Love, Sex and Tragedy
Even the couple who become the paragons of fidelity for later generations, 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.
The Greek word most often translated as 'love' is eros. But 'desire' is much more accurate in most cases. Eros is a passionate feeling of attraction for another person. Or for one's city, or for food. When Plato uses eros in his dialogue the Symposium to express the highest philosophical longings for the Good Itself, longings which transcend the physical and seek the fulfilment of the soul's deepest needs and capabilities, it's easy to see why 'love' has usually seemed the right translation. And many Greek lovers use eros for their most profound and melting sensations.
But eros is not like 'love' in a Romantic or Christian sense. 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.
In tragedy an audience might expect everything, including eros, to have a tragic ending. Elsewhere, there is that naughty boy with wings—Cupid in Latin, Eros in Greek—who causes trouble, strife and jokes at your expense. Experiencing eros is not dignified. It is a commonplace in modern fiction that everyone should want to fall in love. But this idea would most probably be greeted with a bewildered shudder by the classical Athenian—even when the sweet bliss of eros is recognized. 'Self-control' is the most prized of virtues, and it means not desiring to desire. It also means controlling the unfortunate self as much as possible when and if the regrettable happens and unconquerable desire does strike.
Severe and high-minded philosophers seek fulfilment in contemplation, self-control and deep thoughts. For less high-minded citizens, eros can at least be satisfied by a particular physical fulfilment. Eros does not last, or rather it is not meant to last. It can be transferred serially and easily to another object of desire. Consummated eros is satisfied and finished, whereas love—as modern t-shirts would have it—is for ever. Eros is a bitter-sweet,temporary, debilitating disease which makes the translation 'love' rather misleading.
There is one dynamic of eros in action which is particularly hard for a modern lover to appreciate and shows the difference between then and now at its most stark. It concerns the 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.
There is no equivalent ideal in ancient Athenian social or moral expression. It's not that ancient men weren't affectionate or weren't linked in mutual bonds with their wives. Far from it. The relation between husband and wife is repeatedly expressed as a tie of duty, obligation and respect. There is also a mutual expectation of support for the household, for which marriage is the foundation and cornerstone. The strongest and most uncontested imperative of Greek social thought throughout the ancient world is the continuity of the household. The family should continue, secure across the generations—and the security of marriage is integral to that. But feeling desire for one's wife can only be a tragic or comic mistake. As the later Latin moralist, Seneca, sums it up: 'to sleep with one's wife like a lover is as disgusting as adultery'.