January 1, 2007

Plato on Homosexuality

A month or so ago, I published a post which has been rather popular on Christianity and Homosexuality. In it, I discussed Paul's statements on homosexuality in contrast to the "received view" in Greco-Roman "polite society." I referred then to Plato's Symposium and Phaedrus, early and middle dialogs, respectively, which contain useful information on the practice of pedaresty in classical Athens. (If you are interested in interpreting Paul, it is important to note that classical Athens is some 400 years earlier, and a lot can change in 400 years - compare attitudes to homosexuality in our culture today to those of a mere 50 years ago.) In the Republic (I'm not going to hunt down the exact reference right now, but if anyone is looking for it and can't find it I will), another middle dialog, Plato made remarks to the effect that pedaresty probably had a negative effect on the boys involved. In our culture we of course believe this to be a self-evident truth and would not dream of questioning it, but Plato speaks as though he expects to be in the minority in making this claim. The reference I found today was from Plato's Laws, generally considered to be the very last of his dialogs (according to some accounts, he had not had a chance to edit it when he died). The passage is very helpful both in distinguishing what Plato believes to be the majority view among the Greeks of his time, what arguments were floating around (at least one of them will sound very familiar), and what Plato's own view was. One piece of background will be needed, which shows the complicated view of the subject the Greeks took: in Greek myth, Laius, the father of Oedipus, was the first pedarest. In some versions of the myth of Oedipus, this is the reason Oedipus and his descendants are cursed, but in other versions it has to do with the fact that Laius abducted the boy involved from his host, violating the laws of hospitality, and in still other versions it is simply because the Oracle commanded Laius not to have children and he disobeyed. Whatever the case, Odysseus meets Laius in Hades undergoing some nasty punishment or other (I don't remember the details at the moment). Having got that background out of the way, here is Laws 8.836c-e, in which Plato discusses what laws should regulate sexual conduct if the state is to be organized in such a way as to make its citizens virtuous (my fellow libertarians may cringe with me now):

Suppose you follow nature's rule and establish the law that was in force before the time of Laius. You'd argue that one may have sexual intercourse with a women but not with men or boys. As evidence for your view, you'd point to the animal world, where (you'd argue) the males do not have sexual relations with each other, because such a thing is unnatural. But in Crete and Sparta your argument would not go down well, and you'd probably persuade nobody. However, another argument is that such practices are incompatible with what in our view should be the constant aim of the legislator - that is, we're always asking, 'which of our regulations encourages virtue, and which does not?' Now then, suppose in the present case we agreed to pass a law that such practices are desirable, or not at all undesirable - what contribution would they make to virtue? Will the spirit of courage spring to life in the soul of the seduced person? Will the soul of the seducer learn habits of self-control? No one is going to be led astray by that sort of argument - quite the contrary. Everyone will censure the weakling who yields to temptation, and condemn his all-too-effiminate partner who plays the role of the woman. So who on earth will pass a law like that? Hardly anyone, at any rate if he knows what a genuine law really is. (tr. Trevor J. Saunders, emphasis original)

There are three things that are interesting about this passage in light of the previous discussion of the Greek attitude toward homosexuality and its relevance to New Testament interpretation: (1) The argument that homosexuality is wrong because unnatural, an argument implied by Romans 1:26-27 and still used in the debate today, was widely known among Greeks in the fourth century BC. (2) Most Greeks found this argument unpersuasive. (3) Plato makes explicit the condemnation of the "all-too-effiminate partner who plays the role of the woman" which, I argued, is relevant to Paul's decision to use two different words for homosexuality in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 (note that Plato also offers explicit criticism of both partners, though his condemnation of the malakos seems to be the stronger).

Posted by Kenny at January 1, 2007 7:23 PM
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Comments

For what it's worth, it should be noted that Plato's dialogues do not reflect ideas about pederasty that were held by "a majority of Greeks of his time." There are a few issues: 1) sexual practices and beliefs differed between Greek cities. Athens was especially known for cultivating pederasty, and from what we can tell, pederasty was not the same in Athens and in other Greek cities where it was widely practiced or accepted. 2) pederasty seems to have been largely confined to the wealthier classes, even in Athens. Of course, the nature of our evidence makes it difficult to come to very solid conclusions, but most scholars are agreed that pederasty was not widely practiced by people in the lower classes, and was even disdained by them. For an example of how confusing the whole mess can be, consider this: an Athenian citizen could lose his citizenship if a jury could be persuaded that he had been a passive participant in homosexual activity, even when he was a boy. It is tempting to conclude that men did not typically have sex with other male citizens, but all of the evidence about pederasty suggests otherwise. The whole thing is fairly complex.

There is a massive amount of scholarship on sexuality in ancient Greece, but probably the best place to start with it all is K.J. Dover's Greek Homosexuality. Dover tends to stray away from theorizing and to emphasize particular bits of evidence from texts and visual art. His approach has its weaknesses, but it is better to begin with him than with the more heavily theoretical work.

It is also worth noting that early Christian thought about sexuality would also have been influenced by Roman attitudes and practices, which were somewhat different from the Greek. Roman sexuality is often conflated with Greek sexuality even by scholars, but there are important differences of detail. Marilyn Skinner's Sexuality in Greek and Roman Culture would be a good place to begin; a more in-depth, but more specifically Roman, treatment of sexuality in general can be found in Rebecca Langlands' Sexual Morality in Ancient Rome.

Finally, you might have taken note of how bad Plato's argument in the Laws is. A genuine appeal to the behavior of non-human animals, for instance, would establish precisely the opposite conclusion that he wants. Of course, there is ample room for debate about the relevance of non-human animal behavior for the ethics of human sexuality. Plato's arguments on the subject tend not to be too great, however. It's also worth noticing that some of his arguments cut well against pederasty, but not homosexuality as such, while others tend to cut against an active sex life in general. Plato and St. Paul might have a good deal in common when it comes to sex, but Plato, at any rate, is no ally to those among our contemporaries who condemn homosexuality even as they valorize heterosexuality.

Posted by: Classicist at July 1, 2007 2:08 PM

Classicist - thank you for your very informative comment. I discuss some of the things you mention in the earlier post that is linked at the beginning of this one. That post contains many more details on what I think the relevance is for New Testament interpretation. This post was intended just as a quick addendum to that one.

Posted by: Kenny at July 3, 2007 6:31 PM

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