Seeing and then Hearing Odysseus

He stands to speak. With a staff in his hand held straight and stiff, he stares at the floor and looks like he doesn’t know a thing about what he’s about to say. Those who looked on at him ready to listen to his speech thought he looked like a fool. But when he began to speak, things changed. The poet Homer describes the scene using these words:

Then in his turn the great tactician rose
and stood, and looked at the ground,
moving the staff before him not at all
forward or backward: obstinate and slow
of wit he seemed, gripping the staff: you’d say
some surly fellow, with an empty head.
But when he launched the strong voice from his chest,
and words came driving on the air as thick
and fast as winter snowflakes, then Odysseus
could have no mortal rival as an orator!
The look of him no longer made us wonder.
(Illiad 3.212-24)

When the speaker opened his mouth, his words changed the way the audience saw him. They listened. They no longer questioned his intelligence. And the words he spoke changed the way he appeared to them. The hearing of his words somehow affected their seeing of his character. Almost as if the words or the sounds had an effect on the listeners’ eyes.

Being Actors

[The following is a post that was written on June 23, 2011.]

Don’t read this unless you want to be put to sleep.

. . .

Okay. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. (Don’t worry–it’s not that bad.)

Most people would agree that the more you practice something, the better you get at it. Aristotle wrote,

For the things which we have to learn before we can do them we learn by doing: men become builders by building houses, and harpists by playing the harp. Similarly, we become just by the practice of just actions, self-controlled by exercising self-control, and courageous by performing acts of courage. (Nicomachean Ethics II.1)

Ralph Waldo Emerson is attributed to have said, “That which we persist in doing becomes easier for us to do, not that the nature of the thing is changed, but that our power to do is increased” (I can’t find the reference to this anywhere in his works; let me know if you know where it is). And even the more recent Malcom Gladwell, in his book Outliers: The Story of Success, writes about how experts are those which have done something–practiced at it–for 10,000 hours. We become better at what we do.

But we can also be defined by what we do. Let me explain. Being embodied creatures that have the ability to choose, we necessarily choose some things over other things. Aristotle wrote that “every action and choice, seem to aim at some good” (Nicomachean Ethics 1.1). His statement suggests that we do what we do because we believe that it will, in some way, make us happy.

But we can go a step further. Kenneth Burke reminds us that “a focus upon object A involves a neglect of object B” (Permanence and Change 49). And to choose something is to focus one’s time on doing a thing for a period of time. And by focusing our time on one thing in a given situation, we become the kind of person that is doing the kind of thing that we have chosen to do in the moment that we choose to do it. We become that kind of person during that specific moment, and we can be defined by the kind of person that would do what we have chosen–because we have chosen what we have chosen. We become the kind of person that, having chosen A, has not chosen B, C, D, E, F, G, etc. for the moment in which we are doing A. In other words, you are what you do, and what you do also defines, to a degree, what you are.