Leaving the citadel of Troy in flaming ruins, “Odysseus of many designs,” cleverest of all Greek heroes, sets out on a voyage of colossal proportions to regain his own home, Ithaka. His attempts to reach home fail for nine years, as a plethora of adventures featuring man-eating monsters and ominous lands, devious enchantresses and earthly paradises delays him (1.83). Tenaciously determined to reach his homeland, Odysseus depends upon his famous cleverness and characteristic boldness to see him safely through these harrowing adventures. Restraint, an aspect of his cleverness which puts a check on excessive boldness, is one of the most crucial elements of Odysseus’ eventual success.
A sagacious wariness which augments Odysseus’ talents for clever maneuvering, restraint moderates the hero’s boldness by directing it and not letting it deteriorate into mere rashness. The Odyssey includes episodes in which Odysseus does not show restraint, but these result in the worst catastrophes of his voyage, underscoring by contrast the successes due to his forbearance. Because it slows him down and promotes moderate caution, restraint gives the hero a chance to perceive how to act shrewdly. Even so, it does not promote an overcautious hesitation, but directs the boldness with which a hero should face adventures and prevents this boldness from becoming rash.
Odysseus repeatedly fails to restrain his boldness during the scene on the Cyclopes’ island, and this failure turns the adventure into a debacle. Odysseus and his men enter Polyphemos’ abode and “help [them]selves to the cheeses,” rashly presuming upon the monster’s hospitality (9.231-32). Polyphemos responds barbarically, “feeding on human flesh,” and trapping the surviving crew in his cave (9.296-97). The one instance of restraint in this episode brings about the one positive event: Odysseus’ escape with his remaining men. Odysseus restrains his initial
inclination to kill the monster immediately – when a gigantic boulder still blocks the entrance – and thus makes it possible for his clever plan to blind Polyphemos to obtain its goal. He realizes that, tiny as they are in comparison to the gigantic Cyclops, he and his crew “could have never pushed [the boulder] from the lofty gate,” and the company would have been trapped in a cave with a dead Cyclops indefinitely (9.304-05).
Odysseus once more ignores the benefits of restraint as his fleet sails away from the island. With reckless boldness, he jeopardizes every man’s life when he shouts his identity to the Cyclops, vaunting over the blinded monster. Responding to this, Polyphemos bombards the fleet, attempting to sink it. When this does not succeed, he prays that Odysseus will return home “late, in bad case, with the loss of all his companions,/ in someone else’s ship, and find troubles in his household,” thus initiating the enormous difficulties of the journey (9.534-35). Odysseus is bold in approaching the Cyclops’ cave, bold in attacking Polyphemos, and bold in shouting back his identity. Only in the second incident, however, does he combine boldness with restraint; thus the action here is the only one resulting in success.
Boldness and restraint combine more smoothly on Circe’s island, and Odysseus is proportionately more successful. Unlike in the scene with Polyphemos, Odysseus does nothing impolitic here. Upon landing and seeing that the island is inhabited, he “ponder[s] deeply in [his] heart and in [his] spirit,/ whether … to investigate,” exhibiting a thoughtful caution previously absent (10.151-52). The contrast to his actions on the Cyclopes’ island is accentuated when Odysseus narrates how the crew at this point “remembered … the violence of the great-hearted cannibal Cyclops” (10.199-200). When he does decide to inspect the area, he divides his crew in half, sending a contingent out for reconnaissance while the rest remain safely by the ships. Circe promptly turns the investigating troop into a herd of swine – failing only to catch the group’s leader, Eurylochos. Eurylochos’ caution saves him, and he hurries back to Odysseus with news of the calamity. However, in an intriguing twist, Odysseus decides to rescue the enchanted men. This boldness alarms Eurylochos and the surviving crew, who become immediately restrained and cautious when faced with danger. Odysseus, however, sees in this an opportunity for his cleverness to serve him well. His restraint has shown him what to look out for, and he now can take bold action in a clever and wise manner.
Admittedly, Circe’s guiles would be too much for even Odyssean cleverness if Hermes were not to enter at this point bearing advice and aid. However, opportunity for the god to offer it would never have arisen had Odysseus not acted thus far with a combination of boldness and restraint. Moreover, in this epic successful craftiness sometimes does require the patronage of the gods, as we see when Athene directs Odysseus in the proper way to approach the Phaiakian royalty (cf. 7.50-52, 75-77). Once in Circe’s dwelling, the hero uses his clever rhetoric to achieve his crew’s release – “Oh, Circe, how could any man … ever endure to taste of the food and drink … until with his eyes he saw his companions set free?” (10.383-85). Restraint, boldness, and a god’s assistance combine here, and place Odysseus in a position to use his rhetoric to achieve his ends.
Restraint provides Odysseus with a crucial advantage over the course of his travels. He must be bold, and his virtuosity in rhetoric and craftiness encourage this boldness by giving him a good hope for success. However, as I have emphasized, restraint is the quality which makes this boldness effective, by providing opportunities for Odysseus to exercise his persuasive tongue and cunning mind. In brief, it directs the path by which Odysseus’ other talents can secure his object. As long as he restrains his boldness, his enterprises are successful, and he moves closer to achieving his primary object – Ithaka and home.