Today’s Phrase for Latin Lovers

Rex in Regno suo superiores habet Deum et Legem.

The King in his Realm hath two superiors: God and the Law. -- Henry Care (1646-1688) on English liberties and the Magna Carta


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Ancient History

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Heraclitus and the Odyssey

My favorite saying of Heraclitus is “Strife is justice.” It makes sense, that we will gain our piece of the world through our toil, perseverance and battle. We will get what we earn, what we deserve, even if it may not be what we originally set out to achieve, and even if the results are not what we expected. If we want more, we must strive more.

The sticking point, though, comes in jealousy. In working so hard, enduring so much strife, it can aggravate us to see someone else gain what we desire through seemingly no strife at all. It can make the end result of our strife seem unfair, unjust.

The Odyssey contains an excellent example of this:

As Odysseus comes home to Ithaca after his hard ten years’ journey, he arrives at his house disguised as an old beggar. He wishes to observe all the men that have feasted upon his wealth and lived in his home, courting his wife, while he has been away. It is time to take retribution and to reclaim what is rightfully his. He takes a spot at the threshold.

But Irus, another beggar, considers the threshold to be his property. All of it. He is the king beggar of the house. Running errands and doing chores for the suitors, he has earned this spot, and he does not wish to share it with some newcomer who just waltzes in and wants the same rewards that he had to toil to achieve.

To Irus, the threshold is his just reward for all his strife, for all that he has had to endure at the hands of the suitors. He warns Odysseus that he will fight him if the old man doesn’t get out of his threshold.

From Irus’ perspective, he has fought already for what he has, and the stranger hasn’t striven at all. But he can’t see that it is the stranger’s house of which he is trying to proclaim a portion. He doesn’t realize that he is trying to claim another man’s rightful share, even if Irus thinks he is the one that has truly earned it.

He hollers at Odysseus, telling him he better get up and move on, or else he will haul him out by the foot.

Odysseus replies that neither in deed nor word does he harm the beggar, nor does he begrudge the men giving him food and goods, even if they give him lots of it–enough to cause envy. “This threshold will hold us both, and thou hast no need to be jealous for the sake of other men’s goods,” the disguised Odysseus tells Irus.

For Odysseus, he too believes that strife is justice, and justice is about to rain down hard upon all the suitors and unfaithful maids of his household. But the justice he is searching for is not affected by the beggar’s gains. Odysseus is focused on his own, and offers the man a chance to coexist in their own strifes.

Irus refuses, however, and the suitors use the fight as a source of entertainment, guaranteeing a reward for the victor. When Irus falters at the sight of Odysseus’ muscular thighs, the suitors push him forward, and the two men come to blows. Well, two blows. Irus lashes out at Odysseus’ shoulder, and Odysseus, consciously choosing not to kill Irus with one powerful blow and thus reveal his identity, gives him one strike beneath his ear, knocks him out, and hauls the bloody beggar out of the house…by the foot.

Therefore, the next time you fear someone is encroaching on your justice, take a moment to consider whether the threshold would hold you both. If so, it may be best to devote your energies to your other battles.

2 comments to Heraclitus and the Odyssey

  • I was introduced to Heraclitus through a motivational poster at Grand Gulf Nuclear Power Plant.
    Heraclitus : The soul is dyed the color of its thoughts. Think only on those things that are in line with your principles and can bear the light of day. The content of your character is your choice. Day by day, what you do is who you become. Your integrity is your destiny — it is the light that guides your way.
    I remind myself of those words whenever I catch myself thinking bad thoughts.
    To see Heraclitus validated through one of my favorite books The Odyssey is especially nice. My compliments to you.

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