Feb/March 1997 THE IRANIAN Issue No. 9

Darius I, Persepolis bas-relief.
Photo courtesy Cyrus the Great Website.

Cyrus? Philosopher of love?

From "The Education of Cyrus," by the fourth century BC Greek historian Xenophon, translated by H.G. Dakyns, published by J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd., London, 1992. (Book available at Amazon).

"The Education of Cyrus", according to the publisher's note, "may be regarded as the first novel ever written. It became a model for the later Greek romances, and it is also a fascinating source of information on the contemporary Persian Empire."

Pages 131-134:

Cyrus called to his side Araspas the Mede, who had been his comrade in boyhood. It was he to whom Cyrus gave the Median cloak he was wearing when he went back to Persia from his grandfather's court. Now he summoned him, and asked him to take care of the tent and the lady from Susa.

She was the wife of Abradatas, a Susian, and when the Assyrian camp was captured it happened that her husband was away: his master had sent him on an embassy to Bactria to conclude an alliance there, for he was the friend and host of the Bactrian king. And now Cyrus asked Araspas to guard the captive lady until her husband could take her back himself. To that Araspas replied, "Have you seen the lady whom you bid me guard?"

"No, indeed." said Cyrus, "certainly I have not."

"But I have," rejoined the other, "I saw her when we chose her for you. When we came into the tent, we did not make her out at first, for she was seated on the ground with all her maidens round her, and she was clad in the same attire as her slaves, but when we looked at them all to discover the mistress, we soon saw the one outshone the others, although she was veiled and kept her eyes on the ground. And when we bade her rise, all her women rose with her, and when we saw that she was marked out from them all by her height, and her noble bearing, and her grace, and the beauty that shone through her mean apparel. And, under her veil, we could see the big teardrops trickling down her garments to her feet. At that sight the eldest of us said, 'Take comfort lady, we know that your husband was beautiful and brave, but we have chosen you a man today who is no whit inferior to him in face or form or mind or power; Cyrus, we believe, is more to be admired than any soul on earth, and you shall be his from this day forward.' But when the lady heard that, she rent the veil that covered her head and gave a pitiful cry, while her maidens lifted up their voice and wept with their mistress. And thus we could see her face, and her neck and her arms, and I tell you, Cyrus," he added, "I myself and all who looked on her, felt that there never was, and never had been, in broad Asia a mortal woman half so fair as she. Nay, but you must see her for yourself."

"Say, rather, I must not," answered Cyrus, "if she be such as you describe."

"And why not?" asked the young man.

"Because," said he, "if the mere report of her beauty could persuade me to go and gaze on her today, when I have not a moment to spare, I fear she would win me back again and perhaps I should neglect all I have to do, and sit and gaze at her for ever."

At that the young man laughed outright and said:

"So you think, Cyrus, that the beauty of any human creature can compel a man to do wrong against his will? Surely, if that were the nature of beauty, all men would feel its force alike. See how fire burns men equally; it is the nature of it so to do; but these flowers of beauty, one man loves them, and one another loves them not, nor does any man love the same. For love is voluntary, and each man loves what he chooses to love. The brother is not enamored of his own sister, nor the father of his own daughter; some other man must be the lover. Reverence and law are strong enough to break the heart of passion. But if a law were passed saying, 'Eat not and thou shalt not starve; Drink not and thou shalt not thirst; Let not cold bite thee in winter not heat inflame thee in summer," I say there is no law that could compel us to obey; for it is our nature to be swayed by these forces. But love is voluntary. Each man loves to himself alone and according as he chooses his cloak or his sandals."

"Then," said Cyrus, "if love be voluntary, why cannot a man cease to love when he wishes? I have seen men in love," said he, "who have wept for very agony, who were the very slaves of those they loved, though before the fever took them, they thought slavery the worst of evils. I have seen them make gifts of what they ill could spare, I have seen them praying, yes, praying, to be rid of their passion, as though it were any other malady, and yet unable to shake it off; they were bound hand and foot by a chain of something stronger than iron. There they stood at the beck and call of their idols, and that without rhyme or reason; and yet, poor slaves, they make no attempt to run away, in spite of all they suffer; on the contrary, they mount guard over their tyrants, for fear these should escape."

But the young man spoke in answer" "True," he said, "there are such men, but they are worthless scamps, and that is why, though they are always praying to die and be put out of their misery and though ten thousand avenues lie open by which to escape from life, they never take one of them.These are the very men who are prepared to steal and purloin the goods of others, and yet you know yourself, when they do it, you are the first to say stealing is not done under compulsion, and you blame the thief and the robber; you do not pity him, you punish him. In the same way, beautiful creatures do not compel others to love them or pursue them when it is wrong, but these good-for-nothing scoundrels have no self-control, and then they lay the blame on love. But the nobler type of man, the true gentleman, beautiful and brave, though he desire gold and splendid horses and lovely women, can still abstain from each and all alike, and lay no finger on them against the law of honor. Take my own case," he added, "I have seen this lady myself, and passing fair I found her, and yet here I stand before you, and am still your trooper and can still perform my duty."

"I do not deny it," said Cyrus; "probably you came away in time. Love takes a little while to seize and carry off his victim. A man may touch fire for a moment and not be burnt; a log will not kindle all at once; and yet, for all that, I am not disposed to play with fire or look on beauty. You yourself, my friend, if you will follow my advice, will not let your own eyes linger there too long; burning fuel will only burn those who touch it, but beauty can fire the beholder from afar; until he is all aflame with love."


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