Much like the weary Greek scouts who succumbed to the effects of the alluring lotus fruit in the “Odyssey,” we have lost sight of the higher ends for which we are designed. The Western world no longer possesses a firm sense of purpose or understanding of itself. But what has led to such a general decline? The “Odyssey” suggests that the answer is closely tied to memory.
In Book IX of Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus recounts to the Wind-King Aeolus the story of how he and his companions found themselves in the land of the lotus-eaters—an uncharted, dream-like place whose languid inhabitants spend their days consuming a mysterious plant that grows in apparent abundance:
I was driven thence by foul winds for a space of nine days upon the sea, but on the tenth day we reached the land of the Lotus-eaters, who live on a food that comes from a kind of flower. Here we landed to take in fresh water, and our crews got their mid-day meal on the shore near the ships. When they had eaten and drunk I sent two of my company to see what manner of men the people of the place might be, and they had a third man under them.
Before long the Greek scouts stumble upon the lotus-eating men, a lethargic lot who freely offer up a portion of the fruits on which they subsist. Perhaps understandably, the weary Greeks accept without hesitation. They had been long at sea after all, and long at war before that. Who would turn down the promise of refreshment after having endured such adversity as they had? The moment the men partake of the fruits however, a strange effect seizes hold of them: as if charmed by a spell, they suddenly lose all memory of their mission, and the desire to press on with the homeward journey to Ithaca abruptly dissipates. As Odysseus tells it:
They started at once, and went about among the Lotus-eaters, who did them no hurt, but gave them to eat of the lotus, which was so delicious that those who ate of it left off caring about home, and did not even want to go back and say what had happened to them, but were for staying and munching lotus with the Lotus-eaters without thinking further of their return; nevertheless, though they wept bitterly I forced them back to the ships and made them fast under the benches. Then I told the rest to go on board at once, lest any of them should taste of the lotus and leave off wanting to get home, so they took their places and smote the grey sea with their oars.
The lotus-eater story—which stands for the perils of apathy and forgetting—is an apt allegory for the modernized West. Much like the weary Greek scouts who succumbed to the effects of the alluring lotus fruit, we have succumbed to our own time’s variations on this symbol, and lost sight of the higher ends for which we are designed as a consequence. The Western world no longer possesses a firm sense of purpose or understanding of itself in relation to historical time. It has not managed to maintain an authentic and lasting idea that can withstand the arbitrary caprice of the moment. But what has led to such a general decline in level? The Odyssey suggests that the answer is closely tied to memory. To know where we are going, we must remain conscious of where we have been.
If the act of remembering is an essential facet of the traditional sense of life, imbuing the present with the living continuity of the past, then the modern sets itself apart through its tremendous capacity to forget. Goethe wrote:
He who cannot give account
Of the last three thousand years
Rests in darkness inexperienced
though he lives from day to day.
Those whom we might conceive of as being thoroughly ‘modern,’ all the skeptics, technocrats, and high-priests of progress, seem to suffer proudly from a myopic narrowness, the unfortunate result of which is the ossification of those faculties that allow one to distinguish between the eternal and the ephemeral.
Our susceptibility to constant distraction and stimulation compounds our collective amnesia. In his work The Denial of Death, the sociologist Ernest Becker commented on the sensory onslaught which defines the modern experience: “Modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness, or he spends his time shopping, which is the same thing. As awareness calls for types of heroic dedication that his culture no longer provides for him, society contrives to help him forget.” First published in 1973, Becker’s work could easily be updated to include a consideration of the digital-technical age, saturated as it is with smartphones, social media, and effectively unlimited high-speed internet pornography: all the virtual blossoms of an illusory garden. As Becker realized, the practical effect of this for the human spirit has been sedation. Like those hapless Greeks, we have become enamored with the fruits of modernity at the expense of that lofty Ithaca for which we are meant.
Though traditionally the word Nostos is associated with Odysseus’ harrowing journey home by sea, we might also consider the concept of Telos here. Occurring only seven times in the whole of the twenty-four book epic, the deeper implications of this concept prove easily lost in translation. In the Aristotelian sense, Telos means end or goal, though one might also use purpose. Plainly stated, the Telos of a thing has to do with the final causes or ends towards which it is driven by its particular nature. Odysseus’ Telos is inextricably connected to his homeward journey to Ithaca, at the end of which he is fated to reunite with his family and reclaim his fracturing kingdom from the usurpers who threaten to waste it. This overarching goal symbolizes the end that Odysseus is destined for, and towards which his nature compels him to strive. The fulfillment of this design not only represents the literal end of his story, but also the successful completion of the heroic quest or journey that the word ‘odyssey’ has come to imply. Although Odysseus often strays or even intentionally delays his homecoming, we know that he will not be content until he realizes his intuitive call of destiny.
Understood in relation to the Telos idea, the meaning of the lotus becomes clear: its narcotic-like effect not only prevents those who consume it from returning home in the literal sense, but also extinguishes their inner orientation towards any goal, home, or way of being in the higher, spiritual sense. We recall in this respect a well-known passage from Dante’s Divine Comedy: “Although our voyage is to be outward, it is also to be inward, to the sources of all great acts which are not out there, but in here, in us all, where the Muses dwell.”
The great danger of the lotus fruit then is not physical death, as is the case with Polyphemus the Cyclops, the Laistrygonians, or Scylla and Charybdis, but spiritual death, which for the Homeric Greeks would have corresponded to the loss of one’s “Thumos,” or spiritedness. If left to their own devices, the men who fell victim to the fruit’s spell would have stayed thus indefinitely; “munching the lotus” while gripped by a state of apathy that prevents them from “thinking further of their return.” How similar this is to the modern individual described by Becker, inundated with so many trivialities and diversions in place of heroic dedication and awareness.
The analogy here attempted begs one further question: where is our Odysseus, the vigilant captain who will rescue us from our folly and set us straight on our course? One might quickly reach the conclusion that there is no such help available today, as we in the modern west have proven quick to dispense with the institutions, religious or otherwise, that once provided a sense of guidance and stability. In their place we find a servile deference to the gods of innovation and progress, to consumerism and the gnawing need for all manner of things. While it is true that some hope may yet reside in the study of the great works of art and literature, even these have all too often been stripped of their living character and reduced to the level of a mere museum curiosity or relic from a “backwards” age. Deprived of such guides, we are left like one who has had a great support pulled out from beneath his feet. In its stead we are offered the myriad distractions and entertainments that proliferate today—so many analgesics for our metaphysical wounds. As Homer rightly sensed, in the end such substitutes are not capable of fulfilling our perennial dreams.
If the last observation seems dire, it need not be so. What is really needed is a shift in orientation: a willingness to rediscover in our present condition its enduring mythical quality. It was the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gassett who wrote: “He who does not really feel himself lost, is lost without remission; that is to say, he never finds himself, never comes up against his own reality.” So it is with us. Like Odysseus and his companions, we may feel ourselves to be wanderers in this world; estranged from home and frequently confronted with obstacles. As Gassett reminds us however, this part of our journey is a necessary one. The hero must always descend to the depths and confront whatever challenge awaits there before the triumphant return can be accomplished. To avoid this stage of experience, or to cling to something that blithely makes us forget about it, as the lotus-eaters do, is to face life as one who is asleep. It is this sense for the interior world and the journey through its depths that characterizes the best of the ancient Western tradition and that, perhaps more than anything else, distinguishes it from the modern mindset, which tends to forget or overlook the inner-life altogether. Thus, any hope of regaining our footing necessarily begins with re-discovering and re-engaging such imaginative works; not as dead texts or mere remnants of the past, but as the reflections of a living tradition. It goes without saying that the many distractions of the day do not promise to make this task an easy one, but anything less could only leave us marooned with the lotus-eaters; content with illusions and far from where we are meant to be.
To close, I offer the poem ”Ithaka,” by C.P. Cavafy.
As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
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Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by W.H.D. Rouse. New York: The New American Library, 1937.
Becker, Ernest. The Denial of Death. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973.
Ortega y Gasset, Jose. The Revolt of the Masses. Translated by Marciano Guerrero. New York: W .W. Norton Company, 1994.
Cavafy, C.P. “Ithaka” in C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992.
The featured image (detail) is “And Dream Idle, Happy Day-Dreams That Never Ended” by W. Heath Robinson (1872-1944) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.