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  • Public Virtues and Private Pleasures in Classical Athens
  • Carol S. Gould
Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Ancient Athens, by James N. Davidson; xxvi & 372 pp. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998, $25.95.

James Davidson, seeking to transform our understanding of classical Athens, draws our attention away from statues and inanimate texts to focus on the warm, pulsating bodies that enjoyed eating fish, drinking wine, bickering, and making love. While Davidson squires us around the city’s bordellos, bars, public spaces, and bedrooms, he also guides us through the philosophical dimensions of the Athenian ethos. He has two overarching theses. The first is that for the Athenians, all pleasures are acceptable, though not all degrees of gratifying them are. Moderation is the key to moral virtue. Herein then lies the deeper significance of fishcakes—one should enjoy and appreciate fish as opson, a delicacy used as a relish for bread. But it should not be the mainstay of one’s diet, as it was for the opsophagos (literally, “the eater of opson”) or gourmand who aspired to make it the centerpiece of his meals, if not his existence. Some men lost their fortunes by succumbing to excessive demands of the palate. The intensity of pleasure, for an Athenian, had to be balanced against the benefits—for oneself and the city—of moderation. Moreover, there was something undignified about eating anchovy paste or eels without bread, let alone an entire octopus. Inappropriately enjoyed, then, even fish can be ethically corrosive.

The other side to this principle, according to Davidson, is that no [End Page 414] type of pleasure is repugnant. He contrasts this not only with the Judeo-Christian abhorrence of appetitive passion, but also with the modern, western concept of addiction such that there are special substances which have within them “agents of compulsion” (p. 314) distinct from the promise of pleasure. Our notion of addiction turns on the distinction between drugs and non-drugs, a drug being a substance “open to abuse” (p. 142). The Athenians, he maintains, saw compulsion as a “function of enjoyment,” a diminished capacity to “resist the pleasures of the world.” This involves, we should note, a model of the mind as a battleground for a war between passion and reason, which puts in context the philosophical debate they began about the possibility of akrasia.

The Athenians were resourceful in their pursuit of pleasure and diversion. Davidson’s treatment invites us to reflect on how social their pleasures were as well: in a culture without not only television, but even books and other reading material, they refined the art of conversation, debate, and performance, all of which incorporated their love of the more earthy forms of pleasure.

One wonders, however, about the accuracy of Davidson’s account of addiction, so central to his interpretation of the Athenians’ notion of pleasures as virtually unrestricted in range. The aetiology of human action and the source of personal freedom endlessly fascinated the Greeks. As early as Homer we find an awareness of compulsive indulgence and even addiction in what Davidson considers the distinctively modern sense. In the Odyssey, Odysseus tells of his men who languished in the Land of the Lotus-Eaters:

Any crewmen who ate the lotus, the honey-sweet fruit, lost all desire to send a message back, much less return, Their only wish to linger there with the Lotus-eaters, grazing on lotus, all memory of the journey home dissolved forever. But I brought them back, back to the hollow ships, and streaming tears—I forced them hauled them under the rowing benches, lashed them fast and shouted out commands to my other, steady comrades . . . so none could eat the lotus, forget the voyage home.

(Book 9, 106–115; trans. Fagles)

This seems to express precisely the notion of addiction Davidson considers so alien to Athenian thought—that of an addictive substance, one which compels and, even in moderation, undermines a person’s [End Page 415] ability to function. Lotus, once tasted, makes it impossible to fulfill personal and social obligations. No other pleasure could compete with it. So there is no moderation when it comes to lotus-eating. Nor in hearing...

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