BUI ORIGINS: From Vice to Virtue: How Homer and Augustine's Characters Achieve Morality

Though Confessions and The Odyssey differ in plot and setting and the eras in which they were written, they showcase what is universal in literature: character development. When viewing honesty, integrity, loyalty, and courage as dynamic, interrelated tenets of moral character, it seems rather ironic that the flawed, mortal characters exhibited in both works are able to develop into examples of such high moral standing; however, by utilizing the virtues that they do have (with the help of outside forces), Odysseus, Telemachus, Penelope, and Augustine ultimately find direction that is their moral compass and begin to the fix the faulty foundations of their character – foundations comprised of deceit, cowardice, overwhelming grief, and sin.

In the case of Odysseus, the seaman’s lack of honesty becomes his greatest asset – outwardly at least – as he benefits from deceiving others. Inwardly, however, Odysseus struggles with conceit and grapples with temptation. He oversteps his bounds, for one, when defeating the Cyclops, proclaiming, “Odysseus, raider of cities, took your eye: Laetres’ son, whose home’s on Ithaca!” loud enough for Poseidon, his enemy’s father, to hear (IX.160.550). Odysseus could have easily refrained from reveling in his conquest and safely proceeded on his route, but, tempted by the glory that would have otherwise gone unaccredited, arrogance took over and his actions backfired. Thus, the “raider of cities” – the Akhaian idol – remains flawed and foolish and mortal.

As loyalty often falls in line with honesty, Odysseus’ tragic flaw leads to the ultimate betrayal of his beloved wife Penelope. Falling victim to temptation once again, he continues to prolong his return, as he is seduced by Kirke and Kalypso and just narrowly escapes the allure of the sirens and the princess at the river. Conversely, it is through loyalty to Athena that Odysseus is able to proceed, physically in his journey and mentally in the maturation of his character and the recognition of his true values. Though he often strays, Odysseus always returns to the path laid out for him by the goddess, courageously overcoming the obstacles formed by his flaws (often brought on by Poseidon, who unleashes his anger in the form of stormy seas and shipwrecks) and exhibiting integrity through commitment to his goal: coming home.

In contrast to impulsive Odysseus, clear-headed Telemachus lacks the courage and integrity to step up to his mother’s suitors. It is not until Athena comes to him in the disguise of Mentor that the boy finds the confidence to leave his home and search for his father. Like Odysseus, Telemachus is deceptive, as he initially hides this plan from the suitors, stating to Eurymakos, “…there’s no hope for my father” (I.14.465). Unlike Odysseus, however, Telemachus does not let this ability become his flaw, as he uses it sparingly and cautiously with the knowledge that dishonesty compromises what he values most: loyalty. In order to avoid the pain of deceiving his mother, Telemachus tasks the Nurse with keeping his departure a secret for the time being (II.30.396). Coupled with this sensitivity to his mother’s concerns is an intense sense of loyalty, Telemachus’ strongest virtue. This fuels the boy’s determination to discover the whereabouts of his father – the truth that has escaped him for the majority of his young life – and allows him forge onward. With every step of his journey, Telemachus finds the courage that he lacked before, which is made evident in the boy’s final feat: the suitors. Once meek and without voice, Telemachus now finds himself directing the mother he can finally speak up for, leaving her in awe at his “clearheaded bravery” and garnering respect, even fear, from the suitors yet to be slain (XXI.402.399). Through the acquisition of courage, Telemachus gains integrity; he knows what he stands for and finds his place in defending his family and preserving his father’s loyalty and sacred marriage to Penelope.

On the subject of Penelope, Odysseus’ wife is crippled with grief, her loyalty unwavering despite the ambiguity of her husband’s fate. It is her integrity that acts as her crutch, enabling her to ward off her suitors single-handedly through courage and wit. Penelope is similar to her husband, though, in that her cunning tactics could arguably be her vice, as they contradict the virtue of honesty and lead the suitors to place blame on her for making “poor use” of her talent, which presents her with another obstacle (II.22.130). Yet, also in the fashion of Odysseus, Penelope stays true to her values, resisting pressures to marry while managing a home by herself and raising a son without a father. Because she deceives in order to defend the life she’s holding on to, Penelope gains the virtue of honesty, as she is honest to herself and to her values. Therefore, the slate is laid for loyalty and integrity and courage to follow, and the queen achieves strong moral character.

The characters of The Odyssey, therefore, are able to capitalize on their strengths, reconcile with their vices, transform them into assets, and develop into people of virtue. In Confessions, Augustine reaches a similar fate, embarking on a spiritual odyssey in which he prays to part from his sinful ways and adopt a lifestyle of faith and virtue. However, for the boy who finds “affection” in “empty fables” (I.xiii.21) yet yields no respect for occupations that deceive (II.v.11), the basis on which Augustine forms his values is curious. Nonetheless, as a philosopher and theologian, he becomes fascinated with the idea of “incorporeal reality” that he defines as truth (IV.xv.24), and he uses it to help absolve his own spiritual crises. Honesty, therefore, becomes firmly rooted in the premise of Augustine’s work: the confession.

The saint’s early life, though, was ridden with sin, and forming a relationship with the almighty God and all that is good and virtuous required a great deal of courage. For someone who had much to confess to, who stole figs for the sake of stealing (II.viii.16), engaged in lustful affairs (II.i.1), found pleasure in false suffering (III.ii.2), and described himself, by the age of 28, as “being seduced and seducing, being deceived and deceiving” (IV.i.1), Augustine was deeply vulnerable, morally weak, and began to find his rightful place at the “bottom of the abyss” (II.iv.9). Though acclimated to this lifestyle, Augustine sacrifices comfort for virtue. However, this is not entirely through sheer will. Following the tragic death of his friend, grief darkens Augustine’s heart (IV.iv.9) and, upon “losing the source of his joy” (IV.viii.13), he begins to seek out the guidance of a higher power. Through the lens of scripture and metaphysical truth – with truth and rhetoric a value that survived his darker days – Augustine begins a painful recollection of the mistakes he had made, spanning from infancy to adulthood. In the form of repentance, Augustine begins to challenge himself, remaining devoted to his newfound values. Thus, it is through self-discovery that Augustine becomes honest with himself and with God, and this – Augustine’s decision to acknowledge his destructive past and reject his life of sin – is what ultimately makes him a moral character.

It is through their gradual, guided acquisition of the virtues of which they lack that Odysseus, Telemachus, Penelope, and Augustine befit the moral character. While plagued by a complex that leads him astray from the virtues of honesty and loyalty, Odysseus stays true to his values and seeks guidance from the gods to lead him back home; maintaining integrity when faced with adversity, the warrior’s voyage culminates in an act of valor and glory. His son, on the other hand, lacks his father’s bravery and is unable to defend the home that is left for him to head. Athena acts again, benevolent in forcing Telemachus on his way to obtain the courage that he lacks, utilizing his loyalty and love for his family, his fervor for the truth, and his determination. For Penelope, grief clouds her character, but through intense loyalty to her husband, she remains honest to her values and musters the courage and integrity to preserve her marriage. And lastly, Augustine’s courage allows him to strengthen his relationship with and loyalty to God by coming to terms with his sin; his honesty, therefore, leads him to live a life of faithful integrity. As it is in the laws of science, it is debatable – highly improbable, rather – that these characters would develop and overcome the hurdles which are their vices without a proper force to catalyze their growth. Therefore, in addition to the tenacity of these characters, much credit is owed to Athena and to God for the moral achievements of their subjects – which, perhaps, gives reason to the irony behind it all.

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