Euripides and Moderation in Love

The Greek Playwright Euripides (480-406 BC)

The Greek Playwright Euripides (480-406 BC)

On the Laudator Temporis Acti website, I ran into two quotes from Euripides which go a long way toward explaining the genius of the ancient Greeks.

From the David Kovacs translation of Medea, lines 627-641, comes these lines:

Loves that come to us in excess bring no good name or goodness to men. If Aphrodite comes in moderation, no other goddess brings such happiness. Never, O goddess, may you smear with desire one of your ineluctable arrows and let it fly against my heart from your golden bow!

May moderation attend me, fairest gift of the gods! May dread Aphrodite never cast contentious wrath and insatiate quarreling upon me and madden my heart with love for a stranger’s bed! But may she honor marriages that are peaceful and wisely determine whom we are to wed!

I am reminded of the truth of this observation from a birthday party I attended many years ago. An acquaintance whom I will not name, in the middle of all his friends, gave his bride thirty pounds of potatoes, one for each year of her life. Their love match had clearly turned sour, and the party broke up early after his shaming of his wife.

The next lines come from Euripides’s Iphigeneia in Aulis, also translated by Kovacs:

Blessed are they who with moderation
and self-control where the goddess is concerned
share in the couch of Aphrodite,
experiencing the calm absence
of mad passion’s sting. In love
twofold are the arrows of pleasure
golden-haired Eros sets on his bowstring,
the one to give us a blessed fate,
the other to confound our life.
I forbid him, O Cypris most lovely,
to come to my bedchamber!
May my joy be moderate,
my desires godly,
may I have a share in Aphrodite
but send her away when she is excessive!

I, too, could have been in this situation had the beautiful young pediatrician I was pursuing had turned around and acceded to my passion. But she didn’t, and I found someone better—though I did go through a few rocky years in the interval.

 

Martial 10.47

Roman Poet Marcus Valerius Martialis

Roman Poet Marcus Valerius Martialis (Martial)

I haven’t quoted any poetry from Laudator Temporis Acti for altogether too long a period of time. The following is a recent translation by James Michie (1927-2007) of Martial 10.47 on the subject of happiness:

Of what does the happy life consist,
My dear friend Julius? Here’s a list:
Inherited wealth, no need to earn,
Fires that continually burn,
And fields that give a fair return,
No lawsuits, formal togas worn
Seldom, a calm mind, the freeborn
Gentleman’s health and good physique,
Tact with the readiness to speak
Openly, friends of your own mind,
Guests of an easy-going kind,
Plain food, a table simply set,
Nights sober but wine-freed from fret,
A wife who’s true to you and yet
No prude in bed, and sleep so sound
It makes the dawn come quickly round.
Be pleased with what you are, keep hope
Within that self-appointed scope;
Neither uneasily apprehend
Nor morbidly desire the end.

“Don’t Read Books!”

Chinese Scroll

Chinese Scroll

Don’t read books!
Don’t chant poems!
When you read books your eyeballs wither away,
leaving the bare sockets.
When you chant poems your heart leaks out slowly
with each word.
People say reading books is enjoyable.
People say chanting poems is fun.
But if your lips constantly make a sound
like an insect chirping in autumn,
you will only turn into a haggard old man.
And even if you don’t turn into a haggard old man,
it’s annoying for others to have to hear you.

It’s so much better
to close your eyes, sit in your study,
lower the curtains, sweep the floor,
burn incense.
It’s beautiful to listen to the wind,
listen to the rain,
take a walk when you feel energetic,
and when you’re tired go to sleep.

—Yang Wan-li (1127-1206), “Don’t Read Books!”

Serendipity: Master of Five Willows

Master of Five Willows

Master of Five Willows

From Tau Ch’ien (365-427) comes this memorable portrait:

No one knows where he came from. His given and literary names are also a mystery. But we know there were five willows growing beside his house, which is why he used this name. At peace in idleness, rarely speaking, he had no longing for fame or fortune. He loved to read books, and yet never puzzled over their profound insights. But whenever he came upon some realization, he was so pleased that he forgot to eat.

He was a wine-lover by nature, but he couldn’t afford it very often. Everyone knew this, so when they had wine, they’d call him over. And when he drank, it was always bottoms-up. He’d be drunk in no time; then he’d go back home, alone and with no regrets over where things are going.

In the loneliness of his meager wall, there was little shelter from wind and sun. His short coat was patched and sewn. And made from gourd and split bamboo, his cup and bowl were empty as often as Yen Hui’s. But he kept writing poems to amuse himself, and they show something of who he was. He went on like this, forgetting all gain and loss, until he came naturally to his end.

In appraisal we say: Ch’ien Lou said Don’t make yourself miserable agonizing over impoverished obscurity, and don’t wear yourself out scrambling for money and honor. Doesn’t that describe this kind of man perfectly? He’d just get merrily drunk and write poems to cheer himself up. He must have lived in the most enlightened and ancient of times. If it wasn’t Emperor Wu-huai’s reign, surely it was Ko-t’ien’s.

It Was Ever Thus

Agora

Agora

But as for merchants, their holdings are increased by false oaths, and the art of becoming rich is to show contempt toward the gods, and they sail to every city, doing this evil, lying, deceiving, and misleading. And whoever knows how to do this best will come away richest.—Libanius (4th Century A.D.), Progymnasmata: Comparationes

“Stupidity of the Vilest Kind”

Dick Cheney

Dick Cheney

You are wedded to stupidity, my fine friend, of the vilest kind; you are impeached of this by your own words, out of your own mouth; and this, it seems, is why you dash into politics before you have been educated. And you are not alone in this plight, but you share it with most of those who manage our city’s affairs… Plato: Alcibiades

Solitude Is Essential

J. S. Mill

J. S. Mill

A population may be too crowded, though all be amply supplied with food and raiment. It is not good for man to be kept perforce at all times in the presence of his species. A world from which solitude is extirpated, is a very poor ideal. Solitude, in the sense of being often alone, is essential to any depth of meditation or of character; and solitude in the presence of natural beauty and grandeur, is the cradle of thoughts and aspirations which are not only good for the individual, but which society could ill do without. Nor is there much satisfaction in contemplating the world with nothing left to the spontaneous activity of nature; with every rood of land brought into cultivation, which is capable of growing food for human beings; every flowery waste or natural pasture ploughed up, all quadrupeds or birds which are not domesticated for man’s use exterminated as his rivals for food, every hedgerow or superfluous tree rooted out, and scarcely a place left where a wild shrub or flower could grow without being eradicated as a weed in the name of improved agriculture. If the earth must lose that great portion of its pleasantness which it owes to things that the unlimited increase of wealth and population would extirpate from it, for the mere purpose of enabling it to support a larger, but not a better or a happier population, I sincerely hope, for the sake of posterity, that they will be content to be stationary, long before necessity compels them to it.—John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy