Sappho, “And I said / I shall burn…”; Xenophon, Memorabilia III.11

The willingness to make a sacrifice—And I said / I shall burn—is an attempt to bribe the gods. I assume the fat thigh-bones of a white she-goat would be set aflame for persuading a goddess to charm a beloved on one’s behalf.

Poor goat. It becomes the victim of a tangle of problems belonging to human being. You want attention from someone on whom you’re crushing. You see them as beautiful and wish you could be worthy. Since you have projected onto them, made them part of your fantasy, it makes perfect sense you would turn to prayer and sacrifice. Whatever we call “love” is intimately tied up with “belief,” and a dysfunction peculiar to each can set into either. Below, Sappho envisions a burning as she burns white-hot herself. What if the goddess does not respond in kind; what if her desire changes, proving to be far less than the prayer—

And I said / I shall burn…
Sappho (tr. Mary Barnard)

And I said

I shall burn the
fat thigh-bones of
a white she-goat
on her altar

If you really want something, and you pray about it, you risk the expectations put into that prayer completely transforming your personality. Sure, it’s relatable, as it happens to all of us. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t serious. The central concern is that an awful lot of resolve is thrown into what could be a whim. Pretty soon, the beloved is an abstraction, the need for justification of your prayers and feelings swallows other priorities, and one’s other physical, mental, and emotional needs might as well be smoke rising from an altar.

Knowing how fast asking “Am I loved?” becomes the very essence of one’s physical existence, I propose looking at another classical text. In Memorabilia III.11, Xenophon’s Socrates, moved by the report of a woman whose beauty surpasses speech, actually visits her. This is most unusual behavior from Socrates, as handsome rich young men do not seem to be the primary focus of what transpires.

Socrates wonders how this most beautiful woman, Theodote, takes care of herself—not only is she dressed finely, but her whole household does not want. She replies “if someone who has become my friend wants to treat me well… he is my livelihood.” You may be asking yourself, at this juncture, what on earth the trials of a courtesan have to do with our need for any attention from a crush. They get all the attention they need, no? They don’t go crazy feeling unwanted, do they?

Socrates presses. Does Theodote have any consistent way of making “friends?” Does she have contrivances, hunting nets? Theodote is too honest to answer that her beauty and fortune are actually some sort of skill. She begins asking how she can consistently hunt friends. In a discussion which endorses what one would call procurement or “pimping,” Socrates sets forth two lines of thought which may be thought contradictory. First, he speaks of giving pleasant benefactions often while listing Theodote’s “nets:”

“And what sort of nets,” she [Theodote] said, “do I have?”

“To be sure, one that is indeed very entangling: your body,” he [Socrates] said. “And in it a soul, through which you learn both how you might gratify with a look and delight with what you say; and that you must receive with gladness one who is attentive but shut out one who is spoiled; and that when a friend is sick, at least, to watch over him worriedly, and when he does something noble to be exceedingly pleased by it along with him; and to gratify with your whole soul the one who worries about you exceedingly. I know very well that you understand how to love, at any rate, in a manner not only soft but also well intentioned; and as to the fact that your friends are best for you, I know that you convince not only by speech but by deed.”

“By Zeus,” said Theodote, “I, for my part, contrive none of these things.”

(Memorabilia III.11.10 ff.)

In recommending that Theodote attend to the soul, whereby she can “gratify with a look [expression]” and give “delight” through her speech, show gladness to the attentive but shun the spoiled, care for a friend when sick, praise him when he does noble things, and “gratify” with her whole soul someone who truly cares for her, Socrates seems to contradict his next bit of advice, which features a strong element of “play hard to get.” Before we look at that next piece of advice, two things leap out from this passage. Socrates seems to be describing what philosophy is for him in practice. It can be called medicine for the soul, an endorsement of genuine nobility, and most pleasing for someone who worries about eliminating their own ignorance.

Further, while Socrates’ rhetoric already assumes Theodote does not know these contrivances—his “I know…you understand” is really a polite way of saying “you ought to understand”—this is a good description of how to get someone in your life who wants to be better and treat people well. Friends and partners should pay attention to your body language and facial expressions, listening carefully to your words and not just hearing what they want to hear. You want someone who recognizes that being attentive is important, not someone who takes you for granted. There should be honesty—being able to admit one’s own problems and having openness to real celebrations, not just milestones. This list of considerations is very far from “play hard to get” or melting a goat on an altar for the sake of someone’s heart. This does mean learning to respond to someone else’s genuine concern with love and trust, one’s “whole soul.”

Yet not much later, Socrates says that she would most gratify a partner by giving to “those who are in need” (III.11.13). He clarifies this by saying that those who are filled with pleasures will not receive them kindly, but those who need them certainly will. So on the one hand, we have a picture of a virtuous friend or partner who can be trusted and loved wholly, and on the other, we have a picture of people who are manipulable by pleasure. The problem the courtesan has in making a livelihood is indeed our problem. How can we not be a roller coaster of emotion, ascending to idealism and collapsing into cynicism?

Xenophon is careful in his word choice. There are different contrivances for different people, but only some people can appreciate one’s soul. It is not a coincidence that Socrates’ earlier rhetoric employs the word “noble,” whereas the later discussion repeatedly uses the word pleasure. You want someone whose pleasure is ultimately you. In detailing what actually goes into finding love, Socrates shows that the attempt to use godly power to get a lover is about power more than love. Again, it’s something we all do, something we all feel we have to do. Finding someone who cares for you is a very different yet similar-looking process. You “contrive” in the hope that someone will care enough to “contrive” to win you.

References

Xenophon, Memorabilia. Translated by Amy Bonnette. Ithaca: Cornell, 1994.

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