My topic concerns homoeroticism in Plato’s writings. Many modern readers of Plato become uncomfortable at the use of homoerotic examples of love in Symposium and Phaedrus and the uneasiness creates an intellectual barrier. I will proceed to give examples of the types of imagery he used, reasons why he used them, and the reasons why they were appropriate. Next, I will describe Plato’s ideas about the highest type of love. I will discuss the weakness in writing that is made evident with a change of audience and the importance of looking past the specific details to discover the underlying principles. Finally, I will conclude that the homoerotic elements used by Plato to describe his ideas about love were essential to the achievement of understanding with his pupils.
Plato used imagery of sexual as well as non-sexual relationships between males. He also referenced a specific type of relationship called pederasty - a relationship between an older man and a young boy outside the man’s immediate family that was an aristocratic means of educational and moral instruction. Plato offers examples of how lovers treat each other, usually in the lover/beloved pederast relationship of his culture. He used these images because the practice was common among his aristocratic pupils and he knew that they were familiar with it. I believe Plato used this teaching technique of relating an abstract concept to something familiar to the pupil because it is highly effective and it serves as a reference point as the pupil studies the concept in depth.
To the Ancient Greeks, males were esteemed to be of higher value to society than females. They had more civil rights and political power. They displayed a higher proportion of reason to emotion thus were considered higher souls and the closest to the gods. Relationships between men and women were inferior to the relationships between men on every level. Women were not seen as having anything of any importance to offer a man except a means to increasing his wealth, status or property, or in her performance of an inferior role such as cooking, cleaning, raising children and managing the affairs of the home. These contributions of women were inferior because they did not increase knowledge and philosophical understanding; instead they centered on inferior pleasures and bodily necessities. Men and women entered into sexual relationships only for the sake of continuing the race by conceiving children. Relationships between males (including, but not limited to sexual relationships alone) were of supreme importance in Greek society. They were more likely to result in philosophical discussion and inquiry which would lead to the elevation of the soul toward the divine. Plato described situations using these male relationships because men approach the divine as they reason together, learn about the world and revel in the Bacchic frenzy of philosophy.
Relationships between older adult males and young boys were the norm in Greek society. Young boys were desired for their beauty and were pursued by older men. The relationship was complex and included role modeling, nurturing, mentoring, teaching, and initiating into manhood. The older man showed loving patience to his beloved boy. They shared a passionate love for each other, but that passion was not always expressed sexually. It was the elements of loving patience, passion, teaching and concern for the welfare of the soul that Plato was drawing upon in the use of this imagery.
Plato seems to think that sexual desire and gratification play a key role, both as the initial launching platform for a journey that leads to knowledge of the Form of the Beautiful, and as an aid to communicating the intensity of the force involved in the pursuit of philosophical truth. In Symposium, Socrates explains how sexual desire and gratification may become the starting point in a process that enables man to progress from bodily gratifications to the contemplation and ultimately the understanding of universal truths. (Annas 46) I agree with Plato’s view that once desires and passions have been addressed, then those desires and passions no longer cause pain to the soul and progress can be made toward knowledge and reasoning. Sexual desire and gratification were useful illustrations for the intensity of the drive toward philosophy because they are similar in nature. “The drive to do philosophy has to come within you, and be genuine…it comes from within you in a way that cannot be deliberately produced, and, like love, it drives you to focus all your efforts to achieve an aim which you feel you cannot live without, however impossible attainment may seem.” (Annas 46) The yearning, longing, and the desire for completeness and wholeness that accompanies love are powerful images to draw upon in describing the ideal feelings and motivations toward knowledge and truth. Sexual imagery was also a key in communicating the importance of mutual benefit through argument and discussion and equal participation in philosophical activity. If only one partner gets the pleasure and participates fully, then exploitation becomes an issue both sexually and philosophically. This exploitation was not considered beneficial to the soul, and therefore not a worthwhile pursuit.
It now becomes clear that the Greek custom of pederasty contains within it all of the key elements Plato needed to achieve a common reference point for his pupils. The superiority of the male to the female, the importance of physical beauty, the mentoring of a loving, passionate guide, and the experience of sexual drives and desires were all demonstrated in this practice. Since erotic love is a concept central to understanding Beauty, it is important to establish definitions. The speeches on love contained in Symposium as well as Phaedrus attempt to include descriptions of Eros from different perspectives. Alcinous (pp 45 lines 26-32) clarifies the concept of erotic love further by breaking it into three classifications, based on their aims. The baser form of erotic love is directed only toward the body, dominated by pleasure and considered bestial in character. The highest form of erotic love is directed only at the soul itself for promoting virtue. The median role combines body and soul by being attracted to the body, but directed toward the beauty of the soul. Plato used these definitions of Eros to help his pupils to comprehend how to rise above the base desires of the body and to desire a love centered in truth and reason, which would lead to knowledge of the Forms.
In Symposium, Socrates shares with his friends the teaching of the priestess Diotima. It is from Diotima that Socrates learns how the rites of love, when followed correctly, lead to understanding the goal of Loving. Those who are pregnant in soul are those who have within themselves wisdom and virtue from a young age. At the appropriate age, these pregnant souls desire to give birth to the wisdom and virtue within them, and they are initially attracted to beauty because of the beauty within themselves. First they are drawn to beautiful bodies, and if they are lucky they are also attracted to beautiful, noble and well-formed (well-proportioned) souls. Led by these beautiful bodies containing well-proportioned souls, the virtuous youth learns that “wild gaping after just one body is a small thing and despise it” (Symposium 210b) and becomes a lover of all beautiful bodies. The next step in his progression is to learn that “the beauty of people’s souls is more valuable than the beauty of their bodies” (Symposium 210c) and the beauty of bodies as unimportant. He instead finds contentment in seeking to make young men better. From beautiful souls he learns about beautiful laws, activities, and customs. These particular beautiful things help him to understand the beauty of knowledge, and “he is turned to the great sea of beauty, and gazing upon this, he gives birth to many gloriously beautiful ideas and theories, in unstinting love of wisdom” (Symposium 210e) – he learns of Beauty itself. But these glorious ideas and theories are only images of virtue. Through love, he has come to understand Beauty itself, and while learning of Beauty, he catches a glimpse of the Form of the Beautiful. Only after knowing the Form of the Beautiful, can the virtuous youth give birth to true virtue. Then, as he nourishes true virtue, he will have the love of the gods and become immortal, which, according to Diotima, is the goal of Loving.
In Phaedrus, Plato, through Socrates, exposes his Achilles heel concerning writing. These weaknesses are clearly evident when discussing his writings on love. He asserts that written words are impotent for writing on the soul because discourse, questioning and clarification of ideas are impossible. A writer cannot control who becomes his audience. A different audience is likely to have different points of reference, customs, and values than the author’s original. The focus of the new audience becomes misdirected from the original intent when common reference points disappear. This is a major problem with works like Symposium and Phaedrus. Readers who cannot get past the homoerotic elements end up denying themselves the opportunity for philosophical insight. When the homosexual and pedophilic elements are removed, the general principles remain and can be used to communicate Plato’s ideas about beauty, philosophy, love, the soul and the Forms.
In my reading of Symposium and Phaedrus, I discovered that the best kind of Erotic love requires good souls with a proper proportion of reason and emotion. Physical attraction is initially important to the souls, but its emphasis decreases over time. Sexual desire and gratification can be a tool for lovers to recognize the drive toward increasing knowledge and reason through philosophy. The qualities of loving patience, teaching and humility are essential for love to rise above its basest form. Deep friendship can be created when lovers look beyond the physical pleasures and discuss with each other how they can live a good life together. Between lovers, the highest value should be placed on the soul, not the body of their beloved. Philosophical discussion benefits and enlarges the souls of lovers and enables them to approach the divine. I agree with all of these ideas, and my experience in my marriage of 25 years confirms them.
Plato and I come from very different times and cultures, so we part ways concerning homosexual relationships, the value of women in a society, the use of pedophilia to initiate boys into adulthood. It seems for him that the ends - immortality, or even the knowledge of the Forms - justified the means. In my time and culture, and with my religious values, immortality and approaching the divine are obtainable without homosexuality, pedophilia, and the subjection of more than half the population. In his romanticizing of homoerotic love, Plato does not address the instability it brings into a society. Neither does he address homosexuality’s tendency to remain in its basest form by emphasizing gender blurring and superficial beauty. While Plato was philosophizing about the silver lining in pedophilia, he missed the destructive elements perpetuated by the rank and file of lesser ideals who were exploiting young boys and damaging the self-esteem of those considered ugly. While women in Greece had civil rights, they were judged by the standards of men. They were not valued for doing what women do better than men; they were praised when they came close to being like a man. I guess women who were rational, wise, just and virtuous were as rare in Greece as men who could look beyond superficial beauty and concern themselves only with the soul.
Even though we have different values, with effort I was still able to come away from my readings of Symposium and Phaedrus enlightened, entertained and enriched. But they weren’t written for me. They were lessons intended to teach his pupils 2000 years ago. The homoerotic elements used by Plato to describe his ideas about love, though problematic and uncomfortable for the modern reader to read, were essential to the achievement of understanding with his pupils. He needed to give them a common ground on which to build an abstract, complex idea. The foundation he put in place enabled his students to relate what he was teaching them to something familiar in their life – something they all had experience with. They transposed those feelings and ideas onto abstract philosophical ideas that are difficult to conjure even for the most learned men. There are beautiful ideas concerning the timeless subject of love in Plato’s writings. Understanding his customs and his choice of examples, even though we don’t agree with them, is the first step toward understanding those beautiful ideas. (Works Cited Available on Request)