Archive for the ‘HELLENES’ Category





  1. The Importance of Telos


I have already noted the connection between ethics and politics in Aristotle’s thought. The concept that most clearly links the two is that which Aristotle called telos. A discussion of this concept and its importance will help the reader make sense of what follows. Aristotle himself discusses it in Book II, Chapter 3 of the Physics and Book I, Chapter 3 of the Metaphysics.

The word telos means something like purpose, or goal, or final end. According to Aristotle, everything has a purpose or final end. If we want to understand what something is, it must be understood in terms of that end, which we can discover through careful study. It is perhaps easiest to understand what a telos is by looking first at objects created by human beings. Consider a knife. If you wanted to describe a knife, you would talk about its size, and its shape, and what it is made out of, among other things. But Aristotle believes that you would also, as part of your description, have to say that it is made to cut things. And when you did, you would be describing its telos. The knife’s purpose, or reason for existing, is to cut things. And Aristotle would say that unless you included that telos in your description, you wouldn’t really have described – or understood – the knife. This is true not only of things made by humans, but of plants and animals as well. If you were to fully describe an acorn, you would include in your description that it will become an oak tree in the natural course of things – so acorns too have a telos. Suppose you were to describe an animal, like a thoroughbred foal. You would talk about its size, say it has four legs and hair, and a tail. Eventually you would say that it is meant to run fast. This is the horse’s telos, or purpose. If nothing thwarts that purpose, the young horse will indeed become a fast runner.

Here we are not primarily concerned with the telos of a knife or an acorn or a foal. What concerns us is the telos of a human being. Just like everything else that is alive, human beings have a telos. What is it that human beings are meant by nature to become in the way that knives are meant to cut, acorns are meant to become oak trees, and thoroughbred ponies are meant to become race horses? According to Aristotle, we are meant to become happy. This is nice to hear, although it isn’t all that useful. After all, people find happiness in many different ways. However, Aristotle says that living happily requires living a life of virtue. Someone who is not living a life that is virtuous, or morally good, is also not living a happy life, no matter what they might think. They are like a knife that will not cut, an oak tree that is diseased and stunted, or a racehorse that cannot run. In fact they are worse, since they have chosen the life they lead in a way that a knife or an acorn or a horse cannot.

Someone who does live according to virtue, who chooses to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, is living a life that flourishes; to borrow a phrase, they are being all that they can be by using all of their human capacities to their fullest. The most important of these capacities is logos – a word that means “speech” and also means “reason” (it gives us the English word “logic”). Human beings alone have the ability to speak, and Aristotle says that we have been given that ability by nature so that we can speak and reason with each other to discover what is right and wrong, what is good and bad, and what is just and unjust.

Note that human beings discover these things rather than creating them. We do not get to decide what is right and wrong, but we do get to decide whether we will do what is right or what is wrong, and this is the most important decision we make in life. So too is the happy life: we do not get to decide what really makes us happy, although we do decide whether or not to pursue the happy life. And this is an ongoing decision. It is not made once and for all, but must be made over and over again as we live our lives. Aristotle believes that it is not easy to be virtuous, and he knows that becoming virtuous can only happen under the right conditions. Just as an acorn can only fulfill its telos if there is sufficient light, the right kind of soil, and enough water (among other things), and a horse can only fulfill its telos if there is sufficient food and room to run (again, among other things), an individual can only fulfill their telos and be a moral and happy human being within a well constructed political community. The community brings about virtue through education and through laws which prescribe certain actions and prohibit others.

And here we see the link between ethics and politics in a different light: the role of politics is to provide an environment in which people can live fully human, ethical, and happy lives, and this is the kind of life which makes it possible for someone to participate in politics in the correct way. As Aristotle says at Ethics1103a30: “We become just by the practice of just actions, self-controlled by exercising self-control, and courageous by performing acts of courage….Lawgivers make the citizens good by inculcating [good] habits in them, and this is the aim of every lawgiver; if he does not succeed in doing that, his legislation is a failure. It is in this that a good constitution differs from a bad one.” This is not a view that would be found in political science textbooks today, but for Aristotle it is the central concern of the study of politics: how can we discover and put into practice the political institutions that will develop virtue in the citizens to the greatest possible extent?

  1. The Text of the Politics

Having laid out the groundwork for Aristotle’s thought, we are now in a position to look more closely at the text of the Politics. The translation we will use is that of Carnes Lord, which can be found in the list of suggested readings. This discussion is by no means complete; there is much of interest and value in Aristotle’s political writings that will not be considered here. Again, the reader is encouraged to investigate the list of suggested readings. However, the main topics and problems of Aristotle’s work will be included. The discussion will, to the extent possible, follow the organization of the Politics.





  1. Ethics

Standard interpretations of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics usually maintain that Aristotle (384-322 B.C.E.) emphasizes the role of habit in conduct. It is commonly thought that virtues, according to Aristotle, are habits and that the good life is a life of mindless routine.

These interpretations of Aristotle’s ethics are the result of imprecise translations from the ancient Greek text. Aristotle uses the word hexis to denote moral virtue. But the word does not merely mean passive habituation. Rather, hexis is an active condition, a state in which something must actively hold itself.

Virtue, therefore, manifests itself in action. More explicitly, an action counts as virtuous, according to Aristotle, when one holds oneself in a stable equilibrium of the soul, in order to choose the action knowingly and for its own sake. This stable equilibrium of the soul is what constitutes character.

Similarly, Aristotle’s concept of the mean is often misunderstood. In the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle repeatedly states that virtue is a mean. The mean is a state of clarification and apprehension in the midst of pleasures and pains that allows one to judge what seems most truly pleasant or painful. This active state of the soul is the condition in which all the powers of the soul are at work in concert. Achieving good character is a process of clearing away the obstacles that stand in the way of the full efficacy of the soul.

For Aristotle, moral virtue is the only practical road to effective action. What the person of good character loves with right desire and thinks of as an end with right reason must first be perceived as beautiful. Hence, the virtuous person sees truly and judges rightly, since beautiful things appear as they truly are only to a person of good character. It is only in the middle ground between habits of acting and principles of action that the soul can allow right desire and right reason to make their appearance, as the direct and natural response of a free human being to the sight of the beautiful. 

  1. Habit

In many discussions, the word “habit” is attached to the Ethics as though it were the answer to a multiple-choice question on a philosophy achievement test. Hobbes‘ Leviathan? Self-preservation. Descartes‘ Meditations? Mind-body problem. Aristotle’s Ethics? Habit. A faculty seminar I attended a few years ago was mired in the opinion that Aristotle thinks the good life is one of mindless routine. More recently, I heard a lecture in which some very good things were said about Aristotle’s discussion of choice, yet the speaker still criticized him for praising habit when so much that is important in life depends on openness and spontaneity. Can it really be that Aristotle thought life is lived best when thinking and choosing are eliminated?

On its face this belief makes no sense. It is partly a confusion between an effect and one of its causes. Aristotle says that, for the way our lives turn out, “it makes no small difference to be habituated this way or that way straight from childhood, but an enormous difference, or rather all the difference.” (1103b, 23-5) Is this not the same as saying those lives are nothing but collections of habits? If this is what sticks in your memory, and leads you to that conclusion, then the cure is easy, since habits are not the only effects of habituation, and a thing that makes all the difference is indispensable but not necessarily the only cause of what it produces.

We will work through this thought in a moment, but first we need to notice that another kind of influence may be at work when you recall what Aristotle says about habit, and another kind of medicine may be needed against it. Are you thinking that no matter how we analyze the effects of habituation, we will never get around the fact that Aristotle plainly says that virtues are habits? The reply to that difficulty is that he doesn’t say that at all. He says that moral virtue is a hexis. Hippocrates Apostle, and others, translate hexis as habit, but that is not at all what it means. The trouble, as so often in these matters, is the intrusion of Latin. The Latin habitus is a perfectly good translation of the Greek hexis, but if that detour gets us to habit in English we have lost our way. In fact, a hexisis pretty much the opposite of a habit.

The word hexis becomes an issue in Plato‘s Theaetetus. Socrates makes the point that knowledge can never be a mere passive possession, stored in the memory the way birds can be put in cages. The word for that sort of possession, ktÎsis, is contrasted with hexis, the kind of having-and-holding that is never passive but always at work right now. Socrates thus suggests that, whatever knowledge is, it must have the character of a hexis in requiring the effort of concentrating or paying attention. A hexis is an active condition, a state in which something must actively hold itself, and that is what Aristotle says a moral virtue is.

Some translators make Aristotle say that virtue is a disposition, or a settled disposition. This is much better than calling it a “habit,” but still sounds too passive to capture his meaning. In De Anima, when Aristotle speaks of the effect produced in us by an object of sense perception, he says this is not a disposition (diathesis) but a hexis. (417b, 15-17) His whole account of sensing and knowing depends on this notion that receptivity to what is outside us depends on an active effort to hold ourselves ready. In Book VII of the Physics, Aristotle says much the same thing about the way children start to learn: they are not changed, he says, nor are they trained or even acted upon in any way, but they themselves get straight into an active state when time or adults help them settle down out of their native condition of disorder and distraction. (247b, 17-248a, 6) Curtis Wilson once delivered a lecture at St. John’s College, in which he asked his audience to imagine what it would be like if we had to teach children to speak by deliberately and explicitly imparting everything they had to do. We somehow set them free to speak, and give them a particular language to do it in, but they–Mr. Wilson called them “little geniuses”–they do all the work.

Everyone at St. John’s has thought about the kind of learning that does not depend on the authority of the teacher and the memory of the learner. In the Meno it is called “recollection.” Aristotle says that it is an active knowing that is always already at work in us. In Plato’s image we draw knowledge up out of ourselves; in Aristotle’s metaphor we settle down into knowing. In neither account is it possible for anyone to train us, as Gorgias has habituated Meno into the mannerisms of a knower. Habits can be strong but they never go deep. Authentic knowledge does engage the soul in its depths, and with this sort of knowing Aristotle links virtue. In the passage cited from Book VII of the Physics, he says that, like knowledge, virtues are not imposed on us as alterations of what we are; that would be, he says, like saying we alter a house when we put a roof on it. In the Categories, knowledge and virtue are the two examples he gives of what hexis means (8b, 29); there he says that these active states belong in the general class of dispositions, but are distinguished by being lasting and durable. The word “disposition” by itself he reserves for more passive states, easy to remove and change, such as heat, cold, and sickness.

In the Ethics, Aristotle identifies moral virtue as a hexis in Book II, chapter 4. He confirms this identity by reviewing the kinds of things that are in the soul, and eliminating the feelings and impulses to which we are passive and the capacities we have by nature, but he first discovers what sort of thing a virtue is by observing that the goodness is never in the action but only in the doer. This is an enormous claim that pervades the whole of the Ethics, and one that we need to stay attentive to. No action is good or just or courageous because of any quality in itself. Virtue manifests itself in action, Aristotle says, only when one acts while holding oneself in a certain way. This is where the word hexis comes into the account, from pÙs echÙn, the stance in which one holds oneself when acting. The indefinite adverb is immediately explained: an action counts as virtuous when and only when one holds oneself in a stable equilibrium of the soul, in order to choose the action knowingly and for its own sake. I am translating as “in a stable equilibrium” the words bebaiÙs kai ametakinÍtÙs; the first of these adverbs means stably or after having taken a stand, while the second does not mean rigid or immovable, but in a condition from which one can’t be moved all the way over into a different condition. It is not some inflexible adherence to rules or duty or precedent that is conveyed here, but something like a Newton’s wheel weighted below the center, or one of those toys that pops back upright whenever a child knocks it over.

This stable equilibrium of the soul is what we mean by having character. It is not the result of what we call “conditioning.” There is a story told about B. F. Skinner, the psychologist most associated with the idea of behavior modification, that a class of his once trained him to lecture always from one corner of the room, by smiling and nodding whenever he approached it, but frowning and faintly shaking their heads when he moved away from it. That is the way we acquire habits. We slip into them unawares, or let them be imposed on us, or even impose them on ourselves. A person with ever so many habits may still have no character. Habits make for repetitive and predictable behavior, but character gives moral equilibrium to a life. The difference is between a foolish consistency wholly confined to the level of acting, and a reliability in that part of us from which actions have their source. Different as they are, though, character and habit sound to us like things that are linked, and in Greek they differ only by the change of an epsilon to an eta, making Íthos from ethos

We are finally back to Aristotle’s claim that character, Íthos, is produced by habit, ethos. It should now be clear though, that the habit cannot be any part of that character, and that we must try to understand how an active condition can arise as a consequence of a passive one, and why that active condition can only be attained if the passive one has come first. So far we have arranged three notions in a series, like rungs of a ladder: at the top are actives states, such as knowledge, the moral virtues, and the combination of virtues that makes up a character; the middle rung, the mere dispositions, we have mentioned only in passing to claim that they are too shallow and changeable to capture the meaning of virtue; the bottom rung is the place of the habits, and includes biting your nails, twisting your hair, saying “like” between every two words, and all such passive and mindless conditions. What we need to notice now is that there is yet another rung of the ladder below the habits.

We all start out life governed by desires and impulses. Unlike the habits, which are passive but lasting conditions, desires and impulses are passive and momentary, but they are very strong. Listen to a child who can’t live without some object of appetite or greed, or who makes you think you are a murderer if you try to leave her alone in a dark room. How can such powerful influences be overcome? To expect a child to let go of the desire or fear that grips her may seem as hopeless as Aristotle’s example of training a stone to fall upward, were it not for the fact that we all know that we have somehow, for the most part, broken the power of these tyrannical feelings. We don’t expel them altogether, but we do get the upper hand; an adult who has temper tantrums like those of a two-year old has to live in an institution, and not in the adult world. But the impulses and desires don’t weaken; it is rather the case that we get stronger.

Aristotle doesn’t go into much detail about how this happens, except to say that we get the virtues by working at them: in the give-and-take with other people, some become just, others unjust; by acting in the face of frightening things and being habituated to be fearful or confident, some become brave and others cowardly; and some become moderate and gentle, others spoiled and bad-tempered, by turning around from one thing and toward another in the midst of desires and passions. (1103 b, 1422) He sums this up by saying that when we are at-work in a certain way, an active state results. This innocent sentence seems to me to be one of the lynch-pins that hold together the Ethics, the spot that marks the transition from the language of habit to the language appropriate to character. If you read the sentence in Greek, and have some experience of Aristotle’s other writings, you will see how loaded it is, since it says that a hexis depends upon an energeia. The latter word, that can be translated as being-at-work, cannot mean mere behavior, however repetitive and constant it may be. It is this idea of being-at-work, which is central to all of Aristotle’s thinking, that makes intelligible the transition out of childhood and into the moral stature that comes with character and virtue. (See Aristotle on Motion and its Place in Nature for as discussion energeia.)

The moral life can be confused with the habits approved by some society and imposed on its young. We at St. John’s College still stand up at the beginning and end of Friday-night lectures because Stringfellow Barr — one of the founders of the current curriculum — always stood when anyone entered or left a room. What he considered good breeding is for us mere habit; that becomes obvious when some student who stood up at the beginning of a lecture occasionally gets bored and leaves in the middle of it. In such a case the politeness was just for show, and the rudeness is the truth. Why isn’t all habituation of the young of this sort? When a parent makes a child repeatedly refrain from some desired thing, or remain in some frightening situation, the child is beginning to act as a moderate or brave person would act, but what is really going on within the child? I used to think that it must be the parent’s approval that was becoming stronger than the child’s own impulse, but I was persuaded by others in a study group that this alone would be of no lasting value, and would contribute nothing to the formation of an active state of character. What seems more likely is that parental training is needed only for its negative effect, as a way of neutralizing the irrational force of impulses and desires.

We all arrive on the scene already habituated, in the habit, that is, of yielding to impulses and desires, of instantly slackening the tension of pain or fear or unfulfilled desire in any way open to us, and all this has become automatic in us before thinking and choosing are available to us at all. This is a description of what is called “human nature,” though in fact it precedes our access to our true natural state, and blocks that access. This is why Aristotle says that “the virtues come about in us neither by nature nor apart from nature” (1103a, 24-5). What we call “human nature,” and some philosophers call the “state of nature,” is both natural and unnatural; it is the passive part of our natures, passively reinforced by habit. Virtue has the aspect of a second nature, because it cannot develop first, nor by a continuous process out of our first condition. But it is only in the moral virtues that we possess our primary nature, that in which all our capacities can have their full development. The sign of what is natural, for Aristotle, is pleasure, but we have to know how to read the signs. Things pleasant by nature have no opposite pain and no excess, because they set us free to act simply as what we are (1154b, 15-21), and it is in this sense that Aristotle calls the life of virtue pleasant in its own right, in itself (1099a, 6-7, 16-17). A mere habit of acting contrary to our inclinations cannot be a virtue, by the infallible sign that we don’t like it.

Our first or childish nature is never eradicated, though, and this is why Aristotle says that our nature is not simple, but also has in it something different that makes our happiness assailable from within, and makes us love change even when it is for the worse. (1154b, 21-32) But our souls are brought nearest to harmony and into the most durable pleasures only by the moral virtues. And the road to these virtues is nothing fancy, but is simply what all parents begin to do who withhold some desired thing from a child, or prevent it from running away from every irrational source of fear. They make the child act, without virtue, as though it had virtue. It is what Hamlet describes to his mother, during a time that is out of joint, when a son must try to train his parent (III, Ìv,181-9):

Assume a virtue if you have it not.
That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat
Of habits evil, is angel yet in this,
That to the use of actions fair and good
He likewise gives a frock or livery,
That aptly is put on. Refrain tonight,
And that shall lend a kind of easiness
To the next abstinence; the next more easy;
For use almost can change the stamp of nature…

Hamlet is talking to a middle-aged woman about lust, but the pattern applies just as well to five-year-olds and candy. We are in a position to see that it is not the stamp of nature that needs to be changed but the earliest stamp of habit. We can drop Hamlet’s “almost” and rid his last quoted line of all paradox by seeing that the reason we need habit is to change the stamp of habit. A habit of yielding to impulse can be counteracted by an equal and opposite habit. This second habit is no virtue, but only a mindless inhibition, an automatic repressing of all impulses. Nor do the two opposite habits together produce virtue, but rather a state of neutrality. Something must step into the role previously played by habit, and Aristotle’s use of the word energeia suggests that this happens on its own, with no need for anything new to be imposed. Habituation thus does not stifle nature, but rather lets nature make its appearance. The description from Book VII of the Physics of the way children begin to learn applies equally well to the way human character begins to be formed: we settle down, out of the turmoil of childishness, into what we are by nature.

We noticed earlier that habituation is not the end but the beginning of the progress toward virtue. The order of states of the soul given by Aristotle went from habit to being-at-work to the hexis or active state that can give the soul moral stature. If the human soul had no being-at-work, no inherent and indelible activity, there could be no such moral stature, but only customs. But early on, when first trying to give content to the idea of happiness, Aristotle asks if it would make sense to think that a carpenter or shoemaker has work to do, but a human being as such is inert. His reply, of course, is that nature has given us work to do, in default of which we are necessarily unhappy, and that work is to put into action the power of reason. (1097b, 24-1098a, 4) Note please that he does not say that everyone must be a philosopher, nor even that human life is constituted by the activity of reason, but that our work is to bring the power of logos forward into action. Later, Aristotle makes explicit that the irrational impulses are no less human than reasoning is. (1111 b, 1-2) His point is that, as human beings, our desires need not be mindless and random, but can be transformed by thinking into choices, that is desires informed by deliberation. (1113a, 11) The characteristic human way of being-at-work is the threefold activity of seeing an end, thinking about means to it, and choosing an action. Responsible human action depends upon the combining of all the powers of the soul: perception, imagination, reasoning, and desiring. These are all things that are at work in us all the time. Good parental training does not produce them, or mold them, or alter them, but sets them free to be effective in action. This is the way in which, according to Aristotle, despite the contributions of parents, society, and nature, we are the co-authors of the active states of our own souls (1114b, 23-4).






Constantine P. Cavafy, along with a few other twentieth century Greek poets such as George Seferis, Odysseus Elytis, Yiannis Ritsos, Kostis Palamas and Andreas Kalvos, established the revival of Greek poetry both in Greece and abroad. They emerged as the new era of contemporary Greek poets at a time when the use of the Greek language was swept by the conflict between the old, “καθαρεύουσα—katharevoussa” traditional form of language and the more common “δημοτική—demotiki”, plebian or demotic as it was called.

Cavafy used both the traditional and the demotic modes although mostly the latter; he spent most of his life in Alexandria under the influence of the almighty Greek Orthodox Church and the day before his death he took communion as if to declare that he was ready; as if he was prepared for his transformation, from the modern poet, Konstantinos Petrou Kavafis of Greece to the Cavafy of the World. It is said that in the last minutes of his life he took pencil and paper and drew a big circle with a single dot in the middle.

It had only been twenty years since his death when one of the most famous bookstores in London advertised that: “We carry the best ever books: from Chaucer to Cavafy.” In 1919 Cavafy was introduced to the English reading public by E.M. Forster who helped establish his reputation in the Western World.

His poems combine the precision of a master craftsman with the sensitivity of Sappho as they are concise, yet intimate when their subject is  erotic love, mostly between men. Real characters as well as imaginary, historical events as well as fictional are his inspiration; the questionable future, the sensual pleasures, the wandering morality of the many, the psychology of the individual and that of the masses, homosexuality, certain atavistic beliefs and an existential nostalgia are some of his themes. Cavafy’s conscience projected his crystal clear belief in the immortal written word, which he bequeathed unto the four corners of the world.

On the 100th anniversary of his birthday and thirty years after his death, his complete works were published by “Ikaros” in 1963. This edition was prepared up to a point, we could say, by the poet himself who had kept all his poems in a concise and exact order; each poem on a page (which was pinned in exact chronological order on top of the proceeding page); his older poems were turned into booklet form which traditionally consisted of 16 pages although in this case the length is questionable. The sequence of the poems in these booklets was not chronological but thematic and depended on how he chose to emphasize their coherence. These booklets were mailed to anyone who asked for them. In the last years of his life he published two such booklets, one containing his poems written between the years 1905-1915 and the other with his poems of 1916-1918; every poem published during those fourteen years were included in these two booklets.

Cavafy was concise and accurate; so much so that he would work on each of his verses again and again making sure that it was in its final and perfect form before he would mail it to anyone; most of this of course is lost in the translation, as such an element in writing is impossible to replicate in another language. He drew most of his inspiration for the historical poems from the first and second centuries B.C. and the Hellinistic Era of Alexandria around and after the days of Alexander the Great. His love poems were entirely devoted to adult love between men; there is not a single mention of a woman as the subject of erotic love in his poems. The image of the kore, an erotic subject of other poets, is absent from his stanzas. Reference to women in Cavafy’s work is only about older, mature and gracious figures playing out their roles in the Hellinistic era or Byzantium’s golden age.

Cavafy wrote mostly in free verse although there were times when he used rhyme to emphasize irony; the number of syllables per verse varied from ten to seventeen.

Cavafy’s inspiration derives from many different subjects; in one of the well- known poems, Ithaka, he explores, like Odysseus on his return to his home island after the Trojan War, the pleasure and importance of the way to a goal rather than the goal itself, and shows that the process of achieving something is important because of all the experience it makes possible.

In the poem Waiting for the Barbarians we see the importance of the influence that people and events outside of the country may have in the lives of the inhabitants of a certain place and it can quite easily be related to today’s doctrine of “war on terror” after the attack of September, 2001 and the role that fear of the foreigner, or the enemy, plays in the decision making process of a nation. A parallel can be drawn between today’s “war on terror” and the final verses of the poem…

And what are we to become without the barbarians?

                 These people were some kind of a solution.” 


In the poem Thermopylae Cavafy explores the subject of duty, responsibility, and most importantly, the idea of paying the “debt”; he seems to believe in the philosophical principle of the Universal Balance which exists everywhere, and when that balance is disturbed by the actions of one man another person needs to reestablish it: in this case the poem refers to the treason by Ephialtes which disturbs that preexisting balance and  which the leader of the 300 Lacedaimonians, Leonidas, tries to counter—balance by his act of self sacrifice.  The crucifixion of Christ has the same philosophical base. Odusseus Elytis refers to the same subject in the Genesis of his Axion Esti (it is worthy) where he says that the Old Wise Creator prepared the four Great Voids on earth and in the body of man:


           “…the void of Death for the Upcoming Child

            the void of Killing for the Right Judgment

            the void of Sacrifice for the Equal Retribution

            the void of the Soul for the Responsibility of the Other…”


Isolation and the sense of enclosure unfolds in Cavafy’s poem “Walls” which is relevant to today as some countries tend to resort to it as  a means of defense against foreign influences coming from the outside and changing the thinking of the people, but also as a reason for becoming self-sufficient and self-reliant.

There are a lot of satirical connotations and humor in some poems and one such poem stands out: Nero’s Deadline where the poet laughs at the way a person perceives their time on earth. The same subject is referred to by the better known Greek saying: “You like to make God laugh, go and tell Him your plans…”

The extent to which a politician or a system may stretch truth in order to achieve a goal and the axiom “history repeats itself” are adamantly present in Cavafy’s poetry as we see the travesty of events when presented to the public from an official position:

“…the gigantic lie of the palace—Antony triumphed in Greece.”

The lies a government may throw at people in order to deceive. Today’s “…war on terror…” is such a travesty and it resembles an umbrella harboring under it various means and purposes of deluding the populace; at other times this is a means of camouflaging the inability of the governing party to conduct themselves in a fair and balanced way.

Cavafy’s work was at times caustic and irony was used frequently to emphasize a point. Vagenas writes: “Cavafy is the only poet who uses irony as the main mechanism of poetic creativity. His precise dramatic as well as tragic irony is the element that makes his use of the language produce a deep poetic emotion, rendering the verbal sensualism unnecessary.”

Cavafy expresses views of his era looked at through the eyes of the Greek immigrant, or the Greek of the Diaspora. The survival of and adherence to Greek values is what Cavafy cares to preserve and his poetry reflects this by doing justice to his great wish that the Greek language might spread to the far ends of the Bactrian Lands. The heroic stubbornness that proudly said ‘No’ to convention and settling down, the pursuit of true life which carries on ceaselessly, dragging along mud and diamonds, mixing the old with the new, joining the yes with the no, opening new horizons at any moment, birthing new hopes and views at any second is the life Cavafy wanted to spread all over the known world.

Most reviewers and analysts of Cavafy’s work have pronounced him a homosexual although that may be taken with a grain of salt. The western commentaries clearly and as a matter of fact have concluded that he was

homosexual whereas some of the Greek commentators are reluctant to openly agree with that notion; In our view the author can only be classified this or that based on documented data such as pictures, or direct associations of the commentator with the author, and in this case there are no such data available. Yet when a poet writes so many erotic poems having as his subject young men of twenty to twenty nine years old and with not a single woman ever being referred to as a subject of erotic love, it is easy and understandable to assume that the person under discussion is a homosexual; yet there is another angle one may take: the angle of the alter ego that a writer creates in his work to compliment or better yet to refine his image in his own eyes before the eyes of the reading public, as in the case of Cavafy; In some of his personal writings we read:

“I have to put an end to this myself, by the first of April otherwise I won’t be able to travel. I’ll get sick and how am I to enjoy my voyage when I’m sick?”

        “March 16th: Midnight. I succumbed again. Despair, despair, despair. There is no hope. Unless I end this by the 15th of April. God help me.”

In another note:

“I am tormented. I got up and I am writing now. What am I to do and

what is going to happen. What am I to do? Help. I am lost.”

In these personal notes of a despairing man who seeks help we see the distress of a person not because they react to their just concluded homosexual encounter but rather their despair in their self-consumed sexual satisfaction through masturbation and the guilt associated with it…Let us not forget that Cavafy grew up in an era of the Diaspora when the Greek Orthodox Church dominated the lives of the populace in such a strict way that any movement outside the dogmatic rules of Christian doctrine was considered a serious and unforgivable sin; I personally remember as a young lad reading the famous booklet “Holy Epistle” with its frightening images of brimstone and fire coming down from the heavens to sear the sinners who would commit any kind of sexual or other sin. It was quite purposefully given to me to read in my early teen years and it took decades before I came to the realization that I didn’t need this nonsense in my life. This was the world Cavafy grew up in and when he had his first chance of being on his own he made his best effort of rebellion against such suppressing doctrine in order to liberate himself from the pangs of church inflicted fear; when one looks at his life from this point of view one can simply see the reaction of a man expressed in a unique way directly opposed to the expected and well formatted way of the church.

Atanasio Cortato, Cavafy’s personal friend and confidant, writes:

“Cavafy’s homosexuality is questionable. One needs to apply a deep and objective study on his life and perhaps conclude that Cavafy was not homosexual. None ever came along with concrete evidence for this and no scandal of any kind is attributed to him.”

This declaration is of double importance because it is the declaration of Cavafy’s personal friend who knew the poet well and who would have known of any scandal should there have been one in which the poet was involved. Yet there was no such scandal documented or told.

Another view expressed by Stratis Tsirkas and J.M. Hatzifotis was that

Cavafy’s passion was not his homosexuality but rather his alcoholism and his tendency to masturbation. The poet was a very shy person by nature, and although when his mood struck him was a very stimulating and entertaining host, it was impossible for him to proceed into a homosexual relationship. Under this lens his erotic poetry is nothing but his fantasizing of the unrealized…

George Seferis referring to Cavafy as the deceptive old man of the Alexandrian Sea, Proteus, who always changes appearance, says: “For this reason we have to be careful, and exercise caution, not to be seduced by our own tendencies or by taking as given his words and dialectic inventions based on their superficial sense.”

A different aspect of his erotic poems can be found when one sees the time and place in which the poet lived as an adult and on his own. We make this last comment because it is known that Cavafy lived with his mother until her death in 1899 and after that he moved in with his brother John until 1906 when John left for Cairo. At that time Cavafy moved in with his brother Paul until he also moved away to Paris. Then the poet started living on his own. Having to work for a living in such a polyethnic city as Alexandria where the influences of three continents mingled and at times collided and always being under the watchful eye of the all- powerful Greek Orthodox Church with its dogmatism and stubbornness, Cavafy, like any other man of letters, questioned a lot of what was going on around him.

One can easily theorize that all the eroticism and rebelliousness expressed by the young lovers of his poems are nothing but the reactions of a person who lived almost all his adult life with family members and who, in his new found freedom, rebelled against established values and questioned well positioned dogmatism. One can easily theorize that Cavafy fantasized about things he wished for rather than recording things he had experienced. From that point of view the eroticism of his poems can be seen as an expression of suppressed feelings he had for years, yet feelings he never got the courage to act upon.

Cavafy lived in the polyethnic city of Alexandria; he moved and breathed around the Greek Community and a moral and law abiding way of life is clearly Greek in its essence. The law that applied to Greeks in Alexandria is that of France which is not much different than the Greek law yet different than the law applied to the locals. Therefore the homosexuality and lawlessness of some of his poetry has to do with the moral, communal and law abiding way of life of the Greek Community of Alexandrian society. Cavafy had a good knowledge of that and that knowledge guided him in such a way that his bolder and more daring poems which would have created an uproar in the established code of conduct of Alexandrian Greek Society were only released in 1920 when the poet had become very well-known and had carved a space in the creative society of his era. He was at that time established as a very successful poet and none dared dispute this or accuse him of anything.


~Manolis Aligizakis, Vancouver, BC

cavafy copy.jpg

Τά μεγαλεία νά φοβάσαι, ώ ψυχή.
Καί τές φιλοδοξίες σου νά υπερνικήσεις
άν δέν μπορείς, μέ δισταγμό καί προφυλάξεις
νά τές ακολουθείς. Κι όσο εμπροστά προβαίνεις,
τόσο εξεταστική, προσεκτική νά είσαι.

Κι όταν θά φθάσεις στήν ακμή σου, Καίσαρ πιά
έτσι περιωνύμου ανθρώπου σχήμα όταν λάβεις,
τότε κυρίως πρόσεξε σάν βγείς στόν δρόμον έξω,
εξουσιαστής περίβλητος μέ συνοδεία
άν τύχει καί πλησιάσει από τόν όχλο
κανένας Αρτεμίδωρος, πού φέρνει γράμμα,
καί λέγει βιαστικά «Διάβασε αμέσως τούτα,
είναι μεγάλα πράγματα πού σ’ ενδιαφέρουν»,
μή λείψεις να σταθείς, μή λείψεις ν’ αναβάλλεις
κάθε ομιλίαν η δουλειά μή λείψεις τούς διαφόρους
πού σέ χαιρετούν καί προσκυνούν νά τούς παραμερίσεις
(τούς βλέπεις πιό αργά) άς περιμένει ακόμη
κ’ η Σύγκλητος αυτή, κ’ευθύς νά τά γνωρίσεις
τά σοβαρά γραφόμενα τού Αρτεμιδώρου.
Beware of grandeur, oh soul.
And if you can not overcome your ambitions,
pursue them with hesitant precaution.
And the more you go forward, the more
inquiring and careful you must be.

And when you reach your zenith, as a Caesar at last;
when you take on the role of such a famous man,
then most of all be careful when you go out on the street,
like any famous master with your entourage,
if by chance some Artemidoros approaches
out of the crowd, bringing you a letter,
and says in a hurry “Read this at once,
these are serious matters that concern you,”
don’t fail to stop; don’t fail to postpone
every speech or task; don’t fail to turn away
the various people who greet you and bow to you
(you can see them later); let even the Senate wait,
for you must consider at once
the serious writings of Artemidoros.

It’s my pleasure to inform you that the International Academy Mihai Eminescou has invited me to their 4th Poetry Festival, in Craiova, Romania to be held in May. Needless to say I’m totally excited; and yes, I’ll attend and after it straight to my motherland!

Με ιδιαίτερη χαρά σας ενημερώνω ότι η Ακαδημία Μιχαήλ Εμινέσκου με έχει προσκαλέσει στο 4ο Φεστιβάλ Ποίησης που θα διεξαχθεί το Μάϊο στην Κραϊόβα της Ρουμανίας. Περιττό να πω ότι πετώ στα σύννεφα! Και, ναι, θα πάρω μέρος, κι αμέσως μετά μαζί σας εκεί στην πατρίδα!




Το δωμάτιο συνοικιακό, με λιγοστά έπιπλα, σαν περικοπή απ’
το Ευαγγέλιο — έτσι τέλειωσαν όλα γρήγορα κι η Ιωάννα κλαί-
γοντας πίσω απ’ το σταθμό, εξάλλου ήταν ένα μυστικό υπέροχο που
το ξεχνούσα μόλις πήγαινα να το πω, άνοιξα τότε τη θήκη του
βιολιού — και μόνο, καμιά φορά, με πιάνει το παράπονο και φοράω
τη γραβάτα μου μ’ έναν τέτοιο τρόπο, που να καταλάβουν, επιτέλους,
ότι είμαι από καιρό κρεμασμένος.

The room was in the suburbs, with a few pieces of furniture
like a Gospel quotation — so everything finished quickly and
Joanna cried and run back to the station; on the other hand it was
a secret that I’d forget it as I tried to mention it; then I opened the
violin case — and only, at sometimes when I grieve, I put on my
tie in such a way that they at least understand
I have been hanging for a long time.
~Τάσου Λειβαδίτη-Εκλεγμένα Ποιήματα/Μετάφραση Μανώλη Αλυγιζάκη
~Tasos Livaditis-Selected Poems/Translated by Manolis Aligizakis



Κάθεται στο πεζοδρόμιο
το κεφάλι του ανεβοκατεβαίνει
σαν άρρωστο κολίμπριο

κι εσύ θέλεις ν’ αλλάξετε θέσεις

εκείνος να πάρει τη τσάντα σου
με τα μετρητά
το κοστούμι σου
τις μεταξωτές κάλτσες
και να σου δώσει την κίνησή του

σαν άρρωστο κολίμπριο

να βλέπεις τους διαβάτες
να ρίχνουν κάποιο νόμισμα
στο μικρό κουτί σου

ήχος συνείδησης δίχως ενοχή

απόηχος χρημάτων χαμένων
στις λάθος επενδύσεις
της πόλης άδειες καρδιές ηχούν
και πάνε πέρα δώθε χωρίς σκοπό


Man sits on the sidewalk
drumming his head up and down
like a sick hummingbird

and you want to trade places with him

he’ll take your briefcase
cash in it
your pinstripe
Italian loafers
satin socks and
give you his drumming exultation

performed in unsynchronized echoes

like a sick hummingbird

to see the passersby drop
odd coins in your tin cup

sound of conscience devoid of guilt

timid whispers of moneys lost
in bad investments
city echoes vacant hearts
coming and going to no-where



Ritsos_front large
Στό στρατώνα

Τό φεγγάρι μπήκε στό στρατώνα.
Ψαχούλεψε τίς κουβέρτες τών φαντάρων.
Έπιασε ένα γυμνό χέρι. Κοιμήσου.
Κάποιος παραμιλάει. Κάποιος ροχαλίζει.
Μιά σκιά χειρονομεί στό μακρύ τοίχο.
Πέρασε τό τελευταίο τράμ. Ησυχία.

Μπορεί όλοι αυτοί νάναι αύριο πεθαμένοι;
Μπορεί από τώρα κιόλας νάναι πεθαμένοι;

Ένας φαντάρος ξύπνησε.
Κοιτάζει γύρω μέ γυάλινα μάτια.
Μιά κλωστή αίμα κρέμεται απ’ τά χείλη τού φεγγαριού.
In the Barracks

The moon entered the barracks.
It rummaged in the soldiers’ blankets.
Touched an undressed arm. Go to sleep.
Someone talks in his sleep. Someone snores.
A shadow gestures on the long wall.
The last trolley bus went by. Quietness.

Can all these be dead tomorrow?
Can they be dead from right now?

A soldier woke up.
He looks around with glassy eyes.
A thread of blood hangs from the moon’s lips.
~Γιάννη Ρίτσου-ποιήματα/Μετάφραση Μανώλη Αλυγιζάκη
~Yannis Ritsos-Poems/translated by Manolis Aligizakis

nostos and algos cover


Σπασμένα κλαδια δέντρου
μπλεγμένα σαν τα όνειρα
που κάποτε είχες στου αγέρα
το καλόβολο φύσημα και πώς
να ξεμπερδέψεις με την άγκυρα
που έδεσες στα πόδια σου
και σαν σπασμένο κλαδί κρέμεσαι
απ’ το κενό κι άδοξα
να περιμένεις κάποια λύση
που ξεφεύγει λογικού
και μια παράξενη στατικότητα σε κυβερνά
σαν θάνατος πρίν απ’ το θάνατο

κι είπες—

πιλότος θα γίνω στην επόμενη ζωή
για να πετώ ψηλά στα σύννεφα.

Broken branches of the tree
entwined like the dreams
you once had
free in the wind’s temper and
how you managed to tie
an anchor on your ankle and now
you hang from a tree branch
as though by a thread
over the void waiting for
a solution to your problem
strange stagnation governing
your thoughts like death
before death

and you said—

in the next life I’ll become a pilot
to fly high in the clouds



And we promised never to deny Him not even
for a night or day, nor for a single moment, even
when He spoke to the fallen tree or to those ancient
ghosts that often passed through our minds.

Endless famine of our race, queen of our bellies,
slowly crawled like our childish innocence on wet
cobblestone and we asked Him his teaching
to continue and he liked us because we chose to
be scattered into pieces that the wind may blow us
to the opposite shore. He liked us, because
we disdained everything even the secret for our
sacrifice. Ubermensch smiled and said,
‘it was all good.’


Kι υποσχεθήκαμε ποτέ να μην τον αρνηθούμε
ούτε μια νύχτα, ούτε μια μέρα ή μια στιγμή
μήτε κι ακόμα όταν μιλούσε στο δέντρο που μόλις
είχαν κόψει ή στα πανάρχαια φαντάσματα
που πέταγαν συχνά μέσα στη σκέψη μας.

Αστέρευτη η σιτοδεία βασίλισα της πείνας μας
αργά εκύλησε η παιδική μας αθωότη σαν πάνω
σε υγρό καλντερίμι, το μόνο που του ζητήσαμε
τη διδαχή να συνεχίσει και τ’ αρέσαμε που εδιαλέξαμε
θρύμματα και γίνουμε να μας φυσήξει ο αγέρας Του
στην αντιπέρα όχθη να μας περάσει. Τ’ αρέσαμε που
όλα τα περιφρονήσαμε ακόμα και το μυστήριο
της θυσία μας κι ο Υπεράνθρωπος εγέλασε κι είπε,
‘όλα αυτά είναι καλά.’