Homer’s Penelope In her essay Penelope as Moral Agent, Helene Foley attempts to discuss Penelope, a major character in Homer’s the Odyssey, in terms of Classical Athenian portrayals of women and, as her title suggests, in terms of what she calls a moral agent. In her introductory paragraph she lays out guidelines as set down by Aristotle and his contemporaries that constitute a moral agent: the character must make an ethical and moral decision on which the actions turnswithout critical knowledge of the circumstances (Foley 93). To this end, Foley ultimately decides that Penelope meets these standards and adds that her social, familial and personal responsibilities play integral roles in making that decision. Foley’s examples and her in-depth analysis of the Odyssey all support her thesis as I have interpreted it to be. There are, however, problems in her comparison of the Odyssey and outside texts (especially that of Carol Gilligan), inconsistencies in citations and style, and examples that either have little or nothing to do with her thesis. The largest problem with this essay that I could find is the ignorance of a few facts that could possibly be construed as being in opposition to her findings.
Since I am not familiar with and have not read any of the outside texts to which Foley refers (Aristotle’s Oedipus Tyrannos, Poetics, Politics, and Ethics, the Hippocratic medical texts, and the feminist theory of Carol Gilligan), I can only assume that her interpretations of these texts are correct. In any case, she uses Aristotle and Hippocrates in order to develop a historical framework against which she can judge Homer’s fictitious character Penelope. This method would have led to a good argument if she had included in her analysis an explanation of what constitutes a Classical writer and had specified whether or not Homer was included in that group. Direct connections she makes between the Odyssey and the outside texts are nominal. She neglects to explain why she would compare Penelope to Aristotle’s ideas on the woman’s role in society, or in what respect the biological findings of Hippocrates could have possibly have influenced or been influenced by Homer’s epic.
The only hint the reader is exposed to is when, on page 94 she asks, To what degree does the world of the Odyssey prefigure popular Classical Athenian assumptions about women as moral agents? The keyword here is prefigure and it indicates to me that Homer wrote before the classical writers that Foley uses as her basis of understanding the term moral agent. That the reader must figure that out based on one word out of a twenty page essay instead of being exposed to at least a small discussion of the chronology of when the authors and philosophers in question lived and wrote also detracts from the essay as a whole. Because Foley is trying to establish a framework based on historical and cultural ideas, that framework must be imbedded in a sufficient understanding of history itself in order to validate its meaning. In addition, I cannot but be aware of the fact that there is little direct comparison between Homer’s epic poem and the outside works Foley uses, and especially by Aristotle. In fact, whenever she does make a direct comparison is when she discounts the relevance of the outside source.
One of the few times the philosophies of Aristotle and Homer are referred to in the same sentence is when she says, A closer look at Aristotle’s assumptions about women as moral agents, however, makes clear that one cannot generalize so easily from Oedipus to Penelope (Foley 93). Additionally, on page 99, she resists using the term kurios or guardianship (one she used to determine Classical Athenian opinion about women’s roles in decision-making) because the passages raise serious doubt about the exact parameters involved in male guardianship of a wife in the Odyssey. Another (and more constructive) example of when the philosophy of Aristotle and the depiction by Homer of women and their roles and responsibilities in society is on page 108 in the last sentence of her essay: Insofar as tragic choices of the kind identified and praised by Aristotle are symptomatic of a social world in which obligations to promote civic welfare have acquired a greater ideological interest and resonance, it is not surprising that the Odyssey’s most nearly tragic choice is made by a character whose social role is defined so pointedly in terms of responsibilities. Also, on page 101, there is a direct comparison between Aristotle’s Oikonomika and Politics and Greek tradition with Penelope as the paradigm of a virtuous wife that explains the relevance a bit better. There is, however, no consistent, ongoing assessment of how the two interact specifically in terms of her decision-making process throughout the essay.
I would have assumed given that the entire introductory paragraph is dedicated to the discussion of outside interpretations of females and their roles in decision-making, that Penelope would be periodically judged in those terms. Returning to my earlier point, I would also expect that the issues that Foley mentions as parameters set down by Aristotle would be applicable to her thesis and not contradictory as they are in her discussions on pages ninety-three and ninety-four. Using outside texts is certainly useful in gaining insights into any text that one is analyzing. However, Foley’s usage seems, at times, to be a bit contrived and simply demonstration of the extent of her knowledge in the subject. The first indication is that she sometimes neglects to fully explain the significance of a given reference. For example, the second full paragraph on page ninety-four is almost completely about Aristotle and his presentation of what he calls tragic characters. Then, the last sentence brings in Euripides’ philosophical Melanippe. Only in the footnote does Foley explain the story behind this character and the relevance to her thesis is vague.
Apparently, this example is used in order to demonstrate Aristotle’s digressions from one true concept of how a woman should think and act. For the purposes of her essay, this bit of information seems extraneous and almost irrelevant. Especially considering Foley’s half-page presentation and interpretation of Carol Gilligan’s feminist theory, it seems as though she is simply trying to fill up space. In the first place, a modern feminist theorist would have little or no bearing on classical interpretations of gender roles influencing decision-making because of the inherent differences in cultures and historical contexts in which each author is writing. More than likely, Gilligan did not have Penelope in mind when she came to her own conclusions on how men differ from women in making decisions. Foley says it herself that Gilligan’s distinctions..are not applicable in any simple sense to the Odyssey because of the formulaic nature of oral epic (Foley 107).
In other words, the inherent structure of an epic poem necessitates using recurring language in describing thought processes in decision-making because of the need to retain syllable count, etc. Her point here is somewhat redundant because she is simply restating what she writes on page ninety-five: On the surface at least, the Odyssey’s women are [sic] endowed with the same moral capacities [sic] as men..The same formulas are used to describe the way [men and women] reason about questions of strategy or moral dilemmas. The thumos (heart) of both sexes can be deliberate, be divided, and then decide in a rational fashion that one alternative is better than another. In other words, because Homer uses the same vocabulary to describe the thought processes of both m en and women, Gilligan’s assertion that women operate with competing responsibilites in mind, whereas men operate under the morality of rights (Foley 107) cannot be related to the Odyssey or her thesis. My problem with Foley’s inclusion of Gilligan’s work is that while bringing in outside texts furthers understanding of the work in question, this case was not only inapplicable, but it restated her point made earlier in a round-about sort of way. Why include an example of a modern theory that proves a point by not being at all applicable? Trivial as they may be, stylistic inconsistencies can also detract from the persuasiveness of the essay. While her inclusion of the original Greek words is insightful, useful, and demonstrative of her proficiency in research and understanding, Foley presents the translation in such a way to make it difficult for the reader.
For instance, she sometimes uses the Greek word in the sentence and puts the English word in parentheses, but sometimes does the opposite. Also, occasionally she assumes the reader remembers what the word means and at other times, she rep …