BMCR 2005.07.45

Odysseus, Hero of Practical Intelligence. Deliberation and Signs in Homer’s Odyssey

Jeffrey Barnouw, Odysseus, hero of practical intelligence : deliberation and signs in Homer's Odyssey. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2004. ix, 377 pages ; 22 cm. ISBN 076183026X $49.00.

While presenting itself, right from the title, as a celebration of Odysseus’ intelligence and its accomplishments in the Odyssey, this book deals with a variety of issues which are of interest to both classicists and non-classicists. In describing the workings of Odysseus’ mind in inner deliberation scenes, the Odyssey shows how the hero’s intelligence is grounded on his ability to anticipate consequences and control his actions accordingly; Odysseus is able to subordinate other impulses to his main purpose, that of returning home. The mental conflict which goes on in the deliberation scenes is not between “reason” and “desire”, as Plato and many scholars after him think, but rather a conflict between competing impulses. In Homer’s view, then, the mind is not hierarchically organized, and this notion, far from being primitive, anticipates the psychology of Chrysippus and inaugurates a tradition which, through Hobbes and Leibniz, leads to Peirce and Dewey. As can be inferred from the philosophers just quoted, the book is not meant exclusively for classicists. Indeed, in his analyses J.Barnouw, who is Professor of English Language and Comparative Literature at the University of Texas and is also the author of the book “Propositional Perception: Phantasia, Predication and Sign in Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics” (2002), makes use of translations, but he transliterates the Greek words on which his arguments are centered.

The book consists of three parts, preceded by an introduction and followed by an appendix; it is closed by a bibliography, an index of names and one of concepts.

Through the nine chapters of part I (“The Heart of Intelligence: Anticipating Consequences”), B. defines the characteristics of Odysseus’ practical intelligence. B. starts by analyzing “two critical passages” (Od. 9, 299ff. and 20, 5ff.) and shows that Odysseus’ deliberation in those episodes (in the Cyclops’ cave in the first passage; in front of the women servants in the second one) is a contest between competing impulses or plans of action which takes place in the hero’s θυμός. To illustrate this, he relies also, convincingly to me, on the contiguity between ὁρμή (“impulse, urge”) and ὁρμαίνω (“to ponder”): the latter is, with μερμερίζω, the verb used to describe the pondering of the two alternative plans of action in the deliberation processes (pp. 116ff.). Odysseus’ μῆτις relies on tricks, but always in the service of a larger purpose; in the poem’s plot Odysseus’ cleverness is underscored through contrast with the recklessness (a concept conveyed especially by the word ατασθαλίαι) of others (most notably his crew and the suitors). B. goes on by underlining some more features of Odysseus’ μῆτις : he effectively stresses the hero’s ability to anticipate consequences, and, by recalling the wide use of puns in the Odyssey, shows that this aspect is hinted at by the poet through the frequent combination of the two words μή (prohibitive negative particle) and τις (indefinite pronoun): μή τις, “lest anyone”, conveys, in Od. 5, 356; 12, 48; 16, 301 and many other instances, “an anticipation that is rooted in caution, looking to avoid or prevent unwanted occurrences” (p. 59). Finally, B. explores the meaning of the cognate verbs τλάω and τολμάω, which involve the notions of both daring and enduring, that is, of suspending the impulse to an immediate reaction in view of a more favorable opportunity.

Out of the three, this part is the most focused on the issues which are at the core of the Odyssey itself, and it offers some relevant contributions to the understanding of the poem. The rejection of the view that “in the Odyssey self restraint regularly involves subordinating desire to reason” (so E. Cook)1 is convincing. Reason does not seem to be involved in the process of restraining one’s θυμός : in the passage from book 9 already mentioned; it is a second impulse, again originating in θυμός (it is indeed called a second θυμός) that restrains the first impulse. B. is also right in emphasizing, again against Cook, that in the Odyssey μῆτις is opposed to recklessness rather than to βίη, “force” (cf. p. 38). While it can be stated that θυμός is the source of both an intense emotional response and an impulse which can restrain that very first response, the strongly emotional connotations of the term should not be underestimated if we want to grasp more effectively to what extent Odysseus’ mind works differently than other heroes’ minds; it is for this reason that, despite its imperfections, I find Cook’s treatment of Odysseus’ self restraint still very valuable.

Part II (“The Contest of Philosophies”) is devoted to the persistence of Homeric ideas of mind in later thought. In the first two chapters, B. shows that the Stoic Chrysippus’ ideas on deliberation and motivation are strikingly similar to the Homeric view of mind and action (with the significant difference, however, that “Homer’s heroes, including Odysseus, are for the most part concerned with what is practically the best course of action, not ethically the best”, p. 145). The third and fourth chapters contain a critique of Snell’s view that Homeric man has no sense of the self or of himself as a unity. These chapters regrettably appear after the remarkable book by C. Gill,2 whose influence B. repeatedly acknowledges. Indeed, the suggestion that Homeric patterns of deliberation prefigure ancient philosophical thinking on this topic and a critical evaluation of Snell’s views on Homeric man have already been effectively developed in Gill’s monograph. But B. is also able to discover, in the fifth and sixth chapters, analogies between the descriptions of mental processes, deliberation and action in the Odyssey and the theories of later thinkers such as Leibniz, Kant, Schiller, and Schopenauer. B.’s ability to draw those analogies is quite impressive, and I have no doubt that all those interested in the psychological theories of the philosophers just mentioned will find the book useful. As a classicist concerned mainly with the interpretation of the Odyssey, however, I wonder where all these connections are supposed to lead us; in some cases, with the support of such illustrious thinkers, B. seems to be trying to prove, against, for example, Snell, that Homeric view of human mind is in no way primitive. The last three chapters focus on criticisms made by influential scholars about Odysseus’ practical intelligence and the ethical world of the Odyssey. Thus, the reading of the Odyssey proposed by Horkheimer and Adorno in their “Dialectic of Enlightenment” is challenged on the grounds that Odysseus’ pragmatic reason does not undermine any essential value in human life and its accomplishments are indeed celebrated in the poem. Against Adkins’ and Finley’s reconstruction of the Homeric heroic code, B. explores, especially through a reading of the Assembly scene in Od. 2, the ethical foundations of the Odyssey, which incorporate a concern with social justice.

Part III (“Signs and Identity: Cognition and Recognition”) seems somewhat awkwardly tacked to the first two. Its inclusion is justified by B. on the grounds that Odysseus’ mind is good at anticipating consequences, and to do so it has to be able to interpret what the Stoics called σημεῖα, “signs” implying an “if this, then that” relation. The Homeric word for “sign”, σῆμα, is never used by Homer with the meaning of the later term σημεῖον, but it plays, nonetheless, a significant role in the poem. B.’s hypothesis is that there must have been a fundamental shift in Greek understanding of the sign, of “what makes a sign a sign” (p. vii), between the time of Homer and that of Hippocrates. B. starts by specifying that in order for there to be a sign in Homer (that is a σῆμα) “there must be an intention to signify which is recognized by another in the object that serves as a sign” (p. 281). Thus the typical application of a σῆμα is in the “rhetorical frame of argument or persuasion, where someone means a sign to signify to someone else” (p. 278). Things are different with the later concept of σημεῖον, which is an inferential sign: it has a fundamental function in cognition and deliberation. B. observes that Odysseus’ scar is called σῆμα by Homer only when a speaker presents it as a proof (in Od. 21, 217; 23, 73; 24, 329); however the same scar is not called σῆμα in the scene in which Eurykleia recognizes Odysseus. In that case the scar functions as what will be later called a σημεῖον, an inferential sign that has a natural connection to what it signifies (that is Odysseus’ identity), without anybody intending someone else’s cognition. B. here points out a problematic but undoubtedly fascinating aspect, which will perhaps call for further investigation. This is just an outline of the arguments presented in this part of the book, which contains also a critique of Auerbach’s famous analysis of the bath scene digression: B. sides with de Jong in interpreting the digression as a flashback which takes place in Eurykleia’s mind. Moreover, he explains the difference between the apparently superficial Homeric style and the Biblical one, credited with greater depth, by pointing out the different nature of signs characteristic of Greek and Hebrew cultures: in the Old Testament signs are singular expressions of the inscrutable will of God, which gives the sense, or illusion, of depth; in Homer “the relations between things (and events) reflect a general providence or rationality that enables them to be reliably taken as signs of one another” (p. 327). This accounts for what Auerbach calls the “fully externalized form” in which phenomena, “completely fixed in their spatial and temporal relations”, are represented in Homer. The intellectual richness of B.’s analyses can be observed also in this part of the book: Hobbes is drawn on to define the logic of Eurykleia’s flashback in Od. 19, while Dewey, Augustine and Saussure are quoted to help define the characteristics of “signs”.

In the appendix (“Writing and Oral Tradition Interact”) B. collects the opinions of some “qualified classicists” who believe that Homer did make use of writing in composing his poems. I find B.’s claim in the preface that “there is no need to go into oral theory in order to justify interpreting the poem without reference to it” (p. ix) perfectly reasonable, and this is the very reason why the appendix is in a way pointless. The arguments B. deploys in the book do not make the hypothesis that Homer composed his poems with the help of writing either more or less likely. If B. aims only, as may be the case, at arguing that Homer’s poetry is sophisticated, then it may be worth recalling that many oralists assume that the Homeric poems can boast a degree of sophistication (at the level of diction as well as themes) at least as great as the one imagined by those who believe in a poet writing down his poems.

This book should have been shorter: many repetitions in the presentation of the material could have been avoided; it is, however, an interesting contribution to the understanding of Homer and, perhaps more, of a set of later philosophical and psychological theories which, as B. convincingly demonstrates, have much in common with Homer’s poetic descriptions.


1. E. Cook, The Odyssey in Athens, Ithaca 1995, p. 31.

2. C. Gill, Personality in Greek Epic, Tragedy and Philosophy, Oxford 1996.