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.


2 Responses

  1. Thank you for this stimulating post about responsibility/blame, which I think is one of the most important aspects of leadership. I often wonder how much is a reasonable amount of responsibility to place on anyone and why people ever choose to accept responsibility. It seems to be the cause of dehumanization in some cases, i.e., “I don’t want to feel as bad about my decision as a leader, so I will imagine that those I have harmed with my decision are either to blame themselves, someone else is to blame, or (and here’s the dehumanization part) they are such simple creatures in terms of their emotions and agency that they probably don’t bear the harm as badly as a full human would” (this article might have been better titled, “Responsibility, or the Incentive to Shirk it, Increases Dehumanization”:

    Regarding the passage you begin with in the Odyssey, would you accept the claim that the Iliad is largely about atē (divinely sent folly/delusion) and the Odyssey is largely about atasthaliē (“stupid idiocy”; I like this translation because it emphasizes the personal/idiosyncratic nature of the blame)? I mean that in the Iliad you have at least two characters, Patroclus and Hector (and arguably Agamemnon, at least as he sees it), who are otherwise decent, sensible people who get caught up in the larger machinations of Zeus’ boulē, i.e., “Zeus’ mind is stronger than a man’s mind, etc.” a fortiori, if this can happen to Patroclus and Hector, it can happen to any of us. As Achilles explains to Priam:

    But come, sit thou upon a seat, and our sorrows will we suffer to lie quiet in our hearts, despite our pain; for no profit cometh of chill lament. [525] For on this wise have the gods spun the thread for wretched mortals, that they should live in pain; and themselves are sorrowless. For two urns are set upon the floor of Zeus of gifts that he giveth, the one of ills, the other of blessings. To whomsoever Zeus, that hurleth the thunderbolt, giveth a mingled lot, [530] that man meeteth now with evil, now with good; but to whomsoever he giveth but of the baneful, him he maketh to be reviled of man, and direful madness driveth him over the face of the sacred earth, and he wandereth honoured neither of gods nor mortals. Even so unto Peleus did the gods give glorious gifts [535] from his birth; for he excelled all men in good estate and in wealth, and was king over the Myrmidons, and to him that was but a mortal the gods gave a goddess to be his wife. [540] Howbeit even upon him the gods brought evil, in that there nowise sprang up in his halls offspring of princely sons, but he begat one only son, doomed to an untimely fate. Neither may I tend him as he groweth old, seeing that far, far from mine own country I abide in the land of Troy, vexing thee and thy children. And of thee, old sire, we hear that of old thou wast blest; how of all that toward the sea Lesbos, the seat of Macar, encloseth, [545] and Phrygia in the upland, and the boundless Hellespont, over all these folk, men say, thou, old sire, wast preeminent by reason of thy wealth and thy sons. Howbeit from the time when the heavenly gods brought upon thee this bane, ever around thy city are battles and slayings of men. Bear thou up, neither wail ever ceaselessly in thy heart; for naught wilt thou avail by grieving for thy son, [550] neither wilt thou bring him back to life; ere that shalt thou suffer some other ill” (A. T. Murray translation).

    My sense has always been that this is the worldview that Zeus has in mind when he complains to Athena in Odyssey 1, assuming you read the Iliad and Odyssey as complementary epics, as I tend to do. Barely 300 lines separates Achilles’ speech to Priam from Zeus’ complaint to Athena across the two epics. Would you agree about the point of the contrast? My takeaway is that Zeus is saying, “Yes, as the most powerful divinity, I do put plans into motion that have lots of collateral damage. Lots of gods do this (cf. the Iliad and later Athenian tragedy and also Herodotus). But there are also lots of times when the writing is on the wall and humans disregard it anyway, to their own misfortune (cf. Aigisthos killing Agamemnon, Odysseus’ men eating the Cattle of Helios, Odysseus himself on several occasions, and most importantly Penelope’s suitors disregarding all the warnings about Odysseus’ return). That’s what I want us to be focused on now. I want to tell a story of personal human agency and not external forces manipulating humans beyond their knowledge and control.”

    Also, I would like to hear more about your thoughts on Odysseus as kind of an every man. I always took the “andra” at the beginning of the poem to be about a very special kind of man, i.e., not *a* man but *the* man, like Shaft: (side note: by Emily Wilson’s translation of *polytropos* as “complicated”, both Odysseus and Shaft are described as “complicated men”; I wonder if that’s a coincidence.)

    • Thanks for this thoughtful reply. I strongly agree with your suggested ‘Responsibility, or the Incentive to Shirk it, Increases Dehumanization’ vs. the original ‘Power increases dehumanization’. Of course there is some sense in which, at the moment, my capacity to feel for others is limited, and so, in the moment, I may choose to exclude others from the cognitive status that automatically entails fellow-feeling. But surely the testimony (etymological ‘martyrdom’) of anyone who dies for someone else implies that capacity for fellow-feeling at least exceeds self-preservation (even if this doesn’t strictly imply potential infinitude). Sure, I won’t rage against any leader who doesn’t weep for every follower’s every minor hardship. But I will rage against any king or god who kills my hetairos, or my hetairoi — and then rage again when they blame us for it. (And of course Zeus’ lighting was directly involved in the deaths of Odysseus’ last hetairoi: Odyssey 12.384ff)

      Re. Iliadic ate vs Odyssean atasthalie: yes, I think this is a fair mapping. I think ‘about’ is too strong, but I agree with the mapping of epic to ‘off-ness’ type. Mortals in the Odyssey — including Odysseus — are more blameworthy than in the Iliad. In Medieval Aristotelian terms, even where peccatum (death of hetairos) is equal, Odysseuan culpa is greater.

      I had not noted how ‘physically’ close Achilles’ end-of-Iliad speech is to Zeus’ beginning-of-Odyssey speech! and I like this reading, which puts Zeus in argument with Achilles — and then Athena pushes back, but not by way of Achilles’ general theodic-ic claim. Hmmmmmm. It seems the difference in argumentative strategy (de-universalize the major premise by way of one counter-example vs. offer a different major premise) between Athena’s counter-counter and Achilles’ original claim parallels the oft-noted ‘intimacy’ of the Odyssey vs. ‘grandeur’ of the Iliad. And this also seems parallel to different approaches to leadership (led as kosmos vs. led as set).

      My reading of ‘andra’ (and the way I teach the opening to undergrads) is both ‘a man’ and ‘the man’. He’s not ‘everyman’ — meaning he’s not some rando in the middle of the bell curve of talent. But he’s also not superhuman, as the greatest Iliadic heroes are. So by ‘a man’ I mean ‘an instance of the human species’ (albeit way right-shifted on an x axis of awesomeness). This ‘member of species’ sense is all I need for Athena’s counterexample to falsify Zeus’ major premise that quantifies over all humans.

      (Aside 1: Grammatically — I don’t know a Greek equivalent of English ‘the man’, if only because Greek articles are much weaker and less deictic than English (and English ‘the’ is more generic than Greek deictics). I always thought if Sapir-Whorf were interestingly true anywhere it would be interestingly true around the little words.)

      (Aside 2: I agree that ‘complicated’ accurately describes Odysseus in English, and really sets up the character well. And I don’t have another natural-sounding way to translate ‘polytropos’. But I don’t like the connotations of the Latin-Greek metaphor transfer. The ‘poly’ is expansive while the ‘com’ is enclosing, and the ‘trop’ is of a thing in a world while the ‘plek’ is of a part in a whole. Penelope is etymologically complicated; Odysseus is etymologically digressing. I don’t think these worries should dominate over comprehensibility in a general-reader translator’s decision, though.)

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