The Odyssey: Book 2 – a necessary digression

Book about the Polis

Book about the Polis

This particular blog post deals with necessary background to what is happening in Book 2 of the Odyssey. Most readers will have heard the Greek word πόλις (pronounced [pólis]) and will have been told simply that it means city. Yet what many people do not realize is that the word for city in ancient Greek in the sense of a physical location is ἄστυ [ásty]. What the word πόλις refers to is the community of people that make up the city. In practice however only adult male citizens were included, and the amount of the population which were non-citizens was usually relatively high.

When Aristotle said (as usually quoted) that Man is a political animal what he was really saying is that human beings are social creatures. Of course the etymological origin of the word politics is from those things related to the community, i.e., the polis.

At the core of the ancient Greek polis was the assembly which served as a meeting of the members of the community. The concept of κλέος (kleos) refers to glory and the concomitant political clout, but intrinsically the glory refers to deeds done which benefit the community and the most tangible benefit of κλέος it to speak and be heard in the assembly. At the heart of the functioning of the assembly is the idea that political clout derives from the estimate of one’s peers in the community.Of course implicit in this scenario is the idea that deeds done to benefit the community and social status within the community will be respected.

Politics lays at the heart of the Odyssey. After all, the suitors are first and foremost rebels. The venue of politics is the assembly within the polis. We see here in Book 2 of the Odyssey an attempt by loyal citizens of Ithaca like Aegyptius and his sons to continue a properly functioning community even in the absence of the king Odysseus. As rebels, the suitors will seek to disrupt this key element of their society.

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