Moralia: V. The True Meaning of “Eye for Eye”

Plato writes in “Phaedrus” that if Wisdom has a visible image, men would be transported by her beauty and loveliness, and be roused to pursue wisdom above all else. But alas, we lack a discerning eye for wisdom. In “Life of Lycurgus” as well as Moralia, Plutarch relates an event in the life of the legendary Spartan lawgiver that suggests the true meaning of the law, “eye for eye”.

The well-to-do citizens resented [Lycurgus’ radical reform], and, banding together, they denounced him and pelted him, wishing to stone him to death. As he was being pursued, he out-distanced almost all his pursuers, and gained refuge in the shrine of Athena of the Brazen House; only, as he turned around, Alcander, who was pursuing him, put out one of his eyes by a stroke of his staff. But when, later, Lycurgus received Alcander, who was handed over to him for punishment by vote of the people, he did not treat him ill nor blame him, but, by compelling him to live under the same roof with him, he brought it to pass that Alcander had only commendation for Lycurgus and for the manner of living which he had found there, and was altogether enamoured of this discipline. Lycurgus dedicated a memorial of his unhappy experience in the shrine of Athena of the Brazen House, and gave to her the added epithet of Optilletis; for the Dorians in this part of the world call the eyes ‘ optics (optilloi).’

Lycurgus’ eye was destroyed by the impetuous youth Alcander, who did not understand the justice of his laws nor the uprightness of his person. Instead of punishing the youth according to the law of retaliation, Lycurgus took the youth under his wing, and taught him the way of right living by his own example. In effect, Lycurgus, who lost an eye, gave the youth, who was blind to wisdom, a discerning eye for virtue. It is for this reason, I think, he dedicated a memorial to Athena, the goddess of wisdom, and gave her the epithet of Optilletis (eye).

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