account of what is to be found in the Odyssey, focusing on politics, and then proceeds to juxtapose what he has found to a number of modern thinkers, including Vico, Rousseau, and those who comprise the Frankfurt School. He seeks a course between mere traditionalism, on the one hand, and fashionable multiculturalism, on the other. He is a reflective traditionalist and thus intent to revitalize a dialogue between earlier and later thought which is neither solely “ancient” nor solely “modern.”
Deneen appropriates Homer for political philosophy while not losing sight of the fact that the Homeric legacy has many other dimensions. But that legacy does have political import, as any reader of the Platonic dialogues will know. Homer’s works have been an essential feature of Western education from ancient to modern times. Deneen fastens on the character of Odysseus, whom he takes to be central to Western philosophical reflection on politics. “Odysseus for the first time embodies the dilemma of Western political philosophy and perhaps the human paradox more generally,” because he is both the universal man and a particular man.
Odysseus exemplifies something central to being human. In one way, his wandering opens him to the full range of human experience and yet, at the same time, the Odyssey is the story of his return home. It is a story, as Deneen tells it, analogous to the Platonic allegory of the cave, a story of venturing forth into enlightenment and then returning to the familiarity (the family-like nature) of the cave, facing disillusionment. Is it the adventure and the return or the wandering in itself that is most important? With questions of this kind, Deneen leads us through reflection on Odysseus to a comparison of Plato and Rousseau, and eventually to the division of spirit characteristic of our time between patriotism and cosmopolitanism, between solitude and sociality, and hence also to a reflection on the value of politics and the task of political philosophy itself as an inquiry into the “inbetweenness” that is man.
To associate Odysseus with the political philosopher, Deneen criticizes interpretations of Homer’s Odyssey that take it as a predetermined expression of the culture in which the poem was produced. In doing so, he is arguing that political philosophy is not merely documentary evidence of the time and place in which particular political philosophers speak and write. This is not to deny that Homer is a poet and Odysseus a character who originate in more or less specifiable and local cultural circumstances. It is rather to assert that there is a kind of reflection possible in all times and places which reaches beyond its origin, offering a voice in an ongoing conversation which may be recognized and imaginatively responded to. Odysseus is a particular man who leaps over his initial boundaries into the realm of the human, accessible to all those who care to understand more deeply the mystery of being human. He is, thus, the “proto-philosopher,” a being both of majesty and of limitation.
It is not long before it occurs to one that political activity is a central consequence of the division in us between the particular and the universal. Politics is the intermediate activity, the middle ground, between mere nature and the wholly divine, exemplary of the human being who is the intersection of the body and the intellect, rooted to a time and place as a bodily being, but soaring by will and intellect far beyond those confines. This is a central theme of all Western reflection, shared by Homer’s Odysseus and Aristotle’s natural political man. We are both nature and artifice, both natural matter to be shaped and directed and, at least partially, able to be our own shapers and guides. We are a mystery to ourselves, and thus an endless source of wonder, seeking to reconcile what divides us within ourselves. We are neither simply identified with nature nor able to operate in successful defiance of nature. The story of the Cyclopes and of the marriage of Odysseus and Penelope illustrate features of this, and Deneen offers acute analyses of these and other episodes.
Of particular interest is his comparison of Odysseus to Menelaus and Agamemnon, showing how their differing characters move them toward appropriate ends to their wanderings. And, in referring to Achilles and the Iliad, Deneen shows the difference between a poem emphasizing force and one emphasizing the mind. “The Odyssey represents not only an alternative to the Iliad’s vision, but also the first full-length commentary on and critique of the heroism of Achilles.” Achilles is engulfed by passion, Odysseus is reflective, his actions considered. Yet Odysseus cannot succeed without at times acquiring the immoderation of Achilles. The human composition is not so simple. In the end, it is the restoration of justice in Ithaca that completes the adventure of the Odyssey, inaugurating the “longer odyssey” to implement justice and a common good.
Deneen’s extensive and intriguing analysis of Plato moves to a reassessment of Socrates’s critique of the poets in the Republic. A detailed summary would be lengthy, and Deneen’s analysis is worth reading in full since it provides something approaching a complete analysis of the structure and meaning of the Republic. The conclusion is that Socrates was reinterpreting the Homeric epics to exalt Odysseus over Achilles, and, partly inspired by Eric Voegelin, Deneen takes the Myth of Er, and Odysseus’s place in it, to be a decisive key to understanding what the argument over poetry and philosophy is all about. It is the reformation of the earlier story of the “noble lie” to show that a new kind of myth about human origins and destiny, germane to all humanity, is available to us. Human decisions have determined our differences and our inequalities, and they are alterable.
Deneen even makes a startling but compelling comparison between the Platonic story of the choices of a pattern of life we make in the other world and John Rawls’s notion of the veil of ignorance in A Theory of Justice (1971). In Rawls, we are asked, with only scant information about ourselves, to choose the kind of society we would inhabit. But in the Myth of Er “while the paradigm of those lives will be known to the souls in greater or lesser degrees, they will have almost no knowledge of what kind of family, society, or polity they will enter ….”
In Plato’s case, we choose the pattern of the soul, not the social arrangements. The emphasis in Plato’s account is on the control we exercise over our self-understanding and aims, acknowledging severe limits on how much we can change the world around us. Plato’s account recognizes that, however clearly conceived a vision of a just society we may achieve, we do not thereby assure the choice of that way of life by those whose souls remain improperly ordered. There is an Odyssean analogy here: the achievement of one’s identity in the midst of the contingent circumstances of life.
In the latter half of his book, Deneen pursues these themes in several modern contexts, beginning with Rousseau’s Emile, that great modern work over which looms continually the thought of Plato’s Republic. Like Plato, Rousseau returns to Achilles and Odysseus, eventually preferring Odysseus as the model for Emile’s maturation. The first stage of Emile’s education is to be reared apart from other human beings so that, in a second stage, he can immerse himself safely as himself in society. His self-understanding must be established without distortion in order to withstand the dangers of the social life. He is somehow to be an identifiable husband, father, citizen, and also remain an independent identity; he must be both particular and yet remain autonomous in the midst of his particularity, a stoic, Odyssean, solitary wanderer-in, but not of, his society.
Deneen then turns to another genius of the eighteenth century, Vico. Vico recognized the power of the critique of ancient knowledge by Bacon, Descartes, Hobbes, and Spinoza. His response was not to refute them but to emphasize the dimensions of culture in history, myth, and poetry not encompassed by the new sciences. As a professor whose duties regularly required him to speak on the nature of liberal learning, Vico was one of those who expounded the grounds for what became our still dominant bifurcation of higher learning between the humanities and the sciences-manifesting the division of the search for knowledge between scientific objectivity about nature and human nature, on the one hand, and the quest for moral fulfillment and human purpose on the other.
Deneen examines Vico’s twentieth century followers, Horkheimer and Adorno of the Frankfurt School, in their critique of enlightenment as a source for modern man’s confusion and perversity. But these twentieth-century thinkers radicalize and alter Vico’s insight, claiming to find enlightenment lurking from the beginning in Homer’s Odyssey itself. What distinguishes us from the past epochs is not a unique appearance of enlightenment and its demythologizing ways, but the increased power of an ancient tendency to sweep more broadly across, and cut more deeply into our culture than ever before. In a Nietzschean, or Weberian, or Heideggerian manner, they see this disillusionment as our ancient fate virulently come upon us. Their pessimism lies in their conclusion that, however bad this may be for us, it is the awful truth about us.
This pessimistic conclusion stems from the historicizing of our self-understanding, stimulating the great debate whether human history is progressing or declining. Rousseau too pointed to this question in his famous discourses. Altogether these modern thinkers pose for us the question of vitality against reflectiveness, addressed with the Homeric legacy continually in the background. Thus, also, Vico sets out to show that “Homer” is the name we use in referring to what is really a collective expression of a community and a way of life now long gone from us. To move from the Iliad to the Odyssey is to move from a more primitive to a more civilized way of life. These great poetic works become documentary evidence of an historical pattern which can be reconstructed by the proper reading of them.
There need be no Homer as such for there to be a legacy of Homer which, as we understand it more, seems to be more distant from us, its immediacy exhausted. This is to effect a separation between us and them, between the world of our time and the world of Homer’s time, so that we inevitably see them in a way that would not have occurred to them. If our reflectiveness is the weak response to the vitality and power of the original inspiration, it means that thought is an enemy of life; we can remember by reconstructing but we cannot emulate. There was no “genius” (no genuine author) but only the emanations of a people and its ways through various conduits. How could we choose (what could it mean to choose) the ways expressed therein if we cannot participate in the collectivity that gave them life.
Yet if moments of “enlightenment” are recurrent from early to late, are not such moments themselves some sort of myth? Are they not forms of self-understanding created by human beings under circumstances which are propitious for their appearance? Are we enmeshed, then, in a recurrent pattern of myth, enlightenment, and disillusion? Vico’s baptism of myth in spite, so to speak, of its being myth, is unacceptable to Horkheimer and Adorno. But where, then, are we to turn? To get their bearings, these founders of the Frankfurt School undertook a remarkable analysis of Homer’s Odyssey. Deneen discusses this at length and fruitfully.
The upshot is that Horkheimer and Adorno see in Odysseus the beginning of that alienation from nature and original goodness (innocence?) from which we have never recovered and for which there is perhaps no possible recovery. For the one who thinks through these depressing thoughts rigorously, there is little but retreat into critical solitude. The implication of Deneen’s analysis seems to be that this is what must happen when the solid in between world of political life is abandoned either because it cannot give us everything we seek or because we can no longer connect to a higher source of meaning which allows us to tolerate politics as a way station.
What then are we to conclude? Are we condemned either to the semi-rationality of myth or to the paralyzing disillusion of rationalistic enlightenment? Is meaning dwelling in the realm of fiction while the truth of things lies in unmeaning objectivity? Here is Deneen: “In the end, I will suggest, the Odyssey seems to recommend a course of ‘limited transcendence,’ a transcendence of which human beings are aware and even to which they can aspire, but of which they finally must also be wary and that they must reject when it tempts them to total transcendence of what Homer understands to be the human condition.” This means to Deneen, among other things, that we should not seek universality but rather the opportunity to recognize what is beyond our particularity, a kind of chastened or realistic cosmopolitanism.
Odysseus, so to speak, wanted to see the world, but he did not want to lose his identity or live in a cosmopolis. The desire for home competes with the desire for knowledge. Perhaps the one is the condition of the other. It seems reasonable to say that the divided allegiance that moves in the depths of the human spirit has been long with us. The permutations of our understanding of this transcend (and hence we transcend) simple dichotomies like ancient and modern, requiring us to see the perennial and the transitory together, just as the local and the universal, the particular and the universal, cannot be finally mediated and simply reconciled. The middle ground is the human situation in which we make manageable, to the extent we can, that which can only be imperfectly mediated, never finally reconciled.
This is a brilliant essay, traversing a vast intellectual space with admirable ease and fairness. It would be of much value if the author, who has already done so much, would work out in even more detail how his approach may illuminate other indispensable explorers of the dividedness that is man, authors such as Augustine, Aquinas, Kant, and Hegel. On the other hand, perhaps it is incumbent upon us, and a grateful response, to test his ideas by doing these things for ourselves.
Republished with the gracious permission of Modern Age (Summer 2002).