Plato and Homosexuality

Throughout history, there have been many great men who have been rumored to be homosexual. This would not be controversial if the traditional Western conception of homosexuality were not so negative. Analysts love to write and criticize the works of Plato, but never about the man himself and his preferences. Many theorists on Classical society "choose to evade the problem" of the seemingly disagreeing values of love and homosexuality ("Socrates," 1228). Keep in mind that while not unheard of, especially in the armies and the upper classes of Sparta and Athens, homosexuality was not the social norm. It is known that Plato never married, and in his works he has described the perfection of homoerotic relationships. In one writing especially, Plato celebrates the relationship between older men and pubescent boys. Even so, Plato's arguments are "ambiguous and ambivalent" since the practice was not upheld in the open and "never entirely lost its stigma" (Nicholson 111). It has been described by Cassell's Encyclopedia of Queer Myth, Symbol, and Spirit that "The Symposium might be described as a manual for those embarking on the homoerotic-spiritual path" (“Plato” 268). Homoeroticism was, if not a common practice, at least a socially acceptable one performed by the men of the elitist groups in Greece. The Symposium is a glorification of male homoeroticism and pederasty rather than a collection of speeches exalting love.

Phaedrus, the first speaker in the Symposium, is explicit in his description of the relationship between men and their boyfriends. First, however, he gives a description of the god Love as a "venerated and primordial god" (10). He praises the god for giving the human race shame and the will to sacrifice for love of another, helping men to become good and happy. This is a very idealistic view of love, except that it seems to only apply to men. Phaedrus states, "the greatest benefit, to my mind, that a young man can come by in his youth is a virtuous lover, and a virtuous boyfriend is just as good for a lover too" (11). Every mention Phaedrus makes of love and lovers is referring to men and their boyfriends, with the exception of the myth of Alcestis and her husband. She sacrificed herself for the good of her husband, and was rewarded by the gods by having her soul released from Hades. However, it is only an example of a woman loving a man, and in Phaedrus' speech, there are no examples of men feeling affectionately towards women, and this is typical of Platonic writings.

The next speech, given by Pausanias, builds on Phaedrus' speech, saying that Love is not as consistent as Phaedrus has claimed. Pausanias continues by explaining that there are two different types of love; actually two separate variations of the goddess Aphrodite: Common Love, which is the offspring of Zeus and Dione and is therefore part male and female, is the low, lustful love that anyone can experience. It is decided by Pausanias that this common love is less than desirable because "ordinary people . . . love women as well as boys; secondly, when they do fall in love, they're attracted to the bodies rather than the minds of the people they love" (14). Celestial Love is wholly male since it has no mother and whose father is Uranus. Since this type of love has no feminine qualities, "this Love's inspiration makes people feel affection for what is inherently stronger and more intelligent—which is to say that it makes people incline towards the male" (14). This speech definitely depicts women as lustful and incapable of higher love, while men and boys are preternaturally inclined to ascend to Celestial Love. Pausanias also explains that there is a moral code to having relationships with young men and boys. According to him, there is such a thing as too young, and that defines the difference between pedophilia and pederasty. "The erastes or beloved was a youth between twelve and seventeen . . . . Pedophilia, in the sense of erotic interest in young children, was unknown to the Greeks and the practice never approved by them" ("Greece, Ancient," 491). In actuality, the young man did not have to be in love with his partner; "the boy might at most reciprocate with . . . loyal affection or friendship, which would be due for the lover's patronage . . . rather than for his sexual attentions (Waterfield xvi). According to Pausanias, it is acceptable that the youth does not love the older man, and that "there is absolutely nothing wrong with gratifying a lover for the sake of virtue" (Plato 16). It is appropriate as long as the boy is not engaging in these activities for the sake of sexual pleasure, which would put the boy on the level of Common Love.

Aristophanes’ speech takes a new direction than the previous ones, as well as giving a creative, if biased, explanation of sexual preference. This speech is the most well known part of Plato's Symposium, and perhaps the most romantic as well. Aristophanes speaks of a time when there were three genders: male, female, and androgynous, which were consisted of what is now defined as two separate people combined into one. The gods did not like these people, and split them in half, so that the separate halves would always be searching for one another. Aristophanes says, "Love draws our original nature back together; he tries to reintegrate us and heal the split in our nature" (27). This goes along with the general idea of soul mates, and searching for one's true love. The three sexes, when divided, became two sexes, since the androgynous sex was a combination of male and female. Cassell's Encyclopedia states that, in this speech, "one is struck that androgyny seems to be associated here not with homosexuality or lesbianism but with heterosexuality" (286). The offcuts of the androgynous gender are attracted to the opposite sex, and to Aristophanes, it seems logical that "most adulterers come from this group; the equivalent women are attracted to men and tend to become adulteresses" (28). What Aristophanes seems to be saying is that most heterosexual people are unfaithful, and even sinful. In this speech is perhaps the best quote arguing for homosexuality, saying, "these boys {who are attracted to men} are the ones who are outstanding in their childhood and youth, because they're inherently more manly than others. I know they sometimes get called immoral, but that's wrong: their actions aren't prompted by immorality, but by courage, manliness, and masculinity" (28). Here Plato is recognizing the opinion of many that homosexuality is less than desirable, and he is refuting this claim. He then goes on to describe, through the speech of Aristophanes, how wonderful and perfect it is when a man finds his other male half. There is no description of the love between male and female or even between females. Perhaps this is a clue that "Plato is no more representative of the ancient world than Oscar Wilde is of late-Victorian Britain. The sexual attitudes of both men tell us very little about the prevailing moral attitude of their time" (Kwarteng paragraph 7).

Agathon's speech follows to reason, weakly, the actual characteristics of the god Love instead of the attributes humans experience, like the other speeches, as well as to covertly support homoeroticism. His rationale has very little factual basis if any at all, and is generally confusing. Agathon explains love to be the youngest of all the gods, as opposed to the oldest, as Phaedrus described. He says that Love stays young because "it is in Love's nature to loathe old age and keep well away from it" (32). He states that "love is a constant companion of young men,” suggesting that Love itself is homosexual (32). Then Agathon goes on to reason that Love is very sensitive, although he does not give an explanation to why Love is so sensitive. Love, according to Agathon, is fluid in form, so that he may be adaptable to different men's minds. The very fact that Agathon and all the rest of the speakers in Plato's Symposium refer to Love as a masculine entity, when the deity Aphrodite is the goddess of love demonstrates that the ideas expressed by Plato through these characters were not commonly accepted. This suggests a movement away from the mainstream beliefs and customs, showing again that Plato's ideas of perfect love were not accepted as the norm. He is fair and good, and also self-disciplined. The reasons given by Agathon for these attributes are flimsy if present at all. Love is courageous as well as wise and creative. Although these are all wonderful characteristics and certainly can be attributed to Love, Agathon's reasoning is faulty at best. This is, perhaps, because Love is so hard to define, and therefore what makes it so mysterious and incredible. Also, Agathon makes no mention of women in love or men in love with women, which is a common theme throughout the entire book. Very few mentions are made of women in love or being loved, and this is obviously not an accident.

Socrates' speech is little more than a discounting of Agathon's dialogue, in that it offers no new ideas and only dismisses the ones Agathon had. It is not difficult to find holes in Agathon's reasoning, and Socrates does a quick job of reversing everything Agathon thought he believed in. Socrates twists Agathon’s words to make it seem as if Love is hideous and undesirable, since one can only desire what one lacks, and Love desires goodness and attractiveness (41). Socrates' logic is hardly better than Agathon's, but it makes slightly more sense. He finally goes on to tell a similar story of what happened between him and Diotima, an "expert in love" (41). This last speech makes the most sense and seems to be considered the truth about love. It would be ironic that a woman delivers the wisdom in this story, after Plato has basically claimed women to be incapable of love on any higher level than pure lust, except the words come from Socrates and are therefore adopted as his own. Socrates, even though he was married, was known to participate in homosexual affairs, and "in 399 B.C. he was brought to trial . . . on the charge of introducing strange gods and 'corrupting the youth.' . . . He had a 'subversive' influence on the minds of the young" ("Socrates," 1227).

The wisdom that Diotima imparts through Socrates makes more sense than any other speech given. Diotima introduces a middle ground on the extremes that have been tossed around in the other speeches. She claims that Love is neither attractive nor ugly, neither good nor bad, neither mortal nor god. Diotima is a mediator between the different opinions of love, but it is Socrates who gets the praise for such insight in the end. However, even Diotima admits that the relationship between men is more meaningful than heterosexual or lesbian relationships, saying "{a homosexual} relationship involves a far stronger bond and far more constant affection than is experienced by people who are united by ordinary children" (52). What she means is that the thoughts and ideas two men produce between them are like their children, and heterosexual couples cannot have a bond like this because they have physical children. This is just a reminder that this is not really a woman giving this speech, but Plato writing the speech as if a woman was telling it. It is not very convincing; it speaks of pregnancy and giving birth while still glorifying the male homosexual relationship.

It is also through Diotima that Plato introduces the idea of a 'platonic ladder,' which is a devive to attain the highest love, but the highest love is only available to men and boys. On this ladder, there are steps from loving the physical beauty of just one person, and then loving all physical beauty, to then love mental beauty, to finally just love beauty itself. At this final stage the man will see beauty in every one and every thing; he will see and love true beauty. Diotima asks Socrates, "What else could make life worth living, my dear Socrates . . . than seeing true beauty? If you ever catch sight of it, gold and clothing and good-looking boys and youths will pale into insignificance beside it" (55). The upper two steps of the ladder are unavailable to women, since they are incapable of love without lust or higher thinking. Although this is not explicitly stated in Diotima’s reasoning, it seems to be a generally accepted fact and does not need mentioning since it is so obvious. Even so, everyone is very impressed with Diotima's wisdom, except they admire Socrates instead of the woman.

Although Plato has made it seem so, homosexuality in ancient Greece was not a practice the majority participated in. It was generally confined to the elitist groups, the wealthy and powerful. It may have been considered acceptable in the way the socially elite in the West consider occasional drug use to be acceptable. The privileged few have always had their own society, where certain practices, which are not necessarily accepted by the general public, are acceptable in their select group. Homoeroticism was not a taboo in Greece the way it is in Western culture. According to Kwarteng, "what is certain is that received opinion for many years has viewed homosexuality as being fairly tolerated in the ancient Greek world" (paragraph 1). The Symposium, while not the general consensus, is a representation of an opinion favored among the educated, powerful, and rich.

Works Cited

"Greece, Ancient." Encyclopedia of Homosexuality. Ed. Dynes, Wayne R. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc.; 1990.

Kwarteng, Kwasi. "Was Plato the Only Greek Gay?" New Statesman 23 Aug. 1999: 12

Nicholson, Graeme. Plato's Phaedrus: The Philosophy of Love. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1999.

Plato. Symposium. Trans. by Waterfield. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

"Plato." Cassell's Encyclopedia of Queer Myth, Symbol, and Spirit. Eds. Conner, Randy P., David Hatfield Sparks, and Mariya Sparks. London: Cassell, 1997.

"Plato." Encyclopedia of Homosexuality. Ed. Dynes, Wayne R. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc.: 1990.

"Socrates." Encyclopedia of Homosexuality. Ed. Dynes, Wayne R. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc.: 1990

Waterfield. Introduction. Symposium. By Plato. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994. xvi.

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