In the coming days I want to examine what some important Greek philosophers had to say about sex. But first I want to provide a bit of context for their views.
The Greeks had nothing against sex in and of itself. They accepted desire as a perfectly natural urge, one that deserved satisfaction like any other. But they valued self-control more than anything else, and they could not stand to see a man – at least a free man – allow his animal nature to overwhelm his rational faculty. Self-control marked the difference between a citizen and a slave. And sexual desire – eros is the Greek term – was a perilous threat to a man’s, or a woman’s, self-control. (The Greek word for self-control is enkrateia, its opposite is akrasia.) The Greeks had another term, philia, for the calm, affectionate love that is not overwhelmed by eros. Philia can sustain and comfort a person, and is easily integrated into a virtuous life. Eros by contrast was often described as a disease or a madness, that can tear one’s life apart.
In Euripides’ tragedy Hippolytus, the title character earns the wrath of Aphrodite for “shunning the bed of love and having nothing to do with marriage”. To punish him, the goddess fills his father’s wife Phaedra with desire for him. She says of her victim: “her heart was seized with a dreadful longing by my design”. Phaedra tries to resist: “My . . . intention was to bear this madness nobly, overcoming it by means of self-control.” But it is to no avail: “My limbs are unstrung.” The paradigm was Helen and Paris. Paris sets off the chain of events when, judging a contest among the goddesses, he allowed his rational judgement to be overcome by Aphrodite. She won the contest by displaying her physical charms — Apuleius refers to her “entrancing lower parts”, which she only thinly veiled for the judgement — and by promising him the love of the world’s most beautiful woman. Helen duly allowed the goddess to lure her into Paris’s arms, and away from her husband, with a decade of bloodshed the result.
Perhaps people under the spell of eros were to be pitied rather than blamed. Surely the madness had robbed them of any responsibility for their actions? In the play The Trojan Women Helen insists, as sex addicts like Tiger Woods do today (we’ll get to that in a future post), that her affliction by eros left her blameless: “What thought led me to follow the stranger from your house, traitress to my country and my home? Punish the goddess, show yourself more mighty even than Zeus, who, though he lords it over the other gods, is her slave; therefore I may well be pardoned.” Perhaps. The consequences remained the same.
We should not exaggerate the Greek fear of the erotic. While its dangerous power served as an effective trope for tragedy, it could equally be used in comic genres. Characters in the symposia freely teased each other about their passions, while poets such as Sappho wrote clever, ironic lyrics about their infatuations. (The power of eros would later become much more a staple of Roman comedy than of tragedy.) And Greeks of course seduced and were seduced by one another all the time without their lives being turned upside down. However, it is by looking at characters such as Phaedra and Helen, who tore their worlds apart by their inability to resist their desires, that we can understand the one character in Greek literature whose self-possession not even the gods seemed able to scathe.
Socrates famously visited an oracle when he was young who told him, according to Plato, that no one was wiser than he was. But Xenophon, another student of Socrates, tells the story differently. According to Xenophon, the oracle actually told him he was the freest of all men, not the wisest, and this because he was the most self-controlled. Socrates proudly recalled this as he faced execution: “who is there in your knowledge that is less a slave to his bodily appetites than I am? Who in the world more free . . .?”It was this self-mastery that allowed him to face death bravely rather than choosing to flee when he had the chance. To escape would have been to give in to the demands of the body, and thus to become a slave. Better to drink the hemlock. Xenophon’s memoir of Socrates brings the point home repeatedly. He calls him the panton anthropon enkratestatos, “the most self-controlled of all men.” He makes the (in any case obvious) link with sex when he has Socrates urge his followers “to exercise self-control (enkrateia) in the matter of … sexual indulgence …” And elsewhere, even more severely: “Of sensual passion he [Socrates] would say: Avoid it resolutely: it is not easy to control yourself once you meddle with that sort of thing.”
I will discuss the views of Plato, Aristotle and other Greek philosophers on sex in more detail. But they all display what I am somewhat inelegantly calling akrasiophobia – fear of the loss of self-mastery – a phobia with deep roots in Greek culture. And this akrasiaphobia was an integral part of the fascination Socrates continued to hold for his philosophical successors for centuries after his death.
Image: Jacques-Louis David, The Love of Helen and Paris (1788)