Greek Love

Summarizing themes from his Love, Sex, and Tragedy, Simon Goldhill highlights the difference between ancient Greek conceptions of eros and Christian and post-Christian conceptions of romantic love. Even the most famous lovers of Greek antiquity, he writes, don’t express themselves with the little nothings that are normal among moderns: “Odysseus and Penelope, in Homer’s Odyssey never say ‘I love you,’ or ‘I want you,’ or even ‘I have missed you,’ or any other of the doting expressions a modern audience would demand when a long-lost husband returns from the war. Socrates is exemplary for the Greek husband, when on his deathbed he sends his crying wife away so that he can spend his last hours in discussion with his (male) friends. Monstrous and murderous passions distort the bodies of Greek tragedy’s heroines, but never beautiful and delicate love. There is no Romeo and Juliet for classical Greece.”

Not that Greeks were immune to passion. Far from it. They knew all about eros, but everything they knew terrified them: “In a sexual context, it is most often described as a sickness, a burning and destructive fire, which is not wanted by die sufferer at all. As a social force, it can be highly destructive. According to modern song lyrics, ‘love makes the world go round,’ or ‘love is a many-splendoured thing.’ For Aeschylus, the tragic poet, ‘Eros destroys and perverts all the yoked bonds of society,’ and for Sophocles, ‘Eros drags the minds of just men into injustice and destruction.’ Tragedy loves to show the violence and misery caused by desire in society. That Eros destroys is a general truth which tragedy displays to the citizens of the city. You can cherish ‘love,’ but you should always beware eros.”

The differences are profound, even metaphysical. Ancient Greeks lacked “ideal of reciprocity. In modern society, to love and to be loved is a standard ideal of romantic yearning. A couple are meant to share equal feelings of passion, affection and respect. A Jane Austen novel requires the hero and the heroine to recognize that they love each other, at least by the last page. We want to walk down the street holding hands. ‘Do you love me?’ is the question in a relationship. There are plenty of lyrics of unfulfilled passion, but, from the knight with his damsel in courtly-love poetry to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, such lyrics are preludes to the anticipated bliss of mutual and shared love. It is only in the later decades of the twentieth century that equal and shared sexual desire is expected. Love in Victorian novels takes different routes which trace the moral hesitations about female sexual desire found in Victorian medical writing and social thought. But it is still the case that a person who rejects the ideal of reciprocity is stigmatized—the ‘seducer,’ the ‘womanizer,’ the ‘prostitute’ and so on. Modern Western society privileges a mutual bonding over time—from young lovers to the elderly couple by the rosy cottage door. Till death do us part.”

Arriving at this mutuality required a revolution in the understanding of masculinity. Greek men were expected to be guided by reason, a masculine virtue; eros threatened because it represented passive, womanly desire. To be captured by eros was to become effeminate. For desire to become mutual, for passion to be valued (as in the courtly love tradition), men had to learn to welcome the “emasculating” power of passion. They had to be subjected to desire, and to delight in that subjection. This wasn’t an achievement of Christianity as such, but it is a cultural change that is unthinkable without the Christian validation of desire and the Christian deconstruction of ancient masculinity.

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