Nostos and Kleos in the Iliad and Odyssey, respectively

The thematic ties between kleos (fame) and nostos (return) within the Odyssey starkly differentiate the character of Odysseus from his Achaean comrades, Achilles and Agamemnon. To begin with, all three characters are involved in the events of both Homeric epics, which each have its own thematic interpretation of kleos and nostos. This means that a different light is shed on the individual glory and return of these characters when they appear in each story. Before the specific glories and returns of these three Greeks can be compared and contrasted, the very Homeric ideas of heroic glory and the return home need to be analyzed first.

An epic poem set in the final year of the historically groundbreaking Trojan War, the Iliad asks and answers many questions concerning the nature of the men that fight in war. The actual story of the poem focuses on the rage of Achilles at the Achaean commander Agamemnon over lost spoils of war. Odysseus also takes part in the action as one of the Greek commanders, although his main contribution during the Trojan War effort takes place after the events of the Iliad conclude. In the end, Achilles gives up the murdered body of Hector only when Priam, the king of Troy himself, begs to be allowed to bury his son. This brings up themes of honor in life, glory in death, and the roles of enemies. What the Iliad doesn’t show, but we learn in the Odyssey, is that Achilles is also killed in the taking of Troy. The war epic finds this appropriate for a great warrior, and Achilles’ Iliadic kleos stems from this death.

Achilles battles Hektor

Achilles battles Hektor

After the war, Agamemnon sails home a hero, but we also learn in the Odyssey that he is murdered at the hands of his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegisthus. This situation is the reversal of Achilles’: the warrior dies in the field gaining glory but losing his chance to return home. This time the fatal ending to his nostos has robbed Agamemnon of his ultimate kleos. He dies a foolish cuckold rather than a conquering king. Neither epic puts a positive spin on this death as the Iliad does for Achilles, but we can find many similarities and differences between the two of them and Odysseus.

This brings us to Odysseus, the man of many epithets. The surface detail that distinguishes him from his rivals for the particular epithet, “best of the Achaeans,” is that he survives until a ripe old age. He provides the advantage that wins the Trojan War, and he isn’t killed in the Odyssey despite the best efforts of the gods, monsters, and suitors that prevent his nostos. He achieves both kleos and nostos in the end and doesn’t have to die for either. This is partly due to the interpretation of both themes in the Odyssey as opposed to the Iliad. Achilles’ glory stems from his premature death on the battlefield, which he freely chooses over any sort of return. Odysseus avoids death at all costs because his nostos is most important to him, but he still gains great kleos from living through all his deeds. When Odysseus meets the shade of Achilles in Hades, the slain soldier declares that he would rather be a slave on earth than a ruler among the dead (Od. Xi. 556-558). The Odyssey reverses the theme of a glorious soldier’s death in this passage by having its paradigm (Achilles himself) despair at the very thing that brought him Iliadic kleos. Kleos isn’t as important to Odysseus as it is to Achilles, and therein lays the strongest difference between them: Achilles dies for kleos, while Odysseus lives for nostos. His focus on his family and home give him glory and therefore receives kleos when he doesn’t ask for it.

Odysseus in Hades

Odysseus in Hades

Odysseus also meets the shade of Agamemnon in Hades and learns of his terrible fate. Agamemnon has much more in common with the king of Ithaca, but the differences serve to teach important lessons to the wandering hero. Agamemnon arrives home at Mycenae with less trouble than Odysseus, but faces a trial that in Odysseus’ experience becomes the conclusion of the epic. Agamemnon is the victim of his wife’s betrayal and her lover’s trickery; he is fooled and unloved and doesn’t die like a king. His return erases his glory. The similarities between the two men are clear: Odysseus yearns for home and doting wife as does Agamemnon, and both are beset by the men vying for that wife’s attention. The clear difference is the result: Clytemnestra has given in to lust and taken part in her own husband’s murder, while Penelope remains faithful and defies all suitors.

Further differences are made clearer by looking at Odysseus’ Homeric epithets. As a man “of many devices,” Odysseus overcomes many of his trials by deceit and cleverness. In his final challenge, he fools all of the suitors and Penelope herself before revealing his identity and slaughtering the unwelcome guests. He is the deviser rather than the victim of a scheme that brings him victory, and the devotion of his wife completes that victory as she rejoices to see him returned. The epithet “sacker of cities” creates a paradoxical difference between Odysseus and Agamemnon because they both did take part in the sacking of Troy and have kleos from that event. But Odysseus earned that title as the author of the instrument of the sacking; Demodocus sings the story of the Trojan horse, calling Odysseus “sacker of cities.” Agamemnon hasn’t earned that title, despite leading the Achaeans, and in the end he becomes well known for being murdered by his wife.

Whereas Achilles lost his nostos and chose to have kleos instead, Agamemnon lost his kleos after finishing his nostos. Odysseus avoids both of these woeful fates by continuing his journey home against every trouble. He lives up to all his epithets and overcomes the sorrows with his devices. The hero of the Odyssey lacks the hunger for glory that destroyed Achilles and maintains the cleverness that Agamemnon lacked in his fatal return. He is able to complete his nostos and garner greater kleos at the same time, setting a new standard for Greek heroics and subsequently literary heroics.

The problem with false feminism (or why “Frozen” left me cold)

The problem with false feminism (or why “Frozen” left me cold)

A really interesting and in-depth analysis of Disney’s latest film from a different blog. I usually pause before agreeing with everyone, and I usually pause longer before agreeing with everyone else, but I think this has some compelling arguments against how feminist people claim the movie it. It’s a long read, but worth it, I think.

My take on it is that the film shouldn’t be so self-congratulatory about its own progressiveness when stripping down complicated messages to the Disney level of simplicity. It’s a lesson all of Hollywood (and mankind, really) can do well to learn.

Foucault and the Artificial Telos

In his work, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Michel Foucault aims to expose the social issues that arise from the paradigm shift in Western civilization that he was witnessing in modern France. He points out that society’s viewpoint on punishment has changed from a focus on corporeal pain to spiritual discipline. Advancements in technology and philosophy have inspired this change, and Foucault argues that it may not have been for the better. In fact, society may have gotten worse as it attempts to enforce strict discipline on its citizens.

To shed some light on the direction that Foucault believes society is heading, we turn to an even more ancient philosopher. Aristotle’s definition of Beauty and Goodness tap into the ontological roots of all Being, so I believe they are relevant to Foucault’s writings. In the Aristotelian view of the world, all things are created with a telos: a purpose to which it strives. An acorn is created with the potential to grow into an oak tree, and if the acorn that becomes a mighty tree it has fulfilled its telos and can be considered a Good acorn in the highest sense of the word. On human beings, Aristotle deemed the most likely option for our telos to be linked to our moral ability. Because we have the potential in us to grow into moral beings, our purpose in life must be to complete that growth and live a Good life. Those who do achieve eudemonia, the highest Good a human being is capable of.

Reading Discipline and Punish with this in mind, we can recognize how society uses social conditioning to construct an artificial telos for its citizens to strive toward. Foucault claims the imprisonment of the soul by society came around when the concept of the soul was invented. The governmental body has power over the definition of the soul, and uses that power to shape how the citizenry view it and themselves by proxy. The soul became an arbitrary thing every individual was responsible for keeping in check. Committing crimes (which are also defined by the state) could damage a person’s soul, and those who damaged their souls were pushed into a group of pariahs who needed separation until they were fixed. This was how the prison system developed; the people in prisons are morally sick and require state-implemented programs to heal them. The very same ideology underlines hospitals and schools: a person is sick in the body or mind, so a doctor who is educated on the wellbeing of bodies by the state prescribes the cure that will bring the person back to physical normalcy. Children are born without discipline, so they must enter into the school system where the government will orient them on the “correct” path, which will grow them most successfully. These are all examples of how those in power construct a mindset of incompletion. The path to becoming complete – achieving telos – is made clear, so that the people remain dutiful to the state that teaches them where to go and where to stop.


This process divides the populace into two broad factions: normal and abnormal. Those who conform are considered complete in mind and soul; they are well on their way to the telos society has prescribed them. Those who defer from the expected path are abhorrent because we are taught to think of them that way. The uneducated, the sick, the immoral, the poor (in a capitalist society); we seek to separate all the people who differ from the quiet majority because they appear incomplete. The idea that rehabilitation is possible fuels the humanitarian reasoning behind these facilities, but in truth they are warping the humanity of the people within. It is true that a patient at a hospital must follow the doctor’s orders if he is to remain healthy and fulfill his body’s purpose of staying alive, but psychotherapy plays into a person’s health as well. The rise of the psychotherapy coincides with the oppression that Foucault is revealing in society. The powerful and educated upper class has always had the power to define mental diseases and design the drugs that treat them. A patient must follow these new rules at the doctor’s behest if he is to fit in.

A more obvious example is the prison system, which Foucault devotes much time. A prisoner cannot even choose to conform; he is forced by the strict regiments of the prison to obey the laws that society sets forth. If he does not follow the path, he is still punished. He has no power in this process. The philosophy behind this system is to teach him the error of his ways so he can return a changed man, but instead a sentence serves as a prolonged period of isolation in which a prisoner learns society has no place for him until he submits. In schools, a student who strays from the curriculum is a truant and must follow the teacher’s precise course if she is ever to become a fully functioning member of society. In more modern settings, we have private schooling and home schooling, but there remains a standard concept of public education that all people are expected to attain. It’s impossible to get a job and sustain a livelihood without some kind of state-recognized education. A livelihood has become essential in a capitalist society, almost to the point of it being our telos. We define ourselves by our job and depend on it for our future happiness (the modern eudemonia). Not all of these expectations are law-enforced, but they are all psychologically ingrained in us, so that we police ourselves from stepping outside these limits. We fear the isolation of prisons, the diagnosis of insanity, and the powerlessness of unemployment. We make sure to remain Good people on our way to our telos like everybody else, all the time using the definitions that the state mandates.

Foucault calls this harmful to humanity, and Aristotle would agree. If we look back on his use of telos and eudemonia, we see that these concepts are inherent in the beings. One does not create its telos, it either fails or succeeds at achieving it. An acorn does not search for its meaning in life, it simply absorbs sunlight and water as it grows. A human being has the capacity for a moral life, and she either lives one or she doesn’t. The state in the modern world has designated a telos for human beings, hoping it helps them fit better into the paradigm they’ve created. Foucault calls for us to wrest these social chains and reclaim our independence. Aristotle would also agree with this response, claiming that the individual can only be a moral being when making her own decisions, and by boxing her in, society has taken that control away. This removes her ability to choose ethically and therefore cripples her true telos.

Tragedy Within Epic

Common elements crop up within narrative works of various forms, particularly the two forms of tragedy and epic poetry. Tragedy and epic are not exclusive forms as Aristotle points out in his analytical work, The Poetics. In fact, the elements that define tragedy as a form can be found in mediums outside the tragic play, namely in Roman epic poetry. The two Roman epics, The Metamorphoses by Ovid and The Aeneid by Virgil, contain many strong examples that this bond exists.

Aristotle gives extensive descriptions of the aspects that designate a work as fitting the form of either tragic play or epic poem. He opens his definition on artistic story telling by making clear the nature of imitation in art. The content of a play (particularly a tragic one) imitates a single action, and the plot of that play adheres to the characters, emotions, and events of that one action. This is due to the short duration of plays as a medium. Epic on the other hand is long enough to portray the imitation of many actions while still adhering to an overall arc of story following a hero with a destiny. The elements of a tragic story are described in detail as if they only fit into the frame of a tragic play, but even Aristotle would concede that elements of tragedy are evident in epic poetry, linking the two forms inexorably.

A central concept of a tragedy is the protagonist or in this context, the tragic figure. By definition, this character is the subject of the action that the story imitates, and in all good tragedy (“good” being the word Aristotle uses to mean properly functioning) this character shares traits will all other tragic figures. Hubris is a universal flaw that Greek legends showcase as fatal; it means the swollen pride of a person and therefore is instrumental in a high number of downfalls in Greek mythology. Hamartia adds to the fray with a tragic flaw unique to the character in question; it also was never necessarily negative as character trait. For example, Aristotle points out that Sophocles’ Oedipus makes forceful decrees, which sometimes make him a great leader and other times, as is in the play, it brings his own destruction. His usually good trait of forcefulness is turned on him for the sake of tragedy. Similar fates befall other tragic figures, some of which can be found in the epics in question, thus showing the similarities in the forms.

The Sack of Troy: an epic tragedy

The Sack of Troy: an epic tragedy

One of the largest events sparking the conflict of The Aeneid is the famous sacking of Troy, but a closer reading reveals that this action within the epic is actually an example of tragedy. When Aeneas himself tells the story of how the large wooden horse infiltrated the city walls, he admits that the leaders of Troy made the decision to bring the horse in themselves to celebrate the “retreat” of the Achaeans. This is the mistake that turns the entire city into the tragic figure of the epic. The leaders misconstrue the construction’s purpose and claim it to be the Greeks’ offering to Poseidon for a safe voyage home. They then decide to drag the great thing into the citadel and celebrate it as a symbol of victory. Here is the clear indulgence of hubris for the Trojan people to assume victory, and it is the fatal mistake of acting upon that prideful assumption that brings death not only to their door, but also into their homes. The deaths of Laocoon and his sons terrify the Trojans into respecting the horse as a sacrifice, so they honor it. They hoped their adherence to religious dogma would bring them peace and prosperity but it brought them destruction; this serves as their hamartia in the tragic framework.

Within the many legends of Ovid’s The Metamorphoses, the stories of petulant mortals and their unfortunate fates are abounding. When the grisly end of a mortal’s life is the result of that character’s own mistakes, elements of tragedy are usually involved, particularly in the case of Phaethon riding his in father’s chariot. The son of Phoebus begs for a chance to drive the sun, and when he is finally allowed, Phaethon botches the entire ordeal due to his status as a mortal. He drives the chariot of fire across the earth and scorches it, doing untold damage until Jove puts an end to his rampage with a thunderbolt. Phaethon’s disastrous mistake and death were brought about by his hubris in thinking he could drive the vehicle of the sun god. His bold hopefulness, being his hamartia, could have brought him good but served as his harbinger of doom instead.

The examples of Phaethon in The Metamorphoses and Troy in The Aeneid point to the link between tragedy and epic in ancient literature. Despite vast differences in structure, each form contains the imitation of actions that teach the audience lessons about the gods and the world. Tragedy isn’t only contained in the drama of the Greek amphitheatre; Aristotle defines it by the emotions expressed by characters making prideful mistakes that lead to their own demise. This structure could be found in any work, and the Roman epics are no exception. Tragedy warns us about the mistakes of the prideful and how even individuals of a high status (like Oedipus, Troy, and Phaethon) can be brought down to a lowly state because of their mortal flaws. Epic shows the great stories of a tribe or a nation, so there are sure to be warnings against the failures of even the greatest of citizens. So tragedy is imbued in epic, just as it is in modern literature, because these ideas of avoiding destruction through humility and self-mastery are universal ideals that the greatest civilizations of history valued.

The Joker: Weaponized Nihilism

Friedrich Nietzsche left an indelible mark on modern philosophy by challenging the ideologies built on a morality that he felt were antiquated. He saw history as a cycle of dynasties dominated by ethics that existed merely to justify the authority of those in power. He sought to expose this reality through his writings on nihilism, specifically in his essay “On the Genealogy of Morals.” This philosophy has shaped much of the 20th century, even invading popular culture with characters espousing Nietzsche’s calls to defy the ascetic priest and fight the restraining power of civilization.

One particularly famous disciple of this perspective is The Joker, maniacal nemesis to the comic book superhero Batman. The character was created in 1939 as the hero’s primary antagonist but has been utilized for philosophical discourse in more recent iterations. The most prominent of these are the 1988 graphic novel Batman: The Killing Joke and the 2008 film The Dark Knight; both of these works use the conflict between Batman and the Joker to embody the philosophical clash between the ideologies of a strict justice system and extreme nihilism. We know that the man himself would not approve of the actions of this character. Friedrich’s beliefs were life affirming, but the Joker isn’t the first psychopath to be inspired by his writings and won’t be the last. By studying how the Joker has been used as a cipher for nihilism in modern culture, we can learn more about the negative practical applications of Nietzsche’s philosophy.


In Batman: The Killing Joke, writer Alan Moore portrays the characteras a dark and twisted psychopath with a message to convey. The graphic novel tells the Joker’s origin as a man physically and psychologically scarred to point of complete insanity. He plans to prove that anyone can easily lose his or her grip on sanity just by being exposed to life’s simple and harsh realities. Moore’s Joker monologues about the random injustices of everyday life with examples like World War II being started over telegraph pole disputes. He disparages morality as a cheap excuse to construct a society on. These beliefs echo Nietzsche’s words about noble morality defining “good” simply as things the noble class embodied. He accuses Batman of holding a slave morality that views criminality as evil just on the condition that it exists.

The Joker represents the complete liberation of animalistic urges in protest against civilization. His insanity is meant to be a symptom of society having strained his mental state by imposing ethics that stress and harry him to the point of breaking. Once his sanity does break, he resembles the ruin of modern civilization’s attempts to tame humanity’s true nature, which is purely immoral by society’s standards. He must conform or be considered insane, which he’ll truly be in he is forced to conform. The fire in his words about this maddening catch-22 reflects the passion in Nietzsche’s writings about morality and its failings.

The nihilism in the character’s (figurative) makeup more clearly shows in the political agenda of the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. This version of the character, portrayed by actor Heath Ledger, paints on his clownish grin as a parody of the smiles we are all expected to paste on for society. When the Joker revels in chaos, he mocks the happiness that order is supposed to bring us. The grayness of morality is a major theme in the film, especially concerning Batman’s vigilantism, and the Joker takes the role of foil to Batman’s moral authority. Nietzsche hoped to wake people up with his ambitious words, and the Joker tries even harder through ambitious and deadly actions targeting society itself. Rather than simply killing a target, the Joker threatens to blow up a hospital unless someone else kills the target. People come in droves to assassinate the man, and they feel justified in their bloodlust without realizing they are playing into the Joker’s sick social commentary on the inherent goodness of people. To save the hospital, they rush to end another man’s life, proving the Joker’s point that morality is pointless. He wants everyone to take up social and ethical anarchy: humanity’s natural state.


In one moment of pontification, the Joker reveals that everything he does is intended to show futility in attempting to control life. We are born inherently corrupt and build systems of order and ethics to bury that corruption under the worlds we create for ourselves; the Joker wants to prove that we will abandon those systems and burn those worlds in times of crisis. He goes about proving this by bringing about the crisis. In the film, Batman represents the reverse of that, and sets out to prove people can be inspired to fight for good in the face of chaos. Batman views his code of ethics as noble morality because criminality is a weakness in society and must be corrected. Despite the violence, his justice is life affirming and transcends the orthodox laws of Gotham City. Joker sees him as a hypocrite for breaking the law while punishing lawbreakers. He aspires to show the hypocrisy of all the goodness that Batman claims to protect.

These stories are full of action and menace but also an equal amount of philosophical commentary. Moore and Nolan recognize that this character poses a physical and metaphorical threat to society. A threat that Nietzsche dreamed of being; he called himself the Anti-Christ and wanted to upset the systems that he railed against in his works. The Joker takes a similar stance, but with more murder and explosions. He claims to be a product of the paradox of morality and aims to expose the reality that everyone is being driven insane by it too. Taming our animal selves has actually stunted our human growth, just as Nietzsche preached. Our morality developed into our own prison, and it took a murdering psychopath to show us the truth. The Joker is Friedrich Nietzsche’s ghost come back to haunt society for not heeding his words.