I remember reading The Odyssey as a child; only I read the significantly abridged “Wishbone” version.
At the time, I enjoyed the heroic tale of Ulysses without realizing the philosophical implications of the epic. Coming back years later and reading The Odyssey again, I can better recognize the Presocratic themes.
As in most Greek literature, the protagonist displays great feats of physical and mental ability. Ulysses outsmarts Neptune’s son and rescues his family with wit and strength. Instead of only brute force (which many modern heroes display exclusively), the Greek’s also admired acts of wisdom. The lasting effect of this worldview has permeated through much of philosophy. I can’t help but think that Nietzsche’s ubermensch would share many qualities with Ulysses.
The Odyssey also contains many deterministic themes. Ulysses cannot escape his imprisonment without the consent of the Gods, and he requires the help of another God to fight off the men at his home. While it does not appear pre-ordained that Ulysses is kept captive before returning home, that perspective can easily be reached. If we read The Odyssey with the view that the Gods are not agents with volition but forces guiding Ulysses’ life (described with anthropomorphism), then his trials seem fatalistic.
Ulysses is able to defy Neptune and defeat a demi-God. So to some extent we see man’s victory over the Gods (read fate). However, I still have the impression that Ulysses’ brief triumph is only a momentary respite. Perhaps the theme is that man is doomed to fatalism, but he will occasionally believe in his own freedom. And just because our lives may be scripted, a happy ending is not precluded.
For today’s youth, The Odyssey may just be another story in the Wishbone children’s series. But for centuries of philosophers, the epic’s impact is evident.