Socrates and Theodote the Courtesan

Salome Jens as Theodote
Salome Jens as Theodote in the play Barefoot in Athens.

Xenophon says that for a time an exceptionally beautiful courtesan (hetaira) called Theodote lived in Athens, who had attracted a lot of attention.  She had become something of a celebrity, highly sought after as a model for painters.  One of his friends mentioned to Socrates that her beauty was “beyond description”.  Socrates replied that in that case they should pay her a visit in person because no clear idea can be formed about what is beyond description from a mere verbal description, such as hearsay provides.

The friends went and observed Theodote as she was posing, partially clothed, for an artist.  Socrates started a conversation by asking, in typically paradoxical fashion, whether the men should be more grateful to Theodote for allowing them to gaze upon her beauty or whether she should be more grateful to them for admiring her.  “I suggest that, if the display has been more to her advantage, she ought to be grateful to us, and if it is more to ours, we ought to be grateful to her.”  He then argues that whereas Theodote enjoys their admiration and will later benefit from them spreading word of her beauty, they will go away with their passions inflamed, suffering from desire.  So he concludes: “The natural inference from this is that we are performing the service and she is receiving it.”  Theodote seems amused and jokes that in that case she should indeed be grateful for them gawping at her.

Theodote was clearly doing well for herself.  She was dressed in fine clothing, as was her mother, and the several maids who attended her.  Moreover, the house in which they resided was very lavish.  Socrates asks her how she supports herself in such fine style and Theodote replies “If anyone gets friendly with me and wants to be generous, that’s how I get my living.”  Xenophon leaves this unsaid but Socrates himself was apparently supported by a small group of wealthy patrons.  The similarities between Theodote’s situation and his own appear to be on his mind as he continues:

Good heavens, it’s a splendid asset to have a flock of friends – much better than having a flock of sheep and goats and cattle.  But tell me, do you leave it to chance whether a friend wings his way toward you, like a fly, or do you devise something yourself?

Thedote says she doesn’t know what he means.  Spiders spin webs to catch flies and humans likewise set traps to snare rabbits and other animals, says Socrates.  However, friends are the most valuable prey of all and therefore require a more subtle hunting method.  Nevertheless, he also says that Theodote could support herself by attracting friends even more naturally than a spider spinning a web to catch flies.

Socrates explains how hunters use different types of dogs to sniff out hares and chase them down and set up nets to entangle them.  He says Theodote should provide herself with a human hound who would track down “men of wealth and good taste” and drive them into her nets.  “Nets!”, she exclaims.  “What nets have I got?”

One, certainly which is very close-enfolding: your body. And in it is your mind, which teaches you how to look charming and talk gaily, and tells you that you must give a warm welcome to an attentive lover, but bolt the door against a selfish one; that, if a lover falls ill, you must look after him devotedly; that, if he has a stroke of luck, you must share his pleasure enthusiastically; and that, if he cares for you deeply, you must gratify him wholeheartedly. As for loving, I am sure that you know how to love not only passively, but with real affection; and you convince your lovers that you are fond of them, I know, not by words but by deeds.

Socrates is describing the arts of love employed by a sophisticated courtesan.  Theodote, however, denies using any such methods, perhaps feeling it makes her appear somewhat manipulative.  Socrates therefore responds:

Then again it’s much better to keep one’s human relationships natural and right. You can’t capture or keep a friend by force; but by showing the creature kindness and giving it pleasure, you can both catch it and keep it by you.

Theodote is much happier to agree with this way of putting things.  Socrates translates his advice into the following practical guideline.  When people care for you, you should only make such demands of them as they can satisfy without too much trouble.  You should then seek to repay them for their favours.  In this way, they will become attached to you and continue to love you in the longer-term, acting with generosity toward you.  And you’ll please them the most if you bestow your favours on them only when they desire them enough to ask.

Hunger, said Socrates elsewhere, is the best relish, and here he repeats his view that we should only eat when genuinely hungry.  Likewise, he elsewhere says that sexual desire should only be satisfied when it arises naturally.  So his advice to Theodote appears to be that she shouldn’t give herself too readily to her clients for sex but rather allow their desire for her time to grow stronger, perhaps developing into love.  Theodote asks how exactly she’s supposed to arouse such hunger.  Socrates spells out that he’s telling her to behave more modestly and not to hint at offering sexual favours to her admirers until the right time, “holding back until their need is as great as possible”.

Eros and Aphrodite, with magic wheel

Theodote asks whether Socrates would help her to hunt for friends, an allusion to the fact he elsewhere refers to himself as being a sort of pimp.  He says he’d be pleased to do so, if she can persuade him, and Theodote replies “Then come and see me often.”  Socrates jokes, though, that it’s not easy for him to find the time because he’s busy with his own flock of admirers, “who will never let me leave them by day or night, because they are learning from me about love-charms and spells.”  This catches Theodote’s interest and she wants to learn about love charms from Socrates if he’s serious.

Socrates jokes that it’s because of his love spells that his faithful disciples Apollodorus and Antisthenes never leave his side, and Cebes and Simmias travel all the way from Thebes to visit him.  “You may be sure that these things don’t happen without a lot of love-charms and spells and magic wheels.”  (Magic wheels were a specific type of love charm invented by Aphrodite according to legend.)

Theodote asks Socrates to lend her his magic wheel so that she can spin it first of all to place him under her spell.  “Certainly not”, he replies, “I don’t want to be drawn to you; I want you to come to me.” Theodote says “Very well, I will, but mind to let me in.”  Socrates jokes that he will unless he has someone with him that he likes better.

Socrates is alluding throughout this dialogue to his claim to be a pimp or matchmaker for the virtuous.  He’s only willing to make introductions when he believes that someone genuinely deserves friends because of the potential for goodness that they exhibit, though. He’s also hinting, somewhat opaquely, at the notion, repeated elsewhere, that the most powerful love spell consists in actually showing love and kindness toward others.  Over four centuries later, Seneca mentions this Socratic definition of the most powerful love charm, although strangely he attributes it to a Stoic called Hecato:

If you ask how one can make oneself a friend quickly, I will tell you […].  Hecato, says: “I can show you a philtre, compounded without drugs, herbs, or any witch’s incantation: ‘If you would be loved, love.’”

In Xenophon’s Symposium and Memorabilia, Socrates likewise talks about this idea that exhibiting love or friendship toward others works like a charm if we want to experience love in return.  It seems closely-related to his more general advice that we should be as we wish to appear in life.  If you want to appear lovable, and be loved by others, then you should actually make yourself deserving of their affection by taking the initiative and showing love and kindness toward them first.

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