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The nature of a civilized society or person, rather than an uncivilized one, depends on perspective. Mores that one culture holds dear potentially offend others. Wise travelers remain aware of location before flashing a casual thumbs up or blowing their noses in public–although commonplace in America, these are crude and uncivil gestures to many other cultures. Truly, civility is determined by its source, and no author better captures the essence of civility than Homer in his epic poem, The Odyssey. Homer portrays the ancient Greek values as the pinnacle of civility. He contrasts Odysseus against the Cyclopians, the Laestrygonians, and the Lotus Eaters, who appear barbaric or uncouth because they reject Greek thought and traditional Greek principles. This inability to approach new cultures and locations with sensitivity to differences says more about Odysseus’s ethnocentric values, though, than it does about the cultures he encounters. Odysseus refuses to see beyond his own values, showing that he, himself, cares little of observing civility to other cultures and regards only his own worldview as the ideal.
Oddly, Polyphemus the cyclops exhibits a different extent of civility–he knows all his sheep and cares for his animals routinely. Yet, because of Polyphemus’s other practices, considered uncivilized by the Greeks, Odysseus overlooks his civilized actions and views him as barbaric. As he is approaching the cave of the cyclops, he is already prejudiced, expecting “a man of mighty strength, but savage, knowing neither justice or law,” essentially a creature who acts on instinct over intellect (Rouse 110). Many of Odysseus’s impressions are misleading, however. He believes that “no one cares for his neighbors” in Cyclopian culture, but when he stabs Polyphemus, friends come to find out what is wrong (Rouse 108). Their culture does, in fact, exhibit many “civilized” practices that are shared with the Greeks. For example, they have an advanced language, used especially often by Polyphemus, whose name derives from the Latin roots for “much” and “talk”, so literally translates to “talks much”. Instead of grasping the extent of the Cyclopian cultural development, Odysseus only notices how they differ from the Greeks and, by consuming their guests, fail to observe xenia. Leaving the island, Odysseus proclaims his own ideals while mocking Polyphemus’s way of life and his now useless eye by saying, “You had no scruple to devour your guests in your own house, therefore vengeance has fallen upon you from Zeus and the gods in heaven!” (Rouse 117). Apparently, two cultures can only see eye-to-eye when one of them is blind.
Odysseus sees the Laestrygonians as immoral, inhospitable, and unintelligent–primarily because they are man-eaters who want to launch boulders at Odysseus’s crew–and are therefore lacking in the characteristics by which the Greeks define civilization; however, despite perceived differences between the two cultures, Odysseus slaughters the suitors for his own wife in much the same way that the king of the Laestrygonians massacres his unwanted visitors after hearing that they arrived at his house and “found his wife. . .and they hated her at sight” (Rouse 122). This suggests a degree of similarity at the heart of both of these cultures, yet, once again, Odysseus hypocritically looks down upon them because of their separate mores. The many parallels between his own actions and what he considers uncivilized are lost on him because of his Hubris.
The Lotus Eaters exemplify complacency, and their detachment from civilized practices horrifies the Greeks, who believe that no virtues can exist in such a culture. Indeed, because of their sloth, they are perhaps the epitome of uncivilized peoples. Unlike the other societies visited and deemed unsophisticated by the Greeks, the Lotus Eaters are the antithesis of violent, boulder-hurling cannibals, but silently much more dangerous. Odysseus is more anxious to escape quietly from them than who he considers the outright barbaric civilizations because, “As soon as [his men] tasted that honey-sweet fruit, they thought no more of coming back. . . with news, but chose rather to stay there with the lotus-eating natives, and chew their lotus. . .” (Rouse 107). His fear of lackadaisical society, instilled by his Greek values, compels him to order his crew to “hurry up and get aboard, for [he] did not want them to have a taste of lotus and say good-bye to home” (Rouse 107–108). The Lotus Eaters, viewed not necessarily as blatantly uncivilized by Odysseus, but nonetheless feared, is the only society of conflicting values that survives an encounter with the Greeks without a fight. They hardly have a culture besides chewing their Lotus, and will accept no other culture, truly making them the most uncouth of them all. This fact is overshadowed by the violence of the other civilizations, as a massive star might distract from a black hole.
Homer’s other Greek characters assert their values of honor, xenia, and metis without regard for the civilizations they plunder. Odysseus especially has a relatively narrow mindset for someone who has been all across the world, and he accepts only what is normal to him as what is civilized. Civilizations other than one’s own are recognized as civilized or uncivilized by a comparison of common values, which Odysseus evaluates, unconsciously or otherwise, with nearly every civilization he encounters. His criticism of other civilizations while failing to see his own faults is demonstrative of his Hubris and the Greek ethnocentric view of the world. In reality, civility, along with its implications, cycles through time–the civilizations existing now were once barbaric to the places they destroyed in order to advance and qualify themselves as civilized. The transfer of small portions of values is what makes it acceptable to act a certain way in one region but requires you to change your behavior completely in the next; it explains why Polyphemus readily resolves to snack on Odysseus’s men while any “civilized Greek” would never, although they would feast on Helios’s cattle. If specific characteristics alone define civility, there is no true civilized society except that which one belongs to.
Rouse, W. H. D., trans. The Odyssey. New York: New American Library, 2007. Print.
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