Cultural Psychology

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Blinding Polyphemus Gently

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Arnold Böcklin (Swiss), Odysseus and Polyphemus, 1896

ODYSSEUS’ problems, you’ll recall, began in earnest after he blinded the cyclops, Polyphemus. He might have proceeded straight home without incident, but instead gloated as he sailed away, revealing his name and identity.  It was then that Polyphemus, armed with that information,  asked his father, Poseidon to take revenge — setting the stage for many perils Odysseus faced.

A common view since antiquity is that the Odyssey has an allegorical and philosophical meaning: a return of the mind to its natural homeland of peace, clarity, right reason and wisdom.  The ancient Greeks summed all these things up in one word: sophrosyne, meaning soundness of mind. The events of Odysseus’ journey home symbolize the hazards and milestones in our own psychological process of return — a journey we make daily.  As often as we become disturbed and upset, losing composure and mental clarity, we are like Odysseus, cast into a churning sea and must make our way back.

In Polyphemus — an oafish, anti-social giant, concerned with nothing beyond eating, drinking, sleeping and satisfying primitive biological instincts — we easily see a symbol of our most base nature, more or less corresponding to the Freudian id. Polyphemus’ having only one eye means he sees only the realm of sense perception, oblivious to all that’s spiritual, ideal and eternal.

Despite some of his crew being devoured (symbolizing a disruption of our clear rational consciousness by intrusive thoughts and mental agitation caused by ungratified appetites), Odysseus escapes by using his intelligence.  Some commentators see in the sharpened, fire-hardened pole with which he blinds Polyphemus a symbol for dialectic — e.g., analyzing urges with sharp, incisive reasoning, instead of instantly giving in to them.

But, as we’ve said, Odysseus pays a price, because Poseidon makes his subsequent journey very difficult. [1] This suggests a rather grim picture of life. Is our only choice to either gratify every appetite, or else suffer for not doing so?

Porphyry, the disciple of Plotinus (the first Neoplatonist), thought otherwise.  In his short essay, On the Cave of the Nymphs — a landmark in the allegorical interpretation of Homer — he considers a later episode of the Odyssey that, like the Polyphemus story, involves a cave.  When Odysseus, with the help of Athena and the splendid Phaecians, arrives at Ithaca, he lands at the Cave of the Nymphs.  Homer describes the cave in a few lines (Od. XIII 102–112) densely packed with imagery.  Porphyry sees a parallelism between this cave and that of Polyphemus:  once again Odysseus leaves a cave, but this time more fortunately.  Following earlier advice given by the prophet Tiresias in the underworld, Odysseus walks inland until he finds a “land that knows nothing of the sea,” where he plants an oar from his ship and offers appeasing sacrifice to Poseidon.

Porphyry interprets this to mean that, while we should oppose our base nature (Polyphemus), we should do so wisely, and, one might say, with diplomacy. We don’t want an outright confrontation that will elicit Poseidon’s wrath.

Porphyry explains it thus at the end of Cave of the Nymphs:

16. In this cave [of the Nymphs], therefore, says Homer, all external possessions must be deposited. Here, naked, and assuming a suppliant habit, afflicted in body, casting aside everything superfluous, and being averse to the energies of sense, it is requisite to sit at the foot of the olive and consult with Minerva [Athena] by what means we may most effectually destroy that hostile rout of passions which insidiously lurk in the secret recesses of the soul. (tr. Taylor)

He means that the cave is like the haven of our mind which we return to in contemplation, withdrawing our attention from the world of sense.

Indeed, as it appears to me, it was not without reason that Numenius and his followers thought the person of Ulysses in the Odyssey represented to us a man who passes in a regular manner over the dark and stormy sea of generation [genesis = becoming, a Platonic term for the sensory world] and thus at length arrives at that region where tempests and seas are unknown, and finds a nation

“Who ne’er knew salt, or heard the billows roar.” (Ibid.)

Above Porphyry is explaining the allegorical meaning of the Odyssey as a mental journey, attributing this approach to the earlier Platonist philosopher, Numenius.

17. Again, according to Plato, the deep, the sea, and a tempest are images of a material nature [i.e., our biological nature]. (…) But from Thoosa the Cyclops was born, whom Ulysses deprived of sight. And this deed of Ulysses became the occasion of reminding him of his errors, till he was safely landed in his native country. On this account, too, a seat under the olive is proper to Ulysses, as to one who implores divinity and would appease his natal daemon [the id] with a suppliant branch. For it will not be simply, and in a concise way, possible for anyone to be liberated from this sensible life, who blinds this daemon, and renders his energies inefficacious; but he who dares to do this, will be pursued by the anger of the marine and material gods [gods = inner energies and/or archetypal complexes?], whom it is first requisite to appease by sacrifices, labours, and patient endurance; at one time, indeed, contending with the passions, and at another employing enchantments and deceptions, and by these, transforming himself in an all-various manner; in order that, being at length divested of the torn garments (by which his true person was concealed) he may recover the ruined empire of his soul.

Nor will he even then be liberated from labours; but this will be effected when he has entirely passed over the raging sea, and, though still living, becomes so ignorant of marine and material works (through deep attention to intelligible concerns) as to mistake an oar for a corn-van [or winnowing fan — i.e., to be so far inland that people there don’t know what an oar is]. (Ibid.)

Porphyry explains this principle of intelligent resistance to our ‘inner Polyphemus’ more directly in his book advocating vegetarianism for spiritual aspirants, On Abstinence from Animal Food.

32. But this departure [from sense, imagination, and irrationality] may be effected by violence, and also by persuasion and by reason, through the wasting away, and, as it may be said, oblivion and death of the passions; which, indeed, is the best kind of departure, since it is accomplished without oppressing that from which we are divulsed. (…) And this negligence is produced by an abstinence from those sensible perceptions which excite the passions, and by a persevering attention to intelligibles. And among these passions or perturbations, those which arise from food are to be enumerated. (tr. Taylor)

So he’s recommending a moderate, reasoned approach to handling troublesome appetites and passions, instead of a direct confrontation. To put this in practical terms, instead of going on a crash diet, it’s better to wean oneself gradually from over-eating — by, for example, phasing out delicacies that keep us constantly thinking about the next meal.  Have tofu for dinner once in a while, or enjoy a meatless Friday.  Let Polyphemus go gradually to sleep, instead of waging war.

A more general lesson from this is how, allegorically understood, the Odyssey is concerned with practical psychological issues in life.  The same is, of course, also true with the Iliad — and with Greek myths generally (see, e.g., my page here).


  1. A further issue here is the problem of hubris. At first Odysseus is content to call himself “nobody.” Only while sailing off does he tempt the gods by revealing his name and identity. Psychologically, calling himself nobody corresponds to ones ego acting, as it should, on behalf of the entire Self, and exerting a healthy and natural control over the appetites.  The latter situation occurs when the ego becomes too strongly identified with opposing appetites.


Clark, Gillian. Porphyry: On Abstinence from Killing Animals. London: Duckworth, 2000. Reprinted: London: Bloomsbury, 2014.

Lamberton, Robert. Porphyry: On the Cave of the Nymphs. Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Press, 1983

Taylor, Thomas (tr.). On Abstinence from Animal Food . In: Thomas Taylor (tr.), Select Works of Porphyry, London: Rodd, 1823, (pp. 1−170).

Taylor, Thomas (tr.). On the Cave of the Nymphs in the Thirteenth Book of the Odyssey. In: Thomas Taylor (tr.), Select Works of Porphyry, London: Rodd, 1823, (pp. 171−200). Reprinted: London, John M. Watkins, 1917.


A Better Diagram of the Cardinal Virtues

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RECENTLY I noticed some diagrams of the traditional four cardinal virtues of prudence (phronesis), temperance (sophrosyne), courage (andreia) and righteousness (or justice; dikaiosyne) arranged as a square. Such a configuration is problematic in that it ignores the unique relationship that righteousness has with the others.

Another more general issue is that Plato — from whom the tradition of cardinal virtues originates — arguably proposed five, not four.  A new diagram above attempts to redress both issues.First, the lower half of the diagram helps show the affinity of the usual four cardinal virtues to Plato’s famous tripartite model of the psyche that distinguishes the (1) rational, (2) appetitive and (3) spirited elements of the soul.In Plato’s system, courage is the excellence (or right-tuning) of the spirited element, temperance the excellence of the appetitive element, and prudence of the rational element. Righteousness, in turn, is the harmonization of the three other virtues.  Hence it makes more sense to place righteousness in the center of the other three.

Second, while Plato sometimes lists these four cardinal virtues, other times he mentions a fifth: piety or holiness. In fact, he seems almost deliberately vague about this — but we also know that Plato sometimes reveals his most important points subtly.

Writing a few centuries later, Philo, the famous Jewish Platonist of Alexandria, was more explicit. In his in his influential allegorical interpretation of Genesis he saw the Garden of the Eden a symbolizing human virtues generally. The four rivers that surround and water Eden, he suggested, correspond to prudence, temperance, courage and righteousness: these nourish the other virtues.

The Tree of Life in the center of the Garden is theosebeia (θεοσέβεια), or reverence towards God’s goodness. This, he says, is  “the greatest of the virtues, by means of which the psyche is made deathless”  (i.e., it does not ‘die’ by lapsing into sin; On the Creation of the World, 154).

This virtue of perfect piety, godliness and ongoing trust in God constitutes the apex of the spiritual life.  It is a progression beyond purification and illumination to what mystics call the unitive life: assimilation to God, erasure of the distinction between self-will and divine will, and the Reign(ing) of God in ones soul.