Introductory lecture for English 251

Great Books I: Love in the Ancient World

A.   Love

1.     Power of love in story and idea: “All you need is love”

a)     Most popular of story ideas:

(1)  Adam and Eve; Odysseus and Penelope; David and Bathsheba; Friends, Sex and the City

b)    Most philosophical of topics

(1)  Love and Strife:
(a)   Empedocles spoke of Love and Strife as diametrically opposed cosmic principles, where Love (harmony) is      the uniting force that attracts all things, thereby creating something new,  and Strife (discord) is the dividing force that separates and destroys things.  Like the Yin and Yang principles of ancient China, these two principles govern the totality of existence while bringing about cyclical changes, depending on whether Love or Strife is dominant. 
(2)  "My will and desire were revolved, as a wheel that is equally turned, by the Love which moves the sun and other stars." 
the end of Dante's Paradiso: 
(3)  Underlying meaning: pairing; procreation; relation to time; the one and the many

2.     Love as a god in Antiquity

a)     “God  is love”(first century Christian—from First Epistle of John)

(1)  "Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes  from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. {8}  Whoever does not love does not know God, because GOD IS LOVE. {9} I John 4

b)    Pagan: Aphrodite—Venus; Eros—Cupid—all images from the Getty where we are going and will see the originals [WHAT ASPECTS OF LOVE CAN YOU READ IN THESE PICTURES OF THE SYMBOLS OF IT?]

(1)  Cult statue (Greek)
(2)  Aphrodite in chariot while Paris and Helen fall in  love (Greek)
(3)  statuette of Venus (Roman)
(4)  Eros—sleeping Cupid (Roman)
(6)  Mars disarmed by Venus (Dutch)
(8)  Young Girl defending herself from Cupid (French 1880)
(9)  Woody Allen 1995—Mighty Aphrodite—Helen Bonham Carter wife and mother who becomes adultress and Mira Sorvino—as a statuesque hooker and porn actress who becomes mother and wife

3.     The language of Love in the Ancient World

a)     talking and reading and writing about love is itself an activity of love; an excitement: Many genres

b)    Novel— Daphnis and Chloe (around 100 BC)

(1)  Transition via ecphrasis, Images to words : “When  was hunting in Lesbos, I saw in a wood sacred to the Nymphs the most beautiful thing that I have ever seen—a painting that told a love story….But as for me, I hope the god will allow me to write of other people’s experiences, while retaining my own sanity.  Pp. 16-17

c)     Philosophy:  Plato’s Symposium: takes place in 416 BC, probably written about 385

(1)  philosophic dialogue and drinking party where the talk is about love. 
(2)  This course as a Symposium

Agathon: May I say without impiety or offence, that of all the blessed gods Eros,  is the most blessed because he is the fairest and best? And he is the fairest: for, in the first place, he is the youngest, and of his youth he is himself the witness, fleeing out of the way of age, who is swift enough, swifter truly than most of us like:--Love hates him and will not come near him; but youth and love live and move together-like to like…

The fairness of his complexion is revealed by his habitation among the flowers; for he dwells not amid bloomless or fading beauties, whether of body or soul or aught else, but in the place of flowers and scents, there he sits and abides. …

d)    Epic—Odyssey (~700 BCE) 23:233-251  Love not between the young but between the old—a husband and wife who come together after having been separated by war and distance for 20 years:

As the sight of land is welcome to men who are swimming towards the shore, when Neptune has wrecked their ship with the fury of his winds and waves- a few alone reach the land, and these, covered with brine, are thankful when they find themselves on firm ground and out of danger- even so was her husband welcome to her as she looked upon him, and she could not tear her two fair arms from about his neck.

e)     lyric and song

(1)  Song of Songs 8

6] Set me as a seal upon your heart,

as a seal upon your arm;

for love is strong as death,

jealousy is cruel as the grave.

(2)  Sappho—

On the throne of many hues, Immortal Aphrodite,

child of Zeus, weaving wiles--I beg you

not to subdue my spirit, Queen,

with pain or sorrow


but come--if ever before

having heard my voice from far away

you listened, and leaving your father's

golden home you came


in your chariot yoked with swift, lovely

sparrows bringing you over the dark earth

thick-feathered wings swirling down

from the sky through mid-air


arriving quickly--



Come to me now again, release me from

this pain, everything my spirit longs

to have fulfilled, fulfill, and you

be my ally

f)     Comedy—Lysistrata

(1)  CHORUS OF ATHENIANS  (singing): Appear, appear, dancers, and the Graces with you! Let us invoke… all the gods, calling all the inhabitants of the skies to witness the noble Peace now concluded under the fond auspices of Aphrodite. …dance, leap, as in honour of a victory won.

g)     Tragedy--Antigone [p. 679]

(1)  CHORUS (singing): Love, never conquered in battle
(2)  Love the plunderer laying waste the rich
(3)  Love standing on the night watch guarding a girls soft cheek
(4)  You range the seas, the shepherd’s steadings off in the wild
(5)  Not even the deathless gods can flee your onset,
(6)  Nothing human born for a day—
(7)  Whoever feels your grip is driven mad.
(8)  Love you wrench the minds of the righteous into outrage
(9)  Swerve them into ruin—you have ignited this
(10)        This kindred strife, father and son at war
(11)        And love alone the victor
(12)        Warm glance of the bride triumphant, burning with desirethroned in power, side-by-side with the mighty laws
(13)        Irresistible Aphrodite, never conquered—
(14)        Love you mock us for your sport.

B.    The Ancient world

1.     The ancient world as golden age of free love

a)     Garden of eden; nostalgia; a dream remembered  [Twelfth Night 2.4]

DUKE. O, fellow, come, the song we had last night.

… it is old and plain…

And dallies with the innocence of love,

Like the old age.

2.     Two grayhaired professors talking to you youngsters on a topic that traditionally belongs to youth, as affirmed by Agathon

a)     debates between the old and the young about love which I studied in my dissertation-book called Youth against Age—about generational strife or what when I was young in the 1960’s was known as the generation gap

c)     But despite this familiar portrait of old people denying love, there are many examples of Ancient lovers as well—of a harmony between age and youth.  This connection becomes  a central theme of the Symposium as we will see.  Education or paideia itself is figured there as an  exchange between old and young, the old regenerated by enjoyment of youth, the young learning from association with age.  This will be the response that both Socrates and Alcibiades offer to Agathon’s claim that Love is exclusively the province of the young

3.      “The Ancient World” is also more literally a reference to a specific culture we will be studying, located in the Mediterranean basin and lasting from about 1000 BCE to 100 CE or AD. 

a)     Survey of the antecedents of Western Civilization—traditional and oversimplified, but given the limits of ten weeks in a GE course, a manageable and definable unit

b)    Timelines


c)     Influence of Antiquity—both in Judaeo Christian and Secular Pagan traditions.  We’ll make the acquaintance of old texts translated from remote languages to get a sense of  “our” past, our sources.  These include the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures as well as the “Classics”—Homer  Plato Sophocles Vergil, etc. 

d)    Those books and artifacts are old and remote, providing a healthy sense of how small the present is compared to the stretches of time that we will traverse to go back there, and yet they are startlingly immediate, and what they contain has been revisited and revisioned and reborn ever since—not only in the European Renaissance between 1450 and 1650, but even in our own day—justifying the grand claim of the Norton Anthology—that is is the period of the “Formation of the Western Mind.”

C.    Great Books

1.     Thinking about Love—a paradox

a)     Thinking and feeling reinforcing and strengthening and refining one another

The unexamined life is not worth living.”


Socrates spoke these words to the jury in the court of Athens in the year 399 BCE (before the common era) after he had been found guilty of heresy and sedition. Heresy, a crime that threatened the established religion, and sedition, that threatened the state.


he felt it was his responsibility, "... to let no day pass without discussing goodness and all the other subjects about which you hear me talking and examining both myself and others," he felt that this activity, "is really the very best thing that a man (or women) can do, and that life without this sort of examination is not worth living ..."(1)

2.     Thinking and Reading

a)     READ:

(1)  How I think about things—dialogue with very smart people whose ideas and thinking have lasted; the solitary conversation—worthwhile thinking is hard work—as hard as training for football or doing aerobics or climbing a mountain or learning how to surf



(1)  Mulling things over—reflection, meditation, discourse, dialectic
(2)  What’s being said?—first read; figure out structure and underline and make notes in margin
(3)  Thinking about what’s being said--
(4)  Go back and outline and relate to other things I’ve read and thought and formulate my own critique—praise or criticism

D.   Concluding quote: Great Books--Love in the Ancient World

1.     Machiavelli in exile on a farm  1513

When evening comes, I return home and enter my study; on the threshold I take off my workday clothes, covered with mud and dirt, and put on the garments of court and palace. Fitted out appropriately, I step inside the venerable courts of the ancients, where, solicitously received by them, I nourish myself on that food that alone is mine and for which I was born; where  I am unashamed to converse with them and to question them about the            motives for their actions, and they, out of their human kindness, answer  me. And for four hours at a time I feel no boredom, I forget all my troubles, I do not dread poverty, and I am not terrified by death. I  absorb myself into them completely.