Society & Culture & Entertainment Education

Role of Love in Ancient Greek Literature

Philia to Eros

In Sophocles' "Oedipus Rex," the Philia of friendship between Jocasta and Oedipus, after the former frees Thebes from the Sphinx, grows to Eros, a sexual attraction leading to their wedding. What neither party realizes is that they are mother and son. The play, which takes place on the day they realize their sin, presents a theme familiar to the ancient Greeks, that of the danger of allowing hubris, or god-defying pride, to dictate the affections of the heart. Ironically, neither Jocasta nor Oedipus are self-aware; Philia to Eros is their fated attraction.

Philia to Agape

Sophocles examines a purer form of Philia in "Antigone," a more complex work than "Oedipus," where Antigone, in the dispassionate, selfless love described by Aristotle, buries her brother. She risks a death sentence from Creon, who has ordered no funeral rites for an enemy. Thus she achieves the exalted state of Agape, while Creon's kingly lack of paternal feeling for a former citizen is a corruption of Storge, which leads not only to the deaths of Antigone and Creon's son Haemon, but to his empire's fall. Again, love and hubris equal death.

Eros Becomes Comedy

In contrast to Greek tragedies, which either debased or exalted Philia, Aristophanes' comedy "Lysistrata" plays games with sexuality, as the titular character stops the Peloponnesian War by enlisting the wives of Greece to withhold sexual favors from their men. The irony that Aristophanes achieves is that the war between nations pales, but the war between men and women increases. Eros is further glorified in "The Birds," which details mankind's envy of our feathered friends, since birds do not need to be monogamously faithful.

Love Rises, Falls

One can hardly ignore the other forms of Greek literature that emphasize the role of love, such as the Sapphic poems, detailing eroticism as a sense-heightening experience, or the works of Solon, whose poetry celebrates homosexuality. The most fascinating point in examining the role of love in ancient Greek literature is to note its mutability; like all human emotions, it can rise to Agape, settle at Philia or sink to Eros.

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