What Would the Greeks Have Thought of Gay Marriage?

shutterstock_18186673It is ironic that the proponents of homosexuality so often point to ancient Greece as their paradigm because of its high state of culture and its partial acceptance of homosexuality or, more accurately, pederasty. Though some ancient Greeks did write paeans to homosexual love, it did not occur to any of them to propose homosexual relationships as the basis for marriage in their societies. The only homosexual relationship that was accepted was between an adult male and a male adolescent. This relationship was to be temporary, as the youth was expected to get married and start a family as soon as he reached maturity.

The idea that someone was a “homosexual” for life or had this feature as a permanent identity would have struck them as more than odd. In other words, “homosexuality”, for which a word in Greek did not exist at the time (or in any other language until the late 19th century), was purely transitory. It appears that many of these mentoring relationships in ancient Greece were chaste and that the ones that were not rarely involved sodomy. Homosexual relationships between mature male adults were not accepted. This is hardly the idealized homosexual paradise that contemporary “gay” advocates harken back to in an attempt to legitimize behavior that would have scandalized the Greeks.

What is especially ironic is that ancient Greece’s greatest contribution to Western civilization was philosophy, which discovered that the mind can know things, as distinct from just having opinions about them, that objective reality exists, and that there is some purpose implied in its construction.

The very idea of Nature and natural law arose as a product of this philosophy, whose first and perhaps greatest exponents, Socrates and Plato, were unambiguous in their condemnation of homosexual acts as unnatural. In the Laws, Plato’s last book, the Athenian speaker says that, “I think that the pleasure is to be deemed natural which arises out of the intercourse between men and women; but that the intercourse of men with men, or of women with women, is contrary to nature, and that the bold attempt was originally due to unbridled lust.” (Laws636C; see also Symposium of Xenophon, 8:34, Plato’s Symposium, 219B-D).

For Socrates, the sight of beauty is not to be taken as something in itself, but as a reflection of divine Beauty and the ultimate Good toward which Eros directs the soul. It is an error, therefore, to be diverted by the reflection in one’s search for the ultimate Good, which is the source of beauty. Beauty stirs and awakens the soul, but it is philosophy that provides the means of perceiving and coming to know the Good.

As a consequence of this metaphysical view, Socrates sees the erotic attraction of a grown man (erastes) for a beautiful male youth (eromenos or paidika) within the perspective of the erotic drive for wisdom. This drive will be thwarted by a life of self-indulgence and can proceed only with a life of self-discipline. Therefore, the relationship between the erastes and the eromenos should be of the older enlightening the younger in philosophical education. This means that any physical touching by the older man of the younger must be in regards to the latter “as a son,” as Socrates puts it, and not further than that.

What went further than that, Socrates condemned. He loathed sodomy. According to Xenophon in The Memorabilia (i 2.29f.), Socrates saw that Kritias was sexually importuning the youth of whom Kritias was enamored, “wanting to deal with him in the manner of those who enjoy the body for sexual intercourse”. Socrates objected that “what he asks is not a good thing.” Socrates said that, “Kritias was no better off than a pig if he wanted to scratch himself against Euthydemos as piglets do against stones.”

In Phaedrus (256 a-b), Socrates makes clear the moral superiority of the loving male relationship that avoids being sexualized: “If now the better elements of the mind, which lead to a well-ordered life and to philosophy, prevail, they live a life of happiness and harmony here on earth, self-controlled and orderly, holding in subjection that which causes evil in the soul and giving freedom to that which makes for virtue…”

By their chastity, these Platonic lovers have, according to another translation of the text, “enslaved” the source of moral evil in themselves and “liberated” the force for good. This was the kind of mentoring relationship of which Socrates and Plato approved. On the other hand, “he who is forced to follow pleasure and not good (239c)” because he is enslaved to his passions will perforce bring harm to the one whom he loves because he is trying to please himself, rather than seeking the good of the other.

In the Laws, Plato makes clear that moral virtue in respect to sexual desire is not only necessary to the right order of the soul, but is at the heart of a well-ordered polis. The Athenian speaker says:

“… I had an idea for reinforcing the law about the natural use of the intercourse which procreates children, abstaining from the male, not deliberately killing human progeny or ‘sowing in rocks and stones’, where it will never take root and be endowed with growth, abstaining too from all female soil in which you would not want what you have sown to grow.

“This law when it has become permanent and prevails—if it has rightly become dominant in other cases, just as it prevails now regarding intercourse with parents— confers innumerable benefits. In the first place, it has been made according to nature; also, it effects a debarment from erotic fury and insanity, all kinds of adultery and all excesses in drink and food, and it makes man truly affectionate to their own wives: other blessings also would ensue, in infinite number, if one could make sure of this law.” (The Laws 838-839)

Image credit: George Scharf, from a Greek vase, in Theodor Panofka, Manners and Customs of the Greeks, plate VIII

Image credit: George Scharf, from a Greek vase, in Theodor Panofka, Manners and Customs of the Greeks, plate VIII

The central insight of classical Greek philosophy is that the order of the city is the order of the soul writ large. If there is disorder in the city, it is because of disorder in the souls of its citizens. This is why virtue in the lives of the citizens is necessary for a well-ordered polis. This notion is reflected in the Athenian’s statement concerning the political benefits of the virtue of chastity.

The relationship between virtue and political order is, of course, par excellence, the subject of Aristotle’s works. It was a preoccupation of not only philosophy, but of drama as well. Just read The Bacchae by Euripides. Euripides and the Classical Greeks knew that Eros is not a plaything. In The Bacchae, as brilliantly explicated by E. Michael Jones, Euripides showed exactly how unsafe sex is when disconnected from the moral order. When Dionysus visits Thebes, he entices King Penthius to view secretly the women dancing naked on the mountainside in Dionysian revelries. Because Penthius succumbs to his desire to see “their wild obscenities,” the political order is toppled, and the queen mother, Agave, one of the bacchants, ends up with the severed head of her son Penthius in her lap — an eerie premonition of abortion.

The lesson is clear: Once Eros is released from the bonds of family, Dionysian passions can possess the soul. Giving in to them is a form of madness because erotic desire is not directed toward any end that can satisfy it. It is insatiable. “That which causes evil in the soul” – in which Plato includes homosexual intercourse – will ultimately result in political disorder.

For Aristotle, the irreducible core of a polity is the family. Thus, Aristotle beginsThe Politics not with a single individual, but with a description of a man and a woman together in the family, without which the rest of society cannot exist. As he says in The Politics, “first of all, there must necessarily be a union or pairing of those who cannot exist without one another.” Later, he states that “husband and wife are alike essential parts of the family.”

Without the family, there are no villages, which are associations of families, and without villages, there is no polis. “Every state is [primarily] composed of households,” Aristotle asserts. In other words, without households – meaning husbands and wives together in families – there is no state. In this sense, the family is the pre-political institution. The state does not make marriage possible; marriage makes the state possible. Homosexual marriage would have struck Aristotle as an absurdity since you could not found a polity on its necessarily sterile relations. This is why the state has a legitimate interest in marriage, because, without it, it has no future.

If Aristotle is correct – that the family is the primary and irreducible element of society – then chastity becomes the indispensable political principle because it is the virtue which regulates and makes possible the family – the cornerstone unit of the polis. Without the practice of this virtue, the family becomes inconceivable. Without it, the family disintegrates. A healthy family is posited upon the proper and exclusive sexual relationship between a husband and wife. The family alone is capable of providing the necessary stability for the profound relationship which sexual union both symbolizes and cements and for the welfare of the children that issue from it.

Violations of chastity undermine not only the family, but society as a whole. This accounts for Aristotle’s pronounced condemnation of adultery, which he finds all the more odious if committed while the wife is pregnant: “For husband or wife to be detected in the commission of adultery – at whatever time it may happen, in whatever shape or form, during all the period of their being married and being called husband and wife – must be made a matter of disgrace. But to be detected in adultery during the very period of bringing children into the world is a thing to be punished by a stigma of infamy proportionate to such an offense.” (The Politics, XVI, 18) Aristotle understood that the laws were, or should be, ordered toward the formation of a certain kind of person – toward the realization of a virtuous citizenry.

This is why Aristotle forbids adultery, wants to make it disgraceful in all circumstances, not only because it subverts virtue, but because it attacks the political foundations of society. Adultery becomes a political problem because it violates chastity, which is indispensable to a rightly ordered polis. There is no comparable condemnation of adultery in homosexual marriage in Aristotle because such an institution would have been inconceivable to him, as it has been throughout history until recent times. That is because it is a self-contradiction. Marriage cannot be based on an act which is in itself a violation of chastity, because something cannot be its opposite. A homosexual household would not make sense to Aristotle since it could not contain parents and all the generational relations that spring from them, which makes the polis possible. What did not make sense then still does not make sense now, and for the same reasons.


Cover image credit: shutterstock.com

Article courtesy of Mercatornet.com

Robert R. Reilly


Robert Reilly has worked in foreign policy, the military, and the arts. His most recent book is The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis. This article courtesy of MercatorNet.

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  • James H, London

    This is just jaw-dropping. The greatest minds in the ancient world would fume and rage at the dissipation we have given ourselves over to.

    “The state does not make marriage possible; marriage makes the state possible.”

    Something which no-one remembers today, least of all those in the corridors of power.

    Time and again, I’ve come to see that the origin of our problem is contraception. There were other ages as licentious as ours, but they at least saw the connection between sex and reproduction. With the two separated, sexuality is untethered and smashes about like a bull in a china-shop. We stare into the abyss, while the Learned and the Clever crow about how free and happy and healthy they are.

    So, how can contraception be removed? I think we all know – it won’t happen without a world-wide societal collapse that wrecks the technology which makes it possible. If it’s there, it will be used, regardless of any social disapproval.

    If someone thinks I’m wrong, please show me how. I’d love to believe that my children will grow up in a comfortable world.

  • andrea gregorio

    Let’s not forget that scientific and other forms of understanding have increased dramatically since the time of the ancient Greek philosophers and that all knowledge is subject to revision as new supportive – or contradictory – knowledge becomes generated. We reject Greek notions of slavery and indeed their particularly form of democracy which was not democracy as we know it and as America holds it. And the use of terms such as ‘sodomy’ or ‘bugger’ really ought to be dropped. In UK Law, they no longer form part of the legal lexicon having been deleted as part of the most recent reform of the sexual offences act here. If the mechanics of physical interaction that demonstrate a higher love (or can do) are to be described explicitly it would be far more appropriate to refer to them as anal intercourse or vaginal intercourse or oral intercourse, since these anatomic definitions differentiate and clarify and that is the imperative of any academic, the writer of the article above included. Likewise, the notion of the natural order is subject to revision and is, in fact, evolving as an understanding as the acceptance of homosexuality as a natural part of Nature’s population control and vast diversity is becoming increasingly apparent and understoof and thus accepted.

  • James H, London

    “Likewise, the notion of the natural order is subject to revision and is,
    in fact, evolving…”

    Nature tends to remain the same, regardless of our notion of it. A society which legislates nonsense is defective, and will suffer consequences the legislators could never forsee.

    The desuetude of terms like sodomy and buggery is an illustration of the creeping madness: perfectly acceptable euphemisms for an act which can’t be mentioned in front of children (or indeed in court) are abandoned, not because they’ve lost descriptive or explanatory power, but because a small proportion of the population, suffering from a disorder, _might_ be offended by their use.

    If we were to legally enforce quiet places in public for the benefit of schizophrenics, that they might more easily hear the voices in their heads, it would be less harmful than teaching children that their parents’ marriage is simply a union of people who like to have sex with each other.

  • Peter Nyikos

    Andrea, the new uses of “intercourse” that you advocate are different from the traditional ones. Traditional uses either refer to the act that often calls for contraception [how’s that for a neat identification?] or are far removed from it, as in “intercourse with foreign nations.”

    What’s the real reason for your advocacy? Is it a desire to extend the concept “consummated marriage” to these other acts? Or is it a desire to do away with the concept altogether?

    In any event, there are alternative terms: sodomy, fellatio, and cunnilingus that are precise, well understood, and do not lend themselves to shameless propaganda that uses such Orwellian terms as “higher love” for them. [“Freedom is slavery. War is peace.”]

    Finally, I ask you: are there any studies that suggest that homosexual relationships between animals have anything to do with “Nature’s population control”? The actions of alpha wolves and dominant female mole rats preventing the others in their social group from mating is one well recognized form, but I’ve yet to see a study that mentions this other form.

  • Peter Nyikos

    It’s a pity this article was not written twenty years ago, when one of the main props of same-sex marriage [which is NOT the same thing as gay marriage–it could be purely a marriage of convenience] could have been knocked out from under it before the campaign for it really got underway.

    Back in the 1980’s, when there was a strong push for an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the national Constitution, same-sex marriage seemed so farfetched that people who opposed it on the grounds that it could be used to legalize same-sex marriage were ridiculed.

    Now that one state supreme court after another has ruled that the respective state’s ERA mandates the acceptance of same-sex marriage, we can appreciate the narrow escape we had when the national ERA lost out, largely due to the efforts of pro-lifers who pointed out its lack of exceptions for abortion.

  • fishman

    the term sodomy is an excellent term, because it is intended to recall the fact that the act’s in question are. 1) not sex, nearly sexual, 2) immoral. The changes in the terms are due to an attempt to change peoples attitudes by changing terminology.
    However, the author used them correctly and i believe intended for them to demonstrate the offensive and sinful nature of the acts in question.

  • Dan

    Robert Reilly, you should try to post your article on Salon or the Huffington Post. I’d love to see the fireworks. Great article.

  • As the Theban Sacred Band was composed solely of adult couples, your sweeping generalization about “the only homosexual relationship that was accepted,” seems out of place. Aristotle tells us that the author of the Theban constitution was himself in an adult homosexual relationship and that the couple was buried together (Politics 2.12 on Philolaus the Corinthian). Maybe you don’t think Thebans were Greek?