The Iliad, The Odyssey, and Controlling One’s Passions

By Arbon Ransom

The Iliad and The Odyssey are excellent lessons on the importance of keeping one’s passions within due bounds, or within proper limits. They teach us to control ourselves and that there is a time for aggression and a time for restraint. The Iliad shows the consequences of a lack of control and The Odyssey demonstrates the success that comes from controlling oneself. By reading these epics, and entering thoughtful discussion in the OGB seminars, a person can become a few steps closer to attaining balance and control of passions by modeling the many examples given.

The very beginning of The Iliad spares no time in making it clear that the central theme is the sorrow and misfortune that comes from letting one’s passions be in control:

“Rage- Goddess, Sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles, murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses…” (1.1-2).

What is, perhaps, the most important lesson to be learned from this? Achilles’ rage and consequent inaction doesn’t just affect him, although it does lead to the death of his best friend. It costs … so many sturdy souls, great fighters’ souls…”(1.3-4)Here is an example of how one’s brash actions negatively affect many within their sphere of influence. Wise is he who considers who else – loved one or stranger – might be impacted by his deeds.

It is debated whether or not rage is the only motive for Achilles’ unwillingness to fight. I believe that the story does indicate a variety of motives as any good tale does. It cannot be denied that it is a primary motive, justifying it as a theme for this paper. So blinded is Achilles by his anger and hatred that his heart is not moved when his friends come to him, begging and bribing him to come and fight.

“…a stark disaster, too much to bear,… that is what we face and we are afraid. …Fail us now? What a grief it will be to you through all the years to come. No remedy, no way to cure the damage once it’s done. …But now at last, stop, Achilles- let your heart-devouring anger go!” (9. 275- 317).

To the desperate pleas and riches offered by his comrades in battle, Achilles can only recount the grievances that led him to inaction in the first place.

Due to his choices, Achilles loses his dearest friend Patroclus. Only after this does he again join the fray. While honor and glory may have been won in the culture of the times, it can reasonably be called into question how much love and respect his fellow soldiers had for him in their hearts afterwards.

On the flip side of the same coin, The Odyssey tells the many woeful tales of the great tactician Odysseus. It is here that Homer shows us the benefits that come to a man who has control over himself while still being very much prone to emotions. Almost everything Odysseus does begins with him choosing between two options. One can see how self control benefits him in the end.

An example of when the only two outcomes were success or death is when Odysseus and his men are trapped by the cyclops, Polyphemus. After several men have been eaten and the cyclops has fallen asleep, these are Odysseus’ words:

“And I with my fighting heart, I thought at first to steal up to him, draw the sharp sword at my hip and stab his chest where the midriff packs the liver- I groped for the fatal spot but a fresh thought held me back. There at a stroke we’d finish off ourselves as well- how could we with our bare hands heave back that slab he set to block his cavern’s gaping maw?” (9. 336-342).

Had he acted immediately on his impulses, he would have sealed all of their fates.

There are many examples, but some of the most important are the numerous times he holds back his emotions when he’s disguised as a beggar. One of these instances is when the goatherd abuses him verbally and physically.

Odysseus was torn… should he wheel with is staff and beat the scoundrel senseless?- or hoist him by the midriff, split his skull on the rocks? He steeled himself instead, his mind in full control” (9. 336-342). 

His efforts to reclaim and purge his house could have been ruined in a single instance on multiple occasions. Self control allows him to succeed and leaves the book with a happy ending, at least for Odysseus and those still loyal to him.

It is important to take note of the fact that Odysseus experiences struggles just as any man. The common man can connect with him on the grounds of universal suffering. All experience pain and injustice in life at some point and in some way. Subduing one’s passions does not mean one is exempt from the natural tendencies of men. It simply means becoming master of one’s impulses, not vice versa. After reading The Iliad and The Odyssey, one should hopefully come away more inclined to think before acting or speaking. How would things be different if all men acted in such a manner?

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