Chapter 11. Sappho 58: Philosophical Reflections on Death and Aging [1]

Ellen Greene

Although most contemporary scholars are in agreement that Sappho’s verse appropriates themes and poetic conventions employed by both Homer and male lyric poets, there is considerable disagreement about the extent to which Sappho’s extant poetry ought to be considered ‘woman-centered,’ that is, poetry chiefly concerned with love, sexuality, and ‘private’ matters in general. [2] While Sappho’s surviving poetry clearly depicts a female world apart from men, and is largely focused on issues connected with love and desire, there is, nonetheless, evidence that Sappho also had interests in politics and ethics, interests that show a more public dimension to her work. [3] Indeed, the ideas expressed in some of Sappho’s poems are distinctly philosophical in character, and the content of the newly-recovered Poem 58 provides a further example of this.

There are at least two senses in which we may consider some of Sappho’s work to be philosophical. Her poetry is clearly philosophical in the broad colloquial sense of reflecting on what has value in human life and exploring the nature of human existence more generally. But, arguably, her poetry is also philosophical in a narrower, more technical sense. While Sappho’s poetry does not contain the kind of organized system of ideas one finds in Plato and Aristotle, her poetry treats some of the central metaphysical themes explored by such pre-Socratic thinkers as Thales, Heraclitus, and Anaximander—who are themselves explicitly recognized to be philosophers by Plato and Aristotle. [4] That is, although sixth-century (BCE) Greeks may not have had the concept of a ‘philosopher,’ Plato and Aristotle most certainly recognized the pre-Socratic thinkers as philosophical precursors. Aristotle himself explicitly refers to the pre-Socratics as “the first philosophers.” [5] A major theme in the work of these pre-Socratic philosophers was the attempt to understand the nature of reality, and how the human experience of permanence and change is related to that reality. This theme of permanence and change was no doubt in the intellectual atmosphere of Sappho’s culture. Thales of Miletus was probably her contemporary, so it is not altogether surprising that Sappho explores ideas about permanence and change in several of her poems. The newly-recovered Poem 58 is a particularly striking instance.

Considering that poem 58 is thought to be a complete poem, though its ending is subject to debate, it makes an especially important contribution to reinforcing the evidence for Sappho’s concern with metaphysics and ethics, as well as erotics. My analysis of the poem will largely be based on Martin West’s 12-line version of the text. [6] Some scholars, however, at least several in this volume for instance, offer persuasive arguments that there might have been two versions of Poem 58 based on two different performance traditions. [7] The Cologne version of the text ends with the myth of Tithonus, while the earlier Oxyrhynchus version continues for four more lines. The two versions of the poem’s ending appear to emphasize very different responses, on the part of the speaker, to the problem of human mortality: a sense of resigned acceptance with her human lot, on the one hand, and the consolation arising from a confidence in her poetic immortality, on the other hand. I think it is worthwhile to consider how the alternative ending, that is, the continuation of the poem for four more lines from the Oxyrhynchus version, affects our interpretation of the poem—within the context of the poem’s overall philosophical outlook. I shall argue that these last four lines reinforce the poem’s demonstration of the speaker’s ability to transcend the specificities of her mortal suffering, an ability evinced in several other poems of Sappho. [8


I argue that Poem 58 constitutes a philosophical reflection on the human condition in light of the inevitability of aging and mortality. I see this as part of a philosophical thread that runs through at least several of Sappho’s poems, which address what are now regarded as central philosophical issues: “what constitutes beauty” and “the nature of the good human life.” [9] I will place Poem 58 in the context of other such didactic utterances in Sappho’s work, arguing that the speaker’s display of equanimity in the face of the body’s decay and ultimate death in Poem 58 reflects Sappho’s more general ruminations on the nature of human experience and existence. As West notes, the decay of the body described in Poem 58 mirrors the symptoms of love evoked in Poem 31. [10] Interestingly, both poems also show how the speaker “Sappho” achieves a kind of recovery from the debilitating effects of bodily dissolution and fragmentation. [11] This recovery is achieved through rational contemplation of the larger scheme of things, or to put it another way, through an ability to detach from the contingencies of self and see one’s personal experience as part of a larger whole. We see this, most notably, in Fragments 1, 31, 94, 96, and 58, where the speaker is able to see her difficult, immediate situation—whether it be loss, separation, abandonment, helplessness, or aging—in a broader context and from a more objective perspective.

As in much of the archaic lyric poetry written by men , Sappho writes aphoristic lines about the nature of the virtuous life appropriate to a noble man. As Holt Parker points out, Fr. 148, cited below, “could have come from the mouth of Alcaeus.” [12]

ὀ πλοῦτος ἂνευ † ἀρέτας οὐκ ἀσίνη πάροικος
ἀ δ’ ἀμφοτέρων κρᾶσις † εὐδαιμονἰας ἔχει τὸ
          ἄκρον †

Wealth without virtue is not a harmless neighbor.
The mixing of them both is the height of good fortune.

Likewise, Fragments 3 and 50 show Sappho’s concern for ethics and aristocratic social relations. More specifically, both fragments emphasize how, for Sappho, real beauty and goodness go hand in hand: give...of the famous...of the beautiful and good...friends,
and you grieve me...shame...having become
          might be
disgusted by...for my mind not disposed...I understand...
of baseness...others...minds...well-[...the blessed ones... [13]

(Fr. 3)

ὀ μὲν γὰρ κάλος ὄσσον ἴδην πέλεται (κάλος),
δὲ κἄγαθος αὔτικα καὶ κάλος ἔσσεται.

For the beautiful man is beautiful as far as
appearances go, while he that is good
will consequently also become beautiful.

(Fr. 50)

The three fragments quoted above clearly demonstrate that Sappho is not merely interested in the private and domestic concerns typically associated with women in archaic Greek culture. They have, at the very least, a moral tone, in that they show Sappho’s interest in declaring what she considers important, and in characterizing abstract notions of beauty and goodness. Sappho’s association of love with beauty and moral excellence may also be said to anticipate Plato, for whom beauty and goodness are inextricably connected. [14]

We can see this connection most strikingly in one of Sappho’s most famous poems, Fragment 16, in which Sappho uses the myth of Helen to explore the meaning of both beauty and desire. [15]

          ο]ἰ μὲν ἰππήων στρότον οἰ δὲ πέσδων
          οἰ δὲ νάων φαῖς’ ἐπ[ἰ] γᾶν μέλαι[v]av
          ἔ]μμεναι κάλλιστον, ἔγω δὲ κῆν’ ὄτ-
4        τω τις ἔραται·
          πά]γχυ δ’ εὔμαρες σύνετον πόησαι
          π]άντι τ[ο]ῦτ’ , ἀ γὰρ πόλυ περσκέθοισα
          κάλλος [άνθ]ρώπων Ἐλενα [τὸ]ν ἄνδρα
8        τὸν [πανάρ]ιστον
          καλλ[ίποι]ς’ ἔβα ‘ς Τροίαν πλέοι[σα
          κωὐδ[ὲ πα]ῖδος οὐδὲ φίλων το[κ]ήων
          πά[μπαν] ἐμνάσθη, ἀλλὰ παράγαγ’ αὔταν
12                           ]σαν
                               ]αμπτον γὰρ ]
                 ]... κούφως τ[ ]οησ[ . ]ν
          ..]με νῦν Ἀνακτορί[ας ὀ]νέμναι-
16      σ’ οὐ] παρεοίσας ·
          τᾶ]ς κε βολλοίμαν ἔρατόν τε βᾶμα
          κἀμάρυχμα λάμπρον ἴδην προσῶπω
          ἢ τὰ Λύδων ἄρματα κἀν ὄπλοισι
20      πεσδομ]άχεντας.

(Fragments of a few lines follow that are largely unintelligible.)

Some say that a troop of horse-men,
some of foot-soldiers, some a fleet of ships,
but I say that it is whatever anyone loves
that is the most beautiful thing on the dark earth;
It is completely simple to make this
intelligible to all, for the woman
who far surpassed all mortals in beauty,
Helen, abandoning her most brave husband,
went sailing to Troy and took no thought
for child or dear parents, but
the [Cyprian goddess]
led her away...
All of which] now reminds me
of Anaktoria absent;
Her lovely step and the bright sparkle
of her face I would rather see than
all the Lydian chariots
and armed men fighting on foot...

Claude Calame has pointed out that the poem has a “Platonic flavor” in its close association of beauty and eros. [16] Although it may seem anachronistic to compare Sappho with Plato, a number of scholars have suggested that Sappho’s poetry may be regarded as ‘proto-philosophical’ through its interest in abstractions, its search for absolutes, and its movement from mythical to rational thought. [17] Indeed, one of the hallmarks of early Greek philosophical thought, and perhaps most relevant to Poem 16, is the ability to organize perceptions ‘from many into one’ and to move from the particularities of human experience and existence to an abstract idea of what is common in those particularities. [18] As Page duBois has noted, Sappho’s Poem 16 shows an ability to “move toward abstraction, toward definition, and the positing of one term that subsumes a variety of examples.” [19] It is this move toward abstract thought and definition that leads duBois to assert that Sappho addresses questions and issues in her poetry that we might regard as philosophical in a contemporary sense. [20]

In Poem 16 the speaker considers an array of different examples of beauty from widely divergent realms. Beauty, the speaker tells us, is “whatever anyone loves.” At first it may appear that she is offering her preference as a contrast to the preferences of those who find horsemen, infantry, and ships “the most beautiful.” But the speaker’s expression of what she finds beautiful, while emphatically an articulation of her particular identity, is presented as an instance of a general interconnectedness between beauty and eros.

In the first stanza of the poem the speaker, initially, presents beauty as subjective, but then asserts an objective, universal connection between beauty and love—one finds beauty in whatever one loves. In the stanzas that follow, the speaker subsumes the specific examples of Helen and her own object of desire, Anaktoria, to the more general connection between love and beauty put forth in the opening stanza. Sappho makes it clear from the beginning of the poem that she is attempting to find a unifying principle that will help to make sense of the diversity of human experience. In so doing, Sappho engages in the philosophical endeavor of searching for a defining idea or principle that helps to explain human identity and experience.

One of the most significant issues in discussions of Poem 16 has focused on whether Sappho presents a subjective view of beauty that prefigures cultural relativism. Fraenkel, Wills, and Race, for example, have all argued that Sappho’s thesis in Poem 16, that beauty is “whatever anyone loves,” undermines any concept of absolute value, and more specifically, points to all human evaluation of beauty as merely subjective. [21] DuBois takes a somewhat different view of Poem 16. While acknowledging that Sappho anticipates philosophical argument in the poem, duBois ultimately holds that Sappho’s depiction of beauty has a ‘specificity’ and ‘materiality’ that presents a sharp contrast to Plato’s association of beauty and abstract truth. [22] Foley, on the other hand, sees a closer relationship between Sapphic and Platonic erotics, arguing that “for both Plato and Sappho erotics involves far more than the body.” [23] Although Foley maintains that Sappho’s account of beauty does not “deliberately” look forward to “Platonic abstraction of the incorporeal from the corporeal,” “it takes a step in that direction by moving the listener beyond beauty in the visual world to beauty in the world of the imagination and to potential poetic permanence.” [24] My own view is closest to Foley’s. For the power of Poem 16 derives from its ability to invoke beauty with incredibly vivid specificity while at the same time making us keenly aware of beauty in its paradigmatic form. Specificity and generality are held in a delicate balance in the poem, yet Sappho shows that the lover’s encounter with beauty in the object of desire necessarily entails an encounter with the very nature of beauty itself since “the lover responds not just to the beloved but to beauty in the beloved.” [25] As Foley points out, both Sappho and Plato insist upon eros as the motivating factor in the pursuits of both beauty and philosophy. Indeed, this implicit parallel between the lover and the philosopher can be inferred from Plato’s description of the “madness” of the philosopher in the Phaedrus, who ‘on seeing beauty here on earth’ is reminded of ‘true beauty.’ [26] In Sappho 16, the lover’s experience of visual beauty in the beloved leads to the contemplation of beauty in the abstract and, perhaps more importantly for Sappho, prompts the recollection of the beauty’s beloved in the poet’s imagination.


It may be argued that, of all Sappho’s surviving verse, the newly-recovered Poem 58 most touches on philosophical themes. As in Poem 16, we can see in 58 a concern with what is common or the same among things appearing to be diverse or different. Indeed, the poem reflects some of the central concerns addressed by early Greek philosophers, particularly the tension in Greek thought between the realm of the universal and unchanging, and the world of contingency and mortality. Based on their surviving texts, it appears that the pre-Socratic thinkers were looking for an underlying reality as an explanation of the nature of permanence and change. Sappho’s near-contemporary, Thales, for example, sees the ever-changing world as composed of one underlying substance which he considers to be water. All change, for Thales, is modification or alteration of the qualities of that substance. Kirk and Raven, et al. assert that the view of Thales as the first philosopher is justified, at the very least, on the grounds that Thales “evidently abandoned mythic formulations.” [27] Anaximander, thought to have been slightly younger than Thales, is considered the first philosopher to have attempted a detailed and comprehensive explanation of all aspects of human experience. [28] Like Thales, Anaximander posits the existence of an underlying reality as an explanation of the nature of change and permanence. For him, the originative substance of the universe is what he calls the Apeiron, the indefinite or unlimited. He posits that all things come into being from the Apeiron.

Much more explicitly than Thales, Anaximander questions how things and qualities come to be and what their relationship is to the underlying and everlasting Apeiron, as the “first principle of things that are.” Thus, as Wheelwright remarks, the Apeiron “has to account for all the innumerable changes that make up the incessant on-goingness of the world.” [29] Like his predecessors, Heraclitus, nearly a century later, attempts to find one underlying principle of all reality. Among other things, he asserts that change is that underlying reality. Although things are always in flux for Heraclitus, the unchanging principle of flux itself, paradoxically, governs that flux eternally. Heraclitus attempts to explain all aspects of the world in relation to his central view, that “natural changes of all kinds are regular and balanced.” [30]

Very briefly, I have tried to sketch the main ideas of some of the pre-Socratic thinkers in order to show that their concern with the nature of change and permanence was, most likely, part of the intellectual climate in which Sappho lived and wrote. I believe we can see in Sappho, particularly in Poems 16 and 58, some of the central themes in pre-Socratic philosophy: the relationship between the One and the Many and the relationship between permanence and change. I would argue that the latter theme can be seen most strikingly in Poem 58. The poem clearly presents change as fundamental to human nature. But it also suggests a kind of complementarity between what changes and what lasts. As the speaker of Poem 58 contemplates the ineluctable fact that human beings grow old and out of existence, she also alludes to an unchanging and immortal realm that, for her, may be encountered through art, or more generally, creative expression. That is, the poem seems to suggest that mortal humans may touch the immortal by engaging with the Muses. The centrality of this idea in the poem is at first only implicit, but is evoked more fully through reflection on the Tithonus myth.

I will explore these ideas in more detail after providing my own translation of West’s text of the poem:

You, children, pursue the violet-laden Muses’ lovely gifts,
and the clear-toned lyre so dear to song;

but for me–old age has now seized my once tender body,
and my hair has become white instead of black;

my heart has grown heavy, and knees do not support
that once were fleet for the dance like little fawns.

How often I lament these things. But what to do?
Being Human, one cannot escape old age.

For people used to say that rose-armed Dawn, overtaken by love,
took Tithonus, handsome and young then, and carried him off
to the world’s end,

Yet in time grey age still seized him,
though husband of immortal wife.

In the first half of the poem the speaker draws on her own experience of growing old to impress upon her audience that their time for the dance is limited; she entreats them to engage fully with the “Muses’ lovely gifts” while they can. In light of the hortatory nature of the poem’s opening it can be argued that the speaker’s personal experience of old age, at least implicitly, becomes an exemplum for her audience. The nature of the exemplum, however, becomes more complex in the second half of the poem, with the introduction of the Tithonus myth. As I will argue a bit later, the speaker may be identified with Tithonus who embodies the paradox of containing within himself both change and permanence. Further, the speaker’s recognition that humans are by nature subject to the changing world of aging and death, in itself, touches on an ageless, unchanging reality about human nature.

In Poem 16 the speaker emphasizes the specificity of her desire for Anaktoria in the context of her more general ruminations on the interconnectedness of beauty and desire. She clearly sees individual experiences of beauty to be transitory and contingent, in that individuals differ in what they find beautiful. Yet she finds an immortal and necessary connection between beauty and desire. Indeed, it may be argued that the philosophical mood of these reflections is a way for her to come to terms with her sense of loss and separation from her beloved Anaktoria. Similarly, the speaker in Poem 58 puts the experience of loss—the loss of her youth, beauty, and bodily vigor—in perspective by adopting a philosophical attitude, which is to say that the speaker moves from an engagement with her immediate situation to a contemplation of the larger issues of mortality and eternality. That attitude is initially articulated in the speaker’s urgent entreaty to her audience. Drawing on the wisdom of her experience, she exhorts her audience to engage in creative and joyous expression. This carpe diem message is reinforced by the reference to her addressees as paides. While it may be tempting to think of the poem’s addressees, the paides, as referring to the girls whom many believe comprise a circle of affiliation in Sappho’s poems, the poem itself does not support such a reading—as Richard Janko also argues. [31] The fact that the poem’s addressees are ambiguously gendered gives the poem wider scope. Indeed, in the broader context of the poem, the speaker seems to be addressing not only the still youthful members of her time, but the paides of future generations, all of whom may benefit not only from the poem’s carpe diem message, but also from the speaker’s own ability to distance herself from the losses and sorrows associated with old age, as expressed in the remainder of the poem.

At line 7 the poem shifts from the temporality and specificity of the speaker’s experiences to more general inquiries about the nature of the human condition. The central position of the word ἀλλὰ, introducing the speaker’s question, “but what to do?”, signals a move toward an introspective contemplation of human nature, life and death, mortality and eternality. At line 8 the speaker observes that being human necessarily entails growing old. The story of Tithonus is presented as an exemplum of that fact. But in the context of the whole poem, the Tithonus story suggests a more intricate understanding of the human condition and its relationship to the eternal.

The speaker contrasts her situation with that of the mythical figure Tithonus, whose beauty and youth so entrances the beautiful goddess Dawn that she takes him as her husband. At Dawn’s request Zeus grants Tithonus immortality, but the goddess neglects to ask that Tithonus be given eternal youth as well. As a result, Tithonus continues to age, and ends up in a state of perpetual bodily decay, chattering endlessly while shut up in his room, repulsive to the once-enthralled Dawn.

There are two equally possible, though not mutually exclusive, readings of the myth. On the one hand, Sappho’s image of Tithonus, condemned perpetually to endure the effects of old age, underlines the sense that death may provide a welcome relief from the indignities and suffering brought on by old age. On the other hand, the Tithonus exemplum may allude to Sappho’s hope for her own poetic immortality. In the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, which Sappho was likely to have known, the story of Tithonus illustrates the horrors of old age. Though his body utterly fails him in the Hymn, Tithonus’ voice “flows endlessly.” As Janko argues, the myth of Tithonus was also associated in Sappho’s day with the cicada—who rejuvenates itself by shedding its skin and singing forever. [32] The myth of Tithonus may, thus, have appealed to Sappho not only because of its suggestions of poetic immortality—that her poems may sing on—but also because the story points to the dual nature of poetry itself—as both contingent and everlasting.

Like Tithonus, the speaker of Poem 58 was once young and beautiful, an object of desire herself, but also, like Dawn, consumed with love for others. Dawn is immortal, however, and the speaker clearly is not. Yet Sappho’s description of Dawn carrying Tithonus to the ends of the earth may suggest the poet’s own attempts to immortalize the beloved through verse. More than that, the image of Dawn mobilized by love to traverse the vast spaces of the world may be linked with Sappho’s own poetic voice, in particular the confidence she often expresses in her eventual poetic immortality. [33] The four lines of the alternative ending would emphasize this point further:

                     ]ιμέναν νομίσδει
                     ]αις ὀπάσδοι·
ἔγω δὲ φίλημμ’ ἀβροσύναν, ]τοῦτο κάμοι
τὸ λάμπρον †ἔρος ἀελίω? καὶ τὸ κάλον λέλογχε.

....thinks ... might give ...
I love refinement (delicacy).....
Eros has granted to me (bestowed upon me) (obtained for me)
the beauty and the brightness of the sun.

These additional lines signal a dramatic shift from the speaker’s earlier expression of sadness, regret, and ultimately resigned acceptance of her mortal situation. Such a shift occurs in a number of Sappho’s other extant poems, notably Frs. 1, 94, and 96, where the speaker is shown to overcome debilitating desire and loss by means of her ability to invoke erotic fulfillment through memory and imagination. [34] We can see an analogous situation in Poem 58. While earlier in the poem the speaker’s focus is on loss, in the last four lines she reflects on what she has gained through a life lived in passionate pursuit of the Muses, which is expressed by her declaration of love for refinement—a quality and way of life epitomized by the Muses.

While the speaker and Tithonus are closely identified with one another in that both are depicted as subject to the ravages of old age, the last four lines of the poem present a stark contrast between them. Tithonus, though immortal, is fated to become ever more decrepit, locked away alone in his dark room. By contrast, the speaker, aware of her own mortality, expresses in the last four lines a sense of exhilaration and fulfillment at having lived a life devoted to love, beauty, and the poetic imagination. These lines may also allude to her prospects of poetic immortality. The speaker’s erotic experience as a mortal being and the poetry arising from it have brought her into communion with the incorruptible qualities of the immortal, represented by the beauty and brightness of the Sun. This associates her with Dawn, who by her nature also partakes of these immortal qualities. But whereas Dawn’s desire fails to bestow everlasting beauty on its object, the speaker’s passions and desires lead to the creation of the ageless and eternal images of beauty in her songs.

Clearly, the tone of Poem 58 is significantly altered if we include the last four lines from the earlier Cologne papyrus. It does seem to be the case that this alternative ending accords with the energy and enthusiasm expressed by the speaker at the beginning of the poem. The potential benefits that will accrue to those who pursue the Muses are fully realized by the speaker herself at the end of the poem, when she asserts so confidently that, because of Eros, she has obtained the sun’s brightness and beauty. [35] The implication of this assertion is that her creative endeavors (i.e. erotic poetry) have illuminated not only her life but her “afterlife” as well. Although it may be said that Sappho’s artistic progeny, her poems, live in the realm of eternal ideas (the realm of the ageless and immortal muses), Sappho’s songs also possess a contingent nature, in that they only have vitality so long as dynamic, mortal beings perform them. This contingent nature of poetic immortality brings us back to the poem’s beginning. Thus, the speaker’s urgent entreaty of the paides in the first line of the poem may be read not only as a powerful call to embrace song and dance while one can, but also as an invocation to future generations to keep her songs alive in the only way they can live, through performance.


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[ back ] 1. I wish to thank James Hawthorne, whose insights were extremely useful in writing this paper. I would also like to thank Marilyn Skinner, who first approached me about co-organizing a session on the new Sappho poem for the 2007 APA meeting. Finally, I want to express my deep appreciation of Gregory Nagy, whose enthusiasm and support for this project made this volume possible.

[ back ] 2. Debates regarding the relationship between public and private discourses in Sappho have played a large role in Sappho scholarship over the last several decades. On these debates see especially; Hallett 1979, Stehle 1981, Winkler 1990, Calame 1996, Lardinois 1996, Snyder 1997, and Parker 2005. Discussions about whether Sappho’s discourse may be considered peculiarly “feminine” have also occupied an importance place in recent Sappho scholarship. See, in particular; Stehle 1981, Skinner 1993, Greene 1994, Williamson 1995, Snyder 1997.

[ back ] 3. See Parker 2005, in which he argues that Sappho’s references and allusions to public and political life ought to be taken into account within the context of her body of work. While Parker acknowledges that Sappho’s extant poetry is primarily focused on “feminine” concerns, he points out that ethical matters in general are also an important component of Sappho’s poetry.

[ back ] 4. See Zellner 2007 for a discussion of how modern philosophical logic can be applied to Sappho 16. Although I do not agree with Zellner’s main argument about the relativity of aesthetic evaluation in Sappho’s poem, I do agree with his point that the significance of the intellectual background of the pre-Socratics in relation to Sappho “has not been sufficiently appreciated.”

[ back ] 5. See Aristotle Metaphysics A3:983b6.

[ back ] 6. See West 2005 for an important and influential discussion of the recovery of Poem 58, with text and translation.

[ back ] 7. See especially, in this volume, Hammerstaedt, Lardinois, Boedeker, and Nagy.

[ back ] 8. See especially Poems 1, 31, and 94.

[ back ] 9. These issues have been addressed by philosophers, at least since the time of Plato and Aristotle.

[ back ] 10. For a discussion of parallels between Poems 31 and 58, in terms of the bodily effects of both love and old age, see West 2005.

[ back ] 11. See in Greene 1999 an analysis of the speaker’s collapse and recovery in Poem 31.

[ back ] 12. Parker 2005:10.

[ back ] 13. I do not include the Greek here because the text is extremely fragmented.

[ back ] 14. Socrates’ speech in Plato’s Symposium emphasizes a necessary connection between beauty and virtue.

[ back ] 15. See, in Greene 2002, a discussion of Fragment 16 in more detail, with particular emphasis on the way the poem articulates a powerful connection between beauty and desire.

[ back ] 16. Calame 2005:62–6 discusses Sappho’s use of beauty and memory in her treatment of eros, and suggests that the evocation of Anactoria’s beauty in Poem 16 has a ‘Platonic’ flavor.

[ back ] 17. See duBois 1995:114ff. for an insightful discussion of how Poem 16 constitutes a “protophilosophical” gesture in expressing and helping to define early Greek abstract thought. More generally, duBois 1995, Foley 1998, and Pender 2007 have argued that Sappho’s depictions of eros as lack, her use of recollection as a way to transcend the specificities of loss and desire, may have had a direct influence on Plato’s theory of recollection and his portrayals of eros in the Phaedrus and the Symposium. Pender’s recent article, which examines Plato’s praise of Sappho at Phaedrus 235c, offers a persuasive argument that Sappho’s insights about love helped to shape Plato’s treatment of eros.

[ back ] 18. See Foley 1998:40–1, 58-9 for an analysis of how Sappho serves “in some critical respects as the ‘mother’ of Socrates’ second argument about eros in Phaedrus.” Foley uses evidence from Maximus of Tyre to show how the view that Sappho may have influenced Plato was already held in antiquity. Foley argues, therefore, that “Sappho’s poetry—as Maximus hints—can be suggestively proto-philosophical (58).”

[ back ] 19. DuBois 1995:110.

[ back ] 20. DuBois 1995:110.

[ back ] 21. Fraenkel 1962, Wills 1967, Race 1989–90.

[ back ] 22. DuBois 1995:87.

[ back ] 23. Foley 1998:68. See also Snell 1960:50, who argues that Sappho’s thesis in Poem 16 may sound like it is opening the door to “the arbitrary decision of personal taste.” But, Snell asserts, Sappho is “evidently concerned to grasp a piece of genuine reality: to find Being instead of Appearance.” This latter comment suggests that Sappho’s poem has a Platonic ring to it.

[ back ] 24. Foley 1998:62.

[ back ] 25. Foley 1998:61.

[ back ] 26. Phaedrus 249d5–e1.

[ back ] 27. Kirk, Raven, and Schofield 1983:99. For commentary and the extant texts of the Ionian thinkers, including Thales, Anaximander, and Heraclitus, see Kirk, et al. 1983:76–213.

[ back ] 28. For texts and commentary on Anaximander, see Kirk, et al. 1983:100–142.

[ back ] 29. See Wheelwright 1966 for commentary and texts, in translation, of all the extant pre–Socratic philosophers. See also Brumbaugh 1964 for a useful discussion of Greek philosophy, from Thales to Aristotle.

[ back ] 30. Kirk, et al. 1983:212.

[ back ] 31. Janko 2005.

[ back ] 32. Janko 2005. In the legend of Tithonus, Janko points out, “the aged Tithonus turned into another winged creature, a cicada, that can continue to sing forever—an ideal image for the aged poetess herself (Sappho), with her well-attested wish to have her poetry win glory beyond the grave.”

[ back ] 33. See Fragment 147, perhaps the most famous of Sappho’s fragments, which shows her confidence in her own poetic immortality:
          μνάσεσθαί τινά φαιμι † καὶ ἕτερον † ἀμμέων.
          Someone, I say, will remember us in the future.
See also Fragment 55, in which the speaker implies that, unlike the uneducated woman to whom she addresses her poem, the speaker will be remembered for “her share in the roses of Pieria.”

[ back ] 34. For further discussions of the role of memory and imagination in Sappho, see Burnett 1979, Greene 2002, and Rayor 2005.

[ back ] 35. Here, we can see evidence of Foley’s point (1998) that Sappho moves beyond physical beauty to beauty in the imagination and to “potential poetic permanence (62).” Moreover, as Pender 2007:31–2 suggests, the image of the sun, used here in the context of poetic creativity and inspiration, anticipates Plato’s presentation of the Form of Beauty as ‘shining.’ Pender argues that Plato draws on motifs of the “radiance of love,” “familiar in lyric poetry,” including Sappho, to describe the Form of Beauty.