Search The Library
By Peter J. Leithart
* Fertility Cults and Sacred Prostitution
* The Glory of Greece?
* Sex and Greek Religion
* Sex and Greek Philosophy
* Socrates and Sodomy
The philosopher was sitting among a group of faculty members on the steps of the library. He had just returned from a tour of military duty, and his colleagues were eager to hear news of the battle. When the philosopher had finished his story, he pressed his associates for details about things at home. "I want to know about the present state of philosophy, and about the youth. Are there any youth remarkable for wisdom or beauty, or both?" Unsurprised, the professors pointed to a group of young men emerging from the library. One in particular caught the philosopher's eye, and he asked another professor about him. Under the ruse of providing a remedy for the young man's recurrent headaches, the philosopher drew the boy into a conversation about the nature of temperance. As the discussion ended, the boy announced that he would be willing "to be charmed by you daily," and mockingly threatened violence if the philosopher refused. "You had better consider well", he added. "The time for consideration has passed when violence is employed," the philosopher replied. "And you, when you are determined on anything, and in the mood of violence, are irresistible." "Do not resist me then", the student answered. "I will not resist you."
Can you place the scene of this barely disguised homosexual seduction? Perhaps it is a scene from a modern American campus? Perhaps from the decadent urban culture of fin de siecle Paris or Weimar Berlin? Not at all. It is based, though I have taken some liberties with the text, on the opening pages of the Charmides of Plato. The philosopher in the story is Socrates. I begin with this scene to illustrate the basic argument of this essay, namely, that fundamental differences exist between classical and Christian sexual morality. Socrates would have been prosecuted in most American communities as a pederast. No attempt to restore 'traditional' sexual morality can fail to take note of these differences. All of which might give some pause to those who cheered so loudly at the success of Alan Bloom's Closing of the American Mind, in which Bloom described Plato's Republic as "the book about education"!
I will not in this essay examine the effects of Christianity on sexual morality. Instead, I will make an effort to explain pagan notions of sexuality in their own terms. In this way, the profound effects of Christian sexual morality on Western civilization will become clear by way of contrast.
It is all too easy for Christians, when examining the moral behavior and beliefs of cultures, to impose our patterns of morality on them. As Christians, of course, we must make judgments about all cultures based on the eternal standard of Scripture; I am not advocating cultural relativism. What I am warning against, however, is the tendency to assume that past civilizations (or even contemporary civilizations) approach life and morality the same way we do. If we make that assumption, we will never be able to begin to understand their behavior. The danger of this approach is not only that we will fail to understand another culture, but that we will appeal to a nonexistent 'consensus' as the standard of moral behavior. Conservatives and many Christians make this mistake when they call for the reintroduction of "traditional values". The question must arise, Which tradition?
Anthropologists have shown that the logic of human behavior varies widely from culture to culture. With respect to contemporary 'Third World' economies, P.T. Bauer, the British economist, has emphasized for years that underdeveloped peoples simply do not view the world in the way Western peoples do; they do not see the world as a series of problems to be solved, but frequently as the inevitable outcome of fate, to be passively accepted. Moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argues at length that practical rationality varies from tradition to tradition; what is rational behavior in one tradition is not necessarily rational in an alien tradition. Some schools of French historiography, influenced by anthropological methods, have similarly emphasized the uniqueness of each culture's "structures of consciousness".
From a biblical perspective, we can certainly expect that there will be some common elements of morality in all cultures; all men are made in the image of God, God continues to speak to them through His creation, and all cultures at one time had access to special revelation (they've all descended from Noah, after all). All these factors contribute to a certain appearance of consensus. But sinful men, though knowing God, refuse to acknowledge Him as God, and hold down the truth in unrighteousness. Thus, the Bible teaches us to expect non-Christian men and cultures to twist what they know about God and His Law. What some call a consensus among cultures is really a set of counterfeits of biblical truth.
In order to understand the history of sexual morality specifically, then, we must avoid the temptation, to which Christian historians of the past sometimes fell prey, to read Christian sexual mores into the past, and then to conclude that there is some universal code of sexual morality, some Lewisian Tao to which all men and cultures give their assent. We must also avoid the tendency to ignore the twisted fragments of truth that are found in non-Christian cultures.
There is a more subtle trap as well: the tendency to attempt to understand non-Christian cultures by matching up their concepts and values with those of Christianity. For example, we assume that other religions conceive of God in the same way we do, as a transcendent, personal being with whom we have personal communion and communication. In fact, most of the religions of the world, apart from those influenced by the Bible, do not conceive of God as a transcendent personal being. For some, God is a cosmic force; for others, God is identified in some way with nature; the 'gods' of mythology are no more than heroic superhumans. We cannot understand these religions until we realize that what they mean by the word 'God' is far different from what we mean; they are not even using the same categories as we are. And we cannot judge their beliefs without first knowing what those beliefs are.
More directly to the point, there is no absolute correspondence between the way Christian sexual morality is justified and structured and the way non-Christian morality is justified and structured. As Christians, we believe that God has revealed, in writing, His will for our sexual lives. In essence, Christian sexual morality consists of two sets of boundaries: God completely forbids certain sexual acts, and even the licit sexual union of a man and woman is permitted only within the context of marriage. Thus, the Christian logic of sexual behavior follows these lines: We ought not commit homosexual sodomy because God has forbidden it; we ought not engage in sex outside of marriage because God has forbidden it. In the Christian view, even our sexual desires are to be conformed to God's revealed requirements: Since we are sinners, we experience evil sexual impulses that must be rejected and we cannot trust our impulses to lead us to right action. In short, Christian sexual morality involves adherence to rules that distinguish between licit and illicit sexual acts and attitudes.
In fundamental, structural ways, much of non-Christian sexual morality does not correspond to Christian sexual morality. We should not think, for example, that the Greeks believed that their gods had given them a code of sexual behavior, which differed in some particulars from God's Law as found in the Bible. On the contrary, in many cultures sexuality is not thought to be governed by rules at all. As Michel Foucault pointed out, in many societies -- he cited ancient China and Japan, India, Rome, and the Arab-Muslim cultures -- "pleasure is not considered in relation to an absolute law of the permitted and the forbidden, nor by reference to a criterion of utility, but first and foremost in relation to itself."
Taoist beliefs about sex may serve to illustrate the point. Laotse is considered the founder of Taoism. His frequently paradoxical aphorisms were expanded by Chuangtse during the 4th and 3rd centuries BC, the Period of Warring States. Like its Western counterpart, Stoicism, Taoism was developed in a period of social upheaval. Lin Yutang summarizes the essence of Taoism as "a philosophy of the essential unity of the universe (monism),of reversion, polarization (yin and yang), and eternal cycles, of the leveling of all differences, the relativity of all standards, and the return of all to the Primeval One, the divine intelligence, the source of all things."
Anticipating Rousseau by centuries, the Taoists claimed that all social evil was a result of man's domination of nature, his failure to submit passively to the ineffable, nameless "Tao", the "way of the universe." For the Taoists, "the salvation of each and every one does not lie in collective action but in retirement and in the practice of procedures which permit one to withdraw from the world and to master it." These procedures were intended to preserve one's "vital force",and involved various physical, dietary, and sexual disciplines. Together known as yang-sheng, they made the body invulnerable to attack, procured the sage's freedom, and assured virtual immortality.
It was common belief in ancient China, not only among Taoists, that sex was microcosmic of the cosmic union of the passive yin principle and the active yang in the Tao. Women were particularly honored by Taoists because they embodied more completely the yin and therefore were "closer than man to the primordial forces of nature, and because it was in her womb that new life was created and fostered. It was woman who possessed the indispensable elements for achieving the elixir of life." Though Chinese sex roles were governed by traditional Confucian standards, in the bedroom the woman was regarded as "the guardianof the mysteries of life and sex." Through sexual intercourse, it was believed that man's yang was "fed by the yin force from women," thus ensuring health and longevity. For the Taoist, sex was thus a central part of the sage's submission to the Tao.
Given this view of sex, it is not surprising that the Chinese produced the some of the earliest sex manuals, the fang chung. Chinese sex manuals warned against abandonment to pleasure, and emphasized the necessity for obeying certain rules. Still, they presented a very different sexual morality than we are accustomed to, including such wisdom as, "The more women with whom a man has intercourse, the greater will be the benefit he derives from the act," and "If in one night he can have intercourse with more than ten women it is best." On the other hand, "if he always couples with one and the same woman, her vital essence will gradually grow weaker, and in the end she will be in no fit condition to give man benefit. Moreover, the woman herself will become emaciated." Nor was sexual activity restricted by rules to certain acts; appropriate sexual behavior depended entirely on whether the act was conducive to strengthen yin or yang.
Homosexuality between consenting adults was sometimes fashionable, as in the Han period and again during the time of the Sung (AD 960-1127), and rarely productive of strong reactions because intimate contact between two yang elements, though not as nourishing as between yang and yin, was certainly not destructive. Lesbianism was accepted, with a shrug, as a natural result of herding a number of wives and concubines together in the women's quarters....
In short, the whole structure of thinking about sexuality in Taoism is different from the structure of Christian thinking about these questions.
One of the purposes of this paper is to sketch briefly some aspects of the systems of sexual morality in the pre-Christian Western world in order to demonstrate the variability of sexual morality. Ancient Near Eastern and Greek ways of thinking about sex seem strange to us only because the West has been so deeply infiltrated with the Christian understanding of sex. Thus, this survey will show that there can be no religiously neutral or indiscriminate defense of 'traditional' Western sexual morality, because there are deep contradictions in Western sexual morality. What must be defended instead is Christian sexual morality.
Fertility Cults and Sacred Prostitution
In many ancient societies, sex was a part of worship, a fact most clearly evident in the institution of cult prostitutes. Sacred prostitution did not, however, vanish with the disappearance of these ancient civilizations. In New Testament times, there were cult prostitutes in Athens and Corinth, and as late as the fourth century AD, homosexual and heterosexual sacred prostitution was still practiced.
As the Bible itself suggests, cult prostitution was widespread in the ancient world. Outside the Bible, there is evidence of sacred prostitution from Phrygia, Phoenicia, Syria, Lydia, Cyprus, Egypt, and Greece. In his history of prostitution, William W. Sanger described Canaanite religious prostitution in lurid detail, though he cited no sources, and also graphically described cult prostitution in Egypt, Babylon, Phoenicia, Syria, and Carthage. Though the Babylonian law codes are often compared with the Law of Moses, on this point at least there was no parallel. Reay Tannahill writes:
The profession of harlot carried no stigma in Sumerian times, or in Babylonian. In the days of Hammurabi (c. 1750 BC), temples were staffed by priests, servants, artisans, and by a number of highly respectable priestesses and nuns, often from the best families, as well as sacred prostitutes who acted as congenial intermediaries between worshipper and deity.
Evidence that cult prostitution was widely practiced is provided by this comment of the Greek historian Herodotus.
The Egyptians were the first of mankind to feel religious scruples in certain matters -- notably, not to lie with women in holy places nor yet to go into the holy places after lying with a woman without first washing oneself. For nearly all the rest of mankind, except for the Egyptians and the Greeks, have intercourse in holy places and rise from intercourse with a woman and go into a shrine without washing, for they think that men are much as other beasts.
With prostitution placed on such a high religious plane, it is not surprising that the sexual morality of many ancient cultures was, by Christians standards, lax. Even Alexander the Great expressed shock at the immorality of the Babylonians.
Ritual sex was rooted in the basic worldview of these ancient cultures. First, it reflected the behavior of the mythical gods and goddesses. For example, the main goddess of the Sumerian pantheon, Ishtar or Astheroth, was a goddess of fertility and associated with prostitution; according to the mythology, she had had many lovers. Similarly, "Within the temple at Babylon, there was a special room set aside for the god Marduk...to have sexual intercourse. This room was located in the topmost tower and had a large couch that was occupied at night by a woman specially chosen to serve the sexual needs of the god." The "Divine Wife" was a similar practice found in ancient Egypt.
Ancient paganism was, however, essentially a worship of nature, and the practice of ritual sex was rooted in this naturalistic worldview. In ancient mythology, in which we can see distortions of the Genesis account, order emerged from chaos. In the Babylonian creation myth, for example, as the world began to take shape from the original chaos, the goddess Tiamat (Chaos) tried to destroy the other gods and establish the supremacy of chaos. Marduk, another god, intervened, killed Tiamat, and cut her into two pieces, from which he formed heaven and earth. Other myths embody the imagery of death and rebirth. In one Babylonian myth, for example, Ishtar is held in bondage in Hades. Deprived of her presence, the world loses its fertility until she is released.
As Mircea Eliade has explained, in the chaos and fertility cults man participates in divine life and recovers fertility by a ritual reenactment of the original act of a myth, often of the creation from chaos. Ritual chaos, in short, recreates, reorders, and reanimates the world. Sexual orgies are one part of this ritual re-enactment of chaos.
The fertility of the fields is stimulated by an unlimited genetic frenzy. From one point of view the orgy corresponds to the undifferentiated pre-Creation state. This is why certain New Year ceremonies include orgiastic rites: social confusion, sexual license, and saturnalia symbolize regression to the amorphous condition that preceded the Creation of the World.... The idea of renewal...recurs in orgiastic agricultural scenarios. Here too the orgy is a return to the cosmic night, the preformal, the waters, in order to ensure complete regeneration of life and hence the fertility of the earth and an abundance of crops.
Thus, in chaos cults and religions that include ritual prostitution, sexual activity was not governed by divinely given rules, but by a religious faith in the creative power of chaos. Though the normal sexual behavior of ancient men might have been quite banal, in the ritual all boundaries are erased; the particular acts became insignificant, and in the ritual any conception of sinful sexual behavior was lost in the "genetic frenzy".
God strictly forbade Israel from participating in cult prostitution and ritual orgies (Deuteronomy 23:17-18). One of the chief marks of the apostasy of the divided kingdom was the reappearance of cult prostitution among God's Holy People in God's Holy Land (1 Kings 14:24), an "abomination" that later kings attempted, apparently without much success, to end (1 Kings 15:12; 22:46; 2 Kings 23:7; Hosea 4:14). The prophets, and Ezekiel most vividly, used such prostitution as a symbol of the idolatry that characterized both Israel and Judah (Ezekiel 16, 23). In sum, we have here a clear example of a form of sexual activity approved by many pagan cultures, but abominable to God. It is evidence, in short, that there is not a universal sexual ethic to which all cultures adhere.
The Glory of Greece?
Nietzsche opened his Birth of Tragedy with the claim that "the continuous development of art is bound up with the Apollonian and Dionysian duality." Out of the interaction and ultimately the reconciliation of these two aesthetic motives in the Greek world -- the Apollonian epitomized by sculpture, the Dionysian by music -- Attic tragedy was born. We need not accept Nietzsche's larger conclusions if we admit that he stumbled upon a remarkable insight into the problem of understanding Greece. Greek culture and the 'Greek mind' is popularly associated with the Apollonian, that is, with reason, order, balance, and decorum; Greece is not commonly associated with the Dionysian, with passion and chaos.
Yet, contrary to this popular image of Greece, there is evidence -- even during the classical age -- of a continuing irrationalist, Dionysian strain. So, we must ask, Was the Greek Apollonian or Dionysian? It is always risky to generalize about a national 'mind', and especially so in the case of the Greeks. Ancient Greece was rarely politically or socially united, and then only because of a common external enemy or by the imperialism of a particular city-state. Moreover, the Greek thinkers whose writings has been preserved differed on many points, some of them quite important. Finally, there is the constant danger of reading ancient Greece through lenses colored by centuries of Christian reinterpretation. Still, we come close to answering the questions above if we answer them with a simple, Yes. The evidence suggests that the rationalist and the irrationalist currents existed side by side within Greek culture and thought, differing in strength according to place and time.
Sex and Greek Religion
Chesterton's comment that Christianity first united the philosopher and priest is apt. The extraordinary fluidity of Greek religious practice and mythology illustrates its essentially irrational character. New deities and new rites could be introduced ad infinitum, since there was no sacred book or creed by which to judge heresy. In fact, the Greeks recognized forces more ancient and more powerful than the gods of Olympus, forces to which the gods themselves were subject -- the Fates and the Furies. As St. Paul noted in his sermon to the Athenians, alongside the memorials to the gods was a memorial to the "unknown God", which they worshipped in ignorance.
Greek mythology, no less than the mythology of ancient Babylon, was populated by promiscuous gods who copulated constantly not only with one another but also with humans. There is the scene in Book VIII of the Odyssey, for example, in which Mars makes a cuckold of Vulcan. Vulcan, in turn, being the smithy god, forges a chain, and hangs it over his bed like a spider's web. When Mars and Venus retire to Vulcan's bed, thinking that Vulcan is away from home, they are caught in the chains, and Vulcan invites the other gods to snicker at the trapped couple, and to hurl crude insults at them. As Crane Brinton wryly commented, the Greek's "religion held up to him no warnings that the gods objected to love-making -- quite the reverse, for Zeus outdid Don Juan, and seems, on the whole, unlike the Don, to have enjoyed himself in the process."
Some of the heroes of Greek mythology imitated the sexual escapades of the gods. Tannahill notes Heracles as an example:
Heracles, admired by all the peoples of Greece for his strength, courage, and tenacity, was said to have ravished fifty virgins in a single night; bisexual, he also had an affair with his nephew Iolaus and fell in love with "sweet Hylas, he of the curling locks."
But Greek religion did not enjoin imitation of the gods. Instead, one focus was the public performance of the cult (especially festivals and sacrifices), which emphasized the cult's significance for the continued prosperity of the cosmos, originally the fertility of the macrocosmic natural world, or, later, the order and fecundity of the microcosmic family and city-state. Private religious concern -- for protection after death and healing of diseases -- expressed itself most dramatically in the mystery cults, which were strikingly similar to the chaos cults of earlier civilizations. The myth and 'mysteries' of Demeter and her daughter, Kore (Persephone), transplanted from Eleusis to Athens sometime in the seventh century, illustrate this continuity. According to the myth, Persephone was seized by Hades, the god of the underworld, and raped. Demeter, a fertility goddess, mourned her daughter's confinement, thereby causing the earth to become sterile; when Persephone was released by the intervention of Zeus, Demeter restored the fertility of the earth, and gave instructions to the Eleusinians, who had pitied her in her distress, for maintaining fertility by performance of the 'mysteries'.
Michael Grant describes what we know of the rite of Demeter that only the initiated would have witnessed and sworn to keep secret:
From such fragmentary evidence as has come down to us, it seems that the rites acted out the rape of Persephone and her mother's arrival at Eleusis to search for her, and culminated in a ritual in which the torches employed to illuminate the proceedings were thrown in the air. There also appears to have been a display and procession of models of genital organs and statuettes of men and women engaged in sexual acts, since human love-making was thought to stimulate the fertility of the crops, and by the same token obscene invectives...were shouted out.
By c. 600, a few generations after the takeover of Eleusis by the Athenians, they had succeeded in elevating its cult to Panhellenic status.
Will Durant notes that this type of cult and its symbolism were not infrequent, nor were they confined to the mystery cults:
The most mysterious and potent force in nature being reproduction, it was natural that the Greeks, like other ancient peoples, should worship the principle and emblems of fertility in man and woman along with their worship of fertility in the soil. The phallus, as symbol of reproduction, appears in the rites of Demeter, Dionysius, Hermes, even of the chaste Artemis. In classical sculpture and painting this emblem recurs with scandalous frequency. Even the Great Dionysia, the religious festival at which the Greek drama was played, was introduced by phallic processions, to which Athenian colonies piously sent phalli.
Thus, it is a mistake to contrast civic festivals and the mystery cults too sharply. Similar symbolism appears in each, and both were officially sponsored and controlled. Like the Ancient Near Eastern cult prostitution, Greek secret rituals and public festivals alike were based on a belief in the reinvigorating power of chaos, including both symbolic and actual sexual chaos.
Sex and Greek Philosophy
If Greek religion illustrates the Dionysian, Greek philosophy represents the rational, Apollinian ideal. Aristotle is noted for his concept of virtue as a rational balance, a 'Golden Mean' between the extremes of excess and deficiency. Earlier, Plato had defined justice as the proper division of labor in a polis (among various classes) or in an individual soul (among the various faculties: reason, appetite, and passion), with each part keeping its place and performing its assigned function. Injustice, then, was defined as the strife among the three principles or classes: "a meddlesomeness, and interference, and rising up of a part of the soul against the whole, an assertion of unlawful authority." The proper order of the soul is achieved when reason rules over desire, with passion aligning itself as an ally of reason. The just man, then, possesses an orderly soul, one in which reason is not overcome and enslaved by desire.
For both Plato and Aristotle, the goal was moderation (not renunciation) of desire, and they applied this principle directly to sexual desire. Foucault notes that Plato explains the relationship of pleasure, act, and desire as circular relationship: the desires lead to the act, the act to pleasure, and the pleasure feeds desire. In the Laws, Plato's Athenian notes that men are driven by three desires: food, drink, and "the fire of sexual lust". The third is "the greatest and sharpest want and desire", a desire that "kindles in men every species of wantonness and madness," particularly in men with "an ill disposition of the body and bad education".
Though natural, all three of these desires have the potential for excess, and thus must be "mastered" by "fear and law and right reason". This mastery is achieved only by training and taming of unruly desires; Plato compares the struggle for self-mastery with athletic contests, and describes the "victory over pleasure" as the noblest victory of all and the prerequisite for a happy life. In the Phaedrus, Plato warns the young beloved not against the enjoyment of sexual pleasure, but against immoderation and physical union without the "approval of the whole soul." Thus, the key sexual problem for Plato is the potential for excess, and the solution is training in temperance. Sexual pleasure becomes an ethical issue not in connection with a divine code of rules, but as a problem of proper 'use'.
Similarly, in his discussion of temperance, Aristotle distinguishes among the various "necessary" pleasures with which temperance is concerned, and concludes that this virtue is associated especially with the sense of touch, the pleasure "most widely shared" by men and animals. Under the category of "pleasures of touch", Aristotle concentrates on food, drink, and sexual intercourse, since the licentious person is "concerned only with certain parts of the body, not with the whole". A licentious man loves the "wrong objects" and "with abnormal intensity or in the wrong way," while the temperate man refrains from "wrong pleasures" and desires right pleasures "moderately, and not more than is right, or at the wrong time." The moderate man, in short, both recognizes the limits of his resources, and places limits on his own desire. Aristotle rejects both the licentious man who yields to pleasure by choice and the soft, effeminate man who fails to withstand pains and control desires. The ideal is continence, the conquest of desire. But, like Plato, Aristotle gives only the vaguest idea of what sexual acts are appropriate.
Socrates and Sodomy
Ironically, both the Apollonian and Dionysian roads could lead not only to the permission but the exaltation of pederasty. This is not to say that pederasty was unproblematic; the requirements of God's Law are clear even to those who suppress them. Nor was the principle of moderation abandoned: Indeed, Socrates' self-control in resisting the advances of Alcibiades proved his superior wisdom, and in fact made him all the more desirable to his youthful admirers. Yet, as Marrou says, "pederasty, like the athletic nudity with which it was once closely connected, was one of the distinguishing marks of Hellenism -- one of the practices in which it contrasted most sharply with the 'barbarians', and hence in its own eyes one of the privileges establishing the nobility of the civilized man."
Greek pederasty was not, to be sure, what we call pederasty (sodomy with an immature boy); it was, rather, sodomy between a mature man and a post-adolescent young man. It was in all probability limited, moreover, to certain elites; all evidence suggests that the majority of Greeks maintained heterosexual monogamy. Scholarly admirers of Greek civilization have in the past argued strenuously that pederasty was a purely spiritual ideal, but archeological evidence, not least from many a Grecian urn, unequivocally proves the contrary. It cannot be denied that sodomy (pederastic and otherwise) was not only practiced by some Greeks, but was also held up as an ideal. Plato's most poetic hymns on love grew out of reflections on pederasty.
Rushdoony provides a Dionysian explanation of Greek pederasty when he suggests that the Greek emphasis on homosexuality was rooted in the same religious impulse as the earlier chaos cults. The city-state, or polis, is the fundamental reality not only in Greek religion, but also in the systematic philosophical reflection of Plato and Aristotle. To maintain the polis was the chief end of man's action and thought, and it was believed that the order of the polis could not be maintained unless dialectically related to chaos. Ritual choas, with sexual overtones if not sexual orgies, was therefore a civic duty. Such was the connection of choas and civic religion in the Greek polis. Moreover, homosexuality served the purposes of mysticism, freeing the contemplative from the limitations and particularity of his sexual identity. Finally, the Greek emphasis on homosexuality was related to the hermaphrodite ideal. As Rushdoony writes, "the truest symbol of perfection was not Zeus as a male god, nor kings...but rather the hermaphrodite." Homosexuality permitted the Greek to fulfill this ideal by acting as both man and woman -- again achieving a vivifying confusion of natural boundaries.
In Plato's Symposium, by contrast, the character Phaedrus defends pederasty from an Apollinian perspective. Eros, he says, is the offspring of the goddess Aphrodite, but there are two Aphrodites, the common and the heavenly. The Eros that comes from the common Aphrodite "has no discrimination, being such as the meaner sort of men feel, and is apt to be of women as well as of youths, and is of the body rather than of the soul." Love that springs from the heavenly Aphrodite, by contrast,
is derived from a mother in whose birth the female has no part, -- she is from the male only; this is that love which is of youths, and the goddess being older, there is nothing of wantonness in her. Those who are inspired by this love turn to the male, and delight in him who is the more valiant and intelligent nature; any one may recognize the pure enthusiasts in the very character of their attachments. For they love not [little] boys, but intelligent beings whose reason is beginning to be developed, much about the time at which their beards begin to grow. And in choosing young men to be their companions, they mean to be faithful to them, and pass their whole life in company with them, not to take them in their inexperience, and deceive them, and play the fool with them, or run away from one to another of them.
Socrates himself, though developing the point from a less theological direction, quotes with approval a woman who had come to a similar conclusion:
...he who in youth has the seed of [justice and temperance] implanted in him and is inspired, when he comes to maturity desires to beget and generate. He wanders about seeking beauty that he may beget offspring -- for in deformity he will beget nothing -- and naturally embraces the beautiful rather than the deformed body; above all when he finds a fair and noble and well-nurtured soul, he embraces the two in one person, and to such an one he is full of speech about virtue and the nature and pursuits of a good man; and he tries to educate him; and at the touch of the beautiful which is ever present to his memory, even when absent, he brings forth that which he had conceived long before, and in company with him tends that which he brings forth; and they are married by a far nearer tie and have a closer friendship than those who beget mortal children, for the children who are their common offspring are fairer andmore immortal.
In short, it is more rational and more noble to love young men than to love women, because pederastic love joins the love of a beautiful body and with the love of a beautiful soul -- a combination, so Phaedrus and Socrates seemed to think, rarely, if ever, to be found in a woman.
This astonishing toleration of perversion is more understandable when viewed in its social and intellectual context. Greek culture had always emphasized the wholeness of true virtue: Homeric heroes, the Olympic idea, the pedagogy of Plato's Republic, which reduced education to music and gymnastic -- all point to this ideal of sound mind and strong body. In keeping with this holistic emphasis, the teacher communicates not only his mind, but also his body, to his pupil. This accounts for Marrou's description of pederasty as "the standard type of [Greek] education," with Eros serving as the bond between the teacher and his pupil. Similarly, Foucault says, in characteristically exhibitionistic language, "In Greece, truth and sex were linked, in the form of pedagogy, by the transmission of precious knowledge from one body to another; sex served as a medium for initiations into learning."
Thus, as Brinton writes, "The pederast became the seeker, the transcendentalist, the mystic, soaring far above the gentlemanly limits of the beautiful-and-good." Philosopher and pederast were nearly synonymous, and Plato's dialogues, concerned as they often are with education and the ordering of an essentially masculine polis, contain so many reflections on pederasty that Foucault referred to them as the embodiment of "the great pederastic tradition." Marrou notes that "For three generations the position of head of [Plato's] Academy passed from lover to beloved." Aristotle was the lover of one of his pupils, and Sappho educated young girls of Lesbos by the same method.
Yet, even here, amid the high rationalism of the Platonic Academy, we hear echoes of the old chaos cults and mysteries: The Dionysian intrudes upon the Apollonian. Pederasty was, after all, an initiation into a gnostic inner circle, with the master, as Foucault pointed out, passing secrets to his initiates. Indeed, the whole structure of Plato's educational philosophy, as outlined in the Republic and elsewhere, is gnostic. Most men are residents of the cave, mistakenly believing that the shadows that pass in front of them are Real. Only the educated man, the man initiated into the community of philosophers through pederasty with a superior, reaches beyond the shadows and seeks out the Forms, and beyond that, the Form of the Good, which are objects of pure, abstract thought. This search for hidden knowledge, though given a high rationalistic gloss in Plato's dialogues, is, by definition, occult.
It is significant, too, that the philosophers of the Republic serve as the protectors of the public good; a just society is one in which those endowed with wisdom rule over the passion-driven masses. Plato, in short, combined the mysteries' concern with personal gnosis with the mandate to maintain public order, and made pederasty an important part of both.
Whichever view one adopts of the basic impulse of classical thought and culture -- that is, whether one finds in classical Greek civilization the triumph of disinterested reason and calm moderation or the maintenance of primitive irrationalism -- pederasty emerges in conjunction with all that was considered noble and good in Greek society. And so we return to the point of this brief glance at classical Greece, namely, that its sexual morality was dictated by much different considerations than the Church was later to bring to the West. Pederasty was an essential part of a cult of manhood. Though there were certain legal restrictions on its practice, it was not considered a sinful or evil act in itself, a violation of divinely given moral instruction. The point of emphasis here is not that the Greeks were sexually perverse, though such a case could be made; the point is simply that Hellenic ideas about pederasty, and about sex in general, are fundamentally different from Hebraic and Christian ideas.
In sum, as K.J. Dover has written,
The Greeks neither inherited nor developed a belief that a divine power had revealed to mankind a code of laws for the regulation of their sexual behavior; they had no religious institution possessed of the authority to enforce sexual prohibitions. Confronted by cultures older and richer and more elaborate than theirs, cultures which nonetheless differed greatly from each other, the Greeks felt free to select, adapt, develop, and -- above all -- innovate.
This brief glance at the structure of sexual mores in two pre-Christian
civilizations suffices to prove the point: Biblical sexual morality is
not universally defended and practiced in all societies. The sexual
morality that has served as a foundation of Western civilization is a
product of Christianity. Given the fact that sexual issues so deeply
disturb contemporary society, it is essential for Christians self-
consciously to defend Biblical morality, not some vague 'traditional
morality' or 'traditional family values.' CM
From Contra Mundum, No. 7 Spring 1993
Copyright 1993 Peter J. Leithart
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