Skip to Content

Four Important Lessons from Aristotle’s “The Politics”

by on October 2, 2015

Viewed as a whole, Politics is a rather intimidating piece of work. No mere political treatise, it is an examination of the origin of society, the meaning of political justice, the fundamental elements of the state, and the responsibilities of the ruling class to the citizens and vice versa.

Politics, when you get right down to it, aims at uncovering “the ideal state”. The more astute of you may already have realized that this was also, more or less, the goal of Plato’s magnum opus, The Republic.

However, while Plato devoted much of his time in Republic to establishing the credibility of an unseen realm of forms, Aristotle instead focuses on that which is empirical, observable, and makes use of the numerous forms of political systems that were practiced during the age, discussing their strengths while uncovering their blunders.

Aristotle and Plato both attempted to define the “ideal republic”. However, they each came to dramatically different conclusions.

The result is a piece of philosophical literature that does occasionally focus on the theoretical and the hypothetical, but also gives us practical and applicable advice when it comes to living in a political society.

As it turns out, there are a number of lessons found within Politics that we might do well to listen to. For instance, did you know that…

The Importance of Private Property and Self-interestedness

The first lesson comes to us when Aristotle actually critiques the ideas that his mentor laid out in Republic. For in Plato’s work, the philosopher argues that the state should be happiest if the citizens are as unified as possible.

Plato makes the claim, somewhat capriciously, that all the wives of the rulers ought to be shared. Additionally, fathers ought not to think of a child as being their own son or daughter. Rather, the citizens should view all children of the state as being their own.

Taken literally, and Aristotle sees no other way to take it, this sort of thinking would effectively eliminate private property and would revert all things in the state, including women and children, to shared ownership.

But shared ownership simply is not the way to go, Aristotle tells us. The sharing of property and children will make the friendship in the city “watery”. It is human nature that when responsibility (the responsibility of raising child for instance) is divided among many (the entire state) the result is that nobody truly pays any attention to the responsibilities at hand.

Aristotle insists that private property is essential to the wellbeing of the state.

Everybody simply assumes that somebody else will care for these matters and the people become lax, uninterested in managing any affairs. Aristotle compares this to a dinner party that runs more smoothly when there are a few servants attending to their own affairs rather than numerous servants attempting to tend to the entirety of the responsibilities.

The benefits of having private property are similar. For people are most interested in tending to and facilitating that which belongs to them or that which might benefit them. If all property is shared, there is no incentive for the citizens to maintain or develop the lands and properties of the society.

Self-interest, Aristotle tells us, is human nature. The philosopher writes as much in Nicomachean Ethics when he declares that the goal of a human life is to achieve our individual happiness through an understanding and application of virtue.

And so we see that the ownership of private property, as well as the self-interestedness of the citizens, is actually beneficial to the state as a whole.

“Evidently, then, it is better if we own possesions privately but make them common by our use of them…Further, it is unbelievably more pleasant to regard something as one’s own. For each persons love of himself is not pointless, but a natural tendency.” –Aristotle (Politics, Book II)


Aristotle and the Middle Class

It is not uncommon for Aristotle to apply the lessons of virtue pertaining to the individual to the lessons of virtue within civic life. It is not coincidence that Politics follows Nicomachean Ethics. Once Aristotle has established happiness, virtue, pleasure, etc. for the individual, it is only natural that these same lessons be applied to the polis as a whole.

Aristotle describes virtue as being a mean, a balance, between two extreme characteristics. Courage, for instance, is a balance between the extremes of cowardice and recklessness. Generosity, similarly, is a balance between the extremes of miserliness and over-generousness (giving away all of your money and possessions).

The philosopher tells us that it is unavoidable to have within a society those who are overly prosperous and those who are overly disadvantaged. It is unfavorable for the state to allow either of these parties to rule. The prosperous, because of their good fortune and lavish upbringing, are not willing to be ruled. The needy, being overly abased, do not know how to rule or do not posses the resources to enable themselves to learn to rule.

Aristotle claims that these two factions, if allowed to rule, would destroy the justice of the polis. The prosperous, having no empathy for the poor, would rule over the citizens as a master

Essentially, Aristotle becomes one of the oldest advocates for a strong middle class.

might rule over a slave. This would appear common in an oligarchy. The poor, despising the rich, would enact laws to seize the property of the prosperous and in doing so, commit a grave injustice and damage the friendship within the state. This, it would seem, is common among “majority rule” democracies.

The compromise is that there must be an “intermediate class of people”. These intermediate people, embodying a balance between two extremes, would be able to appreciate the value of hard work, of earning a wage, while still having enough resources to educate themselves and learn the ways of virtue so that they might one day be just rulers.

Essentially, Aristotle becomes one of the oldest advocates for a strong middle class.

This middle class, ideally, should outnumber the combined numbers of both the prosperous and the needy. This strong middle class is the backbone of the society, providing just and compassionate rulers while counteracting the polarizing effects of the needy and the overly prosperous.

“Clearly, then, the political community that is in the hands of the intermediate people is best and the cities capable of having a good system are those in which the intermediate part is numerous and superior…” –Aristotle (Politics, Book IV)

We Must Avoid Political Extremes

In keeping with the idea of finding an intermediate between two extremes, Aristotle warns us of the dangers posed by political extremes. We mentioned previously that self-interestedness was beneficial to a society. An excess of self-interest, however, leads to selfishness and propagates ideas that are harmful to the citizens and the polis as a whole.

The partisan citizens within a society must not be allowed to achieve political relevance. For they assume that that which is of interest to them is the only interest, and therefore demand it in excess.

The consequence is that laws that are overly democratic or overly oligarchic will be enacted. Aristotle gives, again, the example of equality of property that is often enacted when the needy citizens gain too much influence within a state.

The overly prosperous, if allowed to rule, will enact laws that degrade the poor, laws that do not allow the needy to improve their station in life.

While both parties believe that these policies are just, for they are indeed in their best interest, such laws breed discontent and hatred among the citizens, damaging the concord of a society.

Aristotle compares the degradation of the state at the hands of the political extremists to the deformation found on a body part. A nose, Aristotle tells us, might have certain imperfections. It might be hooked or snubbed, but it is, unmistakably, still a nose. However, when the nose deviates further it will first lose its proper proportion. If it continues to deviate, the nose, or any body part, will be unrecognizable.

Similarly, political systems are never perfect. However, if we allow them to be held hostage by political radicals, the political system will diverge so far that it will become something unnatural.

“…an oligarchy or a democracy may be in good enough condition even though it has lapsed form its best order; but if someone takes either system to further extremes, he will make the political system worse and finally make it cease to be a political system at all.” –Aristotle (Politics, Book V)

Education Must Support the Political System

This final tidbit from Aristotle can be found in Book V of Politics. Even though it is only a few paragraphs long, I have always believed that this passage was of supreme importance.


Because most people believe that philosophy and “the real world” never overlap. They are mutually exclusive. Philosophy goes one way and reality goes the other, and never the twain shall meet!

Aristotle quoteThe philosopher claims that, in order for the political system to survive, we must educate ourselves and our children in the aims and ideals of the political system.

But Aristotle gives clear evidence that such thinking is incorrect. The philosopher claims that, in order for the political system to survive, we must educate ourselves and our children in the aims and ideals of the political system. A government cannot long stand if the citizens are ignorant of the principles of a society.

What, for instance, are the aims and ideals of a democracy? Is it a system that aims at egalitarianism? Personal freedom? Majority rule? We must answer these questions adequately if we wish for our society to long endure.

Aristotle states that two features, at least during the age of classical Greece, define a democracy: control by the majority and freedom.

But what do we mean by “freedom”? Does possessing democratic freedom mean that we are able to do whatever we please, to live however we wish? Is this the goal of a democratic society?

Aristotle rejects this. Such a society would never survive.

A political system should aim at fulfilling the needs of the many while still protecting the individual and creating an environment that facilitates the growth of virtue. Remember, an active expression of virtue is the highest good for a human life. And the state must be the medium through which this virtue is established.

Education then must fit the ideals of the political system. This is not only suggested, it is necessary for the continued survival of the state.

“…we ought to think that living in the way that fits the political system is not slavery, but preservation.” –Aristotle (Politics Book V)

The Poetess

by on September 29, 2015

By Nicole Saldarriaga
“Prosperity that

the golden Muses

gave me was no

delusion: dead, I

won’t be forgotten”

Sappho of LesbosThe author of these words could not have issued a better prediction. This figure of classical antiquity was regarded by contemporaries with nothing but esteem, admiration, and sometimes infatuation. With a likeness that appeared on coins, a firm place in the Library of Alexandria’s canon of nine lyric geniuses, and the intense respect of people like Plato and Aristotle, there’s no question that this poet was one of the most famous and beloved of the classical era—and, believe it or not, she was a woman. She was a daughter, sister, mother, lover, poet and musician—and, true to her expectations, the world has still not forgotten her name: Sappho of Lesbos.

Sadly, despite Sappho’s continued relevance and fame, very few of her poems and none of her songs have survived the harshness of time. What we do have is a collection of fragments—some of them numbering only one word—but these fragments have been studied, translated, and published again and again throughout the years, proving that society’s fascination with Sappho’s work didn’t die with her or her contemporaries. What is perhaps more surprising (and in many ways, disappointing) is the whirlwind of furious debates and controversies that surrounds her life, about which we know extremely little.

Sappho mosaicThanks to a few other writers of classical antiquity who specifically name historical figures as contemporaries of Sappho, we can overlap and piece together the dates and time periods we do know to infer that Sappho was born around 615 BCE. We know for certain (thanks to her customary title and her own poetry) that she was born on the island of Lesbos (located in the northeastern Aegean Sea near the coast of Asia Minor), though we are not sure if her birthplace was the capital city of Mytilene or in the smaller town of Eresus; and scholars are also fairly certain that as an adult she oversaw some kind of academy for young women in Mytilene. Evidence (including, again, her own poetry) suggests that she was born into an aristocratic family and eventually had a daughter named Cleis (most likely with Cercylas, a wealthy man she was thought to have married, though the evidence for his existence is much less verifiable).

Of course, it would be silly to ignore the biographical fact for which Sappho is most well-known, and the one that sparks the most controversy: her sexuality.

SapphoGenerally, Sappho is considered one of the most famous lesbian poets in history: so much so that the very word “lesbian” is derived from “Lesbos,” the island of her birth. Despite a long line of Victorian scholars and translators who tried their best to “tone down” Sappho’s poems so that readers wouldn’t “get the wrong impression,” there is no denying that her poetry (so much of which is about love and desire) gives equal erotic attention to men and women (though some readers, including myself, would argue that her love poems to women have a fiercer desire and a more beautiful light in them than her poems about men).

Sappho with womanIn an era such as ours, in which the fluidity of sexuality is being recognized as a normal fact of life, it seems reductive and close-minded to argue about Sappho’s sexuality instead of accepting the raw beauty of her poems, which clearly catapulted her to fame in her own time (note that no one seems to have raised an eyebrow about her sexuality then—societal norms were very different in Ancient Greece, where bisexual behavior was considered par for the course).

However, it’s definitely worth noting that her poems alone didn’t lead to this conclusion about her romantic preferences. About three centuries after her death, Greek comedians began to parody Sappho, portraying her as oversexed, promiscuous—practically a prostitute. This image, sadly—despite how loved and revered she was in her own time—is the one that eventually stuck; and this reputation paired with her love poems to women eventually put Sappho on such bad terms with the emerging Catholic Church that much of her surviving work was utterly destroyed by church-sanctioned book burnings around 1073.

Her sexuality and personal life are still debated to this day (though perhaps with fewer fiery consequences)—but it would perhaps be more constructive to avoid trying to prove any one point right now, and to instead focus on what we do know for certain about Sappho: her work and its insane popularity.

Sappho is one of very few women poets that we know about from classical antiquity, and she is certainly the most well respected. Critics, both in her own time and ours, firmly dub her one of the greatest lyrics poets to have ever lived, and a lyric genius.

SapphoHer poems, like her songs, were meant to be sung, usually with the accompaniment of a lyre—and, in fact, she’s credited with having invented a musical mode, the plectrum (now popularly called a “pick,” as in a guitar pick) , and even a specific kind of lyre. She’s also largely credited with inventing a particular kind of poetic meter which is now called “Sapphic meter.” This technique utilizes stanzas (also called “Sapphic stanzas”) that are characterized by three long lines followed by a fourth short line.

By the time Sappho’s poems were first transcribed together into one collection around the 3rd Century BCE, they filled nine volumes which, all told, would have amounted to something like 10,000 lines of poetry. But it wasn’t her prolificacy that made her so popular. Unlike many of the poets of her day, Sappho didn’t choose to write about the gods or the epic heroes. Instead her poems deal with the feelings of one individual speaker, tracing her feelings about time, family, and especially love. The verses are achingly simple and direct, with no “flowery” language to cover up the raw descriptions of love, desire, and the bittersweet pain that sometimes comes hand-in-hand with those feelings (incidentally, the term “bittersweet” and the notion that love can feel this way appeared for the first time in Western Literature in one of Sappho’s poems).Sappho

Something about the honesty of Sappho’s work (and probably her music) deeply moved those who encountered it. The literary critics of antiquity who wrote about Sappho nearly always wrote about her work under the obvious assumption that everyone must love her—it’s almost a “who wouldn’t?” attitude that pervades nearly all the critiques we still have. Plato himself called Sappho the “tenth Muse.” She was the only woman to be included in the canon of nine lyric geniuses—a list decided upon by the famed scholars at the Library of Alexandria. Even Aristotle, in his Rhetoric, wrote that Sappho “was honored although she was a woman.” And (what is perhaps most telling) Greek society seemed to consider Sappho on par with Homer—while he was reverently called “The Poet,” she was called “The Poetess.”

Sappho papyrusFragments of Sappho’s poetry are still being found on tattered pieces of papyrus that were used in an ancient coffin-making process similar to papier mâché.

Thankfully, not all of her work was destroyed by book burnings or time. We have a decently sized collection of fragments, one full poem (of about twenty-eight lines), and, miraculously, fragments are still being found (one was discovered–or, more accurately, recognized as Sappho’s work–as recently as 2012)–most of them on tattered pieces of papyrus unearthed in Egypt.

One thing is absolutely clear: Sappho was correct in thinking that she’d never be forgotten. Society’s memory of her can get bogged down by debates about her sexuality or personal life, but the sheer number of existing translations and studies of her work are testaments to the fact that her words still have the power to delight and move us. We can appreciate her not only as a poet, but also as something of a feminist icon–a woman who, against the odds and the norms of her society, attained incredible fame. She certainly wasn’t lying when she wrote:

“Although they are

Only breath, words

which I command

are immortal”

Kleos: Death and Glory

by on September 22, 2015

By Van Bryan

Today we are traveling thousands of years into the past, to a time when the lives of gods

AchillesStatue of Achilles in Hyde Park, London

and men became hopelessly intertwined, when ten-year wars were waged for honor, and when the heroes of the age fought tooth and nail to achieve their kleos aphthiton (eternal glory).

That’s right, today we are talking about heroes. More specifically, we are talking about Greek heroes or tragic heroes; some of you may already know that those two things are one in the same.

To understand the Greek hero and, more importantly, kleos, we must first understand the Greek song culture and the role that lyrical poetry, specifically Homeric poetry, played in the lives of classical men and women.

Hero worship in ancient Greece was a cultural staple, and lyrical poetry was the medium through which stories of heroic myths were passed down through generations. The ancient Greeks would have understood the tales of Achilles, hero of The Iliad, or Odysseus, the namesake of The Odyssey, in the same way that the stories of Jesus Christ are known by much of Western civilization.

N.B. I’m not comparing Achilles and Odysseus to J.C. I’m merely stating that the overarching mythos of the Homeric characters would have been familiar to anybody from that age and culture in a way that the story of Jesus Christ is familiar to Western civilization and beyond.

Moving on…

So epic poetry was told, retold, and passed through the generations in the days of ancient Greece. It became something of a common thread within the ancient Hellenic society. For while Greece shared a common land mass, language, and religion, it was not one country.

The tradition of reciting the Homeric epics and retelling the tales of Achilles, Agamemnon and Odysseus would have been a shared cultural tradition through all of Greece-from Athens to Sparta, Crete to Corinth.

What Is Kleos?

Okay, okay. That sounds all well and good. The poor ancients didn’t have television or Xbox so they passed their time reciting Homeric verse. There are certainly worse ways spend an evening.

But let’s get to the question at hand. Remember, we were talking about the tragic hero and his, or her, pursuit of kleos. So, first things first. What is kleos?

The first thing we should recognize is that there is not an exact translation for kleos. It most closely translates to “glory” or, more specifically, “what people say about you”.

XXXTriumph of Achilles, by Franz Matsch

When it comes to heroic glory, kleos is actually the medium AND the message. Kleos was the glory that was achieved by Homeric heroes who died violent, dramatic deaths on the field of battle. However, kleos also referred to the poem or song that conveys this heroic glory.

The Iliad, therefore, is a type of kleos. It is the song of Achilles, the main hero of the epic who achieved eternal glory on the battlefields of Troy. Another name for the city of Troy was Ilium. This is where we get the name “Iliad”.

However, kleos is not just something that is handed to you. You have to pursue it, often at great personal sacrifice. Achilles is quoted as saying…

“My mother Thetis tells me that there are two ways in which I may meet my end. If I stay here and fight, I will not return alive but my name will live for ever (kleos): whereas if I go home my name will die, but it will be long ere death shall take me.” –Achilles (The Iliad)

Here we get to a major crux of the Homeric epic. It is that all-important question for classical heroes. Do they die young and gloriously, and have their names live on forever? Or do they live long, humble lives, but die as anonymous old men?

To answer this question, let’s take a look at another Homeric hero, one that I’m certain you have never heard of.

In book XI, Homer takes something of a detour to tell us about the little known hero, Iphidamas. Here is a man who is an ally to King Priam and the Trojans; he was one of the first warriors to take up arms against the Acheans (the Greeks) when they set sail for Troy. He is also the first warrior to face King Agamemnon in battle.

“Tell me now ye Muses that dwell in the mansions of Olympus, who, whether
of the Trojans or of their allies, was first to face Agamemnon? It
was Iphidamas son of Antenor…”- Homer (The Iliad, Book XI)

Iphidamas’ part within The Iliad is short-lived. Agamemnon kills him and strips his armor from his body.

“…he (Agamemnon) then drew his sword, and killed Iphidamas by striking him on the neck. So there the poor fellow lay and slept the sleep of bronze, killed
in the defence of his fellow-citizens, far from his wedded wife.” –Homer (The Iliad, Book XI)

So, what’s the big deal? Iphidamas is just one more dead soldier in a great war? Why do I bother to bring him up?

The part you don’t know is that Iphidamas had been wed to a beautiful woman around the same time that the Acheans set sail for Troy. Given the choice to stay and live in newlywed bliss or go and fight the Greeks, Iphidamas does not hesitate to abandon his newlywed wife to fight and die in battle.

Why does he do it?

You guessed it, for kleos.

Achilles makes a similar choice. Prompted by the death of his comrade, and lover, Patroclus, Achilles sets off in a fit of rage to slay Patroclus’ killer, prince Hector of Troy.

He does this knowing full well that with the death of Hector will signal the coming of his own untimely demise. He presses on nonetheless. Achilles will not be denied his glory.

Why Do Heroes Need Kleos?

Some of you might be wondering what exactly is wrong with these ancient warriors. Achilles storms off towards his certain death when he could just as easily live a long life back home. Iphidamas leaves his loving wife, opting instead to die on the battlefield.

They did it for kleos, for glory. But why? Why was glory so important that these men would forfeit their lives to achieve it?

Now that really is the question.

The answer has to do with the immortalizing power of kleos. Achilles chooses his eternal glory, which would live through the centuries in Homeric verse, over his natural life, which is destined to end in death.

From the perspective of our modern culture, we might assume that stories of heroism are not as “real” as our own lives. The idea that we might live on forever in the hearts and minds of our countrymen does not have as much credence today as it did in the Homeric world.

After all, it was the great philosopher, Woody Allen, who said…

“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.”

However, we must remember that ancient Greece was a song culture. The Homeric epics were not merely fiction. They were considered to be real. More importantly, they were thought to convey the ultimate truth-values of the ancient Greek culture.

To a Homeric hero, a glorious death was more important than a long life.

Achilles would have viewed his kleos, his eternal place in history, as being just as “real”, perhaps more so, than his actual life.

Also, the ancient heroes, more than anything else, strived to be god-like. The defining trait of gods is their immortality. Achilles, although he was born to immortal Thetis, a water nymph, is a mortal.

By achieving kleos, the hero, in a sense, achieves immortality. He is godlike, eternally glorious. His name will forever be remembered and recorded in the catalogues of human history. So now we come to understand the paradoxical idea that, in order to live forever, a hero must first die gloriously.

Medusa: Sympathy for a Monster

by on September 22, 2015

By Nicole Saldarriaga 

What does it take to feel sympathy for a monster? In the case of Medusa, it may not be much. Though she is considered one of the most horrifying creatures of Ancient Greek mythology Medusa statue(coming in at second place on Classical Wisdom Weekly’s “Top Ten Most Terrifying Monsters of Greek Mythology”) her origin story is much more complex than most people realize—in fact, most people have never heard Medusa’s origin story at all.

This may be simply because the sources available to us today differ so widely in the telling of Medusa’s story—in fact, the tale functions as a brilliant example of the way in which myths evolve over time to suit changing societal needs. Though the myth started out simple, it quickly grew and, in some ways, changed drastically—leading to a great deal of confusion when modern readers and researchers attempt to put the pieces together into an accurate representation of ancient thought.

Medusa CaravaggioThere is, of course, some information about Medusa that never changes no matter what source you choose to look at. These are details that are incredibly well known, and seem to be passed along through a process of natural cultural osmosis. Medusa is a kind of creature called a Gorgon, she has hundreds of wild, venomous snakes for hair, and she can turn any person to stone with a single look. This concept has fascinated people for centuries, and various kinds of paintings, sculptures, cartoons, video games, and even brand labels have explored Medusa as a subject and character.

But these are the details almost everyone knows. Almost everyone knows who Medusa is, or at least what she can do. What is more interesting is how Medusa became the monster she is considered to be, and this is where the myth begins to warp and change as sources begin to disagree.

The concept of a monster such as a gorgon is an incredibly old one in Greek mythological history. We know from the creature’s appearance in the very ancient myths of Perseus and Zeus that the notion of a dreadful, snake-haired, deadly woman was born quite early. As far as the gorgon’s presence in classical literature goes, the earliest known mention of such a creature appears in Homer; and while no one can be sure of Homer’s timeline (or even his exact identity), some scholars believe that he penned his work around 1194-1184 BCE—indicating that the Ancient Greeks were talking about gorgons at a very early stage of their history.

HomerThough Homer’s exact timeline is unknown, his mention of the gorgon places the myth among some of the oldest recorded myths of Greek history.

In the Odyssey, the gorgon is a briefly mentioned inhabitant of the underworld—one whom Persephone could apparently “sic” on anyone who angered her. It isn’t until several years later that another author gives the gorgon more of a backstory. Hesiod, in his Theogony (700 BCE), describes the gorgons as three sister-monsters born of Phorcys and Ceto, two primordial ocean deities. He calls them Stheno (“the mighty”), Euryale (“the wide wandering” or “the far springer”), and finally, Medusa (“the cunning one” or “the queen”). He also describes a key difference between Medusa and her two sisters, one that becomes extremely important later: Medusa, unlike the other two gorgons (and for reasons not explained), is fully mortal.

In these earlier myths then, it’s assumed that Medusa was born a monster—complete with snakes and stony vision. However, there is evidence that the myth changed drastically over time.

OvidAround 8 AD, Ovid—a Roman poet celebrated for his faithful retelling of popular Greek myths—produced his famous Metamorphoses, an expansive book of myths which includes the myth of Perseus and his slaying of Medusa. In this section of the book, Ovid gives a completely different origin story for the terrifying creature.

According to Ovid, Medusa was born human and grew into an excruciatingly beautiful woman. Every man who saw her face and her gorgeous, silken hair immediately asked for her hand in marriage—all but one. The sea god, Poseidon, fell for her amazing looks but instead of asking for her hand, took her virginity—raping her inside the sacred sanctuary of Athena.

Athena, as the virgin goddess, was incredibly enraged by this defilement of her temple and chose to punish Medusa for her part in the whole affair—she cursed Medusa’s beauty. According to this version of the myth, it’s at this point that Medusa’s beautiful hair becomes a tangled mass of snakes, and she is cursed with her deadly power—the ability to turn whoever looks upon her to stone.

It’s important to stress here that Medusa has no control over this ability—should anyone at all look upon her face, they’ll be instantly transformed. In essence, Athena dooms Medusa to a life of solitude, a life in which Medusa will never have the comfort of looking at another human face without destroying it—all for the crime of being raped. After years of this torture, Perseus’ sword must have come as a welcome deliverance.

Medusa and PerseusOf course, this is just one version—but it has had a profound impact on the evolution of the myth and especially its propagation in modern times. These days, the most well-known (though that isn’t saying much) origin story for Medusa is closest to Ovid’s version, with only a few added details—that Medusa was a celibate priestess in the temple of Athena when she was raped, and that in addition to cursing her with a head of snakes, Athena transformed Medusa into a hideous old hag with greenish skin and fangs. But this isn’t the only version that is being passed along today.

As part of my research for this article, I read through several fan-based mythology forums, online blogs, and similar websites on which people had posted their own retellings of Medusa’s origin. The changes to the story that have taken place over time are fascinating, and are really testaments to the transformative power of imagination and word-of-mouth.

Many amateur mythology enthusiasts claim, for example, that Medusa was never raped at all. Instead, they say, she was obsessed with her own beauty and tired everyone around her by bragging about it incessantly. One day, she visited the temple of Athena with friends and spent the entire time claiming that she was more beautiful than the goddess herself, for which the goddess cursed her with an appearance so horrifying that it could turn people to stone.

This is a very interesting mixture of Ovid’s version (in which Medusa is punished for defiling Athena’s temple, though in this case the defilement is her insult to the goddess within its sacred walls) and what is possibly a misinterpretation of a line in Apollodorus’ Bibliotheca (another collection of myths dating to somewhere between the 1st and 2nd centuries AD). According to Apollodorus:

“But it is alleged by some that Medusa was beheaded for Athena’s sake; and they say that the Gorgon was fain to match herself with the goddess even in beauty” (2.4.3.).

This tells us nothing about whether Medusa was once a beautiful human woman, and clearly does not claim that Athena transformed her into a Gorgon for her arrogance, but is instead referencing her much later beheading. Still, it’s likely that this idea was passed on, and eventually led to the modern interpretations that claim Medusa’s gorgon status was punishment for her vanity.

Whether Poseidon raped Medusa, or simply took on the role of a gentle lover, it’s clear that Medusa was doomed from the moment they stepped into Athena’s temple.

Still other modern story-tellers claim that Medusa’s life was a tragic love story—that Poseidon loved her, intended to marry her (or in some versions, did marry her) and the couple made the unfortunate (and inexplicable) decision of consummating that love in Athena’s temple. In that case, Athena’s curse (while obviously worse for Medusa) is a way of punishing them both—ensuring that they would never be able to look upon each other again.

It’s more difficult to trace the potential origins of this interpretation, but it’s possible that Hesiod’s description of Medusa’s relationship to Poseidon—in which the god beds her in a romantic field of wildflowers (lines 278-79 of Theogeny) may have had something to do with it—though again, it’s only two lines of text and does not specify whether Medusa was already a “monster” when Poseidon became interested (we all know the gods weren’t exactly picky).

MedusaWhat’s clear from all of this is that Medusa not only lives within the realm of myth, but also within a liminal space. As long as her story is so variable, she is both monstrous and beautiful, both born to kill and cursed to a life of solitude, both arrogant and humble, both loved and horribly raped. Her story is open for us to take from it what we choose—horror and derision for a simple mythological villain, or pity and sympathy for a girl whose life was taken out of her own hands and changed very much for the worse.

I know what I’m choosing.

Epicureanism: The original hippie commune and the birth of the American dream

by on September 8, 2015

let me ask you a question. Are you happy?

“Quit kidding yourself!” says Epicurus.

It is more than likely that you might think that you are happy, but in truth you do not know what happiness is. We have been born into a world of


greed and jealousy and misery. Rather than getting more and more wrapped up in it all, you ought to spend some time freeing yourself from all of it.

You may have guessed at this point that this week we are talking about Epicurus, the man who may or may not have been the creator of the first hippie commune in recorded history. He might also have been the philosopher to inspire the birth of the American dream.

But now I’m getting ahead of myself, first things first.

Epicurus was an influential philosopher of the Hellenistic age of Greece. He was born to the island of Samos in 341 BC and would navigate the treacherous period of Greek history immediately following the death of Alexander the Great.

After traveling the Mediterranean for a number of years as a young man, being careful to avoid political persecution from unfriendly tyrants and even other philosophers, Epicurus settled in Athens in 306 BC. Here he would remain for the rest of his life. It was in Athens where Epicurus laid the foundation for an ethical philosophy that would thrive for hundreds of years after his death.

What exactly was the Epicurean philosophy?

Philosophy Has Failed You

Epicurus believed that philosophy had failed to provide for the needs of the everyday citizen. So often, the philosophers of ancient Greece concerned themselves with questions of metaphysical, epistemological, and cosmological importance.

That’s just a fancy way of saying that most philosophers were contemplating questions that would never enter the realm of consideration for the common citizen.

When these philosophers did consider questions of ethics, they very often aimed at making people “good” and “virtuous”, whatever that means. Epicurus took a different route.

ConstantineMost philosophers used philosophy to make people “virtuous”. Epicurus believed philosophy should make people happy.

He dedicated his life to answering one of the most troubling, and most important, questions there ever was.

What makes people happy?

Even in classical antiquity, the world was a bitter and materialistic place. Much like today, people assumed that things like money, status, luxury, as well as sexual and romantic relationships would invariably make them happy.

The problem with such things, Epicurus noted, is that we consistently run into pitfalls whilst in pursuit of them.

Acquiring money, for instance, often entails enormous sacrifice. Backbiting behavior and long hours at the office are almost always a prerequisite for wealth. Romantic relationships, another example, might seem appealing, but they are so often marred with jealousy, backstabbing and infidelity.

From these observations, Epicurus began to grow uncertain that we could find our happiness by acquiring more and more. He proposed, instead, that we learn to rely on less.

Epicurus suggested that, instead of engaging in romantic relationships, that we give ourselves to friendship. It is with friendship where we find true human altruism. People tend to be more generous with their friends, less possessive, and all around decent when it comes to friendship.

Also, we shouldn’t devote ourselves to work we hate just so we might acquire enough money in the hopes that we will one day be happy.

Instead, we should find work that we can engage in on our own or with small groups. Work is fulfilling, Epicurus believed, when we are contributing to the welfare of humanity. In short, we should pursue work that we feel makes a difference.

The First Hippie Commune?

With this philosophy in mind, Epicurus did something that many people often talk about doing, but never get around to actually doing. He purchased a plot of land with a large house and invited all of his friends to come live with him. It would become known as “the Garden” and it was more than just another school of philosophy.

While it is believed that the Garden was located somewhere near Plato’s Academy, Epicurus’ institution was different from a typical school. If we wanted to get specific, we might classify Epicurus’ Garden as a community of unincorporated teachers, philosophers, and manuscript writers all living and working in a shared space.
With this in mind, we begin to think of the Garden, not as a school at all, but as a commune of sorts, perhaps the first one in recorded history. The inhabitants of the Garden were interested in studying happiness and finding true happiness. They practiced a uniquely Epicurean style of happiness; namely they pursued pleasure while avoiding pain and anxiety.

ConstantineWas the Garden of Epicurus the first hippie commune?
Source: RC Groups

This remote community where people practiced a quasi-hedonistic philosophy necessarily lent itself to rumors.

Diogenes Laertius, the author of Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, tells us that all manner of accusations were hurled at Epicurus and his Garden. It was said that they (the inhabitants of the Garden) were all ignorant of philosophy, that they threw crazy orgies every night, and that Epicurus himself vomited twice a day from over indulging in wine and that he slept in a bed filled with naked virgins.

Diogenes assures us that such rumors were untrue.

“But all these people are devoid of sense. The preponderance of witnesses speak of the insuperable kindness of our philosopher to everyone, whether it be to his own country who honored him with bronze statues, his friends who are so numerous that they could not be counted in whole cities, or all his acquaintances who were bound to him simply by the appeal of his doctrines.”- Diogenes Laertius (Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, Book X)

Such thinking demonstrates an ignorance of Epicurean philosophy. Epicurus did not tell us that ALL pleasures were good or that overindulging in pleasure was good. He insisted that subtle pleasures were the way to go, friendship being the most important. More significantly, we must free ourselves from our fears, anxieties, and uncertainties that often plague us if we wish to be happy.

The happy man is the one who has banished his fears, even his fear of death, and who lives pleasantly, surrounded by his friends and his philosophical companions.

“Don’t fear god, don’t worry about death; 
what is good is easy to get, and 
what is terrible is easy to endure.”- (The four-part cure of Epicurus, as found on the Herculaneum Papyrus)

The Epicurean Garden would flourish during Epicurus’ lifetime. This is attributed largely to the organization of the Garden, which did not force its inhabitants to partake in shared property or to necessarily support the Epicurean leaders. A happy result of these two rules was that the leaders became accountable to the followers while future conflicts over money were often averted.

Even after the death of Epicurus, the Epicurean Garden continued to thrive. This, again, is due largely to the organizational abilities of Epicurus, who left a last will and testament detailing the efforts for the continued preservation of his school.

An Enemy of the Church

Unlike many other schools of philosophy, Stoicism and Platonism for example, the Epicurean philosophy remained largely unchanged in the ensuing centuries. Several hundred Epicurean communes were established around the Mediterranean.

Epicureanism was initially shunned by the Roman world, but eventually found advocates in the form of the Roman writers Gaius Amafinius and Rabirius. However, both men where criticized by Cicero for their unpoetic prose style and the clumsy manner in which they attempted to bring philosophy to the common people.

Ultimately, Epicureanism would not find great favor in Rome in the same way that Stoicism did. However, the Epicurean philosophy, as well as the Epicurean communes, did flourish in lands that were far removed from Rome. Western Turkey, for instance, was very hospitable to Epicureanism; so much that in the ancient city of Oenoanda, a civic official named Flavius Diogenes ordered the construction of a wall inscribed with numerous Epicurean writings in the 3rd century A.D.

At this point you may be wondering, ‘Gee…whatever happened to Epicureanism and all those ancient hippie communes?’

Well, it’s funny you should mention it.

As was common, the survival of an ancient philosophy depended on its compatibility with the doctrines of the next major institution that

XXXAmbrose of Milan as well as other early Christian writers were harsh critics of Epicurean philosophy

would arise in the history of the Western world- Christianity.

Unfortunately for our Epicurean friends, their ways of thinking were not in line with the dogmas of the church. For starters, the followers of Epicurus did not believe in an after life. To make matters worse, they were not even entirely sure there was a God!

The early Christian writer, Ambrose of Milan succinctly presents the incompatibility of Epicurean ideas on pleasure and the doctrines of the church in his letter written to a Christian congregation at Vercellae in 396 A.D:

“Epicurus himself also, whom these persons think they should follow rather than the apostles, the advocate of pleasure, although he denies that pleasure brings in evil, does not deny that certain things result from it from which evils are generated; and asserts in fine that the life of the luxurious which is filled with pleasures does not seem to be reprehensible, unless it be disturbed by the fear either of pain or of death. But how far he is from the truth is perceived even from this, that he asserts that pleasure was originally created in man by God its author, as Philomarus his follower argues in his Epitomae, asserting that the Stoics are the authors of this opinion.

“But Holy Scripture refutes this, for it teaches us that pleasure was suggested to Adam and Eve by the craft and enticements of the serpent. Since, indeed, the serpent itself is pleasure, and therefore the passions of pleasure are various and slippery, and as it were infected with the poison of corruptions, it is certain then that Adam, being deceived by the desire of pleasure, fell away from the commandment of God and from the enjoyment of grace. How then can pleasure recall us to paradise, seeing that it alone deprived us of it?”

The Epicurean denial of any divine entity also came under fire by Athanasius of Alexandria in his On the Incarnation:

“In regard to the making of the universe and the creation of all things there have been various opinions, and each person has propounded the theory that suited his own taste. For instance, some say that all things are self-originated and, so to speak, haphazard. The Epicureans are among these; they deny that there is any Mind behind the universe at all. This view is contrary to all the facts of experience, their own existence included. For if all things had come into being in this automatic fashion, instead of being the outcome of Mind, though they existed, they would all be uniform and without distinction.”

Things went down hill for the followers of Epicurus from here on. The Epicurean communes which had popped up around the Mediterranean were shuttered by Emperor Justinian I who, in the early sixth century A.D., ordered the closing of all pagan schools that conflicted with the church.

The Original American Dream

This has been a rather lengthy article, don’t you think?

Stick with me on this last bit, because there might just be a happy ending for Epicureanism.

So the philosophy fell into decline some time in the late fifth century A.D. That was the last anybody every heard of it, right?


Epicureanism made a few surprising resurgences throughout history. In fact, you might just be surprised at who is a follower of Epicurus.

“As you say of yourself, I TOO AM AN EPICUREAN. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing every thing rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us.” –Thomas Jefferson (Letter to William Short, 1819)

That’s right, folks. Thomas Jefferson, always a brave advocate for the classics, was a fan of Epicurus. He even goes so far as to refer to the philosopher as “our master, Epicurus”.

XXXThomas Jefferson wrote that he considered himself an Epicurean

It has been suggested by some that TJ even slipped a piece of Epicurean philosophy into the Declaration of Independence when he wrote that the pursuit of happiness was inherent to human nature and human dignity. After all, you will remember that the Epicureans were all about their pursuit of happiness.

So yes, it is entirely possible that the American dream was originally proposed several thousand years ago by a Greek philosopher in a nondescript garden in suburban Athens.

Whatever you want to think about the Epicureans, that they were the original hippies, enemies of Christianity, or the intellectual scaffolding for the American dream, it is interesting to note the amount of influence they have had over the course of several thousand years.

They were a unique school that sought to free people from their fears and present them with a realistic path to a tranquil happiness. Their mission is perhaps best summarized by the inscription that Seneca tells us was once emblazoned upon the entrance to the Garden itself.

“Dear Guest, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure. The caretaker of that abode, a friendly host, will be ready for you; he will welcome you with barley-meal, and serve you water also in abundance, with these words: “Have you not been well entertained? This garden does not whet your appetite; but quenches it. Nor does it make you more thirsty with every drink; it slakes the thirst with a natural cure – a cure that requires no fee. It is with this type of pleasure that I have grown old.”

Plato’s Symposium: Always Change For Love

by on August 31, 2015

By Van Bryan

So, that’s probably a strange thing to say, right?

SymposiumPlato’s Symposium

After all, the popular opinion today is that you shouldn’t change for love and that your spouse shouldn’t make you change. I am who I am and that’s all that I am!

That certainly seems to be the mindset these days; at least that’s what my single friends tell me. They spend their evenings swiping left on their smart phones and making connections with total strangers on Tinder or J-swipe or…whatever.

“Never change for love.” That’s the battle cry.

Besides, if you just be yourself, surely you will find somebody just like you and you will inevitably fall in love.


“Wrong!” says Plato.

The problem with never changing who you are for love, or never letting your spouse change who you are, is that who you are might very well be a terrible person. What if who you are is an inconsiderate sociopath? Or worse, what if you are a sophist?

What I’m trying to say is that maybe a bit of change wouldn’t be so bad. Perhaps we really should let our lovers change us. Who knows? Maybe they will make us better.

That seems to be Plato’s line of thought at least. Our particular topic of interest comes from Plato’s Symposium, that unique piece of philosophical literature that asks the question: “What’s love?”

Plato is a giant in the field of philosophy. He was easily one of the most, if not the most, influential philosopher in the Western tradition. his Symposium, for those of you who don’t already know, sounds more like the setup for a particularly funny joke than an actual piece of philosophical literature.

“Okay, okay, so a philosopher, a comic playwright, and a politician walk into a bar…”

See what I mean?

A symposium was like a dinner party in the days of ancient Greece. Except, instead of casually drinking beer and playing charades, the participants of a symposium would get rip-roaringly drunk off of wine and then commence to discuss some central topic of philosophical interest; although, that does sound pretty fun too.

Plato’s Symposium, by Anselm Feuerbach

In Plato’s Symposium, Socrates, Plato’s teacher and the man dubbed “the Father of Western Philosophy”, is joined by a handful of important Athenian figures of the age, the most notable of which are the general Alcibiades and the comic playwright Aristophanes. They all gather to discuss the topic of love.

For the more initiated of you, you will recall that there are no shortage of interesting ideas to discuss in Symposium. However, today we are looking at the speech of Pausanias and the assertion that we ought to let our lover change us.

Pausanias first notes that love is the only thing that can justify some questionable behavior. Under normal circumstances, we might look strangely at a man who lies all night on a front porch. However, when we learn that this man is doing this in pursuit of his lover, then his behavior not only becomes somewhat acceptable, but even admirable.

“And in the pursuit of his love the custom of mankind allows him to do many strange things, which philosophy would bitterly censure if they were done from an y motive of interest or wish for office or power. He may pray, and entreat, an supplicate, and swear, and lie on a mat at the door, and endure a slavery worse than that of any slave…” –Plato (Symposium)

Heck, Pausanias tells us that even the gods will forgive you if you commit some transgression whilst in pursuit of your love, and we all know how unforgiving those gods can be.

So love seems to be something of great power and importance. However, Pausanias tells us that, just like anything, there can be good and bad love.

It all comes down to your motivations. Why do you love somebody? It may very well be that you love somebody because they are beautiful or wealthy. This, however, is not true love, and is actually quite dishonorable.

Pausanias tells us that we ought to love our lover’s soul, not their beauty or their bank account. To love either of the latter is truly a base thing, because both of these things are temporary. The beauty of youth invariable recedes, and misfortune may befall any rich man and reduce him to a peasant. Where will your love be then? It will take wings and fly!

“Evil is the vulgar lover who loves the body rather than the soul, inasmuch as he is not even stable because he loves a thing which is in itself unstable…” –Plato (Symposium)

So don’t love your spouse’s beauty and don’t love their account balance. What do you love? Their virtue!

“There remains only one way of honorable attachment which custom allows in the beloved, and this is the way of virtue.” –Plato (Symposium)

Okay, so Plato isn’t telling us that, come next Valentine’s Day, we write on the card, “Dear Honey, I love your virtue.”

Instead, he is telling us that we ought to be drawn to a person for their inner qualities. We should fall in love with the beauty of their soul and its capacity for virtue and goodness.

Pausanias tells us that we ought to love our lover’s soul, not their beauty or their bank account

Moreover, we should, ideally, find somebody who has different virtues than us. This is where the whole “let your lover change you” thing comes into play.

Find somebody who has different qualities than you. Perhaps they are brave when you are timid. Maybe they are organized while you are messy. Whatever the situation, you should find somebody who possesses qualities that you yourself lack, and then let that person seduce you into becoming a better version of yourself.

True love does not mean loving your spouse for who they are right now. True love means that two people are committed to educating each other in the ways of virtue and enduring the stormy seas that result of such a union.

“This is that love which is the love of the heavenly goddess, and is heavenly, and of great price to the individual and the cities, making the lover and the beloved alike eager in the work of their own improvement.” –Plato (Symposium)

Make sense?

So the next time you think your spouse is trying to change you, just remember that they probably are, and you really ought to let them.