Sometimes We Just Get What We Deserve

My favorite scene in Homer’s The Odyssey is the closing banquet. Odysseus has revealed himself as the returned king and he and Telemachus slaughter the gluttonous suitors. These suitors, all sons of nobleman in Ithaca and the surrounding kingdoms, have been living in Odysseus’ castle, wooing his wife, and making merry with the maids. It is, quite frankly, one of the bloodiest scenes in literature. Ever.

But that’s not why I like it. The scene, like so much of the epic poem, asks readers to contemplate the growing rift between humanity and theology. The poem ends with the gods ensuring peace, letting us know that our epic poem is largely supportive of a theologically-centered world. Odysseus survives because he learns to follow the dictates of the gods. The suitors die because they chose a different path.

In the poem, Odysseus has been gone 19 years and the suitors want Penelope to choose a new husband, effectively crowning a new king. They demand, they tell Penelope repeatedly, justice. Never mind, of course, that they are breaking the rules of hospitality and that there is no evidence Odysseus is dead.

Once Odysseus and Telemachus lock the door of the great hall and the spears start to fly, the suitors change their tune. As blood flows and suitors fall, the survivors begin begging for mercy, blaming various other suitors, arguing they were fooled into eating Odysseus’s food, teased by Penelope, and tricked by the maids. (Because it’s not an ancient text if we can’t find a way to blame the women.)

The poem reminds (or teaches them for the first time) my students that the battle between the secular and religious didn’t begin with liberal democrats and the Supreme Court. In fact, the place of religion in the public square (or the public square in religion) has been a point of contention for a long time. After all Homer’s epic poem is committed to paper about the same time as the bible and they are set in the same approximate region.

At the end of the day, though, this is very much a poem about justice versus mercy. But justice, I tell my students, is a dicey thing to demand. Mercy, we eventually discover, is a harder thing to expect.

I’m reminded of the suitors at the end of every semester. That low whining noise you think you hear this weekend is the sound of thousands of college students begging for mercy. Like the suitors, these kids started the semester asking for justice but as the red ink flows, they begin begging for mercy.

They want half-credit for partial answers, points for attendance, credit for answers that might not be right but they aren’t technically wrong, and grades that reward effort.

To be fair, we are only talking about a select few students who email asking me to “round up because I really need to move on” or leaving voice mails reminding me “I studied hard even if the test scores were bad.”

My favorite, of course, is the ever popular, “I don’t think it’s fair that you are failing me.”

I really enjoy it when they email my department chair, dean, or even the president directly.

At the risk of sounding like a liberal, hippie professor, I tell my students, perhaps we should examine the meaning of justice and fairness. We have this social concept, perpetuated often by political ideology, that justice is blind and objective.

Yet, when we look back at Odysseus and the suitors, clearly the meaning of the word is in play. When Odysseus originally returns to Ithaca, his justice differs from the suitors’ justice. Likewise, our own justice system is littered with nuanced examinations of justice, sprinkled with exceptions that offer mercy. We also see nuance that creates unnecessary punishment that exceeds logical, just explanations.

What, we ask, is just payment for smoking marijuana? Snorting coke? Smoking crack?

According to our justice system, the punishment depends on the circumstances and the state in which you live.

In other words, I tell my students, fairness and justice are often in the eye of the beholder and the social system within which we exist. I’m fairly certain, I remind my whining students, the kids who earned an A are pretty sure justice has been served. Those students worked hard and learned the materials. You, I say as politely as possible, only worked hard.

Effort only matters if it produces results. We don’t, or at least we shouldn’t, give out blue ribbons just because you graced us with your presence.

And sometimes we don’t get justice or mercy. We just get what we deserve.


About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

One Response to Sometimes We Just Get What We Deserve

  1. Pingback: The Odyssey – Books seventeen to twenty four « E-Learning

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