Analysis of the poem ‘A Prince From Western Libya’

A Prince From Western Libya

by Constantine P. Cavafy

Aristomenis, son of Menelaos,
the Prince from Western Libya,
was generally liked in Alexandria
during the ten days he spent there.
In keeping with his name, his dress was also suitably Greek.
He received honours gladly,
but he didn’t solicit them; he was unassuming.
He bought Greek books,
especially history and philosophy.
Above all he was a man of few words.
It got around that he must be a profound thinker,
and men like that naturally don’t speak very much.

He wasn’t a profound thinker or anything at all–
just a piddling, laughable man.
He assumed a Greek name, dressed like the Greeks,
learned to behave more or less like a Greek;
and all the time he was terrified he’d spoil
his reasonably good image
by coming out with barbaric howlers in Greek
and the Alexandrians, in their usual way,
would start to make fun of him, vile people that they are.

This was why he limited himself to a few words,
terribly careful of his syntax and pronunciation;
and he was driven almost out of his mind, having
so much talk bottled up inside him.

Analysis and Commentary*

This poem was written in 1928 by the Greek poet Constanine Cavafy. The poet imagines the visit of Aristomenis, a prince from Western Libya, to ancient Alexandria, which by the way was the birthplace of Cavafy.

The poem is a satire of those who portray themselves as something they are not. Aristomenis has managed to deceive the people of Alexandria into believing that he is “a profound thinker” because he bought Greek books, dressed like a Greek and is careful with his words. Aristomenis has invested a lot into looking like a Greek Philosopher, but in reality this is nothing but a false image.

The people of Alexandria believe in this image because they are unable to look beyond the superficiality of Aristomenis’ actions. They deduct that he must be what he claims to be because he looks like it. Aristomenis may dress like a real philosopher and do things a philosopher does (buy Greek books, speak laconically), but he does not do those things that define a philosopher.

This poem is a reminder that not everything is what it appears to be. There is a big difference between how things look like (appearance) and how they really are (essence).

Why is Aristomenis “a man of a few words”? Judging by his appearance, the Alexandrians thought that he was a skilled philosopher who had mastered the art of speaking in laconic manner. The truth however, was that he was a terrible Greek speaker and could not afford spoiling his image.

This conclusion to the poem is comical and tragical. On the one hand, the complete subversion of the philosopher who in reality is an idiotic impostor. On the other hand, Aristomenis suffers. The cost of maintaining his false identity, is that he is “driven almost out of his mind, having
so much talk bottled up inside him”.

The exact opposite of the Aristomenes of the poem is Diogenes the Cynic. Diogenes lived like a dog, hence his name the Cynic derived from the Greek word κυνικός (kynikos) meaning doglike. He slept in a large ceramic jam, urinated and masturbated in public, and mocked almost everyone, even Alexander the Great.

Nevertheless, Diogenes’ philosophical school of thought under the name cynicism continues to provoke and inspire until today. Diogenes was not a philosopher because he conformed with an established notion of how a philosopher looks like. Diogenes was a philosopher because he was able to think differently and challenge the very foundations of society. Diogenes’ appearance was not typical of a philosopher of the time, it was his actions combined with his thought that made him worthy of the title.

* A slightly different version of this article was published in Greek at the e-magazine Fractal. You can find the original by following the link below:

John William Waterhouse, 1882, Diogenes, Royal Academy of Arts

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