28 Phaidros (Greek Readings I)
Phaidros was a contemporary and—as with Plato—a student of Socrates. He was however also a young man whom Plato had loved. He—and not the colleague of the same name in the passel of students around Socrates—was immortalized in the master’s dialogue of the same name. Concerning its subject, and whether love has desire, or desire has love, under its control, I have already written in my blog “On Love and Desire.”
At this point I present a number of love-epigrams of Plato’s, in the translation of Otto Apelt.1 I like them a great deal, because they are directed both at men and women and remain wholly equivocal concerning the (these days fashionable) questions and dogmatic determinations of sexual orientation.
All of these poems are found in the collection of Diogenes Laërtius, thus from the third century of the Christian era. That is to say, they were, at the time, already more than 500 years old. They might be entirely spurious, a fake. Nevertheless, they belong to the corpus of Platonicism, and they have held a fundamental influence over philosophy and world literature.
Plato was an artist. In his youth he had even written songs and tragedies, which he eventually destroyed at Socrates’ inducement. He came from Athenian high nobility, was a good athlete (wrestling), and had even taken part in the various competitions on the isthmus. In the city of his birth he collected many friends, as well as enemies, of his teaching about himself, who have left in our modern philosophy important traces, in our thoughts as well as terminology, to the present day.
The English philosopher Whitehead,2 from the school of logical empiricism, claimed that the whole history of philosophy in the West is but footnotes to Plato’s philosophy.
You gaze at the stars, my Star;
would that I were Heaven,
that I might look at you with many eyes!
Even as you shone once the Star of Morning among the living,
so in death you shine now the Star of Evening among the dead.
Now, when I have but whispered that Alexis is beautiful,
he is the observed of all observers.
O my heart, why show dogs a bone?
You’ll be sorry for it afterwards: was it not so that we lost Phaidros?
My mistress is Archeanassa of Colophon,
on whose very wrinkles there is bitter love.
Hapless are all you who met such beauty on its first voyage;
through what a burning did you pass!
When I kiss Agathon my soul is on my lips,
where it comes, poor thing, hoping to cross over.
I throw the apple at you, and if you are willing to love me,
take it and share your girlhood with me;
but if your thoughts are what I pray they are not,
even then take it, and consider how short-lived is beauty.
I am an apple;
one who loves you throws me at you.
Say yes, Xanthippe; we fade, both you and I.
The Fates decreed tears to Hecuba and the women of Troy right from their birth;
but for you, Dion, the gods spilled your widespread hopes upon the ground
after you had triumphed in the doing of noble deeds.
And so in your spacious homeland you lie honored by your fellow citizens,
O Dion, you who made my heart mad with love.
1[Note: Apelt is the German translation. We use here that of J. M. Edmonds and rev. J. M. Cooper, part of the Complete Works, Hackett, 1997. It must furthermore be noted that the attribution to Plato is disputed, and many sources attribute them either to “anonymous” qualifying the attribution to Plato as “traditional.” See also Walther Ludwig, Plato’s Love Epigrams, Center for Hellenic Studies, Washington, D.C., 1963 for extensive analysis.] 2Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947).