Aphrodite, by Pierre Louys, , at sacred-texts.com
The erudite Prodicos of Ceos, who flourished toward the end of the first century before our era, is the author of the celebrated apologue which St. Basil recommended to Christian meditation: "Herakles between virtue and voluptuousness." We know that Herakles decided for the first, and was thus enabled to accomplish a certain number of great crimes against the Hinds, the Amazons, the Golden Apples and the Giants. If Prodicos had limited himself to that, he would have written only a fable of readily comprehended symbolism, but he was a clever philosopher and his repertory of tales, "The Hours," which was divided into three parts, presented the moral truths under their three different aspects which correspond to the three ages of life. For little children he was pleased to propose as an example the austere choice of Herakles; to youths he doubtless related the voluptuous choice of Paris; and I imagine that, to ripe men, he said nearly this:
"Odysseus was wandering in the chase one day, at the foot of the mountains of Delphi, when he met on his path two virgins who held each other by the hand. The one had hair of violets, transparent eyes, and grave lips; she said to him: 'I am Arete.' The other had softly tinted eyelids, delicate hands and tender breasts; she said to him: 'I am Tryphe.' And they said together: 'Choose between us.' But the subtle Odysseus responded wisely: 'How could I chooseyou are inseparable. The eyes which have
seen you passone without the otherhave glimpsed but a sterile shadow. Just as sincere virtue does not deprive itself of the eternal joys which voluptuousness brings to it, so luxury would go ill without a certain grandeur of soul. I will follow you both. Show me the way.' As he finished, the two visions melted together and Odysseus knew that he had spoken with the great goddess Aphrodite."
* * *
The feminine personage who occupies the principal place in the romance whose pages you are about to turn, is an antique courtesan; but be reassured: she will not convert herself.
She will be loved neither by a monk, a prophet, nor a god. In present-day literature, this is an originality.
Rather she will be a courtesan, with all the frankness, the ardor and the pride of every human being who has a vocation and who holds in society a freely chosen place; she will aspire to raise herself to the highest point; she will not even imagine a need for excuse or mystery in her life. And this requires explanation.
Up to this day, the modern writers who have addressed themselves to a public free from the prejudices of young girls and school boys have employed a laborious stratagem whose hypocrisy displeases me: "I have depicted voluptuousness as it is," they say, "in order to exalt virtue." But I, at the beginning of a romance whose intrigue develops at Alexandria, refuse absolutely to commit this anachronism.
Love, with all its consequences, was, for the ancient Greeks, the sentiment most virtuous and most fecund in grandeurs. They did not attach to it those ideas of shamelessness and immodesty
which Israelite tradition, along with the Christian doctrine, has handed down to us. Herodotos (1.10) says to us, quite naturally:"Among some barbarous races it is considered disgraceful to appear naked." When the Greeks or the Latins wished to insult a man who frequented "daughters of love," they called him «μοῖχος» or Moechus, which merely signifies "adulterer." On the other hand, a man and a woman who, being free from other bonds, united themselves, even though this were in public and whatever their youth might be, were considered as injuring no one and were left at liberty.
One sees that the life of the ancients could not be judged after the moral ideas which come to us at the present time from Geneva.
As for me, I have written this book with the simplicity an Athenian would have brought to a relation of the same adventures. And I hope that it will be read in the same spirit.
Judging the ancient Greeks by the ideas actually received, not one exact translation of their greatest writers could be left in the hands of a young student. If M. Mounet-Sully should play his rôle of dipos without cuts, the police would suspend the representation. If M. Leconte de Lisle had not prudently expurgated Théocritos, his version would have been suppressed the same day it was put on sale.
One considers Aristophanes exceptional? Yet we possess important fragments of fourteen hundred and forty comedies, due to one hundred and thirty-two other Greek poets, some of whom, such as Alexis, Philetor, Strattis, Eubolos and Cratinos, have left us admirable verse, and no one has yet dared translate this shameless and sublime collection.
One quotes always, for the purpose of defending Greek customs,
the teachings of some philosophers who condemned the sexual pleasures. There is confusion here. Those scattered moralists reproved all excesses of the senses indiscriminately, without the existence, for them, of a difference between the debauch of the bed and that of the table.
He who, today, at a restaurant in Paris, orders with impunity a six-louis dinner for himself alone, would have been judged by them as guilty and no less so than another who would give a too intimate assignation in the middle of the street, being for that condemned by the existing laws to a year of prison. Moreover, these austere philosophers were generally regarded by antique society as abnormal and dangerous madmen; they were mocked on the stage, treated with blows in the streets, seized by tyrants to serve as court buffoons and exiled by free citizens who judged them unworthy of submitting to capital punishment.
It is then by a conscious and voluntary deceit that modern educators from the Renaissance to the present time have represented the antique moral system as the inspiration of their narrow virtues. If this moral system were greatif it merited indeed to be taken for a model and to be obeyedit is precisely because no system has better known how to distinguish the just from the unjust according to a criterion of beauty: to proclaim the right of every man to seek individual happiness within the limits set by the rights of others and to declare that there is nothing under the sun more sacred than physical lovenothing more beautiful than the human body.
Such was the morality of the people who built the Acropolis; and if I add that it has remained that of all great minds, I will but state the value of a common-place, so well is it proven that
the superior intelligences of artists, writers, warriors or statesmen have never held its majestic tolerance to be illicit. Aristotle began life by dissipating his patrimony in the company of debauched women; Sappho gave her name to a special vice; Cæsar was the moechus calvas:nor can we imagine Racine avoiding girls of the theater and Napoleon practicing abstinence. The romances of Mirabeau, the Greek verses of Chemier, the correspondence of Diderot and the minor works of Montesquieu equal in boldness even the writings of Catullus. And, of all French authors the most austere, the most pious, the most laboriousBuffondoes one wish to know by what maxim he guides his counsel of sentimental intrigues? "Love! Why dost thou form the happy state of all beings and the misfortune of man?It is because, in this passion, only the physical is good, and because the moral side is worthless."
* * *
Whence comes this? And how does it happen that across the upsetting of antique ideas the great Greek sensuality remains like a ray of light upon the noblest foreheads?
It is because sensuality is a condition, mysterious but necessary and creative, of intellectual development. Those who have not felt to their limit the strongest demands of the flesh, whether as a blessing or as a curse, are incapable of understanding fully the demands of the spirit. Just as the beauty of the soul illumines the features, so only the virility of the body nourishes the brain. The worst insult that Delacroix could address to menthat which he threw indiscriminately at the railers of Rubens and at the detractors of Ingreswas this terrible word: "Eunuchs!"
Better yet, it seems that the genius of races, like that of individuals, is, before all, sensual. All the cities which have reigned over the worldBabylon, Alexandria, Athens, Rome, Venice,' Parishave been, by a general law, all the more licentious as they were more powerful, as though their dissoluteness were necessary, to their splendor. The cities where the legislator has attempted to implant artificially narrow and unproductive virtue have been, from the first day, condemned to absolute death. It was thus with Lacedæmonia which, in the midst of the most prodigious flight to which the human soul has ever risenbetween Corinth and Alexandria, between Syracuse and Miletushas left us neither a poet, a painter, a philosopher, an historian nor a scientist; barely the popular renown of a sort of Bobillot who, with his three hundred men, met death in a mountain pass without even gaining a victory. For this reason, after two thousand years measuring the emptiness of this Spartan virtue, we can, according to the exhortation of Renan: "Curse the soil where this mistress of sombre errors existed and insult her because she is no more."
* * *
Shall we ever see a return of the days of Ephesos and Cyrene? Alas! the modern world succumbs under an invasion of ugliness; the civilizations move toward the North and enter into the fog, the cold, the mud. What darkness! People clothed in black circulate through infected streets. Of what are they thinking?we know not; but our twenty-five years shudder at being thus exiled among old men.
As for those who ever regret that they knew not this earth-intoxicated
youth which we call antique life, let them be permitted to live again, through a fecund illusion, in the time when human nuditythe most perfect form, since we believe in the image of God, which we can know or even conceivecould reveal itself through the features of a sacred courtesan before the twenty thousand pilgrims upon the strands of Eleusis; where the most sensual lovethe divine love whence we are bornwas without stain, without shame and without sin; may they be permitted to forget eighteen barbarous, hypocritical and ugly centuries; to move from the marsh to the spring; to return piously to original beauty; amidst the sound of enchanted flutes to rebuild the Great Temple; and to consecrate enthusiastically to the sanctuaries of the true faith their hearts ever enthralled by the immortal Aphrodite.