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Plato’s Symposium–an Ancient Work Essential to the Contemporary Conversation on Gay Relationships

Posted by GayPatriotWest at 9:32 pm - October 24, 2005.
Filed under: Mythology and the real world

I have made it no secret that I am not pleased with the caliber of the debate on gay issues. Gay writers and activists repeat the same mantras over and over again and label nearly every idea they disagree with as “anti-gay.” Their social conservative opponents are no better; they seem to think that all gay people have the same “lifestyle,” that we are incapable of committed monogamous relationships and that such relationships are little more than two individuals shacking up so that they can more easily pursue sexual dalliances.

It never occurs to those people that gay relationships can have as transformative and effect on the individuals involved as marriage has for straight individuals. And with few exceptions (for example, Andrew Sullivan’s first piece on gay marriage), it doesn’t seem to occur to gay people to talk about that “civilizing” potential of gay marriage.

Fortunately, for my class on Græco-Roman Mythology (part of my graduate program), we are required to read a book that has long been on my list of books to re-read. As I began reading Plato’s Symposium, this weekend, I realized that although that it was written 2,400 years ago, it remains the best book on gay relationships ever published. And remains as fresh as relevant today as it was in classical Athens.

When several Athenians, including Socrates, gather at the home of the playwright Agathon, ostensibly to celebrate his victory in the competition for best tragedy, but in reality to discuss love, a number of celebrated citizens, including the comic playwright Aristophanes offer their theories of love and relationships, with a focus on, what we today would call, gay male relationships. Phaedrus observes how such love can be effective in “implanting something which gives lifelong guidance to those who are to lead good lives,” to help one gain a “sense of shame at acting disgracefully and pride in acting well.” (All quotations are from the Gill translation.) And learning such behavior would not only benefit us in our individual lives, but make us better citizens as well, better able to serve our community — and our nation.

Pausanias held that “not every type of loving and Love is right and deserves to be praised, but only the type that motivates us to love rightly.” But neither he nor anyone else at the dinner party interprets loving “rightly” as narrowly as do many social conservatives in America today, limiting it to relationships between individuals of different genders. Those who “love rightly” shun tricking younger men and don’t leave their one-time beloved “with a laugh, running off with someone else.” A relationships is not a ruse nor a casual endeavor. An individual who loves rightly seeks to “produce virtue” in his beloved — to “help him improve in wisdom.” Thus, relationships served to increase one’s understanding and make the lover a better person.

I only begun to tap into the wisdom of this great work, but encourage you all, indeed, all those who seek to participate in a serious discussion of gay marriage to read, re-read and ponder Plato’s Symposium. And let these ancient ideas influence our thoughts today so we can better contribute to the contemporary conversation.

-Dan (AKA GayPatriotWest): GayPatriotWest@aol.com

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16 Comments

  1. I always found it strange that there was a time in the west that male-male love was considered more superior than heterosexual love. Today we hear the arguments that heterosexual love is good because it is procreative. The argument that the Greeks made was that heterosexual love was inferior because it was ONLY procreative. The male and female were not equals, so there wasn’t really a thing called love between two equal partners.

    Comment by Justin — October 24, 2005 @ 9:47 pm - October 24, 2005

  2. http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/symposium.html

    This is the Jowett translation, but it is free.

    A delight for ephebophiles, erastes and eromenoi.
    It’s deeper and more specific in Greek.

    Me, I prefer the writings of the pornoi.

    Comment by chandler in hollywood — October 24, 2005 @ 10:36 pm - October 24, 2005

  3. Do you read Greek, Chandler? I did the intenstive course at UChicagot, but, alas, ahve lost most of it.

    Comment by GayPatriotWest — October 25, 2005 @ 12:13 am - October 25, 2005

  4. I have plenty of word and contextual ability in Greek but I am nowhere near fluent.

    A little aside; my favorite old Greek word being the only word coined by St. Paul and used only once in the NT: Arsenocoiti!

    What a nasty litle closet case HE must have been.

    (all words being transliterated into the English alphabet)

    And WOW, Chicago! I almost went there but they were a little tight in the grant/scholarship area.

    Comment by chandler in hollywood — October 25, 2005 @ 12:57 am - October 25, 2005

  5. “The male and female were not equals, so there wasn’t really a thing called love between two equal partners.”

    Well, that was a self-fulfilling observation, since male dominated Greek society ensured that women had inferior status. The Etruscians, I submit, struck the proper balance between the sexes: equal but different partners.

    I haven’t read The Symposium since I was a teen, and I may have been hopelessly naive back then, but I always felt it could be read as a tribute to “platonic” (in the modern sense) love between men.

    Anyway, I like visiting this site because of the Gaypatriots’ ever thoughtful commentary. I don’t swing the way you do, gents, but I always like what you have to say.

    Comment by Redhand — October 25, 2005 @ 6:48 am - October 25, 2005

  6. Thank you, Dan, for raising the level of discussion.

    The ancient Greeks were mostly heterosexual pederasts. Plato’s “Symposium” is set in the house of Agathon. Agathon’s adult male lover, Pausanias gives a speech condemning pederasty and praising love between adult males.

    Plato condemned the sexual predators of ancient Athens and, since then, we have used the phrase “Platonic love” to mean sexless love. That’s not what Plato meant. Plato, like most ancient Greeks, accepted sex (both hetero and homo) in a fairly matter-of-fact way. What Plato condemned was the predatory pederasty of his time. He despised men who preyed upon and corrupted young boys but he praised romantic love; love that was not driven by lust. Plato saw adult homosexuality as a divine and sacred love. That is what is meant by “Platonic love.” It does not mean sexless love but it also sure does not mean the type of predatory sexual promiscuity and that one sees among modern “gays.”

    There were many examples of devoted adult male couples such as: Aristogeiton and Harmodius (who overthrew the tyrant of Athens and helped usher in democracy) as weel as Orestes and Pylades, Damon and Phythias, Alexander the Great and Hephaestion, Philolaus and Diocles, Epaminondas and Pelopidas. Many of these lovers gave there lives to save their partners.

    Plato was talking about love not the casual anonymous sex which passes for homosexuality nowadays. Plato would condemn modern promiscuous gays.

    Plato wrote: Homosexuality is regarded as shameful by barbarians and by those who live under despotic governments just as philosophy is regarded as shameful by them, because it is apparently not in the interest of such rulers to have great ideas engendered in their subjects, or powerful friendships or passionate love – all of which homosexuality is particularly apt to produce.

    Comment by PatC — October 25, 2005 @ 10:46 am - October 25, 2005

  7. “Plato wrote: Homosexuality is regarded as shameful by barbarians and by those who live under despotic governments just as philosophy is regarded as shameful by them, because it is apparently not in the interest of such rulers to have great ideas engendered in their subjects, or powerful friendships or passionate love – all of which homosexuality is particularly apt to produce.”

    Exhibit A when it comes to barbarians would be the Jews, Middle Easterners and therefore barbaroi, whose laws made such a big deal of homosexual conduct. The motivation clearly seems to have been an obsession with reproduction – not only is homosexual activity forbiden, but so is any form of infanticide for any reason. That last must have made the Greeks snicker at them for raising weaklings rather than culling them out of the population, certainly.

    What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem, indeed.

    I read somewhere that for some reason the Greeks did not consider the Celts to be complete barbarinas, maybe because their culture had lots of Homeric features. There is lots of evidence in pagan Irish literature for a very robust tradition of homosexual activity among young warriors; women are always having to bargain for sex, heart-rending farewell scenes before warriors hack each other up, that sort of thing. Some Roman observer remarked that Celtic men were obsessive about not letting themselves develop potbellies – must have been talking about midde-aged guys. That sounds pretty metrosexual, for Iron Age Celts

    Comment by Jim — October 25, 2005 @ 11:51 am - October 25, 2005

  8. Those of us whose most strenuous intellectual pursuit is watching Family Guy: Season 1 with the Spanish subtitles turned on will shirk off at this point and wait for the next Plamegate thread.

    Comment by V the K — October 25, 2005 @ 12:00 pm - October 25, 2005

  9. Well said, beautifully said, PatC. Thanks for chiming in — and taking the time to do so so thoughtfully!

    Comment by GayPatriotWest — October 25, 2005 @ 1:45 pm - October 25, 2005

  10. the Greeks did not consider the Celts to be complete barbarinas[sic]

    The typo is kinda funny – changes the whole meaning.

    Comment by Frank IBC — October 25, 2005 @ 4:18 pm - October 25, 2005

  11. Nah, it was the Romans who were Barbarinos. As in Ba-ba-ba…ba-ba-Barino.

    Comment by ColoradoPatriot — October 25, 2005 @ 10:06 pm - October 25, 2005

  12. #7
    The motivation clearly seems to have been an obsession with reproduction.

    I would hope reproduction would be an obsession with any people, barbarians or not(or any other creature for that matter). These people were fighting for their existence. Without it, no Jews, no Middle Easterners, no Romans, no Greeks and certainly no gay Barbarinos.

    Comment by John — October 26, 2005 @ 1:01 am - October 26, 2005

  13. #12. So what are you saying? That John Travolta is gay?!

    Comment by ColoradoPatriot — October 26, 2005 @ 11:35 am - October 26, 2005

  14. #6
    That is what is meant by “Platonic love.” It does not mean sexless love but it also sure does not mean the type of predatory sexual promiscuity and that one sees among modern “gays.”

    Plato was talking about love not the casual anonymous sex which passes for homosexuality nowadays. Plato would condemn modern promiscuous gays.

    Comment by PatC
    =============================

    I wonder what they would think of modern predatory sexually promiscuous heteros?

    Comment by chandler in hollywood — October 26, 2005 @ 11:57 am - October 26, 2005

  15. I wonder what they would think of modern predatory sexually promiscuous heteros?

    I’m sure he would condemn them just as I do and for the same reason – as an insult to the goddess of shame and modesty, Aids, and hubris.

    Comment by PatC — October 26, 2005 @ 3:59 pm - October 26, 2005

  16. Shame , modesty, AIDS, hubris…..Camille Paglia? A goddess?

    Comment by chandler in hollywood — October 26, 2005 @ 10:16 pm - October 26, 2005

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