Penelope as Moral Agent

In her essay "Penelope as Moral Agent," Helene Foley attempts to discuss Penelope, a major character in Homer's the Odyssey, in terms of Classical Athenian portrayals of women and, as her title suggests, in terms of what she calls a "moral agent." In her introductory paragraph she lays out guidelines as set down by Aristotle and his contemporaries that constitute a moral agent: the character must make an ethical and moral decision "on which the actions turns?without critical knowledge of the circumstances" (Foley 93). To this end, Foley ultimately decides that Penelope meets these standards and adds that her social, familial and personal responsibilities play integral roles in making that decision. Foley's examples and her in-depth analysis of the Odyssey all support her thesis as I have interpreted it to be. There are, however, problems in her comparison of the Odyssey and outside texts (especially that of Carol Gilligan), inconsistencies in citations and style, and examples that either have little or nothing to do with her thesis.. The largest problem with this essay that I could find is the ignorance of a few facts that could possibly be construed as being in opposition to her findings. Since I am not familiar with and have not read any of the outside texts to which Foley refers (Aristotle's Oedipus Tyrannos, Poetics, Politics, and Ethics, the Hippocratic medical texts, and the feminist theory of Carol Gilligan), I can only assume that her interpretations of these texts are correct. In any case, she uses Aristotle and Hippocrates in order to develop a historical framework against which she can judge Homer's fictitious character Penelope. This method would have led to a good argument if she had included in her analysis an explanation of what constitutes a "Classical" writer and had specified whether or not Homer was included in that group. Direct connections she makes between the Odyssey and the outside texts are nominal. She neglects to explain why she would compare Penelope to Aristotle's ideas on the woman's role in society, or in what respect the biological findings of Hippocrates could have possibly have influenced or been influenced by Homer's epic. The only hint the reader is exposed to is when, on page 94 she asks, "To what degree does the world of the Odyssey prefigure popular Classical Athenian assumptions about women as moral agents?" The keyword here is "prefigure" and it indicates to me that Homer wrote before the classical writers that Foley uses as her basis of understanding the term moral agent. That the reader must figure that out based on one word out of a twenty page essay instead of being exposed to at least a small discussion of the chronology of when the authors and philosophers in question lived and wrote also detracts from the essay as a whole. Because Foley is trying to establish a framework based on historical and cultural ideas, that framework must be imbedded in a sufficient understanding of history itself in order to validate its meaning. In addition, I cannot but be aware of the fact that there is little direct comparison between Homer's epic poem and the outside works Foley uses, and especially by Aristotle. In fact, whenever she does make a direct comparison is when she discounts the relevance of the outside source. One of the few times the philosophies of Aristotle and Homer are referred to in the same sentence is when she says, "A closer look at Aristotle's assumptions about women as moral agents, however, makes clear that one cannot generalize so easily from Oedipus to Penelope" (Foley 93). Additionally, on page 99, she resists using the term kurios or guardianship (one she used to determine Classical Athenian opinion about women's roles in decision-making) because the passages "raise serious doubt about the exact parameters involved in male guardianship of a wife in the Odyssey." Another (and more constructive) example of when the philosophy of Aristotle and the depiction by Homer of women and their roles and responsibilities in society is on page 108 in the last sentence of her essay: Insofar as tragic choices of the kind identified and praised by Aristotle are symptomatic of a social world in which obligations to promote civic welfare have acquired a greater ideological interest and resonance, it is not surprising that the Odyssey's most nearly tragic choice is made by a character whose