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Honor and the Honorable

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  1. Introduction
  2. The distinction made when Odysseus is faced with the blatant incivility of Polyphemus
  3. Odysseus' dedication to Xenia
  4. Odysseus' desire for Kleos
  5. Conclusion

According to newspaper headings and television reports, every man and woman who died in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 is a hero. Even three years later, memorials are still built, hymns are still sung, and candlelight vigils are still held in remembrance of the bravest individuals modern America has ever known. The ancient Greeks would be all too happy to disagree. In fact, they would find the blind sacrifice of life in the name of a social duty to be a waste. Morality as a system of reasoning is a contemporary phenomenon; the extremities of right and wrong did not become a true force in the decision-making process until the influx of Christianity. The ?common good? did not matter until the Romans placed society above the individual. The Greece of Homer's Odyssey is a lawless Greece, and any kind of morality based on lawlessness is not morality recognizable by any ethicist. Greeks, as a reflection of their cultural beliefs, use their literature to stress the importance of two traits common to all epic heroes: the fulfillment of Xenia and Kléos. Xenia, an extravagant form of hospitality, divides the civilized from the uncivilized, while Kléos, an emphasis on death with honor above all, divides the heroic from the ordinary. The Greek hero is ultimately selfish; consequently, the greatest hero in all of epic history, Odysseus, is the most selfish man of all. In the shadow of terrorism, it is hard to admire a man who reputes any sense of humanity. However, Odysseus remains the truest embodiment of epic heroism, not based on any duty to society, but on his strict adherence to the Greek ideologies of Xenia and Kléos.

[...] He intentionally risks the lives of every man in his party for fame, placing life on a level far below that of Kléos and honorable death. He had saved them for nothing. Poseidon learns the name of his son's assailant and obliterates the last of Odysseus' companions. Kléos drives Odysseus to shatter a bond even more sacred than that of friendship: marriage. His first traipse into adultery occurs during his seven-year stay with Calypso, the ?bewitching nymph, the lustrous goddess, [who holds] him back, deep in her arching caverns, craving him for a husband? ( 1.16 -18). [...]

[...] He risks his life in true heroic style to preserve the honor of Greek hospitality, and consequently, his own honor. This dichotomy of the races, civil versus uncivil, based on the premise of Xenia, builds the conclusion of The Odyssey into Odysseus' most heroic moment. While Odysseus fights for his right to return to Ithaca out of sheer longing and loneliness, he makes haste for a second reason. His strict compliance with the decrees of Xenia directly results in the abuse of his generosity. [...]

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