the great god
I begin to sing, he who moves the earth
and the desolate sea…
You are dark-haired
you are blessed
you have a kind heart.
Help those who sail upon
~Homeric Hymn to Poseidon
Category Archives: Uncategorized
By Peter Marshall, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins
Gods and Legends
Poseidon was the Greek god of the sea, the shaker of the land responsible for earthquakes, and the god of horses. Usually living in the sea, he could make the waters either calm or stormy depending on his volatile moods. As a patron deity of Athens, Poseidon competed with Athena, who planted the sacred olive tree, by establishing a magical well of salt water on the Acropolis.
If any boat was to survive in Poseidon’s Realm, its crew would have to appease him, usually in the form of sacrifices. The ancient Greeks would kill bulls on beaches or temples and offer up the sacrifices to the god; I preferred in my sailing voyage around the Aegean to make a libation to his memory and presence, usually in the form of the first glass of wine which I poured in the waters of Homer’s ‘wine-dark sea’.
Poseidon—Neptune to the Romans—was one of the three main gods of ancient Greece. He was the brother to Zeus, the most powerful god and ruler of the Heavens, and to Hades, the god of the Underworld where a soul goes to spend a ghostly existence after death. As with the other gods and goddesses, they intervened into human affairs and often took the form of what humans called fate.
When Odysseus, for instance, tried to get home to Ithaca after the Trojan War, Homer tells us in his epic poem The Odyssey, it took him many years because he had angered Poseidon after blinding one of his sons, the one-eyed monster Cyclops Polyphemus for eating his crew and for keeping him captive in a cave. On the other hand, Odysseus was helped on his way by the intervention of the goddess Athena who wanted the Trojans defeated.
The gods and goddesses normally lived on the summit of Mount Olympus (the tallest mountain in Greece, and only climbed by humans at the beginning of the last century, and by myself this century). Although in some ways idealized, they were all-too-human, quarrelling with each other, committing adultery, laughing as well as being downhearted. Zeus would often have arguments with his wife Hera, the goddess of marriage and childbirth, particularly because of his many infidelities.
Despite the cities along the coast of the Eastern Aegean being the birthplace of philosophy and science, with one philosopher saying we can know nothing of the gods and the afterlife, most Greeks firmly believed in their gods. They held Delos in the center of the Aegean to be a sacred island, the birthplace of Apollo, the god of light, music and knowledge, and his twin sister Artemis, the goddess of the hunt and the moon. And they readily consulted oracles, especially at Delphi, in their attempts to see into the future.
But Apollo was also the brother of Dionysius, the god of wine and ecstasy. Many festivals of plays and songs were put on his honour. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche for one saw the birth of Greek tragedy to a combination of ‘Apollonian’ spirit giving form to ‘Dionysian’ energy.
Mythology was an important part of my voyage around the Aegean as it helps to understand ancient Greeks. I set off in a small sailing boat with a traveling companion and traveling at roughly the same speed as the ancient boats, I drew a great circle around the Aegean.
My voyage in space reflected my voyage in time, for I investigated the various stages in ancient Greek history, from the Cycladic, Minoan, Mycenaean, Classical and the Hellenic. I also wanted to test my hunch that Greek civilization cannot be properly understood except from the point of view of the sea. It was central to their lives; Plato described accurately the city states like ‘frogs around a pond’. With a mountainous hinterland and poor soil, they inevitably looked to the sea for foreign trade and new colonies.
The only time they stopped fighting against each other was when they declared a temporary truce for their Olympic games every four years and when they were united against a common foe. Twice they had to face the Persians who had at the time the most powerful empire the world had ever known, under Xerxes I, the ‘King of Kings’. They brought vast armies and huge fleets to conquer the troublesome and squabbling peoples on their western border.
However, believing themselves to be free, the greatly outnumbered Greeks managed to push back the far greater force which would have enslaved them and changed the nature of Europe forever.
After sailing for six seasons in my small sailing boat, covering over 5,000 miles, I visited many ancient sites both famous and obscure and met many Greeks and Turks on the way. I suffered a near shipwreck and sinking. But more than sailing narrative and personal quest, I returned with a remarkable portrayal of the Greeks and a fuller understanding of their history, mythology and culture.
It is certainly worth studying the art, sculpture, literature, philosophy and architecture of ancient Greece—not only because the people are valuable and fascinating in themselves—but because the culture forms the seabed of Western civilization. I have witnessed the unforgettable portrait of arguably the most beautiful and magical sea in the world.
Peter Marshall is the author of Poseidon’s Realm: A Voyage around the Aegean the recently published by Zena. ISBN 9780951106969. He has written 16 books which have been translated into as many languages. His website is www.petermarshall.net
By Ḏḥwty, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins
The ancient Greek city state of Sparta had a social hierarchy that was different from many of its neighbors. The top of the social pyramid was occupied by the two kings, whose powers were checked by a ‘council of elders’. These elders were chosen from the next class, the Spartiates. Below this aristocratic class was a middle class which was called the Perioeci. The lowest class, which was also the largest, in Spartan society was held a group known as the Helots.
According to the Greek geographer Pausanias, the Helots hailed from a city called Helos. This city is said to have been conquered by the Spartans, and its inhabitants became their first slaves. Subsequent peoples enslaved by the Spartans were also called Helots. The Greek historian, Thucydides, however, gives a different account of the origins of the Helots. According to this writer, the Helots were the descendants of the Messenians who were enslaved by the Spartans during the First Messenian War in the 8th century BC. Another account of the origins of the Helots can be found in Strabo’s Geography. According to this writer, the peoples who were subjected to Spartan rule were initially accorded equal rights. During the reign of Agis I, however, these rights were revoked, and the subjects forced to pay a tribute. All complied, except the people of Helus, who revolted. They were crushed in a war, and reduced to slavery.
Whilst they are considered as slaves, it has been pointed out that they were somewhat different from other slaves in the neighbouring Greek city states. It is claimed that in Athens, for instance, slaves did not have families and communities of their own. The Helots, by contrast, had their own families and communities. Additionally, the Helots were not privately owned, but belonged to the state. According to Strabo, “the Lacedaemonians held the Helots as state-slave in a way, having assigned to them certain settlements to live in and special services to perform.”
As the male citizens of Sparta devoted their lives to athletic and military training, war, politics, and hunting, they could not afford to spend time on agricultural activities. The task of producing food was left to the Helots. Although the Helots were, generally speaking, peasants, they may be employed for other jobs, such as servants or grooms, as well. Additionally, the Helots could be conscripted into military duties at times of war. For instance, the Greek historian Herodotus records that each of the 5000 Spartiate at the Battle of Plataea in 479 BC was protected by seven light-armed Helots. Thus, there was a total of 35,000 Helots at that battle.
Although the Helots were crucial for the functioning of Spartan society, the other classes had an uneasy relationship with them. Given that the Helots greatly outnumbered their Spartan masters, the possibility of them revolting against their repressive rulers was ever present. The first major Helot revolt took place around 665 BC, and is known as the Second Messenian War (The First Messenian War had ended around 40 years prior to this conflict). The Helots seized on the occasion of Sparta’s defeat by Argos at the Battle of Hysiae to launch a revolt. It took the Spartans nearly 20 years to put down the rebellion.
Given the precarious state of things, the Spartans took precautions to prevent the Helots from revolting. During the Persian Wars, for instance, the Spartans were not too eager to send their hoplites abroad to fight for the freedom of Greece. This was due to the fear that the Helots would revolt when the Spartan army was fighting away from home. Despite these and other precautions, several revolts by the Helots took place over the centuries. When an earthquake struck the Eurotas Valley in 464 BC, the Helots seized this opportunity to revolt. This was the largest revolt recorded. The Helots fortified Mount Ithome, which was besieged by Sparta. The siege only ended five years later when both sides agreed to a truce. The surviving Helots were taken by Athens and settled on Naupactus on the Corinthian Gulf.
Spartan treatment of Helots improved overtime, perhaps as a means of appeasing them. For instance, Helots could hope to be emancipated, and it is known that groups of Helots were sometimes liberated. Nevertheless, the system collapsed in the 4 th century BC. In 371 BC, the Spartans suffered a humiliating defeat at the Battle of Leuctra. The victorious Thebans then invaded the Peloponnese, and the Helots of Messenia were liberated. The last Helots (the Helots of Laconia) were emancipated at the end of the 3 rd century BC by the reformer kings Cleomenes III and Nabis.
By Ben Potter
Aias to the Greeks, Aiax to the Romans, now known to us as the anglicized Ajax, he was ‘the best of all men that ever came to Troy, save only Achilles’.
However, Ajax’s status as number two in the Greek pecking order wasn’t always fully appreciated. After Achilles perished when the arrow fired by the Trojan prince Paris pierced his Achilles’ heel (oh the irony!) and Ajax gallantly carried his fallen comrade from the battlefield, it was assumed that the coveted armor worn by the slain hero would pass on to the number two warrior, Ajax.
However, the Greek commander Agamemnon and his brother, husband of the wanton Helen, Menelaus had other ideas. Persuaded by his eloquence, they decided to give the armor to Odysseus.
So what’s the big deal? Ajax is a wealthy prince and a mighty warrior, surely he doesn’t need Achilles’ armor, right?
The armor is not merely precious, useful and a wonderful souvenir which could rival a piece of the true cross, but it is hugely symbolic. It is so saturated in symbolic honor that to be denied it, Ajax has been forced to suffer a de facto demotion.
This snub is enough to tip a character, who is often portrayed as tactless, boorish and arrogant, totally over the edge.
He resolved to steal out into the night and enter the beach encampments of his fellow Greek commanders whereupon he would kill whomever he could and bring the rest back to his own tent for torture.
This, Ajax achieved… or at least thought he had achieved. Instead the goddess Athena, looking to protect her favorite, Odysseus, sent Ajax mad so that instead of mutilating Agamemnon, Menelaus et al, he butchered a flock of sheep.
It is at this point, with sanity suddenly returning to him, that Sophocles’ Ajax begins.
However, an Athenian audience wouldn’t have been waiting with bated breath to see what was in store for the man whose stock has dropped from the heights of second greatest of all the Greeks to being a traitor and maniacal livestock botherer. They already knew his fate; he was to commit suicide.
Whilst myths are able to evolve and Athenian tragedians do often significantly change major details of stories, this one was perhaps a step too far even for the innovative Sophocles to tinker with.
Instead what he does is develop Ajax’s tragic flaw. Quite obviously pride would be the one to play up, but Sophocles mixes it with a shot of blasphemy to make a cocktail of hubris.
There is some minor evidence for such impiety in The Iliad. In book XI, Ajax won’t listen to the gods when they instruct the Greeks to retreat from the battlefield, but continues fighting nobly and bravely when the other heroes are making their tactical withdrawal.
Also, most Greek heroes are honored by a patron deity who watches over them. Odysseus and Diomedes have Athena, Achilles has Thetis; even the Trojans Paris and Hector have Aphrodite and Apollo respectively. However, Ajax is alone.
It is this theme that Sophocles nurtures as we learn that Athena did not merely send Ajax wild to save her dear Odysseus, but to punish the doomed man himself. The Messenger (a stock character in ancient tragedy) highlights just why this is:
“The gods have dreadful penalties in store for worthless and redundant creatures, mortals who break the bounds of mortal modesty. And Ajax showed he had no self-control the day he left his home. ‘Son,’ said his father – and very properly – ‘Go out to win, but with God beside you.’ ‘Oh,’ said Ajax with vain bravado, ‘any fool can win with God beside him; I intend to win glory and honor on my own account.’”
Thus Ajax is seen not only as a character with a deeply flawed personality, but one who is on the end of Divine retribution. So the question that crops up isn’t so much ‘did he deserve his fate’ as ‘can we feel any sympathy for him at all’?
Well… Ajax was honor-bound to come to Troy by the oath sworn during his courtship of Helen. In Sophocles, Ajax is less concerned with rescuing the stolen princess than with trying to please or even emulate his father Telamon, who himself sacked Troy in the previous generation along with Heracles – a feat, of course, which Ajax has been unable to better.
Telamon, “the man who never smiles”, is the only man who Ajax seems afraid of and indeed he comments timorously: “How will he welcome me, when I come home empty-handed?”
It feels like Ajax been pushed all his life to try and accumulate kleos (reputation) and succeed at every turn simply in order to be able to step out of his father’s shadow. The failure to gain Achilles’ armor would have be seen as unacceptable in Ajax’s own eyes and presumably also in those of Telamon.
Can we find sympathy for a man whose every waking thought is centered round yearning for his father’s approval? Is this something which reinforces Ajax’s pathetic vanity? And in turn does it cause us to pity rather than despise him?
Sophocles includes a “family scene” which contrasts starkly to its inspiration in book VI of The Iliad. It involved Hector, his wife, Andromache and their son, Astyanax. Hector, knowing he was going into mortal combat from which he may not return, is depicted as a loving husband and gentle father.
The parody in Ajax shows the ‘hero’, not going nobly into battle, but about to selfishly and capriciously commit suicide. In these final moments they can share together he is very curt and snaps at his wife, Tecmessa. He hopes that his son, Eurysaces, will be as good a man as he is, only more lucky. Hector on the other hand desired that Astyanax would emulate him, going on to bigger and better things. This makes it seem like Ajax can’t bear to be outshone by anyone, not even his own flesh and blood!
Both men also worry about their wives being sold into slavery should they die. However, by committing suicide and Tecmessa being a foreigner, Ajax has all but guaranteed this fate for her.
The dramatic irony of this scene causes us to feel great pity for poor Tecmessa, an innocent victim of a self-destructive and proud fool who, instead of being the linchpin of victory in the Trojan War heaps woe upon woe, tarnishes his reputation, enslaves his loved-ones, bereaves his loyal and loving half-brother and leaves his father without an heir.
However, this is not the only way in which Sophocles creates suspense, pity and fear. Ajax falls on his sword just over half way through the story, the rest of the play is a struggle between Ajax’s half-brother, Teucer and the opposing, gloating siblings, the sons of Atreus, Agamemnon and Menelaus.
The tension comes about because Teucer is being denied by the Atreidai (the sons of Atreus) the right to bury Ajax.
Prohibition of burial rites might seem like more of an insult than a real tragedy to us, but it was of vital importance to the Greeks. It was not a matter of life and death, it was much more important than that!
Indeed, the importance of burial rites ties in with the fact that Sophocles has been, very wrongly, accused of making a hash out of Ajax due to the fact that the main character dies, and therefore the climax is reached, so early in the performance.
What these critics don’t understand is that the death is a foregone conclusion, common knowledge to all, but the burial of Ajax is far from guaranteed. Consequently, this sacred rite, the blasphemous denial of which would leave no Athenian theatre-goer sitting comfortably, creates tension and drama of the very highest order. Especially as all the men at the crux of the debate are edgy, angry and highly dangerous.
Indeed some interpret the play as reflecting the mental pressure on men in the appalling conditions of siege-warfare, far away from their homes and loved-ones and with the constant threat of slavery or annihilation hanging over their heads.
However, the play ends on a hopeful note thanks to a most unlikely source.
Odysseus, acting like a deus ex machina, manages to convince Agamemnon that Ajax, despite his faults, deserves a burial. Although Agamemnon doesn’t really concur and is amazed that Odysseus, mortal enemy of Ajax, wants to help Teucer, he allows him to do as he pleases.
And these are the words with which Odysseus guides the heart-broken Teucer through his darkest hour:
“I have this to say to you: I am your friend henceforth, as truly I was your enemy; and I am ready to help you bury your dead and share in every office that we mortals owe to the noblest of our kind”.
And thus Odysseus shows us that even in death, even through enmity, even when blood has been shed, bile been spat, even when hate and hostility trickle from the lips more readily than any words of friendship or conciliation…. even then there is still room for someone to step in and make things right, to honor the gods through a kind act and to lighten, even slightly, the weight upon a bereaved and dejected soul.
By Natalia Klimczak, Contributing Writer, Ancient Origins
2,200 years ago, a pair of skilled Etruscan hands crafted a tablet that became a key to the language of this remarkable civilization. This unique bronze artifact is known as the Tabula Cortonensis and, apart from its role in deciphering a lost language, it also contains untold secrets of the Etruscan civilization if you read between the lines of its text.
The Etruscan civilization is a mysterious one. They created their own language, religion, architecture, and other cultural aspects. Their culture has been separated as one of the treasures of ancient times due to their amazing achievements before Romanization. However, there are still more questions than answers about the enigmatic people. Therefore, a discovery like the Tabula Cortonensis is priceless because it brings us one step closer to the Etruscans.
A Curious Tablet
The tablet was discovered near the city of Curtun, which was known as Corito in the Roman Empire, and is now called Cortona. It lies in Arezzo Provincia in Tuscany. The site is well-known for the discovery of a 4th-century tomb that may have belonged to the famous mathematician and philosopher, Pythagoras.
The tablet was unearthed in 1992, however it wasn’t exhibited for many years. This artifact is made of bronze and, for unknown reasons, it had been cut into eight fragments. Unfortunately, one of the pieces is lost. The tablet is 2-3 millimeters (.08-0.12 inches) thick and measures about 50 by 30 cm (19.69 x 11.81 inches). Researchers discovered that the tablet was made using the lost wax process. It has been suggested that the sheet may have been cut so it could be used for different purposes.
Some researchers believe the tablet was created in this way to be hung. However, there is no place for a ring or hook, so this seems unlikely. It is also uncertain if the Etruscans had specific measurements for different documents created on bronze tablets. There are some suggestions that the tablets for religious purposes had a specific size, but it is possible that contracts like the Tabula Cortonensis were also created with a precise pattern.
The Transfer Agreement
The text on the Tabula Cortonensis is a common record of a land transfer agreement between two parties. The text itself was written with skill, but its content is not unique. Although it is relatively wordy, the document isn’t the longest Etruscan writing discovered either – the Capua Tablet and the Liber Linetus from Zagreb are both longer.
The tablet was carefully studied by Luciano Agostiniani and Francesco Nicosia. They found that the inscription was clear in its content, but also full of specific information for the situation. For example, the names of the people who agreed to the contract are provided. The text also provides information about the Etruscan style and language used for this kind of agreement – a language which was thought to be the same in every region of Etruria.
Keys to a Forgotten Language
The lengthy text makes this artifact a useful tool in research on the Etruscan language. However, the researchers were surprised by the differences between the language they thought they knew and the text which had been written on the tablet. According to Agostiniani and Nicosia:
The letters are, with a few exceptions, those of the normal north Etruscan alphabet of the later 3rd or 2nd century BC. The absence of Phi and of the aspirate H is probably a coincidence: there are no words in the inscription in which they would have occurred. The gamma has the curved shape that becomes the Latin C. (Etruscan did not have the sounds of B, G or D. Their neighbors, the Romans, first pronounced C either with the sound of K, the Etruscan way or as gamma, the Greek way. Until the letter G was invented, they pronounced Caius Julius Caesar as Gaius Iulius Kaisar.) Two signs are unusual. The backward E, epsilon, though rare, is known from other inscriptions from Cortona. The “paragraph” sign used to set off four of the seven sections of this legal document (lines 7, 8, 14, 23) is unique. It would be perfectly understandable to any modern proof-reader.The tablet records a contract for the sale, or lease, of land, including a vineyard (vina), in the plain of Lake Trasimeno (celtineitiss tarsminass), between the Cusu family (Cusuthur), to which Petru Scevas belongs, and 15 people, perhaps a group of buyers, witnessed by a third group of names sometimes listed along with their children and grandchildren (clan, “son”, and papals, “grandson”).
The ancient inscription is full of mistakes, or, it provides evidence of gaps in modern knowledge about the Etruscan language. Agostiniani explains this by saying that the tablet contains a unique language used by the people who lived specifically in Cortona. That would mean people could have used different language in various parts of Etruria.
Searching for the Lost Civilization
Researchers need to complete additional excavations and analysis of previously discovered Etruscan artifacts to reveal more fascinating information about this unique civilization. But every discovery like the Tabula Cortonensis provides new information that allows us to create a clearer picture of their daily life and language, something that looks to be more complicated than once believed.
By Wu Mingren, Contributing writer, Ancient Origins
The Villa of the Papyri is the name given to a private house that was uncovered in the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum. This city, along with nearby Pompeii, is perhaps best remembered for its destruction during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Because of this natural disaster, the buildings of these cities were preserved under a thick layer of volcanic ash.
The Villa’s Elaborate Presence
One of these buildings was the Villa of the Papyri, named as such due to the discovery of a library in the house that contained about 1800 scrolls of papyri (known today as the ‘Herculaneum Papyri’), which were carbonized due to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.
Researchers believe the Villa of the Papyri belonged to Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, Julius Caesar’s father-in-law. This villa is located in the northwestern part of Herculaneum, on a slope of the volcano overlooking the Bay of Naples. Built in terraces down to the sea, the villa was a grand structure, covering an area of 30,000 square feet (2787 sq. meters). The front of the villa stretched for more than 820 ft. (250 meters), and offered its inhabitants an unobstructed view of the bay. The villa included two peristyles, a swimming pool, gardens, living and reception quarters.
Rediscovering the Villa
It was only during the 18th century that the villa was rediscovered. In 1709, the city of Herculaneum was rediscovered when workmen digging a well in the town of Resina stumbled upon the upper level of the ancient town’s theatre. Excavations began to be carried out and were funded by the House of Bourbon. In 1750, the Villa of the Papyri was uncovered, and an excavation was soon undertaken under the direction of Karl Weber, a Swiss architect and engineer.
A Very Special Library
Two years later, in October 1752, the villa’s library was discovered, and with it, the first cache of papyri was brought to light. Containing about 1800 scrolls, the collection of this library is relatively small. Yet, it is the only known library to have survived from the Classical world.
Hence, the library has a great importance in the eyes of both archaeologists and classicists. Exposure to the volcanic gas and ash meant the scrolls were carbonized – they were turned into charred cylindrical lumps. In fact, the papyri were initially mistaken for lumps of charcoal or burnt logs, and their value was only recognized later. The carbonization of the scrolls effectively preserved them, though at the same time, it made them extremely difficult to unroll.
A Difficult Process Begins
Attempts have been made to read the contents of these scrolls. Some were unceremoniously hacked open with a butcher’s knife, whilst others were simply unrolled. Needless to say, damage was done to the fragile artifacts. An ‘unrolling device’ was even invented by Antonio Piaggio, a Piarist monk, specifically for the unravelling of these papyri. Though the scrolls were unrolled with this device, they remained fragile, and the process took a very long time. The first scroll took four years to unravel.
Nevertheless, progress was being made, and by 1790, reports on the contents of the library were being published. Over the next two centuries, various techniques have been developed in the hope that the contents of the papyri may be accessed. Some of the most recent attempts involve digital, rather than physical, unravelling of the scrolls. In order to do so, methods such as X-rays, digital photography, and microscopy have been utilized.
However, it is still very difficult to view the writings on the papyri. The main problem is that the ink and the papyri are physically similar, as the Romans used a carbon-based ink made from smoke residues. In other words, it is not easy to differentiate the writings from the carbonized papyri.
By Van Bryan
So, that’s probably a strange thing to say, right?
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 any 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)
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.