Plato Does Colorado: Were the Ancient Greeks Modern Gays?

In the current controversies over homosexuality and gay rights, much attention has been devoted to the example of ancient Greece. Most college students today do not study the classical world in depth, and many have been told categorically that the Greek and Roman cultures were sexist, elitist, imperialist, racist, and oppressive — in a word, Eurocentric.

However, a vague impression also exists that, prior to its repression by Christianity, homosexuality enjoyed an untroubled, even honored, place in classical times, particularly in Athens. For the purpose of contemporary polemics, Athenian achievements in politics, art, and philosophy have been invoked as powerful proof that public acceptance of homosexuality, far from indicating a decline in our civilization, might actually promise humanistic renewal. The ancient Athenians celebrated homosexuality, and Athens, despite slavery and phallocracy, was one of the truly great human communities.

The Athenian example is so convincing that it has even been entered as evidence in recent lawsuits. For example, in the fall of 1993, distinguished historians of ancient Greece and eminent moral philosophers appeared in a suit brought by various individuals (including celebrities like Martina Navratilova) against the state of Colorado for its constitutional amendment which overturned municipal gay-rights ordinances. The prominent Brown University classicist Martha Nussbaum appeared for the plaintiffs; Harvey Mansfield of Harvard and John Finnis of Oxford, along with several other well-known scholars, testified for the defendants. The latter argued that the great philosophers of classical Athens opposed homosexual acts. Professor Nussbaum claimed an opposite consensus among specialists in Greek thought. At stake was the question of whether legal restrictions on homosexual conduct rest on a rational basis or, rather, are the product of mere prejudice or Christian theology, particularly, as Nussbaum’s affidavit put it, “of a philosophical and moral tradition associated with one branch of Christianity: Roman Catholicism.”

These are heady issues to present in an American courtroom; and to read the testimony is to become aware of how utterly incapable most American lawyers and judges are of understanding, let alone adjudicating, such conflicts. Nevertheless, it appears that when we litigate over homosexuality now, the names of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon, and Demosthenes may become — if not as common in our mouths as household words — almost as common as references to Kinsey, Hite, and Masters and Johnson. Yet classical scholarship will not settle these issues. A subject as complex as homosexuality and Greek society, when studied closely will, of course, reveal subtleties and differences that are not captured by rough historical characterization. On the one hand, the current assumption that homosexual desire was common and accepted within certain social classes in ancient Athens is right — anyone who has ever read Plato’s Symposium knows that. On the other hand, the claim that homosexual lifestyles as currently practiced were also common and accepted is wrong — or at best highly misleading — and should be known to be such by any careful student of the ancient world.

Social mores in Athens did not condone casual sex with multiple partners; moreover, longterm, monogamous homosexual unions, where they were tolerated, did not exactly have equal status with heterosexual marriage and families. Ancient Greek literature, philosophy, and history bear witness to the central social position of male/female households. K.J. Dover, the most eminent living historian on this subject, and an open sympathizer with current liberalizing tendencies, writes in his book, Greek Homosexuality: “On growing up, in any Greek community, the eromenos [the younger, passive object of the attentions of the erastes, an older male] graduated from pupil to friend, and the continuance of an erotic relationship was disapproved, as was such a relationship between coevals.”

This passage explains the most salient difference between same-sex relations in ancient Greece and today. The typical couple in a Greek homoerotic relationship consisted of a man in love with a boy in his teens. (This relationship may or may not have included sexual acts, and both the ambiguity and reticence on this physical dimension were a central part of Athenian mores.) Dover explains that the terms boy and man will mislead us if we take them in their present-day meanings. Often, in ancient Greece, a fully grown but still “beardless” male drew the attentions of the mature, “bearded” adult. However, these categories were somewhat elastic: shaving, for instance, was one way to prolong “boy” status a little longer in the Greek erotic system. In theory, the romantic impulse was supposed to inspire excellence in the adult that the youth would admire and imitate. In practice, the question of what physical acts should or should not accompany this admiration was complicated by several factors. Nowhere is this clearer than in Plato himself.

Two of Plato’s dialogues, the Symposium and the Phaedrus, are most often cited by those who argue that the Greeks thought homosexual activity noble. But a careful reading does not give much comfort to those who hope to find support for contemporary gay liberation. While the popular and élite morality may have ambiguously accepted some homosexual activity, Plato was inclined to think that homosexual acts would vitiate the ideal good of same-sex love. In her book The Fragility of Goodness, Professor Nussbaum acknowledged Plato’s prohibition on same-sex acts and argued that Plato may have missed an important good in stopping short of physical consummation. Indeed, she went so far as to dissociate herself in a footnote from the “prejudice” of Plato and his interlocutors. Curiously, in the Colorado trial, she argued that scholars had concluded that Plato only disapproved of sex between pupil and teacher — a view she mistakenly attributes to K.J. Dover — and stated that, in general, the Greeks only worried when someone played the passive homosexual role over a whole lifetime. None of this, however, seems an accurate reflection of Greek mores in general or Plato’s thought in particular.

In the beginning of Plato’s Symposium, we read a matter-of-fact statement by a homosexual lover named Pausanias, which no other participant in the dialogue disputes:

while in all the other states of Hellas the laws that deal with Love are so simple and well defined that they are easy enough to master, our own code is most involved (poikilos). In Elis and Boeotia, for instance, and wherever else the people are naturally inarticulate, it has been definitely ruled that it is right for the lover to have his way . . . the idea being, I suppose, to save themselves from having to plead with the young men for their favors, which is rather difficult for lovers who are practically dumb.

Having had his fun and established the one extreme at the expense of the knuckledraggers among the Greek city-states, Pausanias describes the opposite extreme:

On the other hand in Ionia and many other countries under oriental rule, the very same thing is held to be disgraceful. Indeed, the oriental thinks ill not only of Love but also of philosophy and sport, on account of the despotism under which he lives.

Somewhere between these extremes lies Athens:

But in Athens, gentlemen, we have a far more admirable code, a code which, as I was saying, is not nearly so easy to understand.

Pausanias goes on to try to distinguish between Pandemian Aphrodite, a base impulse, and Uranian Aphrodite, a noble goddess whom boys should respect.

If this code was poikilos and difficult for the people living under it to understand, it is much more so for us who have different assumptions about law, nature, sexuality, and the relationship of the erotic to philosophy and politics. Far from being free, untroubled, and guiltless, as some people argue, Athenian sexuality between males was, like all sexuality in all societies with which we are familiar, bound up with passionate issues of identity, meaning, and morals. Parents, for example, did not look kindly on the attentions of even Pausanias’s “virtuous” Uranian lovers, too many unintended consequences might result. Pausanias states:

In view of this [the partly favorable evaluation of the lover in the Athenian moral code], one would have thought that, here if anywhere, loving and being kind to one’s lover would have been positively applauded. Yet we find in practice that if a fatherdiscovers that someone has fallen in love with his son, he puts the boy in charge of an attendant, with strict instructions not to let him have anything to do with his lover. And if the boy’s little friends and playmates see anything of that kind going on, you may be sure they’ll call him names, while their elders will neither stop their being rude nor tell them they are talking nonsense.

Pausanias goes on to say that if there were no more to the whole business than that, anyone would be right to think that Athenians were shocked at the idea of gratifying a lover. But we never find out why parents were so cautious and what acts, if any, the boy might perform without legal or moral fault.


Zero-sum Sex

The Greek legal system seems to have taken little notice of sexual acts per se. Private resort to heterosexual or homosexual prostitutes, or even to liaisons outside of wedlock were not proscribed by law. But what was done in private was not wholly outside public interest. Pericles, for example, formed a long-term alliance with the distinguished courtesan Aspasia who may actually have helped rather than harmed his political career. But he was something of an exception. For the most part, questions about “character” and what private behavior indicated about public trustworthiness came very much to the fore as soon as someone tried to assume public responsibilities. Anyone who had wasted a fortune or appeared to be the slave of pleasure of any type gave opponents a prima facie case that he could not bear a public trust. If he did not even have enough self-control to guarantee his own private welfare, how would he find the virtues necessary to watch over the commonweal?

For the Greeks, although having a “reputation” meant moral disapproval, it also meant far more. Since self-command was so strongly preached in Greece for its contribution both to the happiness of the person and to the preservation of the polis, anything that suggested passivity, submission, or the softening of virtue was discouraged. Conviction for homosexual prostitution, for example, disqualified the “boy” from future participation in politics. The ideal erastes-eromenos relationship was never to deal in sordid pay-for-play of this type. But as that wily observer Aristophanes has one of his characters observe of prostitution and “chaste” love in the Plutus:

And they say that the boys do the same, not for their lovers but for gold. Not those of good family, but the prostitutes. The well-bred ones don’t ask for money. What then? A good horse or hunting dogs. Being ashamed to ask for money they disguise their vice with a name.

One of the assumptions that lies behind statements like these is that there is no reciprocal desire as we find it in modern gay relationships. Even on the most permissive level, the beloved may gratify the lover out of respect and admiration, but it would be thought abnormal and shameful if he took any pleasure in the passive role — hence the ambivalence about motives.

As David Cohen has argued in his Law, Sexuality and Society: The Enforcement of Morals in Classical Athens, we should not try to find any more consistency between theory and practice than actually existed. Passivity was a mark of submission, and the Athenian citizen who submitted to another lost prestige in a zero-sum system. The citizen who was penetrated anally or played the passive (i.e., “woman’s”) role in some fashion was diminished thereby. The citizen who caused another citizen to submit, even if some willingness existed on his part, might be accused of “hubris” toward a political equal. Some scholars believe that the standing, face-to-face, intercrural masturbation attested to in vase paintings was common because it avoided some of the social stigma attached to acts involving penetration and submission.

In this system, sex in general, whatever its romantic and ideal components, also unavoidably involved some negative characteristics. In a particularly bitter passage of his Memorabilia, for example, Xenophon compares a person who seeks sex with a boy to a pig scratching himself against stones. As one literary scholar has recently observed, there has been a recent academic upsurge in interest toward what are called the late “Greek romances” because they “offer an alternative ideology to the cruelty, dominance, and inequality that seem universally to define ancient sexuality.” All this is worth keeping in mind in any comparison of ancient and modern homosexuality.

We might recall here the famous charge in ancient Athens that “Socrates corrupted the youth.” Much of Plato, of course, is devoted to directly and indirectly refuting this popular perception as it was understood at the time. In modern sexual terms, however, it is clear that Socrates was one of the most steadfast opponents of “corrupting the youth.” In the Symposium, there are several speakers and some of them seem to approve of homosexual acts. A few scholars have tried to make the case that Plato took no final position himself, but was merely trying to sort out the proper kinds of behavior in the life-changing experience of homosexual romance. The late Allan Bloom, for example, particularly emphasized the textual centrality of Aristophanes’ well-known myth about man’s offense against the gods which led to formerly whole human beings being cleft in two. Since then, we all passionately seek our other half; some seek it in the opposite sex, others in the same sex, all ultimately seek a lost wholeness.

It is useful to notice Aristophanes’ position at the mid-point of this dialogue, but textual architecture cannot substitute for a close reading of the whole text. Interpretations based on such ingenuity seem forced, modern projections on a text deriving from far different moral and social assumptions. In the Symposium, Socrates is, as usual, the central figure from beginning to end, even if he does not occupy some Straussian “central” place in the geography of the text. And the portrait we get from Plato of Socrates’ morals is quite different than the portrait we get of popular morals from Pausanias.

After the praises of love have been heard from various voices, Socrates himself tells of how he once learned from a female oracle, Diotima, that love for a boy should be converted into love for the transcendent beautiful and good in themselves, restraining and going beyond physical desire. This is clearly meant to be an indirect rebuttal of Aristophanes and later interpreters like Bloom. Socrates says Diotima told him: “I know it has been suggested . . . that lovers are people who are looking for their other halves, but as I see it, Socrates, Love never longs for either the half or the whole of anything except the good. For men will have their hands and feet cut off if they are once convinced that those members are bad for them.” Here Plato’s Socrates sounds more like the Jesus of “If thy hand offend thee . . .” than is usually noticed by scholars who come to the text with contemporary interests.

Socrates’ position is further reinforced by the appearance of the drunken Alcibiades during Socrates’ discourse. One of Alcibiades’ sharpest complaints about Socrates in the Symposium is that even when he (by all accounts the most beautiful and widely sought after young man of his day) became obsessed with Socrates and tried to seduce him, they lay together under the same cloak for an entire night, but Socrates did nothing:

he had the insolence, the infernal arrogance, to laugh at my youthful beauty and jeer at the one thing I was really proud of gentleman of the jury — I say “jury” because that’s what you’re here for, to try the man Socrates on the charge of arrogance — and believe it, gentlemen, or believe it not, when I got up the next morning I had no more slept with Socrates, within the meaning of the act, than if he’d been my father or an elder brother. . . . You can guess what I felt like after that. I was torn between my natural humiliation and my admiration for his manliness and self-control, for this was strength of mind such as I had never hoped to meet.

As Michel Foucault rightly noted about this dialogue, what the speakers do not realize is that “they only love Socrates to the extent that he is capable of resisting their seduction,” particularly because Socrates describes himself as highly sensitive to the bite of eros. His self-control seemed all the more manly and admirable to them.

Both the Symposium and the Phaedrus are thought to be early texts that reflect the younger Plato’s tender, poetic understanding of the nobility of love. In them, Professor Nussbaum has argued, Plato’s only worries were about who might exploit a teacher-student relationship. In this view, Socrates refused Alcibiades in order to teach him a philosophic lesson. But all such attempts to save the appearances in service to contemporary causes founder on a full reading of the text. While prevailing sexual mores provide the context for these dialogues, Plato continually seems to sense a contradiction in the sexual acts between males and the love that inspires the ascent toward vision which he most prizes.

In fact, the scholarly authorities have almost universally recognized as much. In a private letter to John Finnis, Kenneth Dover stated categorically: “It is certainly my opinion that the Socrates of Plato and Xenophon condemned homosexual copulation as such, and did not confine the prohibition to any particular relationships.” Dover went on to specify that in Greek Homosexuality he had argued that Plato condemned all same-sex acts, not merely those between teachers and students. Dover joins Nussbaum in thinking that Plato is wrong in his judgement of such acts, but he regards it as important to state Plato’s views accurately, which he characterizes thus:

he expected any normal male to experience homosexual desire, and he did not think that occasional copulation “in an unguarded moment” completely vitiated a non-physical relationship. It is like a temptation to commit adultery or various forms of dishonesty or violence; natural and normal to experience the temptation, but wrong to yield to it.

Dover’s reference to an unguarded moment refers to the Phaedrus, where Socrates seems to recognize that slips will happen now and then, especially after drinking. But like a wise old confessor, he gently suggests that “Such a pair as this are dear friends, but not so dear as that other pair,” who never consent to their physical urges.


Eros and Philosophy

Nussbaum argued in her affidavit that Plato showed no shame about homosexual desire, whatever his belief about practice, and cited the late Gregory Vlastos, among others, as having argued that chastity is merely a “pedagogical device.” This, however, seriously misrepresents Vlastos’s view. Drawing a useful distinction, Vlastos observed how erotic desire according to Plato will always be present as a spur in “Platonic love” which he defines as “a peculiar mix of sensuality, sentiment, and intellect — a companionship bonded by erotic attraction no less than by intellectual give-and-take. Body-to-body endearment is one of its normal features, though always subject to the constraint that terminal gratifications will be denied.” Plato concedes, says Vlastos, that the less philosophic will slip from this ideal “sternly mandatory for philosophers.” But if it only happens infrequently and they return to a higher path, Plato affirms, “Those who have once got started on the heavenward journey no law would send to the dark pathways under the earth.” All this, needless to say, is a good deal more substantial than a mere “pedagogical device.”

But Vlastos goes further. He astutely asks us to contemplate Plato’s own psyche and

the effect which Plato’s inversion would be likely to have on one who saw anal intercourse as ‘contrary to nature’, a degradation not only of man’s humanity, but even of his animality: even to brutes, Plato believes, ‘nature’ ordains heterosexual coupling. This thought would poison for him sensual gratification with anticipatory torment and retrospective guilt.

This goes beyond the mere question of what Plato said about same-sex romantic sentiments to the heart of the Colorado debate: was there a pre-Christian incipient natural-law view that prohibited homosexual acts as, in some sense, “unnatural”?


Against Nature?

In a late text, the Laws, Plato expresses a much more direct condemnation of same-sex acts. It has often been argued by modern scholars that the ancient Greeks did not sharply distinguish between heterosexual and homosexual desires. Both have been described as fitting into a single undivided erotic impulse that took different objects. In the Colorado dispute, Professor Nussbaum spent a great deal of time trying to explain the following passage:

[sexual] pleasure is held to have been granted by nature to male and female when conjoined for the work of procreation; the crime of male with male, or female with female is an outrage on nature and a capital surrender to lust of pleasure.

Among the many translations of the Laws, this one by A.E. Taylor is fairly typical in putting more moral heat into the criticism than exists in Plato’s Greek. At the Colorado trial, Nussbaum was correct to point out the moralistic editorializing in such translations. In the second half of the passage above, Plato says simply that people “seem to have given themselves” to male/male and female/female acts “against nature, and the daring of the first was through lack of self-control (akrasia) over pleasure.”

But the moralizing of some translators is minor compared to the interpretation Professor Nussbaum tried to place on this passage. Plato says just before this that some of the arguments he is using might be taken in earnest or in jest. Nussbaum and John Boswell, whose Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality received wide popular attention several years ago, believe this ambiguous qualification authorizes them to argue that maybe the whole thing is a joke. But the text of the Laws is available in many translations for those without Greek and readers may make up their mind for themselves about this passage and other condemnations of homosexuality in Book VIII. A fair interpreter would have to conclude that the context makes it clear that Plato is neither joking nor giving morally neutral descriptions.

Professor Nussbaum went on to make the dubious assertion that, even if we take the passage seriously, Plato does not mean “against nature” here but merely against birth. According to Nussbaum, he’s saying homosexual liaisons reduce population growth needed for colonization. In fact, the passage occurs in the middle of a discussion of the comparative “sobriety” of the different city-states in ancient Greece. (Laws, Book I) The Athenian even accuses the Spartans and Cretans of having introduced same-sex acts and inventing the story of Zeus’s kidnapping of Ganymede to justify their relations with boys.


Plato and Popes

This is an important passage for an appreciation of Plato’s mature thought and its relationship to subsequent moral arguments. If an ancient Greek arrived at a view that homosexuality was “against nature” or intrinsically intemperate, the current argument that prohibition of homosexual acts rests on religious rather than rational grounds appears demolished. In an appendix to his incisive book Love and Friendship in the Time of Plato and Aristotle, A.W. Price — like Nussbaum a scholar sympathetic to gay interests — notes that in the ideal community portrayed in the Republic, “About homosexual relations . . . Plato remains restrictive. No talk of erotic ‘necessity’ is applied to them.” Price goes on to lament that Plato resembles Pope Paul VI at many points in approving only of sexual activity in marriages oriented toward procreation. And he concludes that Plato’s drive toward self-mastery is admirable, but that the urge to legislate for others is less so: “to the extent that Plato is linked to John Paul II by a chain of influence, his heroism has cost others dear. Most of us must wish that his sexual prohibitions had never escaped from utopia; and yet, however questionable his grounding of them may be, in detail or in general, its integrity and originality invite from us all a detached curiosity and respect.”

John J. Winkler, another student of ancient sexuality with sympathies for current homosexual aspirations (Winkler died of AIDS as this article was being prepared), goes even further than Vlastos and Price. Plato, Winkler points out, not only rejects all same-sex acts, he even indicts the desire for them in the Laws and elsewhere (a rejection Winkler characterizes as “weird” given Greek mores). His restrictions on homosexuality are intended to make it as unthinkable as incest and are akin to his wish to banish the lying poets who made up tales about the shameful behavior of the gods. According to Winkler, Plato knew his proposal

to be a pipe-dream. Yet even though that dream, or rather nightmare, came true — and did so in the very terms employed in the Laws, with paederasty [sic] coming to be stigmatized as “unnatural” — what should stand out about Plato’s text is the despair there felt about the impossibility, almost the inconceivability of the project.

Presumably, Winkler’s “nightmare” refers to the gradual influence of biblical categories on pagan practice in the ancient world. But that influence on popular behavior, as Winkler has shown, already had ample precedent in pre-Christian philosophic thought. Winkler, however, takes up an attack different from Dover’s avowed disagreement with Plato or Nussbaum’s attempt to explain away certain passages. Winkler belongs to the postmodern current that sees concepts such as gender, nature, and custom as radically “constructed.” He therefore asks: in the cacophony of diverse voices that made up ancient Athens — popular, elite, libertarian, and puritanical — why should we regard any voice as authoritative? He tries to dismiss the philosophers as relatively unimportant in Greek society. Aristophanes and the other comic writers, far from respecting philosophers, find them easy butts for their jokes.

All this was true then. Now, however, how many of us would have the same esteem for ancient Greece if Socrates, Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle, and others had not been part of the record? We would have some reasons for aesthetic admiration; but would even Greek art and literature have been as influential on us if the notions of harmonious self-mastery and, thus, self-government to which the philosophers give the most elaborate witness, had not been present in Greek society?


A Pre-Christian Critique

In this regard, Nussbaum put herself in a difficult position, even if the legal decision in Colorado did not indicate it. Unlike Winkler, she values ancient philosophy highly, but claims that only with the advent of Christianity did strong moral objections to homosexual acts arise. Yet, in addition to the passages in Plato and Xenophon already discussed, we have statements against homosexual behavior of a more cursory kind in Aristotle. Furthermore, a strong critique may be found in Plutarch, whom Nussbaum oddly characterized as “no good evidence for Greek traditions, since he lives in an era already strongly influenced by Christianity.” (Plutarch died in 126 A.D., and only someone very unfamiliar with ecclesial history could think the then still tiny and persecuted religious movement could have had much impact on him.)

Even more damaging is Nussbaum’s admission in her affidavit that Cicero criticized homosexuality:

Cicero is, while a distinguished thinker, hardly representative of popular culture, since he is a determined critic of prevailing moral views and proudly proclaims his distance from prevailing moral views. It seems to me somewhat similar to taking Pat Robertson to be the best source for contemporary American moral views, though Cicero is immersed in elite intellectual culture in a way Robertson is not.

Perhaps. But Cicero died in 43 B.C. trying, as an honorable skeptic, to save the Roman Republic. Whatever we think of his views, he presents one further problem for the contention that no secular, rational arguments against homosexuality existed in pre-Christian antiquity. We also know that the first-century Roman Stoic Musonius Rufus, Epictetus’s philosophy teacher, prohibited all sex acts but those between husband and wife. Other distinguished examples of this same attitude exist. In other words, many rational, non-religious, pre-Christian critiques of homosexuality can be found among some rather eminent figures in the ancient world. To dismiss them as merely educated precursors of Pat Robertson is not an argument — it is an ad hominem attack.

A serious question must arise in light of this evidence: popular culture is not a guide in such issues because popular culture, at any time, is not an argument. Cicero’s plebs no more represent an authentic rationality than does the current population of San Francisco. We may believe that popular mores reflect an implicit use of practical reasoning, but the argument remains to be spelled out. Even then, “popular” mores can be argued both ways in the current debate over homosexuality and the law. Where the arguments were explicitly made, some of the key figures in pre-Christian natural law theory seem to pit themselves directly against popular practices then and now.

Of course, we can always argue: Why do we care what some Greek philosophers, with far different assumptions about nature and the malleability of human nature, thought about sexuality 2500 years ago? (Even in their own time they were not regarded as lovable benefactors. Socrates was executed, Plato prudently withdrew from politics, and Aristotle went into exile “lest the Athenians sin twice against philosophy.”) There is no simple answer to this question and everyone who takes Greek thought seriously will have to grapple with it for himself. How much of what we admire about Athens is bound up with its alleged easy sexual practices and how much is the fruit of a new spirit engaged in the painful, slow elaboration of political and moral philosophy?

What we cannot do, however, is find a simple warrant for current sexual proclivities in the real history of ancient Greece. During the centuries between Homer and the classical age, the Greeks developed, in addition to philosophy, a variety of mystical cults which seemed to parallel religious notions with which we are familiar. In his great book The Greeks and the Irrational, for example, E.R. Dodds devotes a chapter to what he calls “Greek Shamanism and Puritanism.” We do not know much about these religious practices, but we do find dualistic notions of the soul entombed in a body, and the need for purification of some outrage perpetrated before the current age and touching all humanity. In other words, at least some of the Greeks had arrived at something vaguely like a notion of Original Sin. (Simone Weil noted that Aristophanes’ tale in the Symposium of whole persons cut in half depends, even in its partly humorous formulation, on a myth of a fall involving sexuality and punishment by the gods.) While this mentality had weakened considerably by the classical age, it had not entirely disappeared in the tragic poets or in popular consciousness. Dover notes in a study of ancient Greek popular morals that there were restrictions on sex before religious rites in some cults, as there were popular devotees of chastity. In other words, the great postmodern quest to find a pre-Christian culture with a sexuality — heterosexual or homosexual — untroubled by guilt, shame, and cosmic sunderings will not find its Holy Grail in ancient Greece.

What are we ultimately to make of this complex situation of common morals and philosophic distinctions? While ancient practice and theory cannot be strictly compared with their 20th-century counterparts, some eminent Greek thinkers show much more continuity with traditional Western sexual morality than they do with current attempts at liberation from what are believed to be sectarian, biblical norms. Those with a will to find good news for modern gays in ancient Greece or pagan Rome can certainly find isolated bits of evidence for their views. But the evidence will largely have to come from popular practices and secondary thinkers. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Xenophon, and Cicero (no mean philosophical crew), in spite of difficulties and complexities in interpreting them to a modern audience, cannot be enlisted as forerunners of modern gay liberation. Their arguments are far closer, as has been long thought, to what some now dismiss as a merely bigoted sexual morality.


  • Robert Royal

    Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...