Lyric Aging and Philosophical Relief

Mimnermus fr. 1

“What is life? What enjoyment is there without golden Aphrodite?
May I die when these things no longer interest me:
Secret sex and its moving gifts in bed,
Those blossoms of youth that tug
At men and women alike.

                                              …But then painful old age
Presses down and makes a man ugly and embarrassing.
Cruel thoughts are always wearing down his mind
And he takes no pleasure seeing the sunrise.
No, he’s disgusting to boys and a joke to women too.
That the hard old age god makes for us.”

τίς δὲ βίος, τί δὲ τερπνὸν ἄτερ χρυσῆς ᾿Αφροδίτης;
τεθναίην, ὅτε μοι μηκέτι ταῦτα μέλοι,
κρυπταδίη φιλότης καὶ μείλιχα δῶρα καὶ εὐνή,
οἷ’ ἥβης ἄνθεα γίνεται ἁρπαλέα
ἀνδράσιν ἠδὲ γυναιξίν· ἐπεὶ δ’ ὀδυνηρὸν ἐπέλθηι
γῆρας, ὅ τ’ αἰσχρὸν ὁμῶς καὶ κακὸν ἄνδρα τιθεῖ,
αἰεί μιν φρένας ἀμφὶ κακαὶ τείρουσι μέριμναι,
οὐδ’ αὐγὰς προσορῶν τέρπεται ἠελίου,
ἀλλ’ ἐχθρὸς μὲν παισίν, ἀτίμαστος δὲ γυναιξίν·
οὕτως ἀργαλέον γῆρας ἔθηκε θεός.

Counterpoint

Plato, Republic 329:

“I was once with Sophocles when someone asked him, ‘O Sophocles, how do things stand with you in the old love-making line? Can you still lie with a woman?’ Sophocles responded, ‘Ah man, you should sing a song of triumph for me – for indeed, I have most gladly fled from love as though I had gotten away from a cruel and raving master.’

It seemed to me at the time that he had spoken well on the subject, and I think so no less even today. Indeed, we are granted a certain peace and freedom from such concerns in old age. When our desires relent and finally cease to draw us out, then indeed does Sophocles’ saying come true, and we are entirely freed from many a raving master.

But respecting these things, and our relationships with our friends, my dear Socrates, there is one cause to consider – not old age, but rather the person’s character. If they have their lives well-ordered and are easily contented, then old age is a moderate burden. But to a man of the opposite character, both old age and youth happen to be burdensome affairs.

καὶ δὴ καὶ Σοφοκλεῖ ποτε τῷ ποιητῇ παρεγενόμην ἐρωτωμένῳ ὑπό τινος· “Πῶς,” ἔφη, “ὦ Σοφόκλεις, ἔχεις πρὸς τἀφροδίσια; ἔτι οἷός τε εἶ γυναικὶ συγγίγνεσθαι”; καὶ ὅς, “Εὐφήμει,” ἔφη, “ὦ ἄνθρωπε· ἁσμενέστατα μέντοι αὐτὸ ἀπέφυγον, ὥσπερ λυττῶντά τινα καὶ ἄγριον δεσπότην ἀποδράς.” εὖ οὖν μοι καὶ τότε ἔδοξεν ἐκεῖνος εἰπεῖν, καὶ νῦν οὐχ ἧττον. παντάπασι γὰρ τῶν γε τοιούτων ἐν τῷ γήρᾳ πολλὴ εἰρήνη γίγνεται καὶ ἐλευθερία· ἐπειδὰν αἱ ἐπιθυμίαι παύσωνται κατατείνουσαι καὶ χαλάσωσιν, παντάπασιν τὸ τοῦ Σοφοκλέους γίγνεται, δεσποτῶν πάνυ πολλῶν ἐστι καὶ μαινομένων ἀπηλλάχθαι. ἀλλὰ καὶ τούτων πέρι καὶ τῶν γε πρὸς τοὺς οἰκείους μία τις αἰτία ἐστίν, οὐ τὸ γῆρας, ὦ Σώκρατες, ἀλλ’ ὁ τρόπος τῶν ἀνθρώπων. ἂν μὲν γὰρ κόσμιοι καὶ εὔκολοι ὦσιν, καὶ τὸ γῆρας μετρίως ἐστὶν ἐπίπονον· εἰ δὲ μή, καὶ γῆρας, ὦ Σώκρατες, καὶ νεότης χαλεπὴ τῷ τοιούτῳ συμβαίνει.

A Hellenistic Lament for Odysseus

“Poor man—it would have been better for you to remain at home,
Driving oxen and keeping the working donkey
Still under the yoke alongside them.
Better to languish in your pretended madness
than to endure the limits of such great pains.”

ὦ σχέτλι’, ὥς σοι κρεῖσσον ἦν μίμνειν πάτρᾳ
βοηλατοῦντα καὶ τὸν ἐργάτην μύκλον
κάνθων’ ὑπὸ ζεύγλαισι μεσσαβοῦν ἔτι
πλασταῖσι λύσσης μηχαναῖς οἰστρημένον
ἢ τηλικῶνδε πεῖραν ὀτλῆσαι κακῶν.

Lykophron is a bit strange and quite obscure, but this bit is nice. In some traditions, Odysseus acted crazy and plowed his field in circles (until, with a threat to his infant son Telemachus, he was shown to be faking it). According to Lykophron, the odd thing is that he yoked a donkey in with the oxen. Obviously, some things get lost in the cultural translations.

Lykophron, Alexandra 815-819: A Lament for Odysseus

“Poor man—it would have been better for you to remain at home,
Driving oxen and keeping the working donkey
Still under the yoke alongside them.
Better to languish in your pretended madness
than to endure the limits of such great pains.”

ὦ σχέτλι’, ὥς σοι κρεῖσσον ἦν μίμνειν πάτρᾳ
βοηλατοῦντα καὶ τὸν ἐργάτην μύκλον
κάνθων’ ὑπὸ ζεύγλαισι μεσσαβοῦν ἔτι
πλασταῖσι λύσσης μηχαναῖς οἰστρημένον
ἢ τηλικῶνδε πεῖραν ὀτλῆσαι κακῶν.

Lykophron is a bit strange and quite obscure, but this bit is nice. In some traditions, Odysseus acted crazy and plowed his field in circles (until, with a threat to his infant son Telemachus, he was shown to be faking it). According to Lykophron, the odd thing is that he yoked a donkey in with the oxen. Obviously, some things get lost in the cultural translations.