Monday, June 15, 2015

Plato and Marriage Redefinition

I majored in Classical Languages in my B.A. program, and despite the fact that it made me perhaps less employable than not having any degree at all, I have never regretted the decision, for a variety of reasons.

One of the reasons I appreciate the study of the Classics is that it provides some perspective from which to evaluate and analyze contemporary culture.  To enter into the world of ancient Greek literature, for example, is to enter a society and culture quite different from twenty-first century America.  By doing so, I became more aware that many of the values, opinions, and customs that Americans accept as obvious or natural, were not shared by all people at all times, and are in fact the product of our unique cultural and intellectual history.

One of the shocking aspects for Christian students of the Classics—at least it used to be shocking—is to discover the widespread practice and approval of same-sex physical relationships among ancient Greeks.  Take, for example, the term “Platonic relationship.”  If modern people have heard of this concept, they think it refers to a non-sexual friendship between a man and a woman.  But Plato was not actually much concerned with male-female relationships.  The discourses he wrote which gave rise to the terms “Platonic love” or “Platonic relationship” were actually advocating non-sexual friendships between men.  Male-to-male eroticism was widely practiced among elite Greek men in Plato’s day; in fact, it was assumed that the ideal love relationship between to human beings was not between a husband and wife, but between an older man and younger (usually adolescent) man.  

Plato didn’t really care for sexual acts between men, because he regarded sexual desire and passion essentially as an irrational appetite that had little to nothing to do with true love.  If men loved each other, in Plato's view, they ought to form a friendship founded on a common commitment to seek out truth, beauty, and virtue —not perform sexual acts with each other.  So Plato's mouthpiece Socrates dialogues with Glaucon in the Republic:

Socrates: “But let me ask you another question: Has excess of pleasure any affinity to temperance?”

Glaucon: “How can that be”? he replied; “Pleasure deprives a man of the use of his faculties quite as much as pain.”

Socrates: “Or any affinity to virtue in general?”

Glaucon: “None whatever.”

Socrates: “Any affinity to wantonness and intemperance?”

Glaucon: “Yes, the greatest.” 

Socrates: “And is there any greater or keener pleasure than that of sexual love (lit. ‘the things of Aphrodite’)?”

Glaucon: “No, nor a madder.”

Socrates: “Whereas true love is a love of beauty and order—temperate and harmonious?”

Glaucon: “Quite true,” he said.

Socrates: “Then no intemperance or madness should be allowed to approach true love?”

Glaucon: “Certainly not.

Socrates: “Then mad or intemperate pleasure must never be allowed to come near the lover and his beloved; neither of them can have any part in it if their love is of the right sort?”

Glaucon: “No, indeed, Socrates, it must never come near them.”

Socrates: “Then I suppose that in the city which we are founding you would make a law to the effect that a lover may seek the company of his beloved and, with his consent, kiss and embrace him like a son, with honorable intent, but must never be suspected of any further familiarity, on pain of being thought ill-bred and without any delicacy of feeling.”

Glaucon: “I quite agree,” he said.

So, in Plato’s view, sex between an older and younger man—the primary form of male-to-male sexuality practiced among the Greeks—was coarse and vulgar, because sexual passion was intemperate and irrational in its nature, and thus not in keeping with “true love, which is a love of beauty and order.”

Whether one finds Plato’s argument compelling or not, it is nonetheless provocative in the current Western cultural context, where it is frequently asserted that the only arguments against the practice of male-to-male sex acts are religious ones.  Plato’s objection is not based on religion, but his philosophical worldview, and, perhaps, his observations of social reality.

In Greek culture of Plato’s day, men did not marry each other.  This was not due to prejudice against men having sex with men.  Far from it!  If anything, male-to-male sex acts were more common and accepted in ancient Greek elite culture than they are in most modern nations.  Instead, the issue was that male-male marriage simply did not make any sense to the ancient Greek mind.  The purpose of marriage was to produce children, to establish a family, and to perpetuate one’s name, lineage, and memory through heirs.  The Greeks noticed that male-to-male sex acts rarely led to conception and birth.  Since a sexual relationship with another man could not produce children, heirs, or family, the Greek elite had no need or desire to “marry” another man.  In a very famous court speech prosecuting the notorious courtesan (“call girl”) Neaera, the Attic orator Demosthenes summed up ancient Greek views of the various intimate relationships that might exist between a man and a woman, which were primarily three:

"For this is what living with a woman in marriage is: for a man to beget children by her and present his sons to his fellow clansmen and members of his district and to give daughters as his own in marriage to their husbands. Courtesans (Gk hetairas) we have for pleasure, concubines for daily service to our bodies, but wives for the procreation of legitimate children and to be faithful guardians of the household."—Demosthenes, “Against Neaera”

Interestingly, Demosthenes lists no intimate relationship with a woman which is for the sake of love.  Courtesans are for pleasure, concubines for bodily needs, and wives for children.  Love, however, was usually pursued with a younger man, as we see above in the extract from Plato, where the older man and younger man are referred to as “loving” and “being loved” respectively.  (It would be interesting to contrast Greek views with St. Paul's teaching on marriage in Eph. 5:21-33, but lack of time prohibits us from developing the point.)

So we can affirm that it is not from prejudice, bigotry, and hatred of homosexuals that ancient Greek society did not practice male-to-male marriage.  We can affirm this for more than one reason.

First of all, the category “homosexual,” as well as others such as “bisexual,” were not known among the ancient Greeks.  The Greeks developed advanced philosophical systems, but did not know of a category of “sexual orientation.”  Men did not think of themselves a belonging to a category “homosexual” or “bisexual” because they had a sexual relationship with a boy or teenager.  The concepts of “sexual orientation,” “homosexuality,” “bisexuality,” and the such like are modern social constructs.  That is to say, they are recently invented categories by which persons in modern Western society perceive reality, but they are not biological or material realities recognized by all cultures.  For more on this, click here.

The idea that one is “born gay” due to genetics is known to be false from several lines of research.  Some of the most compelling research has been done on male identical twins in Australia, where the presence of same-sex attraction had only around an 11% rate of correlation.  That is, if one twin experienced attraction to persons of the same sex, there was only an 11% or lower chance that the other twin would also manifest same-sex attraction.  Since identical twins are genetically identical, if same-sex attraction were genetically determined, there should be close to a 100% correlation between twins on this characteristic.  Therefore, we can say confidently that genetics play only a small role in the development of what we commonly call “homosexuality”—probably about the same role genetics plays in any of our personal desires and preferences.  For a survey of the peer-reviewed studies, with analysis, click here and here.

As mentioned above, gay academics themselves recognize that the category “homosexual” is a recent cultural phenomenon, and that no one is “born that way.”

In sum, ancient Greeks did not even have the concept of “homosexuals.”  Therefore, their lack of recognition of same-sex marriage could not have been due to hatred of a category of person they did not even have.

Secondly, Greek society was largely controlled by a male elite, most of whom would be categorized in our thought system as “bisexuals,” because of their free sexual activity with both women and boys.  They could hardly have forbidden homosexual “marriage” out of hatred of themselves. 

During the oral arguments on [gay marriage] before the Supreme Court some weeks ago, a somewhat frustrated Justice Alito asked the lead attorney for proponents of redefining marriage to include same-sex unions whether it could really be the case that every society in human history prior to about the year 2000 had defined marriage as a union between a man and woman solely because of “invidious and improperly motivated discrimination.”  Mary Bonauto, the lead attorney, responded: “Times can blind.”  Indeed, Ms. Bonauto.  Including our own time.

Actually, Mary Bonauto knows full well that not all societies defined marriage as between a man and a woman out of “invidious discrimination.”  In fact, probably none did.  Mary Bonauto is a very smart, well-educated woman who surely did the background research before presenting her case before the Supreme Court, including reading the briefs of her opponents.  She is aware, for example, that Greek society was controlled by men whom we would characterize as “bisexuals,” and that nonetheless they did not recognize same-sex “marriage” because it was completely contrary to what they perceived the purpose and ends of marriage to be.  So she wisely gave an ambiguous answer to Alito’s question.  “Times can blind,” is a truism that means nothing of relevance: we can be blinded by our own time, just as much as every previous generation.  But I give Ms. Bonauto credit for not prevaricating by answering Alito’s question with a clear “Yes.”

No comments: