Continuing with our excerpts of Bruce Thornton’s fantastic book Eros—The Myth of Ancient Greek Sexuality, let me state that while this is a multi-part article, I only deal with a fraction of the materials covered in this work, which runs 268 pages with Notes and Critical Biography. The hardcover copy I own has the smallest font I’ve ever seen in a book, so don’t be fooled by that 268 pages length — with a average sized font it would’ve run much longer.
Those who support traditional morality as passed down through the great religions and as well as Western tradition see the human sexual impulse as a potentially chaotic force. Uncontrolled or un-channeled it leads to humans living at the level of “the brute necessity of the beasts.” Only through “imposing order” can there be civilization. The evidence which remains from ancient Greek literature shows that the Greeks held the same view.
Those who reject Western culture and the great religions take the opposite side and hold hands with the LGBTQ crowd; the acronym stands for “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, and Questioning.” (As I’ve noted before, if you Google it you’ll learn that the number of letters is getting longer as each sexually confused group looks to be recognized.)
Thornton addresses what in my view is the LGBTQ’s argument: man’s natural state is superior to any imposed order. Thornton refers to this as the “romantic ecology.” It is:
… the popular idea that the earth and its creatures are all one big interconnected, mutually dependent, happy family — or at least were until the wicked Europeans set about alienating us from this once-happy paradise and destroying the planet.
Thornton refers to several passages from Greek literature to show that the ancient Greeks didn’t buy into that philosophy but rather recognized “the inhuman chaos of nature” and “the impersonal cruelty of its order.” While beauty exists in nature, the ancient Greeks saw in nature:
… the scene of fatal encounters for humans with the numinous inhuman powers filling the cosmos — and one of the most potent and destructive of those powers is sex. We must not, then, think of “nature” in our terms but in the Greeks’, in which nature is the collection of chaotic forces and processes in the teeth of which humans create their orders of identity. From Homer on, this is exactly how human order is perceived: as the triumph of the mind and culture over the brute forces of nature.
“Greek thought,” Thornton writes, “returns again and again to the uneasy relationship of culture and nature…” There was “… a long Greek tradition of thinking about eros as an inhuman force of nature destructive and chaotic,” with the power to overthrow “the mind and orders of civilization.”
For the Greeks it was a “frightening specter” that a mind could be:
… wholly dominated by passion and compulsive pleasure, and thus easily prey to other appetites—political power, money—inimical to the well-being of the polis.
Citing Homer and Sappho from Greek literature, Thornton writes that there was a view which saw eros as something that doesn’t just “conquer” the heart:
… it attacks the mind, breaks the will like a horse-tamer breaking a horse, lays low the soul like death.
Citing a play by Euripides, Thornton refers to a character who has failed to control the eros within him and that “has led him to the humiliation of dressing up like a woman.”
Many leftist agenda motivated psychologists today would dismiss such cause and effect, and argue rather the “transgendered” individual is merely “finding his true self.” They say “Gender” as we know it is just a false construct. Instead of male and female by DNA, it’s a state of mind, so if you change your mind, you can change your gender. Under the heading “truth is stranger than fiction,” Gender Identity Disorder is no longer classified as a mental illness by the very politicized American Psychiatric Association.
The modern Romantic idealization of uninhibited eros is to see it as a “positive charge” and “a creative and expressive state liberated from the shackles of bourgeois convention…” It sees no link, Thornton writes, “between the essential nature of sexual passion and of madness.”:
But for the Greeks, madness is not just a metaphor for describing what sexual passion does to the consciousness. Excessive passion is fundamentally a form of insanity, a destruction of the rational mind’s control over the body, a suspension of reason’s power that allows the soul to be overwhelmed by the chaos of the nature appetites and emotions.
Boy, were those Greeks ever Puritanical! Uh, of course the Puritans weren’t around until about two thousand years later.
Thornton writes that the potential loss of self-control caused by eros:
… frightened the Greeks, whereas to our Romantic sensibilities it is what we seek. We long to love … that our erotic selves might find fulfillment without hindrance or check.
Up next, Part 3: The Ancient Greeks sounded a lot like modern Christians.
(Updated version. First published August 2012)
Image credit: John Biver.