Jean Pépin


I. Philosophos Odysseus 1

Several philosophical schools in antiquity made use of the figure of Ulysses. Take the case of the Cynics, to begin with, who put him forward as an exemplum. The idea is already suggested in the fifth century B.C. by the founder of the Cynic movement, Antisthenes. Ulysses is for him a sage who knows life, the gods and men—and women!—and who knows how to adapt his speech in relation to different interlocutors. 2 The same kind of evaluation of Ulysses is found two centuries later in Bion. 3 It becomes a literary cliché in the apocryphal letters of the Cynics, which date from the imperial period and which see in Ulysses, notably in his clothes (that is, his rags), the incarnation of the kind of life advocated by Cynicism. 4 It was to be expected that the Stoics, who admitted to being under Cynic influence in their ethics, would in turn choose Ulysses as a model of morality. In fact, no trace of this is found in the documents relating to the founders of Stoicism, but it is a well-established idea in the Stoics of the imperial period: Seneca, then Epictetus, and in two texts influenced by Stoicism that probably date from the first or second century A.D., the De Vita et Poesi Homeri of Pseudo-Plutarch and the Quaestiones Homericae of Heraclitus. In these texts we find a Ulysses extolled because of his endurance, his indifference to pain, his contempt for pleasure. 5

Parallel to this Cynic and Stoic tendency, there developed another philosophical use of Ulysses, of which I would like to give a representative sample. The reader must forgive the length of this passage in view of the fact that I will use it in the following pages as a point of comparison. It concerns the episode of the Sirens, which Plutarch prides himself in using to show that there is no conflict between Homer and Plato (Republic X, 5I7B):

From Neoplatonism and Christian Thought, edited by Dominic J. O'Meara (Norfolk, VA: International Society for Neoplatonic Studies, 1982), pp. 3-18.


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