Evaluation of Telémakhos’ Actions
Authors and poets in ancient and modern literature laud the actions of heroes and condemn the actions of villains—judging which is laudable action comes from understanding the virtues. Our greatest stories are nothing if not conflict between antagonist and protagonist, a battle against that esteemed as good and that which is evil. In ancient literature, our understanding of virtuous action comes principally from Aristotle. The path of virtue is the middle ground, such that it “is an intermediate between excess and defect” (Aristotle 1220). Just as Aristotle gives a framework with which to judge virtuous action, so Dante presents a framework with which to punish actions deemed outside of virtue. In Dante’s Inferno we meet non-Christians, those not baptized, whom God punishes according to the severity of their sin. At the entrance to Hell, Dante reads an inscription above the gate that says, “Abandon every hope, you who enter here” (Dante 1416). Hell is a place of stasis—the dead found there can never leave. Drawing from Homer’s Odyssey, this essay explores the actions of Odysseus’ son Telémakhos. By applying Aristotle’s Nichomacean Ethics and incorporating Dante’s system of punishment, this essay evaluates Telémakhos’ actions and places him in his proper place in hell: submerged in a hot river of blood forever.
In order to know what virtuous action is, one must carefully choose between too much and too little. Aristotle says, “It is possible to fail in many ways, while to succeed is possible only in one way” (Aristotle 1221). This teaching is the premise of Nichomacean Ethics; Aristotle teaches what modern readers know as “The Golden Mean”—the understanding that moral virtue “is a mean between two vices, the one involving excess, the other deficiency” (1224). The intermediate of an object itself is “equidistant from each of the extremes,” and consequently the same for all men (1220). The intermediate relatively to each man is “that which is neither too much nor too little—and this is not one, nor the same at all” (1220). In other words, while general principles of virtuous behavior apply to all situations, there are also specific considerations for each situation determining which action is most virtuous.
Dante’s portrait of Hell is a complex system of reward spiraling downward toward the center of the earth with worsening punishments for increasingly willful and rebellious sinners. Sinners are those who, “each in his or her own way, have definitively rebelled against God’s law and defied or ignored His mercy” (Dante 1401). The punishments found in the Inferno are graphic and terrifying, representing the choices made by the sinner in his or her life. For example, those who committed suicide remain separated from their bodies for all eternity because they “separated soul from body” (1402). Each sin has a specific punishment not open to negotiation.
Near the conclusion of the Odyssey, Odysseus...