Sappho, Love & The Philosophers: Socrates, Plato, & Aristotle


Sappho of Lesbos


Sappho was a teacher. The context of her poetry is a circle of aristocratic girls whose same-sex bonding and instruction in music and dance prepared them for marriage.


Many of her poems are marriage songs, some prepared for the girls who would leave her.

Others were laments for the loss of a loved companion.


Quote: “Honest, I want to die,” “That is what she said to me, when in tears, she was leaving me.” “Oh what have we suffered Sappho. It’s not by my choice that I’m leaving you”. And I answered her: “Go and fare well and remember me. For you know how we cared for you.”


Lyric Poems: poems sung to the accompaniment of the lyre.

Epithalamia: marriage songs


Themes: Girlhood, Marriage, Love—esp. the love of young women for each others, and the emotions of their parting when they left to become a wife.


“Lesbian”—term adopted to describe intimacy between females.

The Song of Songs:

-Also known as the "Song of Solomon" & "Canticle of Canticles". It is puzzling because it doesn't seem to have anything to do with the religious concerns of the rest of the Bible. A debate was always present and still is as to whether the text "means what it says" or is allegorical in nature. This perplexed even the earliest rabbis and Jewish Scholars. Some argue that since it is about "sex", then it can't be "sacred", but why can't sex be sacred? (Instructor's Note)

-King Solomon [King of Israel, credited with building the first temple in Jerusalem] had 300 wives and 700 concubines and was stereotyped as a 'great lover'; there began the speculation that it was he who might have written such a work. However, the language and style suggest it is from a different time. It could have been composed by several different authors.

_Solomon was the King that consturcted the 1st temple in Jerusalum. He wrote Proverbs, Ecclisastes, and is credited with "Song of Songs". He is said, in legends, to have locked a Genie in a bottel and met the Queen of Sheba to answer her riddles.

-Some "allegorical " readings suggest that the Songs were about "god's love for his church"; all sexual references are explained away. Example: "Kiss me with the kisses of his mouth" must not mean a physical kiss... it had to be more spiritual than that. It was recommended that monks and priests not study the works when they were young and "inflamed with passions", as they may not be able to handle it. Also, since the text was sung in Latin, it was hoped that listeners would think very little about the literal meaning of the words. Where does this contempt for sex come from (Instructor's Note).

_Another allegorical reading is that this is the relationship of God and Israel as husband and wife.

_Literally, the characters are simply a woman and a man, and the poem suggests a movement in their relationship from courtship to consummation. It is one of the shortest books in the Bible, 117 verses. According to tradition, it si read on the Sabbath; some read it every Friday night.

-Other attempts to explain or explain away the text evolved through the centuries. One theory was that these were wedding songs, but hardly any but the most "radical" Christian groups even considered sensuality and desire (even within marriage) a good thing. The concept of a "sensuous Christian marriage" is only decades old and not traditional at all.

-Pope Benedict XVI in 2006 referred to Song of Songs as having both literal and allegorical meaning, stating that erotic love and "self-donating love" is shown as 2 halves of true love, which is both giving and receiving. Perhpas there is hope afterall that Eros will again have value in society.

-Perhaps the songs represent a more ancient view toward marriage, and as society changes its views on marriage, so too do the interpretations. [See Notes on "Marriage" under the section tabbed "The Iliad"].

This is probably a collection of short poems, rather than a single work. The beauty in the words of these poems has influenced writers, painters, and musicians for centuries. 

Side Note-- The Roman Empire:
It was during the Roman Empire that we started to see a shift in sexual behavior. The Romans did not view sex as bonding two people together; in fact, they saw sharing a dinner as a more intimate act. Nor did they view sex as "for pleasure" as the Greeks did. If a man was deemed to get "too much joy" from sex (and love), then he was considered effeminite, and this was not a good thing. It was not considered adultery for a man to sleep with a slave or a prostitute. Furthermore, no distinction was made about gender (there were no hang ups about "homosexuality"). Women could also have many lovers, although pregnancy was a risk. Orgies were commonplace. Romans had some forms of birth control as well. It was partially due to a decrease in the birth rate that the Christian attitudes toward sex were adopted; there was fear that there wouldn't be enough men to continue the acquisition of territories to expand the empire. This makes me wonder whether the part of the scripture that discusses sex was written to be directly in line with the goals of spreading and maintaining control: make sex about procreation so that the birth rate stays up, in turn keep the numbers up men who can fight to spread the "empire" up. ?? The Romans eventually made the shift to being a predominately Christian empire under Constantine, but had Constantine not chosen to make that shift to what was called "a new cult", Christianity may have never spread West the way it did.

Aristotle & Poetics:


Aristotle began as a student at Plato’s Academy.
He tutored Alexander the Great.
Founded a school in Athens, called the Lyceum—home of 1st research library.
Wrote “Ethics” [justice & friendship], “Politics” [examines laws], and “Poetics”. Poetics is the first systematic work of literary criticism of our time.
Tragedy: he defines as an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and has magnitude.
Catharsis: Therapeutic effect of drama—a cleansing of emotions.
Parts of Tragedy (see text).
Aristotle created a formula for drama that is still adhered to even today.
Simple vs. Complex Plots.
Reversal & Recognition.
Change of Fortune—must be from prosperity to misfortune via some mistake.

Plato & Socrates


Plato was a student of Socrates, but Socrates wrote nothing down.
Philosophers before Socrates are known as the “Pre-Socratics”.
Plato & Socrates were radical thinkers. Their influences were the Physicalists (understood world in material terms – elements-) and the Sophists (claimed that the most important thing in life is to get what you want, and rhetoric- persuasion- is the way to do that).
Socrates was concerned with understanding “truth” and the meaning of a “good life”.
His teaching method is called the “dialectic”- a conversational approach whereby the pupil reasons his way to an answer.
Socrates was the first to use “reason” and sought to expand philosophy beyond religious speculation and questions of being.
Elements of his Philosophy: Logic, Dialogue, Rejection of formal education—wisdom through self-discovery, and hedonism (pursuit of pleasure).
He was accused and tried on “trumped up” charges of impiety and youth corruption; he was sentenced to death.
4 of Plato’s dialogues are devoted to the trial, prison days, and death of Socrates.
“The Apology” is a description of 70-year old Socrates’ self-defense before the people of Athens.
Quote: “ I am wiser than they in this small respect: that I know that I do not know, whereas they think they know something when they really don’t.”
“Gadfly" is a term for people who upset the status quo by posing upsetting or novel questions, or just being an irritant. It is applied to Socrates due to his methods of goading the Athenian politicians.
In Athenian courts, a person found guilty could offer an alternative penalty; he shocked everyone when he proposed to receive free meals for the rest of his life.
He was given the opportunity to escape, but held true to his belief that, “it is not living that is important, but living rightly”. He drank hemlock and died.
Plato’s “theory of forms”—2-level reality. “The Allegory of the Cave”: explores differences between perception and reality. Example: Circle vs. Ball.

**Socrates saw Homer's "The Iliad" as divinely inspired literature that could be used to express moral lessons... much like "The Bible" functions in modern Christian cultures.

Apology: from the Greek word Apologia, meaning explanation or defense. Not to be confused with apologizing.) In Plato's Apology, Socrates is on trial to defend himself against an allegation made by Meletus, a fellow Athenian. Meletus has accused Socrates of corrupting the youth of Athens by not believing in the Gods of the city-state.
In his trial, Socrates addresses the true reason for his bad reputation. He implies that it has nothing to do with corrupting the youth or being an atheist. "What has caused my reputation is none other than a certain kind of wisdom. What kind of wisdom? Human wisdom, perhaps" (Apology, 24). Socrates then tells the story of his friend Chairephon, who went to an oracle when they were younger. The oracle told Chairephon that no one is wiser than Socrates. Upon hearing this, Socrates made it his duty to question men with established reputations, who were believed to be the wisest in Athens. Since his youth, Socrates' goal was to see if he could find one man truly wiser than him. Politicians, poets, and theologians were among the many he pursued. Socrates found that after examining their moral values, they were not wise, as they had appeared. "In my investigation in the service of the god I found that those who had the highest reputation were nearly the most deficient, while those who were thought to be inferior were more knowledgeable" (Apology, 26). Ultimately, Socrates earned a bad reputation because his scrutiny exposed the men's ignorance.

Most importantly, in his trial, Socrates makes a final attempt to reveal to the citizens of Athens that they are corrupting themselves by pursuing material objects and by having no concern for the state of their souls.

When the court asks Socrates what he believes his proper punishment should be, he says it should be free meals at the Pyrataneum. This is a celebration hall for Olympian athletes. Socrates thinks he should receive high treatment like the Greek sports heroes. To Athenians, sports heroes are the source of happiness and entertainment. Socrates asserts that the happiness people get from watching sports heroes is illusory. He believes that people do not derive real happiness from it. He says that people can find true happiness by engaging in philosophy.

Socrates' belief in the purity and goodness of the soul is truly revealed when he responds to his verdict, which is a sentence to death. He accepts the verdict with composure, as he had anticipated this. Socrates tells the jury that he cannot be harmed by the so-called punishment of death. It is only his physical body that can die, but his true nature is an eternal soul made of purity and goodness. His soul cannot be vanquished. He makes it clear that despite the court's verdict he will not resort to dramatic emotions or petition to live even a little longer. He does not do what other humans might do, for example, plead for more time .

Socrates offers the jury some provocative insights on the nature of death.

By killing him "haphazardly," they corrupt their own souls. Socrates says that though the jury condemns him to death, they are condemned "by truth to wickedness and injustice" (Apology, 40). And despite his increasingly sorrowful tone, he accepts that this is all as it should be. "You are wrong if you believe that by killing people you will prevent anyone from reproaching you for not living in the right way. To escape such tests is neither possible nor good, but it is best and easiest not to discredit others but to prepare oneself to be as good as possible" (Apology, 40). In the conclusion of his trial, Socrates states: "a good man cannot be harmed either in life or in death, and that his affairs are not neglected by the gods" (Apology, 42). Socrates declares that he has led a good life, a life of morality and virtue. He states that although people have judged him and sentenced him to death, their opinions and verdicts will have no bearing on him once his body has perished. They cannot harm the most pure, true, and everlasting essence of his existence. (Source)