Some Christmas Perspective for Our Cyclopes Nation

By Jim Tonkowich Published on December 21, 2019

Lost on their way home after sacking Troy, Odysseus and his men find the island where the Cyclopes live.

The Cyclopes, of course, have only one eye there in the center of their faces. This much most of us know. But Homer in Book IX of The Odyssey tells us more.

He introduces them as “the lawless outrageous Cyclopes.” This is in part because the Cyclopes have no community, no sense of the common good. “These people have no institutions, no meetings for counsels; rather they make their habitations in caverns hollowed among the peaks of the high mountains, and each one is the law for his own wives and children, and cares nothing about the others.”

They raise sheep, but beyond that, have no agriculture. Yet they lived blessed lives, says Homer: “Putting all their trust in the immortal gods, [they] neither plow with their hands nor plant anything, but all grows without seed planting without cultivation wheat and barley and also the grapevines, which yield for them wine of strength, and it is Zeus’ rain that waters it for them.”

Not that this makes them the least bit pious. Though enjoying the gods’ gifts, they care nothing for the gods.

When Odysseus reminds the Cyclops Polyphemos, “We are your suppliants, and Zeus the guest god, who stands behind all strangers with honors due them, avenges any wrong toward strangers and suppliants,” Polyphemos rejects his plea with blasphemous impunity. “Stranger, you are a simple fool, or come from far off, when you tell me to avoid the wrath of the gods or fear them. The Cyclopes do not concern themselves with Zeus of the aegis, nor the rest of the blessed gods, since we are far better than they, and for fear of the hate of Zeus I would not spare you or your companions either, if the fancy took me otherwise.”

And, in fact, fancy took him otherwise. After treating his sheep with gentle tenderness, Polyphemos grabbed two of Odysseus’ companions and “slapped them, like killing puppies, against the ground. … Then he cut them up limb by limb and got supper ready, and like a lion reared in the hills, without leaving anything, ate them, flesh and the morrowy bones alike.”

Lacking Perspective

I am indebted Leon Kass’s observations about the Cyclopes in his book The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature. There Kass writes,

For [the Cyclops] not nature or the divine but ‘one’s-own-ness’ is supreme. He respects no order, natural or human, save the order of his own making, reflected in his utter indifference to the bounty and beauty of his immediate environment and in his marked preference for the things he owns: He sups with his own rams and sheep but eats outside members of his own species. … He denies, therefore, the importance and dignity of the human form, and therewith — though he does not know it — also his own dignity as human.

And, being one-eyed, it cannot be otherwise since he lacks any perspective. As Kass notes, “he is confused about what is truly near and far, about what is superficial and what goes deep, indeed, about that which is truly his own — the human soul and its openness to learning and loving.”

Ours, you can see, is a Cyclopes nation imaged in our compulsive use of two-dimensional screens. We’ve lost perspective. We no longer laugh at ourselves. We’ve no sense of what is and is not important. We can condemn the past — assuming we pay any attention to the past at all. Like the Cyclopes, “each one is the law for his own wives and children, and cares nothing about the others” except insofar as others are useful.

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Perhaps even more damning is the way that we enjoy the good around us — our freedoms, our prosperity, our education, our countless modern conveniences — but claim them as rights and entitlements. Like the Cyclopes we lack perspective, gratitude and piety — toward God, yes, but also to those admittedly imperfect patriots, thinkers, and innovators who have gone before us and to whom we owe a debt.

Contemplating Christmas

Christmas would seem to exacerbate the problem, but actually offers the opportunity to break our Cyclopes habits, relearn perspective, and with it gratitude and piety.

Writing about our cultural condition, Robert Cardinal Sarah comments in The Day is Now Far Spent, “In contemplating the manger and the Infant Jesus, who makes himself so close, our hearts cannot remain indifferent, sad and disgusted. Our hearts open and warm up. The Christmas carols and the customs that surround this feast are imbued with the simple joy of being saved.” Contemplating the Incarnation brings perspective, gratitude and piety.

If you’re not appropriately disgusted with our Cyclopes nation, you haven’t been paying attention. The solution for that disgust and for the Cyclopes tendencies in our own hearts (priority one) is the Child of Bethlehem. The King of Kings and Lord of Lords to whom all things are due comes to us as the child called God-with-us.

Contemplating that, have a blessed and, thus, a Merry Christmas.


Dr. James Tonkowich, a senior contributor to The Stream, is a freelance writer, speaker and commentator on spirituality, religion and public life. He is the author of The Liberty Threat: The Attack on Religious Freedom in America Today and Pears, Grapes, and Dates: A Good Life After Mid-Life. Jim serves as Director of Distance Learning at Wyoming Catholic College and is host of the college’s weekly podcast, “The After Dinner Scholar.”

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