Plato and Same-Sex Sexuality
Plato is perhaps the most significant and influential philosopher in the Western tradition. He lived from c. 428-347 B.C.E. and was a student of Socrates and teacher of Aristotle. At one time Plato wrote that the best relationship would be an erotically charged relationship between men, though he believed the highest relationship would not involve actual sexual contact. It is from this ideal that we get the term platonic relationship. However today a platonic relationship refers to a completely non-sexual relationship. Despite Plato’s assertion that an erotically charged but sexually unconsummated relationship was best, he does have Socrates say in the Phaedrus, that pairs of lovers, eromenoi (lover) and erastoi (beloved) could reach heaven even if they did take part in “that desire of their hearts which to many is bliss” (Crompton, 2003, p. 60-61). Crompton (2011) stated that in general “Plato’s dialogues are suffused with a homoerotic ambience” (p. 1). However, in Plato’s last work, the Laws [A1], he seems to take the opposite view (Hubbard, 2003, p. 9). In that work, Plato refers to heterosexual intercourse as “natural” and same-sex sex between women and men as “unnatural” (Jowett, 1937, 636, p. 418).
Plato also writes of the origin of same and opposite sex urges. In his Symposium, Plato has Aristophanes tell a tale of human origins in which everyone was once a four legged creature until Zeus cut each in half. Each half tried to reunite with its mate and this explains the nature of human beings:
Men who are a section of that double nature which was once called androgynous [made up of a man and a woman] are lovers of women, adulterers are generally of this breed, and also adulterous women who lust after men. The women who are a section of the woman do not care for men, but have female attachments: the female companions [that is, lesbians] are of this sort. But they who are a section of the male follow the male, and while they are young, being slices of the original man, they have affection for men and embrace them [the Greek verb implies a sexual sense], and these are the best of boys and youths, because they have the most manly nature. [bracketed material in Crompton] (Crompton, 2003, p. 58).
This passage is an unusual celebration of male same-sex desire by contemporary Western standards. Plato is explicitly linking manliness not with heterosexual desire but with homosexual desire.
Erastes (lover) and eromenos (beloved) kissing. Louvre.
Photo courtesy of Marie-Lan Nguyen.