“Again, one time Sophocles, who was Pericles’ fellow-commissioner in the generalship, was going on board with him, and praised the beauty of a youth they met with on the way to the ship. ‘Sophocles,’ said he, ‘a general ought not only to have clean hands but also clean eyes’.”
Plutarch, Life of Pericles
Just what was Pericles’ point? Is there something wrong with praising the beauty of a youth? In some sense, surely not.
But Plutarch relates this story as part of his portrait of Pericles as an upright man. The reader is to conclude that this incident reveals some aspect of Pericles’ good character.
There must have been something in how Sophocles pointed out the beauty of the youth. For there is a way of looking that is actually a way of taking. Just as hands can take what is not their own—and thus be unclean, so can eyes.
Eyes are designed to see. But as a matter of righteousness, and for the sake of seeing, some things should not be looked upon. From some things we need to withhold our glance. Somehow to look upon these things—as an act of selfish grasping—blinds us. It takes away our power to see and to love things as they really are.
Only if we discipline our eyes, if we are willing not to grasp through looking, will we ever really be able to see, and to appreciate, the beauty of others.
Plutarch (46-120 A.D.), a Boeotian Greek who became a Roman citizen, was especially known as a biographer of famous Greek and Roman men.
Pericles (495-429 B.C.), a great general, statesman, and orator, ruled Athens during its Golden Age. Several of his speeches are recorded by Thucydides (460-395 B.C.) in his History of the Peloponnesian War.
Image: “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” by John Singer Sargent