Thoughts have us
Do we have thoughts, or do thoughts have us?
Here is a story, one that you may already know.
There once was a very clever man called Odysseus, who left his home island of Ithaca to fight in the Trojan War. The Greek army he joined besieged Troy for ten years without success. It was stalemate, until Odysseus had an idea.
He built a wooden horse, hid some of the warriors in it, and wheeled it to the gates of Troy. The Trojans took it as a gift and brought it into the city. That night, the Greek warriors crept out of the horse, opened the city gates to let their comrades in, and Troy was destroyed.
Where did Odysseus get the idea from? What he did had not happened before. After all, the Trojan War itself started because of humans’ inability to think for themselves.
Story within a story: The Judgement of Paris
One day the God Zeus was asked by three goddesses, Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, to decide who was the fairest of the three of them. Zeus did the sensible thing: he ducked the issue. He nominated Paris, a mortal human, to make the choice. Paris was the son of Priam, king of Troy. He was also a shepherd.
Now, any man with a grain of sense would refuse such an offer because of the trouble it would cause, but Paris was unable to resist. The three goddesses appeared to him on Mount Ida, where he was with his sheep. They presented themselves to him. Each offered him rewards, incitements to choose her. He chose Aphrodite, thereby earning the displeasure of the other two candidates. Aphrodite rewarded him with the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Sparta. He took Helen back to Troy, her husband Menelaus organised an expedition to bring her home, and the Trojan War ensued.
If only Paris had said ‘no’ in the first place. But both humans and the gods were stuck, each playing out petty emotions. Revenge, discord, jealousy: every time a god experienced one of these emotions the humans were obliged to play out the drama of it. Nobody could think new thoughts — until Odysseus came along.
After the destruction of Troy, in which Paris and many others were killed, Odysseus set off to sail home to Ithaca. This, for me, is where it gets really interesting.
Odysseus resisted the enticements of the gods. They could not control him. One goddess kept him imprisoned on her island for seven years, with the promise of immortality if he would willingly stay with her. But he refused, and spent his days on the clifftop, looking out longingly over the sea towards his home on Ithaca.
This was a new kind of human, one the gods had not encountered before. The goddesses couldn’t get enough of him. Athena, in particular, was fascinated by him. (She is the goddess of wisdom, after all.) She arranges his escape from his imprisonment. Many more adventures ensue in which he survives by his wits: by inventions, stories and strategems.
Odysseus finally washes up on the beach of his home island. Athena appears to him disguised as a shepherd. He asks her where this place is, and she tells him it is Ithaca. Rather than dropping his guard and jumping for joy, he then weaves another story to explain how he ended up there. Athena loves this. She reveals herself to him, they greet each other — and still he is not convinced that he has finally reached home. ‘Am I really back in my own beloved land?’ he asks her. Her response is almost coy. ‘How like you to be so wary!’ she replies. In my mind’s eye I can see her smiling at him as she says it.
By resisting the thoughts of the gods, Odysseus allowed the gods to change. This also allowed humans to change. The tragedy is that we humans then forgot about the gods altogether. We started to believe that our thoughts are our own.