Central to the Odyssey is a motivation upon which human actions are built, called Kleos by the Ancient Greeks. Kleos is the glory and renown merited by an individual through his actions. It encompasses fame, the means by which fame is acquired, and the manner in which that fame disseminates beyond the individual’s own time and place to the rest of humanity, such that the individual achieves a degree of immortality. Intrinsic to Kleos, then, is the formation of a story that outlasts the life of a single man or woman, “a song for those to come.”
The Odyssey fundamentally consists of the account of Odysseus’s actions as motivated by a desire to acquire Kleos. At the beginning of the narrative, he is despondent because he fears, having neither died an honorous death in the battle of Troy nor weathered all hardships to receive a glorious homecoming, that he will pass on in obscurity, un-remembered by his fellow men, leaving no mark upon the world. Kleos, as the hope and salvation from this fate, is manifested in a variety of types of action.
In the first kind, Odysseus attempts exploration. He individuates himself from the rest of man by going where others dare not go, and doing what others cannot do. A primary example of this is when Odysseus insists on exploring the Cyclops’s cave, despite his men urging him to return home without such detours.
Connected, but not identical, is the Kleos earned in battle: this is the Kleos of proving himself superior to all men around him. When in the Cyclops’s cave, Odysseus watches his men die while he devises an ingenious plan to both wound the Cyclops and escape. Later, when finally arriving at his home, Odysseus proves himself superior to all of his wife’s suitors by accomplishing feats of strength nobody else can perform. He then proceeds to battle the suitors, killing every last one. This action of gaining Kleos is contingent upon Odysseus’s ability to prove himself as an athlete. When challenged by those younger and more youthful than him, Odysseus resorts to a discus-throwing competition, knowing he can win such a competition and thus gain Kleos.
Another, entirely different way of gaining Kleos is through sexual action. Odysseus makes love with the immortal and beautiful sea nymph, Calypso, in such a way that everybody knows Calypso has captured Odysseus on her island. Moreover, Odysseus gains Kleos through telling his own story, rather than having others tell it for him. The times in the narrative in which Odysseus relates his own story are the times in which all the fantastical events including Cyclops, Sirens, nine headed monsters, and gigantic ocean whirlpools appear.
Lastly, Odysseus gains Kleos by one-up-ing his biggest contender. The hero of the Iliad, Achilles, died a glorious death in the battle of Troy, meriting him massive amounts of Kleos. Odysseus enters into hell and talks to Achilles, finding him pitiful, and then ascends back into the world with the security that he can have more Kleos than Achilles.
Odysseus, then, is just like the average Harvard student. Granted, we go to class rather than cyclops’ dens, but nevertheless Harvard brims over with the desire for Kleos. We have faced this Kleos from the moment of our acceptance to the ‘most prestigious’ university in the world. Who of us could stand to go through four years at Harvard without having our accomplishments remembered by a single professor, peer, friend, or family member? The contentment of being “better than” motivates us so that we can feel this Kleos with every good grade, every good athletic performance, every confirmation by a professor or a peer, every performance, every goal reached. Like Odysseus who weathered hell in order to prove himself better than his competitor, we put ourselves through all-nighters and countless hours of work in order to have this Kleos. This Kleos is not only academic, but also social. Each of us has to answer the question, “what did you do last summer?” Our answers are filled with modern-day Sirens, cyclops, and nine-headed sea monsters:internships, shadowing, travelling, fellowships, service projects. Even the hookup culture, driven in part by sensual desire, is also driven by a desire for Kleos. Like Odysseus in Calypso’s cave, there exists a kind of glory for being the guy who can hook up with that girl.
This desire for Kleos is incarnated a hundred different ways. But, to take a step back, why are we so obsessed?
We all want immortal glory because the original purpose of humanity is still imprinted on us. We were created to bring God Kleos. In severing our original relationship with God there remains the natural desire to propagate Kleos. We are deceived to turn this God-given desire into the selfish pursuit of our own glory, which is the goal of Odysseus and all too often myself and other Harvard students.
Amidst Odysseus’s and our own pursuit of Kleos, there is a kind of divine irony at play: by human standards Jesus has more Kleos than any other single man in the history of humanity, and yet by no means did he pursue Kleos like Odysseus and ourselves. In fact, he often did the opposite of Odysseus. He died an ignominious and shameful death. He always pointed to his Father and not his own accomplishments. When performing miraculous deeds, he insisted that those he healed stay silent about the miracle. He performed amazing acts not for his own Kleos, as did Odysseus, but for the good of others. His descent into hell was not to help himself, but to rescue us. Paul put it this way in Philippians 2:
“[Jesus] did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!”
If you wanted your own page in the history books and a worldwide following, this is surely not the way to go about it. Yet, Jesus has received more Kleos than any other figure in world history. How could this be?
Jesus fulfilled the original purpose of humanity in regards to Kleos. Every act was motivated by a desire to bring Kleos to his Father and was an invitation for us to do the same. By giving up his own Kleos at the right hand of God the Father in order to humble himself as a servant among men, Jesus modeled for humanity what becomes of the desire for Kleos when we are in a relationship with God. However, Jesus did not end there. He did not merely set a moral example to be followed. He did not give us the option of treating him as simply a moral teacher. Jesus says that He is the way to restore the relationship with God necessary to fulfill the original role of humanity in regards to Kleos.
So how do we move from the perverted Kleos of Odysseus to the Kleos of Jesus? What does the original role of Kleos lived out in the human life look like?
The answer to this last question looks like a rather direct slap in the face of the average Harvard student. In Philippians 2:3 Paul commands us to “with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves” as we emulate Christ. In doing this, we will “appear as lights in the world” (verse 15). When we act out this attitude of humility and service, the opposite of that of Odysseus, we stand out, we are noticed in ways Odysseus could not be noticed. As ‘lights’ we do not shine the glory of our own selfish Kleos, but reflect the Kleos of the Almighty God.
To finish I will describe how the story of the rich young man in Luke 18 succinctly describes the struggle of the average Harvard student with Kleos. The rich young man comes to Jesus asking, “what shall I do to inherit eternal life”. After some conversation, Jesus tells the rich man, “one thing you still lack; sell all that you possess and distribute it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” (verse 22) Luke tells us that the rich man responds to this command with deep sadness, for “he was extremely rich”. Before him lay two paths: the counterfeit path of Odysseus in which immortality comes from self-propagation of his own wealth, his own glory, and his own Kleos, or the true path of Jesus in which eternal life comes from sacrificing his own wealth, his own glory, and his own Kleos in order to propagate and reflect the Kleos of God. But the desire for his own wealth outweighed his desire for true eternal life, and thus he sadly walked away at hearing the necessity of sacrifice in the path of Jesus, the path of the original role of Kleos.
As Harvard students we swim in a wealth of Kleos. Like the rich young man, before us lie two paths. At Harvard the danger of Odyssean Kleos ensnares many of us. We cannot sacrifice all we have done for our own Kleos. We cannot shake the feeling that we must inherit our own eternal life through our own actions. We ignore the call to true eternal life and instead embrace a counterfeit immortality. However, Jesus still offers us the same path to eternal life as he did the rich young man. In this path we must sacrifice our self-propagated Kleos in order to reflect the Kleos of God. In this path we fulfill the original role of Kleos as we aim towards true eternal life.