“The Last of the Wine:” Sokrates, on getting and keeping a true and honourable lover
Mary Renault is, along with Isabel Vandervelde, my favorite writer of historical fiction. Renault wrote her books based in Ancient/Classical Greece during the 1950’s, so although her work is already amazing enough for its literary value, it becomes even more impressive because of how she treated Pederasty and Pedagogy (the training of young men by older men to be honorable citizens). It was an important matter, and a father wanted a good friend (erastes) for his son (eromenos) as much as he wanted a good suitor for his daughter.
At any rate, I bring this up, because I reread “The Last of the Wine” every year or two. During my flight out to San Diego and back I had alot of time. I read the book again, getting ever more from it than I did before (but that is almost always the case with art: there are layers upon layers to sift). The nuances that I was too young or too inexperienced to understand before become clearer, and I fell in love with the characters all over again. The portion that I want to discuss focuses on the dialogue between Alexias (the main character and narrator) and Sokrates (yes, THE Sokrates): What is the price of finding and keeping a true and honourable lover?
I spoke in anger, for my heart was sore. The truth is that I was getting to an age when one wishes for love, and has one’s own ideas of what it ought to be; and I was ceasing to believe that what I sought was anywhere to be found.
“By the way,” Sokrates said, “what do you dislike so much about Polymedes? He looks undistinguished, of course, compared with a man like Charmides, and his father made his money in leather. Is it his vulgarity, or what?”
“No, Sokrates. That too I daresay; but in himself he is base. He tried first to buy me with gifts; not flowers or a hare, but the kind of thing we can’t afford at home. Then he sent word that he was dying, to make me take him out of pity; and now, what is surely as low as a man can go, he is willing I should do it simply to keep him quiet. If I were to lose my father and mother and all I have, if I were disgraced even before the City so that people turned from me in the street, he would be glad of it, if it put me within his reach. And this he calls love.” I had spoken too vehemently, but Sokrates still looked at me kindly; so coming at last to what had been behind the rest, I said, “I shall always think worse of myself for having been his choice.”
He shook his head. “You are wrong, my boy, if you think he is seeking a kindred spirit. He is looking for what he lacks, being limp of soul, and not wishing to know that the good must first be wrought with toil out of a man’s own self, like the statue from the block. So now I think you need the advice of someone who understands these questions.”
I was about to say, “Whose, Sokrates?” when a great noise of hammering reminded us that we were approaching the Street of the Armourers. Since the news from Sicily, they were busy again. We turned aside, to be heard without shouting. “I suppose,” Sokrates said, “you will be ordering armour for yourself before another year is up, so fast time flies. Where will you go for it?”
“To Pistias, if I can afford his price. He’s very dear; nine or ten minas for a horseman’s suit.”
“So much? I suppose you will get a gold device on the breastbone for that?”
“From Pistias? Not if you gave him twelve; he won’t touch them.”
“Kephalos would make you something to catch the eye.”
“Well, but Sokrates, I might need to fight in it.” He laughed, and paused.
“I see,” he said, “that you are a judge of value, though so young. Perhaps you can tell me, then, who am getting too old to know much of such matters, what price one ought to pay for a true and honourable lover?” I wondered what he could take me for, and answered at once that one ought to pay anything.
He looked at me searchingly, and nodded his head. “An answer worthy, Alexias, of your father’s son. Yet many things have their price which are not upon the market. Let us see if this is one of them. If we come into the company of such a lover, it seems to me that one of three things will happen. Either he will succeeed in making us his equal in honor; or, if he fails both to do this and to free himself from love, seeking to please us he will become less good than he was; or, if he is of stronger mind, remembering what is due to the gods and to his own soul, he will be master of himself, and go away. Or can you see some other conclusion than these?
“I don’t think, Sokrates,” I said, “that there can be another.”
“So, then, it now appears, does it not, that the price of an honourable lover is to be honourable ourselves, and that we shall neither get him nor keep him, if we offer anything less?”
“It seems so, certainly,” said I, thinking it kind of him to be at so much pains to keep my mind from my troubles.
“And thus,” he said, “we find that what we thought was to be had for love turns out the costliest of all. You are fortunate, Alexias; for I think it is still within your means. But see, we are walking past our destination.”
We had just passed the portico of the Archon King, and were outside Tuareas’ palaestra. Not wishing to trouble him with my company out of season, I asked if he was meeting a friend. “Yes, if I can find him. But don’t go, Alexias. I am only looking for him to put your case before him. He happens to be much better qualified than I to help you.”
I knew his modesty; but having resolved to deal with Polymedes at once, I did not feel eager to spend the rest of the morning being improved by Protagoras or some other venerable Sophist; so I assured Sokrates that he himself had done me as much good as anyone could, except a god. “Oh?” he said. “Yet I believe you don’t consider me infallible; I noticed just now that you thought more of Pistias’ opinion than mine.”
“Only about armour, Sokrates. Pistias is an armourer, after all.”
“Just so. Wait, then, while I fetch my friend. He is usually wrestling here about this time.”
“Wrestling?” I said staring; Protagoras was reckoned to be at least eighty years old. “Who is this friend, Sokrates? I thought…”
“Wait in the garden,” he said; and then just as he was turning to go, “We will try Lysis, son of Demokrates.”
I believe that I gasped aloud, as if he had emptied a water-jar over me…