Can You Be Still?

There is probably no piece of literature that the Stoics were more familiar with than the Odyssey. Seneca quotes it. Marcus Aurelius quotes it. Pretty much everyone in the ancient world was so familiar with Homer’s verses that they could be quoted without attribution and people would know what the speaker was referencing. 

It makes sense. It’s a beautiful, inspiring poem with all sorts of lessons and images. But here’s one that the Stoics never mentioned, that is easy to miss unless you read all the way to the end. In fact, in some translations it’s cut off or ignored. What does Odysseus do after nearly ten years of war and then ten more years of struggle to make it home? What does he do shortly after arriving home after having been gone so long that his wife’s hair was grey and his old dog was barely alive? After he slaughtered the invaders in his home and secured his kingdom that he was blocked from for so long? 

It’s almost unbelievable: Almost immediately after coming home, he gets ready to leave again! As Emily Wilson beautifully translates Odysseus giving the insane news to his long suffering wife:

But now we have returned to our own bed,

As we both longed to do. You must look after

My property inside the house. Meanwhile, 

I have to go on raids, to steal replacements

For all the sheep those swaggering suitors killed,

And get the other Greeks to give me more,

until I fill my folds.

Isn’t that the human condition in a nutshell? Isn’t that restlessness exactly what got Odysseus in trouble in the first place? The insatiability and greed that nearly took him and his men to the brink a hundred times? As Blaise Pascal put it, “all of humanity’s problems stem from our inability to sit quietly in a room.” Because we cannot be happy, because we can’t just be, we waste years of our life. We go begging for trouble. We invent problems. We flee, as Seneca once put it, from ourselves. Clearly that’s what Odysseus was doing. No one who actually likes themselves or their lives spends twenty years fighting to get back to it…and then leaves the day after they get there!

We must realize that stillness is the key. Stillness is how you connect to yourself and others. Stillness is where true happiness comes from. Where is all this rushing taking you? Where was Odysseus pointing his ship toward? We are rushing toward death. A life of restlessness is not what we’re after. That’s not where meaning comes from. No one is saying that Odysseus should just lay back and lounge for the rest of his life—but if he can’t take even a few minutes with his family after that long of an absence, something is wrong with him. Turns out the war with Troy was the sideshow—the real battle was in this guy’s head and heart…and it was against the fear of not being in motion constantly. Sadly it’s an affliction shared by a good portion of ambitious, talented people. 

There is no greatness that is not at peace, Seneca reminds us. There is no greatness if we cannot be. We must be still.

P.S. This was originally sent on February 12, 2020. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism.