By: John Esposito
In part 1 I tried to link the Greek mythic trope of the not-so-noble gods with the effective impossibility of middle management. That post turned out rather sympathetic to the middle manager, and by extension to the gods. I even said that mortal rage against the gods “isn’t quite aimed correctly”.
In this post I’m going to push in the other direction. Instead of splitting ‘responsible’ from ‘causal’ in the concept signified by the Greek word aitios, I’m going to try chunking ‘responsible’ and ‘causal’ back together.
Everyone is to blame
The following lines open the first speech in the Odyssey (1.32-34):
ὢ πόποι, οἷον δή νυ θεοὺς βροτοὶ αἰτιόωνται:
ἐξ ἡμέων γάρ φασι κάκ᾽ ἔμμεναι, οἱ δὲ καὶ αὐτοὶ
σφῇσιν ἀτασθαλίῃσιν ὑπὲρ μόρον ἄλγε᾽ ἔχουσιν…
Ugh. Why do mortals blame gods? They say bad things come from us. But actually! they bring excessive suffering on themselves, by their own stupid idiocies.
Right before this, the poem listed Odysseus’ sufferings — climaxing in the deaths of all his warrior-companions (hetairoi). Odysseus’ name even means ‘suffering’, as is noted later (probably twice). But within ten lines Zeus has flat-out blamed humans for their own suffering.
Zeus even uses that double-edged word ‘aitios‘: the verb in the first line (αἰτιόωνται, aitioontai) means both ‘mortals blame us gods for’ and ‘mortals think we gods brought about’.
And of course, says Zeus, this is totally unfair. He goes on to review the story of one mortal (Aigisthos) who obviously is to blame for his own suffering, since after all he slept with a married woman and then killed her husband. Plus I, Zeus, warned him this was a bad idea. Totally his fault. My hands are clean.
On the one hand, this reasoning sounds plausible for reasons somewhat like those I outlined in part 1. Imagine any middle manager’s analogous reasoning: “As the person in charge, I’m not really responsible (aitios) for all my subordinates’ screw-ups. And if I told them to do otherwise then I’m especially not responsible! After all, I didn’t make up the rule that adultery and murder are bad.”
On the other hand: view that reasoning from the perspective of someone judging the middle manager’s performance. Sounds like a pretty lame excuse. The buck was supposed to stop with you. I’m holding you responsible.
Well, if we stop here, Odysseus has just gotten what he deserved. He’s miserable, twenty years away from home, crying on a distant seashore. No Odyssey because no odyssey.
Some are innocent
Athena won’t let this happen. She calls Zeus on his BS (summarizing Odyssey 1.44-62):
Sure, that’s true of Aigisthos. Lots of people eat the bread they buttered. But what about Odysseus? He didn’t do anything to deserve his present suffering. Why do you hate him so much?
So Zeus’ ethical syllogism falls apart because the major premise (‘all mortals cause their own suffering’) is falsified by one counter-example (Odysseus). So far, so irrefutable. And in fact Zeus does accept his daughter’s objection and permits Athena to intervene in Odysseus’ life — and thereby sets off the plot of the poem, the long-suffering man’s return home.
But Athena’s refutation of Zeus’ claim that the universe is just (‘the theodicy of The Odyssey‘) is more comprehensive than ‘whataboutism’. Of course, it’s logically possible that only Odysseus is innocent. But we have two clues that Odysseus is everyone. First, the first word of the Odyssey is andra — signifying merely ‘a man’, but in context denoting Odysseus. By reference, the poem is about Odysseus; by meaning, the poem is about ‘some dude’. Second, Athena’s closing description of Zeus’ unfair attitude puns ‘Odysseus’ (the victim of Zeus’ attitude) and ‘hate’ (her characterization of his attitude): the word I translated as ‘you hate’ is ‘ὠδύσαο’ –‘odysao‘. By pun, Odysseus is…well, somehow tangled up in hate; and Zeus’ hatred for him is what falsifies his claim that the universe is just.
Athena’s objection, then, goes beyond simply re-quantifying Zeus’ major premise as ‘universal minus one’. Because an innocent man suffers, Zeus evidently hates him.
This is a far stronger picture of responsibility (aitios) than my sympathetic portrait of the ‘parvipotent king’ who, after all, doesn’t make the rules handed down from above, and isn’t really to blame for the actions of those below.
(As an aside, one might wonder if Athena’s picture of responsibility is more like a military commander’s: yes, even if your men screwed up, it’s your fault that they died. After all, she is also a goddess of war. This is in fact one argument often leveled against the ‘innocent Odysseus’ picture: he often could have done things that prevented the deaths of his warrior-companions. More on this another time.)
And while Zeus does accept Athena’s argument, he can’t resist adding one more excuse for why he hasn’t done anything about the suffering of this innocent man (Odyssey 1.64-75, again my paraphrase):
Wait, I don’t hate Odysseus. Actually Poseidon hates Odysseus, I mean after all Odysseus killed his son. But, okay, since now we’re all agreed that we need to help Odysseus, Poseidon won’t be able to keep harming him anymore!
Again you might read this charitably: Odysseus did after all maim Poseidon’s son Polyphemus. (Though of course he did so only after Polyphemus ate several of his warrior-companions.) And Zeus doesn’t really control everything Poseidon does, right? So it’s really not fair to blame Zeus for Poseidon’s hatred.
But again imagine yourself as a superior in a management hierarchy, evaluating Zeus’ job performance, and hearing this excuse. “Well, I don’t really hate this subordinate of mine, but some other guy does. Not my fault! But okay, yeah, let’s help him out, now that you mention it.”
Or even imagine this excuse without any distracting organizational subordination: “Well I don’t hate all those people. Sure, maybe Stalin does, but I don’t control Stalin’s actions, right? (Also didn’t they kind of ask for it, maybe..?) No matter, you’re right, let’s help them out now.”
My point here, paraphrasing Athena, is simply: as long as anyone is innocent, then an ‘understandable’ excuse from a leader — omnipotent or not — is hateful.
All are innocent?
We might press Athena’s point, and pun, a little further. If Odysseus is just ‘some guy’, and is just ‘some sufferer’ or ‘some hate-object’ of the king of the gods; and if Odysseus is innocent; then maybe the connotative shadow of Athena’s argument is that every suffering human is hated by the gods, and not responsible (aitios) for their own suffering.
It turns out this is a crucial and exceedingly hard knot to untangle. No dharmic intuition admits universal innocence; and yet on the face of it suffering can sometimes seem intrinsically, even sufficiently exonerating. Nor is the ‘some guy’ -> ‘all humans’ slippage easy to dismiss — at least, not without a cosmology that has no singular cosmogony, or an adequate theory of universals, or a complete notion of quantification over possible worlds.
These sound like high moral-metaphysical abstractions, best debated in monastic caverns or mathematical lemmata.
But, as I hope to have sketched above, the everyday two double-sided ‘blame game’ played by (non-omnipotent!) leaders inevitably dances at the edge of these Gordian knots.