Date of Degree
PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Over the course of Theocritean scholarship there has been a tendency to try to fill the narrative gaps that he leaves in his poems, and this tendency has led to various interpretations of each of the Idylls. While some see this as a puzzle to be solved, a sort of literary exercise for Theocritus' fellow poetae docti and the erudite court of Ptolemaic Alexandria, this study will examine these narrative gaps as opportunities for each audience member to explore his or her own beliefs, especially regarding love. Theocritus does not lead his audience to a specific conclusion, but he only raises questions.
This study shows how the Idylls pose questions that correlate with those that Plato and Hellenistic philosophers address in their discussion of love. Is love a divine blessing, madness, or both? What are the symptoms of lovesickness? Can lovesickness be cured? Is passion part of human nature? What are the benefits of love? Once the reader has in mind the questions that are raised in philosophy and the earlier poetic tradition, it becomes clear that Theocritus is posing the same questions. He uses the images of love in the poetic tradition to explore these topics in a way that conjures allusions to philosophical texts.
Once I have examined the poetic and philosophical background, I turn to the Idylls themselves. I organize my discussion of the poems according to the three types of lovers in Plato's Symposium: procreators, poets, and immortals. Procreators are those who seek to give birth in the body, for example Simaetha in Idyll 2. These lovers are portrayed as afflicted with lovesickness without a viable cure, and as treading the line between animal and human. Poets give birth in the mind with their poetry, for example the speaker of Idyll 12. Although suffering from lovesickness, poets have a remedy, poetry. Finally, immortals give birth to true virtue, such as the Ptolemies in Idyll 17. These monarchs are so loved by the gods for their virtue that they are made immortal and are allowed to live on Olympus with the gods.
The layers of meaning revealed in the allusions to the poetic and philosophical traditions do not show Theocritus as promoting a favorite doctrine, rather, he promotes questions about desire, lovesickness, remedies, humanity, persuasion, the power of poetry and immortality. When we look at Theocritus as a heuristic poet, we can better understand the value of his poetry and his mastery in using narrative gaps to raise questions for his audience.
Copyright 2013 Lindsay Grant Samson
Samson, Lindsay Grant. "The philosophy of desire in Theocritus' Idylls." PhD diss., University of Iowa, 2013.