Theoros? A Lover of Spectacles?

The title and tagline of the blog requires an explanation. Or perhaps not. But I will endeavour to provide one anyway. The title is an ancient Greek word. It referred to a person tasked with a certain duty. And the tagline is how one philosopher, Plato, described such a person.

In classical Greece, the theōros — actually there would be many theōroi — was an official sent by the Greek city‑states to attend and witness or spectate a religious festival, especially the pan‑Hellenic (the Greeks called themselves Hellenes) festivals held at Athens. (One such festival was the City Dionysia which hosted the famous dramatic competitions that gave us the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.) The theōros would have to leave his own city and travel to a foreign city. For a while he becomes a foreigner. In the Laws, Plato talks about four kinds of foreigners [xenoi (as in xenophobia)], one of which is the stranger who is a “spectator [theōros], in the literal sense, with his eyes, and with his ears also, of all the festivals of the Muses” (953a).

In the Republic, the theōros is the “lover of spectacles [philo-theamones]” and “lover of sounds [philo-kooi]” who “run[s] around to every chorus at the Dionysia, missing none in the cities or the villages” (475d).

The term theōros itself is connected to (derived from) at least two other terms: a) thea which means sight or spectacle (as in theater) and b) theos which means god (as in theology). As you can see, these both aspects — that of seeing and that of sacredness — are captured by what the theōros does.


Now in making the journey to the festival, the theōros would be exposed to strange ideas and practices, to strange sights and sounds. And he would bring them home, back to his city. Would that enrich or corrupt, unsettle or bolster, him and his city?

On his [the theorōs’] return home let him go to the assembly of those who review the laws. …And if he be seen to have come home neither better nor worse, let him be praised at any rate for his enthusiasm; and if he be much better, let him be praised so much the more; and not only while he lives but after his death let the assembly honour him with fitting honours. But if on his return home he appear to have been corrupted, pretending to be wise when he is not, let him hold no communication with any one, whether young or old; and if he will hearken to the rulers, then he shall be permitted to live as a private individual; but if he will not, let him die, if he be convicted in a court of law of interfering about education and the laws, And if he deserve to be indicted, and none of the magistrates indict him, let that be counted as a disgrace to them when the rewards of virtue are decided.

Plato, Laws, 951d–952d.

The exposure that the journey affords the theōros is not only dangerous for the city politically, at least potentially as Plato’s prescriptions show. But it is also, for the theōros personally, a disruptive experience as he participates in a spectacle that is greater than him and his city. It is an event which naturally transcends and challenges all that he knows. If one wishes to be academic about it:

By participating in a panhellenic event, he [the theōros] is confronted with difference and alterity and is himself altered by this experience (at least to some extent). He thus returns home with a broader world-view and brings this alterity into the city.

Nightingale, Spectacles of Truth in Classical Greek Philosophy, p. 44.

This then is what is meant by calling this blog Theoros — A Lover of Spectacles. It is meant to refer to a person who loves sights, especially sights that are strange to him, sights which might unsettle his calm and ordered life, indeed disrupt the smug satisfaction that he might harbour with the life he his living, with the knowledge he has, or with the society in which he lives. While the idea of spectating was a traditional one, we owe Plato the accompanying idea that that spectating is in some sense done out of love.

Actually, Plato took it much further when he described, in the Republic, the “lovers of wisdom [philo-sophous]”, i.e. the philosophers, as those who are “the lovers of the sight [philo-theamonas] of truth [alētheias]” (475e): not lovers of mere sights, but lovers of the sight of truth! There is so much more to be said about this, and I most probably will write about them in the future. In any case, I refuse to go as far as Plato does. The theōros is not the philosophos. And this blog is not the writings of a spectator of great truths — for such a sublime object as truth is beyond yours truly — but of a spectator of mere sights.

**********

Extra

The number and letter combination used while citing Plato are known as Stephanus numbers, named after Henri Estienne who was a French printer and classical scholar from the 16th century. Henricus Stephanus was his Latin name. The numbers correspond to the page and the letters the section number of the first edition of what we might call today The Complete Works of Plato published by Stephanus in 1578. The edition was published in three volumes, so citation must include the name of the text being cited in addition to the page and section number. The following image is a scan of a page from Volume II of Estienne’s edition, showing a section from Book V of The Republic. The scan was made from John Adams’ copy! The famous “lover of the sight of truth” is highlighted.

A page from Volume II of Henricus Stephanus’ 1578 edition of Plato's Complete Works.

Reading List/References

Andrea Wilson Nightingale, Spectacles of Truth in Classical Greek Philosophy: Theoria in Its Cultural Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Plato, Complete Works, edited with introduction and notes by John M. Cooper (Indianapolis, Ind: Hackett Pub, 1997).

Plato, Laws, Volume II: Books 7-12, trans. R. G. Bury, Loeb Classical Library 192 (London: William Heinemann, 1926).

Plato, Republic, Volume I: Books 1-5, trans. Paul Shorey, Loeb Classical Library 237 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1937).

The Republic of Plato, translated with notes and an interpretive essay by Allan Bloom, 2nd ed. (New York: Basic Books, 1991).