The philosophy of an earring

Fashionable motivations: a dialogue set in ancient Greece

Lysistrata and Hippolytus sit at a small, wooden table outside a narrow café in Athens and chat while they wait for their friend, Philo.

Lysistrata: I am skeptical.

Hippolytus: You think it would look bad.

Lysistrata: I am skeptical because I want to know why.

Hippolytus: Why get an earring? Because I want one.

Lysistrata: If that were enough your ears would be sparkling already. Why the delay?

Hippolytus: No delay, I simply—

Lys: I call your bluff, Hippolytus.

Hipp: By Zeus, fine! I can’t find the Why and it’s killing me. Now, woman, what do you want from me?

Lys: Only to help you find your reason. We should have enough time to do that before Philo arrives.

Hipp (hesitantly): On the condition you don’t push your usual answer.

Lys: I promise to at least investigate the idea first. (Hippolytus frowns, then nods.) So: Is attention the reason?

Hipp: You think higher of me than that, don’t you?

Lys: Tell me honestly, then, that you have not pictured this scene: You enter a room, you feel yourself a new person, you smile at a colleague. He sees you, sees the earring and says, ‘Have I fallen from Olympus or is that Hippolytus? You look positively Spartan! Well done!’

Hipp: Perhaps the thought has breezed through.

Lys: And there is no shame in it. But, and please help me here, why is that reason insufficient? What will happen when all of Piraeus has seen you with your earring?

Hipp: They’d stop mentioning it.

Lys: Or if the majority of feedback you receive is negative—If even 51 of your 100 mates on the docks thought you better off without?

Hipp: It’s my decision, Lysistrata. For all I care, they can—

Lys: I aim merely to follow the logic. If positive attention or approval is your motivation, then a collective Nay from the good Athenian people should be reason enough to remove the earring. If you grant them the power to judge for you, you grant them the power to decide for you as well.

Hipp: And if I just want to see what they think of me? With a surprise you jar some honesty out of people. What do the good Athenian people think of their plain, safe, dependable Hippolytus? Sporting a new look, I could learn that from them…and I could learn something about myself, too.

Lys: That seems an abundance of work. Instead you might ask your friends for their opinions.

Hipp: Don’t be so pious and naïve, Lysistrata. For the sport of it we might play serious when given another’s decision to weigh as our own, but we never consider it with the sincerity of the decider himself. No, the best way to capture their honest opinion is by ambush.

Lys: I think you would find in your ambushes what you expect from them, what you project onto them beforehand. And when, later, you reach for the memories of their reactions, you will only have the feeling; you will lose their words, tone and expression; you will have made the memory beforehand because, initially, you were searching for something.

Hipp: What something?

Lys: You tell me—acceptance, attention, approval? I do wonder, though: why is the earring the trick? Why not a new dye in your robe, or a trim of the beard?

Hipp: Because I want the earring.

Lys: Then—

Hipp: Stop! You said you wouldn’t give your usual advice.

Lys: I am not there, not yet. We have work still to do. So, do you believe your argument so far? Is attention the reason?

Hipp (sighs): No, I don’t think it is. For better or for worse I’m not so shallow as that. Perhaps I laid the reason on the outside world because the inner world is more frightening. After all, why would I want an earring? I’m healthy, young, educated, employed; I understand intellectually that an earring’s meaning, apart from its pure aesthetic value, comes from culture. So why does the idea burn for long hours in my mind? Is it an evolutionary sense of beauty calling for fulfillment, or an attraction between my psyche and the cultural connotation of an earring? Are the mind and body the Gods have given me insufficient without being stuck with a metal thorn?

Lys (thinking, runs a hand through her hair): Remind me what you do down on the docks?

Hipp: I take the accounts for our olive exports to the Isles, you know that. What’s that to do with my dilemma?

Lys: Do you still play the lute?

Hipp: No, I don’t play nearly enough. Thank you for the reminder. Again, what’s this to do with—

Lys: I wonder if this earring idea is not a mistranslated message from the Muses. Perhaps your creative energy is looking for a way out.

Hipp: Are you implying that my creativity is like a boil that needs draining?

Lys: I would never offend the Muses with such a comparison. But maybe you might tighten and tune your strings, or spend a few afternoons with the potters…

Their third, Philo, rounds the corner at the head of the street and saunters toward their table outside the café. Lysistrata and Hippolytus rise and wave, Philo embraces them one by one and sits himself in the remaining wicker chair. Lysistrata and Hippolytus do the same.

Philo: So sorry I’m late, terribly sorry, deep in discussion and then lost in thought. All in a rush. Makes one takes a false turn in this city, you know.

Hipp: Worry not, Philo. We’re glad you found us.

Philo: Then by the Gods, my friends, what did I interrupt? Let us get back to it!

Lys (points to Hippolytus): This one wants an earring but knows not why.

Hipp (points to Lysistrata): This one is trying to talk me out of it!

Lys: I merely suggested that relearning some of the old hymns on his lute might be more productive than an earring and achieve the same results.

Philo: That result being?

Hipp: She thinks I’ve so denied the Muses’ call to action that they’ve resorted to demanding I materially alter my person in order to release my clogged-up creativity. But a few plucked strings and I’ll be back to normal—empty once again! And the idea of an earring will simply fade away.

Lys: It was one theory. What do you say, Philo?

Phil: I’m reminded of a jolly rich aunt of mine.

Hipp: Everything all right with her?

Phil: Stubbornly healthy. A singer, this aunt, and the owner of some of the finest robes I’ve ever seen. Magenta, the blue of Poseidon’s deep, Apollo’s sunny gold—take your pick, my friends. An astonishing collection of robes, astonishing. And what a voice! I cannot remember this aunt without hearing that surprising, stirring baritone, and I also cannot remember her without seeing a dazzling robe wrapped around her enduring figure. I wonder, friends: Are the lute-playing and the earring halves of an either-or?

Lys: We never said they were.

Phil: I mean, my friends, that the luxury of fashion might indeed be a mode of expression, but certainly it doesn’t consume all the air of the creative flame. How could it? A color, an earring—these are passive choices! One actively wears an earring—

Hipp: But one’s earring-wearing is no activity.

Phil: Yes! When my aunt sings, her whole being, her soul engages the task. The Muses flutter invisibly around her neck and shoulders and their together-made music booms jubilantly into the world. Of such expression a dyed robe or an earring is incapable, my friends. I claim the energies are of different class entirely; neither the robe nor the singing discounts the validity of the other.

Lys (to Hippolytus): You ought to just choose one way or the other; either get the earring, or do not. Only regret will come from too long a reflection before the decision. It is only an earring. What I would respect you for, Hippolytus—regardless of how you looked—would be the conviction with which you wore it. With that you convince the good people of Athens, myself included.

Hipp: Finally, out it comes! By Zeus, Lysistrata, always you call on your conviction and decision as though they can be summoned on a whim.

Phil: I agree, Lysistrata. If it were only an earring our Hippolytus wouldn’t spill so much wine over the matter. Clearly it is something more.

Lys: Perhaps I am impatient, but it is a decision, like everything else. What more is there? Reasons always pale to conviction in the moment one decides. Attention, aesthetics, expression—all motivations fade and blend into the lived experience of the decision. We can never truly remember the original Why; we retain only biased and frayed trimmings of that thread. (To Hippolytus) If you chose for the earring, wore it into the next harvest season, then decided it was not for you, should your new decision be made with last season’s information? Not at all! Your new decision should be made anew with new conviction.

Phil: By the Gods, Lysistrata, you may’ve struck the sequence of events, but I fear you miss too much in the process. (To Hippolytus) Would you like an earring?

Hipp: I believe so.

Phil: Can you be indifferent to the idea, my friend? Can you drop it from your thoughts as the overripe olive falls from the tree?

Lys: But no one is indifferent to the idea, Philo. I have opinions on earrings; that’s why I have them.

Phil: Ah, dear Lysistrata! Your indifference is disguised as the ease with which you made your decision. To easy choices we are all indifferent. Our Hippolytus’s difficulty lies in his uncertainty.

Hipp: The wavering has lasted quite a while.

Phil: For me, my friend, the word Wavering doesn’t quite fit. Let’s name it Negotiating. (Hippolytus and Lysistrata wrinkle their brows.) Yes, yes. Earlier we said fashion was a mode of expression; it is however a peculiar mode because, my friends, fashion’s highest goal is to express one’s identity. And while in music, poetry and drama, identity is ever present and inexorably expressed, it is rarely an artwork’s ultimate goal. Even as the teller of an epic describes his hero, the time and technique required to supply a description and realize an identity preclude the immediacy that fashion achieves. To wear an earring, dear friends, is to express one’s identity in real time to the world, under all the pressure of our conventions, culture and the human laws of attraction. So I find our Hippolytus’s hesitance an understandable inner negotiation over the answer to a crucial question: Does an earring bring him closer to or farther from his destination?

Hipp: And where would that be?

Phil: Yourself, of course! In this inner discussion you’ve vaguely recognized the spiritual pairing between what one wears and what one is.

Lys: But Philo, I thought you were anti-material! To claim the spirit can develop out of fashion is lazy, even vulgar. Not ten nights ago we were in agreement: she who has become herself can have everything taken from her and still have everything.

Phil: Surely! But let’s ask—why do they clothe the prisoners all in gray? (To Hippolytus) I support you in your negotiations with this decision. Either way, old friend, it is a stepping stone. And Lysistrata is right: when you make the decision, make it with the greatest conviction you can muster! And try to live detached from your reflection. If you discover that your earring edifies you, that you feel freer and truer without needing to say a word, then you’ll have progressed in your journey toward yourself, and all the anger, doubt and annoyance spurred by the initial glances and commentary will pale to the feeling flowing clean and bright inside of you as you walk through your day. And if not, perhaps the earring was a mirage, and you can leave it behind. But if it edifies you, if it edifies you!

Hipp: But how can I be sure?

Lys: Choose!


Featured photo by Ashithosh U from Pexels