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Nietzsche’s short work Homer’s Contest is part of his attempt to develop an axiology that reinstates morality within the realm of aesthetic existence, grounding lofty ideas like “good” and “evil” within a naturalistic framework. In this essay, he puts forth an interpretation of the structure through which Homeric values are expressed. Contest, Nietzsche tells us, is a distinctly Greek phenomenon which posits quite simply that “every talent must develop through a struggle,” (Nietzsche, 98). As he investigates the contest underlying Homer’s worldview, Nietzsche discovers a search for aims and ends that esteem the value of human life even in light of exceptional struggle. One could describe Nietzsche’s project in this work as selfish in the sense that he hopes to reinstate what is in his view a worthy framework while fundamentally changing its ends. Still, his evaluation of Homer’s project offers a useful lens to understand the fragile nature of the homecoming towards which Odysseus so desperately struggles.
The concept of contest is useful both in approaching an interpretation of Homer’s overall values, and in interpreting the actions of the Odysssey’s major protagonist, Odysseus. Whether or not Homer himself wrote the Odyssey he was certainly engaged in an artistic project. Such projects, Nietzsche explains, were to the Greeks an oppositional effort: “modern man fears nothing so much in an artist as personal belligerence, whilst the Greek knows the artist only in personal struggle,” (Nietzsche, 99). Homer’s personal struggle, then, was as an effort to craft meaning out of an existence ridden with war and strife. If we apply Nietzsche’s understanding of Homer’s project — an effort undertaken to oppose a purely repulsive view of life on earth — the Odyssey presents us with Homer’s affirmation of life as worth living.
Though fleeting and fragile, homecoming is something towards which Odysseus is willing to journey in spite of its obvious dangers. He is a decorated hero of gruesome battle and yet even the homecoming towards which he journeys throughout the duration of the Odyssey is understood to be impermanent. During Odysseus’ voyage to the underworld, the insightful prophet Teiresias foreshadows continuing wanderings for Odysseus. Death is destined to come to him “at sea” after a journey that takes him back away from home, (Odyssey, XI, 134 & XI, 119-121). Still, he is willing to oppose even the goddess Kalypso in her wish to have him as her eternal lover. Kalypso wonders at the discovery of him crying beside the vast and infinite sea, where “the sweet lifetime was draining out of him / as he wept for a way home,” (Odyssey, V, 152-153). Faced with infinity in life and existence, the mortal Odysseus mourns the loss of his essence as a striving, existing individual.
Nietzsche provides a useful context in which to situate Odysseus’ misery. Every Greek, he says, “felt the burning desire within him to be an instrument of bringing salvation to his city…For that reason, the individuals in antiquity were freer, because their aims were nearer and easier to achieve,” (Nietzsche, 98). Odysseus’ palpable goal of returning home is a source of comfort in the wake of an ever-changing, struggle-filled world. Mortal Odysseus is ill suited for eternity alongside an immortal companion. His choices are endowed with a gravity and consequence that an immortal cannot understand. Indeed, Kalypso questions how Odysseus could yearn for his homecoming so thoroughly, knowing “in [his] own heart how many hardships / [he is] fated to undergo,” (Odyssey, V, 206-207). To abandon his homecoming would be impossible for a human being, endowed with the perspective that mortality gives his choices. Such abandonment would amount to the position in which modern man finds himself: “crossed everywhere by infinity… he cannot even overtake the tortoise,” (Nietzsche, 98). It is for this reason that Odysseus is willing to risk his life at the hands of the gods with a resolution to return home (Odyssey, V, 219-224). With this risk, Odysseus can become a hero because, unlike a god, he can risk everything – he can risk his life.
It is Odysseus’ monumental journey, across vast distances and in spite of incredible hardship, which affirms the worthiness of his end. In Homer’s account of life as worth living, even a homecoming that is fragile and tenuous is worth tireless pursuit. Nietzsche characterizes the worthiness of this struggle, as Homer sees it, in terms of humanity’s dually natural and human nature. Our “‘natural characteristics and those called specifically ‘human’ have grown together inextricably,” so that our emotionally and rationally driven decisions are motivated by the very finititude of our existence (Nietzsche, 95). It is useful to apply this understanding to an interpretation of Odysseus’ journey and the ultimate end he pursues. It would otherwise be troubling to consider the imperfection of Odysseus’ homecoming, since it is admittedly impermanent at best.
The image of Homer’s Odysseus fighting back against the currents of war and death for a homecoming he knows to be only fleeting is certainly tragic, but still depicts life as worth living. Nietzsche locates something decidedly optimistic in Homer’s worldview. He shudders to think what the Greek world would look like “without Homer’s guiding and protecting hand,” (Nietzsche, 96). Without it, a look at the Greek world leads one “to nausea at existence, to the view of existence as a punishment to be discharged by serving out one’s time, to the belief that existence and indebtedness were identical,” (Nietzsche, 96). Homer’s poetry transforms an existence that is cruel and base into one so precious that his protagonist in the Odyssey even prefers to wager immortal fury rather than relinquish his hold on moral life.
Homer and Richard A. Lattimore (ed). The Odyssey of Homer. New York: Harper and Row,
“Homer’s Contest” (1872) in Nietzsche, Friedrich W. & Keith Ansell-Pearson and Duncan
Large (eds.). The Nietzsche Reader. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2006.
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