This morning, driving my son to his tutorial, we listened to Ian McKellen reading Book IX of The Odyssey. Matthew had already read it, but his father is running behind, so we caught Dad up via the McKellen performance (which is as wonderful as you would expect it to be). The passage in which Odysseus and his men stop at the island of the Lotus Eaters caught my imagination.
So off they went and soon enough
they mingled among the natives, Lotus-eaters, Lotus-eaters
who had no notion of killing my companions, not at all,
they simply gave them the lotus to taste instead … Any crewmen who ate the lotus, the honey-sweet fruit,
lost all desire to send a message back, much less return,
their only wish to linger there with the Lotus-eaters,
grazing on lotus, all memory of the journey home
dissolved forever. But I brought them back, back
to the hollow ships, and streaming tears—I forced them,
hauled them under the rowing benches, lashed them fast
and shouted out commands to my other, steady comrades:
‘Quick, no time to lose, embark in the racing ships!’—
so none could eat the lotus, forget the voyage home.
The Lotus Eaters are addicted to pleasure, a mellow kind of bliss that keeps them imprisoned in the present moment, unaware of the past, the future, or of any sense of mission. It is an overwhelmingly potent drug, the lotus, because it makes its eaters “forget the voyage home” — that is, makes them forget where their true home is, and the fact that they have a mission to accomplish beyond pleasing themselves. It makes them forget who they are, and what they are supposed to do. It is a very pleasant forgetfulness, but, as the commander Odysseus understands, utterly ruinous to his men.
This brought to mind yesterday’s post about whether or not we are in a uniquely terrible time. You will remember that the political philosopher J. Budziszewski wrote:
We are passing through an eerie phase of history in which the things that everyone really knows are treated as unheard-of doctrines, a time in which the elements of common decency are themselves attacked as indecent. Nothing quite like this has ever happened before. Although our civilization has passed through quite a few troughs of immorality, never before has vice held the high moral ground.
Bear in mind that J.B. is writing as a Roman Catholic. What he’s saying, it seems to me, is that we in the West have become lotus eaters. That is, we have become so addicted to our own pleasures (which include material pleasures, as well as certain liberties) that we have forgotten who we are, we have forgotten the way home, we have even forgotten that we are supposed to be on a mission for home. We have lost a collective telos, instead thinking only of the here, the now, and our pleasure, and our happiness.
Had Odysseus’s crew stayed among the lotus eaters, it would have been a very pleasant catastrophe, but it would still have been a catastrophe, at least from Odysseus’s point of view. The catastrophe would have consisted not of physical or emotional suffering, but in the loss of vision and meaning beyond the pleasure of the moment.
It would not, however, have seemed catastrophic to one who has tasted the lotus. In fact, they would have thought they lived in the best of all possible worlds. From Odysseus’s point of view, indeed from the point of view held by his crewmen before they tasted the lotus, to lose the vision of and the longing for Home is the worst of all possible worlds.
A friend wrote me about the “Time Such As This” post:
As a non-believer, and as someone who is convinced that what Budziszewski thinks of as sexual immorality is instead a mark of human enlightenment, a document of civilization and not a descent into barbarism, I do not share one iota of his outrage, his grief, or his confusion. But it seems self-evident to me that were I a believer I would feel exactly as he does.
UPDATE: I just read the Tennyson poem about the lotus eaters, recommended by a reader. It’s great, and it illuminates the philosophical and moral questions this episode from The Odyssey raises. Tennyson presents the case from the mariners’ point of view. They’ve been at war for a long time, and are weary from their suffering and their wandering. Life is pain, life is toil, life is routine, life may not have meaning. Among the lotus-eaters, there is an escape from pain, from time, from life, from awareness of evil. What is wrong with this?
What’s wrong with it is this: it is a lie. It is a form of death. It is a false happiness, an artificial peace, a release from tension achieved at the cost of oneself. It is not Home, but a counterfeit version of Home.
Interesting to contemplate Tennyson’s take on the Land of the Lotus-Eaters passage as a kind of reverse Eden. In Genesis, the tempter told Adam and Eve that if they ate of the fruit, they would be as the gods, in that they would know all. In Tennyson’s take on The Odyssey, the mariners are tempted to eat the lotus so that they can be as the gods: removed from knowledge of mortality and suffering, blissfully above it all.