Pederasty and Philosophy: A Thought on Socrates and Plato
It’s not the dialectical intricacy found in the works of Plato by which I’m most bothered. Once properly inured to this tedious “back-and-forth” technique, to this maieutic maze, to this Socratic obscurity, to this building and demolition of one indefinable term after the next, one can get along well enough. Indeed, through the course of Plato’s many dialogues (for which his literary scapegoat and nom de guerre Socrates is made responsible; he serves as both agent provocateur and protagonist), the most intricate of passages become manageable.
Some are steeped in dialectic, others abstruse with mathematics, but all—to some degree or another—can be enjoyed. Innocent for the most part, they’re all intelligent beyond belief and far superior to any other work from that age to which they might be compared.
Thus, Plato’s pen and Socrates’s brain combined in creating the most salutary of main courses upon which our early mind could feast. Not only has it been a healthful entrée into the germinal philosophy of the modern age, but an unexpectedly poetical taste of ancient Greece and western thought as well.
Plato, of course, would cringe at this unflattering characterization of himself. The pre-Aristotelian philosopher par excellence was no poet. He was, in his own estimation, a wrestler-turned-thinker, a champion-turned-utopian, a man in whose hardened opinion poets were to be held in the utmost contempt. They were masters of artifice and promulgators of deception. Certainly, these bothersome bards and unctuous rhapsodes wouldn’t be countenanced in his lofty Republic, nor tolerated to sing of their epic excitements in his austere streets. Doubtless this intolerance—whose severity was so unbecoming of so otherwise commendable a man—was bound to fail in time. And so, as every century yields to its next, we realize that Plato will never surpass, much less supplant the heroic immediacy of Homer—no matter how cosmic and pervasive his philosophy might be.
All that being said, I bother myself not with Plato’s anti-poetic position—though doubtless it’s one with which my own frightened Muses disagree. Aside from poetry’s very strict usage in the edification of his Republican pupils (who, it might be added, were callously shorn of their families and rendered to the care of the state), he cared little for the arts. He’s allowed his opinion, though it might be wanting of imagination and dreary of the vibrancy of life. The opinion of which he ought to have been disabused, however, and that one by which I’m most inescapably bothered as I write these words today, is that which concerns the love between grown adult men and pubescent boys.
More than a passing fetish that we might forgive as having been an idiosyncratic part of this Socratic age of Greece, pederasty—or the “mutual”, though often sexual and unilateral attraction between men and boys—was pervasive during Socrates’s day. Abstinent until the ripened age of thirty (an age most conducive to wedlock, if you ask me), most Athenian men enjoyed their pre-marital decades in the company of a boy. As such, the ubiquity of this practice, not surprisingly, is reflected in Plato’s works. He was a man, after all, as much of his time as he would become for eternity.
Time and again, one dialogue after the next, it’s either an underlying or a substantial theme to which the brilliant author makes reference. It’s either peripheral to his subject or unavoidably central to the discourse itself. It’s a subject by which many, though certainly not all, of the dialogues are at least in part inspired. As prevalent as it is prurient, the theme arises in such works as Symposium, Phaedrus, Laws, and others where it repeatedly demands one’s disquieted attention. In these above listed works, the theme of pederasty is downright explicit, but in all others, one can’t help but feel as though this love of boys is restively turning at the back of Socrates’s head. One fears that at the end of a conversation with Gorgias, he’ll change from a rhetorical to an erotic garb.
So far as his mind is concerned, it’s one that proves, from one moment to the next, as capacious as it is lascivious. Travelling across the flourishing breadth of its scope, one can’t fail quickly to stumble upon his thoughts and his love of boys. His mind, ever in adoration of the ephebic male youth—especially when it concerned his beloved Alcibiades—is never at a distance from his heart. Though avowedly opposed to rhapsodes, he speaks rhapsodically when talking about the relations that exist between men and boys. Ostensibly, of course, these relations ought to be Platonic and chaste, but the homosexual bent of human nature giggles and winks at so innocent an idea. Smiling, it knows too well of our pretensions to philosophical sublimity, always in conflict with our biology, and that passion, rather than reason, is the master of all men. Therefore, in short order, this venial bond between boy and man becomes a venereal infatuation from which we can’t be detached. What was mutually constructive becomes painfully exploitative as the man overpowers the youth—both in body and in mind. The ravaged juvenile, now a damaged adolescence, becomes another pagan victim in this pursuit of boyhood love.
Even when it comes to our great philosophers, sexual liberty and moral depravity tend to go hand in hand. It’s an attachment to which not even our most brilliant of thinkers are immune. This, we confess with great sadness, is a carnal truth and an ethical shame and has been so for all time. And though we fancy ourselves at once a fully liberated and harmlessly depraved people in this modern day, pederasty still falls outside the latitude with which our sexual expression and freedom is treated. It is, so to speak, outside the bounds of genteel discourse, much more so outside of those of acceptable sexual intercourse. Yet any proselyte of Plato or disciple of Socrates is made to hasten over those innumerable passages in which the former depicts the latter “philosophically” lusting over boys.
Ultimately, the question is this: is pederasty, the now unlawful but previously banal love between men and boys, an impediment to our appreciation of the works of Plato as given through the mouth of Socrates? Having imbibed Plato’s astonishing catalogue of work, are we to swallow a purgative specifically to rid us of the filth? Are we to ingest the good and reject the ill? It’s not without a nauseating feeling in the stomach and a heaviness in the bowels that I respond with an affirmative yes to all of the questions above. Though dissonant with our modern sensibilities and contrary to our every endeavor to protect our youth, we can love Plato and Socrates—albeit in a strictly Platonic and Socratic way. If only they could do the same.