Perverting the Good
“Man of misery, whose land have I lit on now?
What are they here–violent, savage, lawless?
or friendly to strangers, god fearing men?”
Three times in “The Odyssey” does our hero, Odysseus, say these words when he arrives on a new island. Prof. Vandiver says that Odysseus lands on many more than three islands over the course of the epic, but he says these words only three times. This is what Homer is doing here: comparing the xenia — hospitality — that Odysseus receives in each place. As I’ve mentioned here earlier, xenia is, for the ancient Greeks, a basis for civilization. It’s how you tell the civilized from the barbarians: by the way they treat strangers who come to their land.
The first time we hear Odysseus say these words, it’s on the island of Scheria, where the inhabitants give him the best xenia imaginable. The second time is in Odysseus’s recollection of landing on the island of Polyphemos, the cyclops, who gives him and his men the worst possible xenia (he kills and eats six of them). The third and final time we hear him speak these words is when he arrives home on Ithaca, though he doesn’t at first realize where he is (hence these words). Vandiver explains that Ithaca is in the mess that it’s in not because of the lack of xenia, as on the cyclops’ island, but because of its perversion by the suitors. That is, they have taken a great good but twisted and abused it, creating injustice and disorder. They have exploited the privileged position they have as guests in Odysseus’s house, and used it to mistreat his wife and son, to bleed down his wealth, and to cause doubt and disorder among the populace.
Most of the second half of the epic is concerned with Odysseus figuring out how to deal with this crisis, and set everything to right. It will involve a massive bloodletting, but such is the result of perverting xenia.
I have only just now started the second half of the epic, so it will be interesting to me to see how Homer describes the state of affairs Odysseus, who is exploring his homeland disguised as a beggar, finds on Ithaca. Judging only from Vandiver’s remark in the lecture introducing the Ithacan wanderings, it may turn out that a perverted xenia is more difficult to deal with than it’s utter lack, because it is not Evil, strictly speaking, but rather the deformation of the Good. It is a simpler matter to deal with plain evil than with a good that has been twisted so much that its effect is evil. I think the old saying, “The corruption of the best is the worst” speaks to the dynamic here; by perverting the ideal of xenia, the suitors tempt people to see xenia not as the basis of civilized life, but as a code that allows the powerful to exploit the weak under the guise of morality.
This morning, thinking about this turn of affairs in “The Odyssey,” I was reminded of a conversation I had yesterday with a Catholic friend. We were talking about the sex abuse scandal and its effects. N. said that the worst part of it, for him, was the destruction the Church’s officials caused to good order, and the possibility of belief. He explained that he has seen so many good Catholics twist themselves into knots trying to avert their eyes from the wickedness in their midst, and the failure of church authorities — ordained and lay — to deal effectively with the crimes. For reasons I can’t detail here, he’s had a ringside seat for some pretty awful stuff. He told me he thinks often of leaving the Church himself out of disillusionment. As he put it to me yesterday (this is a close paraphrase):
When you see people who have the Faith acting this way, and doing everything they can to excuse the inexcusable, it makes you wonder what’s the value of the thing. At least the unbelievers have an excuse. They don’t know any better. I’d almost rather be around them than around my fellow Catholics, who make a mockery of the Faith.
N. said he knows that the way these people act is not the Faith, but rather a false idol masquerading as the Faith. Still, it has left him feeling shaken when he sees the people who are supposed to be changed and enlightened by the Faith behaving as if their religion has excised their moral sense. He is really wary now about whether or not the experience of life in the Church — that is, the community of Christian believers — is a reliable guide to the Truth, or rather a sophisticated and alluring form of lying.
I’ve been there. In most ways, I’m still there, though I’m in a better emotional and spiritual place these days. I pray that my friend will get there too, whether or not he remains in the Church.
The thing is, this is by no means a Church thing alone. Think of that searing passage from All Quiet On The Western Front, in which the protagonist, Paul Baumer, returns home from the World War I front for rest and recreation, and has to listen to the civilians back home in the cafe indulging in patriotic platitudes. They have no idea what’s really happening on the front. They comfort themselves with easy talk and moralistic bromides, not grasping what this perversion of patriotism means for men like Baumer, whose illusions are being torn from him. Does this mean patriotism is a lie? No — but it does mean that the way people understand patriotism, and deploy that ideal in discourse and action, has been perverted, such that any thinking and morally sensitive man would be inclined toward cynicism.
This is not precisely what’s going on with Odysseus, of course. He is not being disillusioned about the nature of xenia, at least I don’t think he is. My point in bringing this up is to suggest that evil that shows itself as a perversion of the good is a more difficult thing to eradicate than undisguised evil — and a more dangerous thing, too, because it can lead people to despair of goodness at all.
(By the way, these are the kinds of conversations I’ve been having with my son Matthew, inspired by our reading of the Homeric epic. This morning, driving to school, we talked about why Athena praised Odysseus’s clever lying. How can lying be something praiseworthy? Are there ever occasions in which lying is a virtuous act? And so forth. Again and again, I say: reading “The Odyssey” with my son is a spectacular experience! I can’t urge you parents strongly enough to get a copy of it for yourself and your children — the Fagles translation seems the most accessible to younger readers — and read it together. My own experience, and my son’s, has been immensely enriched by listening to Prof. Vandiver’s “Great Courses” lectures, which I also heartily recommend. On the one hand, I regret that my formal education did not expose me to “The Odyssey.” But on the other, whose to say that my “education” ended when I left college 23 years ago? The opportunity to learn is always in front of us.)