For the Greeks, sexual desire, ultimately a force of nature to procreate, can be controlled for good. In his book Eros—The Myth of Ancient Greek Sexuality, Bruce Thornton explains that a common metaphor for the Greeks was a ship on the potentially dangerous open seas:
This frequent image captures the Greek concern with the intersection of nature and culture in human life, for the ship is a construct projected from the mind and created by its technologies, an alteration of natural materials to make something unnatural, a device that nonetheless must exploit the energy of current and wind in order to function. It makes, then, a powerful image of the mind and culture subjected to the destructive forces of nature like eros, forces that it still must exploit and control just as the ship exploits and controls with wind and wave.
Unless eros is domesticated it might “explode into chaos.” As animals “are subservient to their passions,” a lack of self-control “signifies the loss of human status,” and a person who cannot resist bodily pleasures “cannot fulfill his human potential any more that a slave can.”
To the Greeks, the “control and exploitation of the powerful force of eros are necessary so that the orders of the mind and civilization can exist.” This view hasn’t been invalidated, Thornton writes, and he summarizes the consequences of a quarter century of “erotic exuberance: and “instinctual freedom” (remember the book was published 17 years ago in 1997):
… illegitimacy, venereal plagues, an expanding divorce rate, the weakening of the nuclear family, the debasement of women, and the trivialization of sexuality in the mass media…
I’ve already lauded Bruce Thornton for the impressive amount of work that went into writing this book, but I have to say that his ability to deal at length with the ugly topic of ancient Greek homosexuality is even more amazing. You need a strong stomach to get into it in detail, and it’s not pleasant reading. As a result of Thornton’s research, however, it’s abundantly clear that the human aversion to homosexuality isn’t something new—plenty of the ancient Greeks also found the behavior to be a disgusting perversion.
Thornton explains an important issue, however:
Part of the problem is that homosexuality, contemporary as well as ancient, is no easier for us so-called moderns to understand than it was for the Greeks. One of our difficulties when reading about ancient Greece is that the most common manifestation of homosexuality in the evidence concerns pederasty, the quasi-ritualized, transient, physical and emotional relationship between an older male and a youth, an activity we view as criminal.
Thornton writes that the Greeks saw eros as:
… a natural energy flowing out from humans onto any object, whether same-sex paramour, child, relative, or beast, as evidenced by the many Greek myths involving incest and bestiality … Eros is by definition indiscriminate … Any limitations of eros arise not from the inherent nature of sexual activity that directs itself toward one object or another, but from the literally unnatural codes, laws, customs, and institutions of society that define the proper and improper objects and occasions of sexual activity.
The Greeks believed that for there to be civilization, men had to do what they could to control nature, both the nature outside in the world and inside the soul of man. In addition to the pederasty mentioned above, the Greeks defined the “passive homosexual or kinaidos, the adult male who perversely enjoys being penetrated by other males…”:
[T]he kinaidos, the passive homosexual whose inability to control his appetite, his ‘itch’ for sexual pleasure, induces him to forsake his masculinity and submit to anal penetration. What we find is the kinaidos as emblem of unrestrained compulsive sexual appetite, of surrender to the chaos of nature, passion that threatens civilized order, a traitor to his sex, a particularly offensive manifestation of eros’s power over the masculine mind that is responsible for creating and maintaining that order in the face of nature’s chaos.
In one Greek myth, Laius, father of Oedipus, is seen as either “the originator of homosexual desire or just the first to act on it.” Plato is said to believe that homosexuality is “an unnatural innovation” and to the Greeks it’s “a result of the depraved human imagination and vulnerability to pleasure.”
According to Thornton:
Plato sees homosexuality as a historical phenomenon, and “enormity” arising out of the “inability to control a pleasure” defined as “against nature” because it is its own end rather than serving the goal of procreation. … Plato’s distaste for homosexuality is shared by his contemporary Xenophon, a great admirer of the Spartans who is anxious to absolve them of their traditional responsibility for legitimizing homosexuality. The mythical lawgiver of Sparta, Lycurgus, Xenophon tells us, forbade physical intimacy between the boy and his admirer, categorizing homosexuality with other crimes like incest. Like Plato, Xenophon considers sexual relations between men a depravity that all right-thinking men should abhor as much as they would incest.
And all this time you thought it was only “repressed” Christians that weren’t enlightened enough to see the supposed harmlessness of homosexuality.
Up next, Part 4: Homosexuality then and now — there is nothing new under the sun.
(Updated version. First published August 2012)