It is a good guess that few people know this: Hundreds of years before there was Christianity, there were people who saw homosexuality as perverse, against nature, and a disordering of the sexual impulse. Say hello to the ancient Greeks.
What? The ancient Greeks weren’t in favor of “free love?” Didn’t they “really like” young boys? Didn’t those grand political philosophers all confess to same-sex attraction and give it a thumbs-up? Guess what! The ancient Greeks had the same kind of perverts and sexually maladjusted people among them as are found in the world today. But there evidently was just as much disagreement about the morality of homosexuality (and other gender and sexual disorders) as there is today.
While it might be fashionable in some quarters to hold the ancient Greeks up as the standard for sexual open-mindedness, professor and classicist Bruce Thornton explains that that view of the Greeks is a myth. In his book Eros—The Myth of Ancient Greek Sexuality, published in 1997, he delivers the bad news to those who are looking for support to throw out traditional morality.
Did you think pederasty in ancient Greece was common and the norm? Many have been sold on the idea that the problems of Sparta extended throughout Greece. Wrong, says Bruce Thornton. He writes that in the Greek literature it “is clearly an aristocratic institution…pederasty was not a well-known experience to most Greeks.”
Those today that see themselves as “enlightened” and “liberated” are, in truth, neither. Thornton’s book lays out a convincing case that the ancient Greeks knew that rather than enlightenment, it was utter foolishness to think “eros” (see definition here) would not do harm if left uncontrolled by human reason. And while today’s sophisticates think they’re liberated, they’re actually slaves to their passion just as wild animals are.
Why should anyone listen to Bruce Thornton? You can read his bio at the Hoover Institution’s website. Here’s an excerpt:
Bruce S. Thornton, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, grew up on a cattle ranch in Fresno County, California. He received his BA in Latin from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1975, as well as his PhD in comparative literature–Greek, Latin, and English–in 1983. Thornton is currently a professor of classics and humanities at California State University, Fresno. He is the author of nine books on a variety of topics. … His numerous essays and reviews on Greek culture and civilization and their influence on Western civilization, as well as on other contemporary political and educational issues, have appeared in both scholarly journals and magazines such as the New Criterion, Commentary, National Review, the Weekly Standard, and the Claremont Review of Books.
What do we really know about the ancient Greeks? Thornton addresses this question head-on as he prepares to address the myths surrounding ancient Greek sexuality:
The little we know about everyday life and behavior in ancient Greece is dwarfed by how much we don’t know.
There aren’t journals, diaries, or private letters that can be referred to, but instead:
What literary evidence we do have is virtually all ‘public’ speech; that is, writing subject to the conventions and formal strictures of various genres — poetical, oratorical, or historical.
So, Thornton explains,
This book, then, is not about what the Greeks “really” thought or felt or did about sex. It is about what the literary remains from 700-100 B.C. say about sex, for it is those remains that most influenced subsequent Western thought.
That said, I was impressed with the volume of and content of the “literary evidence” that does remain. Thornton’s book contains a wealth of material that is translated by the author and related in an understandable manner to the thesis of the book, which he explains here:
[M]ost of the writing on ancient sexuality these days grinds the evidence in the mill of an “advocacy agenda” supported by some fashionable theory that says more about the crisis of Western rationalism than it does about ancient Greece. Thus we are told that the Greeks saw nothing inherently wrong with sodomy between males as long as certain “protocols” of age, social status, and position were honored, an interpretation maintained despite the abundance of evidence […] that the Greeks — including pederastic apologists like Plato — were horrified and disgusted by the idea of a male being anally penetrated by another male and called such behavior “against nature.”
Thornton’s goal is to “get back to what the Greeks actually say without burying it in polysyllabic sludge,” since the Greeks “influenced immeasurably” the West dating back to the Romans through the Renaissance and Enlightenment and on into today.
At the foundational level of most of this discussion is the debate regarding the nature of man. The men who set up the United States accepted the Christian world view that man is fallen, so they wrote a Constitution that protected religious liberties and limited the power of government. Men aren’t angels, James Madison wrote in Federalist 51, so checks and balances and the separation of powers are necessary. Thornton writes that the Greeks also debated the nature of man as well as what to do about it:
Does good character result from an innate disposition or from education? […] Thucydides in his history of the Peloponnesian War broods constantly over the fragility of law and its restraint when faced with the imperatives of appetite and passion, witnessing as he had the self-destruction of Athens, a city whose cultural brilliance still dazzles after twenty-five centuries.
Bruce Thornton makes a critical point: “Understanding sex…in Greek terms is understanding who and what we are.”
This certainly gets to the confusion over the modern debate regarding so-called homosexual “rights.” How we handle human sexuality is important, and it’s not just the great religions of the world that have recognized that.
That is terribly bad news for all those uninformed political “conservatives” and libertarian types who think the dread “social issues,” especially the debate reading homosexual “rights,” can just be tossed aside as unimportant.
“It’s the economy, stupid,” they say endlessly. After reading Bruce Thornton’s book you’ll realize how stupid that tired phrase really is.
(Updated version. First published August 2012)