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literature

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Plato (427-327 B.C.E.)  
 
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In Athens, by contrast, opinion is neither totally for nor against male love. There, extravagant behavior by lovesick male adults is condoned but boys are teased by their peers if they have lovers.

Pausanias approves this system since it guarantees that boys will be chary of granting their favors and will not yield for venal reasons, but only when they can claim that their lover is a man of virtue and wisdom who will inculcate these virtues. Pausanias argues that young males should gratify only such lovers, thus establishing the fact that his higher love is, in effect, mixed--that is, it combines the physical with the spiritual.

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Aristophanes makes a similar assumption: Sexual acts exist, he thinks, both for procreation and for the physical satisfaction of male couples. His argument is set in a fantastic framework, the kind of comic myth one might expect to find in his theatrical extravaganzas.

Human beings were once, he tells us, double creatures made up of double males, double females, or two genders united. He uses this myth to "explain" the origin of differing sexual orientations. For when Zeus, as a punishment, severed these double beings, the halves tried to recombine: hence male homosexuality, lesbianism, and heterosexuality.

But Aristophanes' fable is by no means neutral in its values. He concludes that homosexuality is superior to heterosexuality since anything that involves two males must be nobler than that which mixes genders. Thus lovers of males are "more manly" than lovers of women. The boys who surrender themselves to men are not shameless but models of spirited virility who later become the principal leaders in public life. In classical Greece, "homosexism" might, as on this occasion, predominate over "heterosexism."

The speech on love of the physician Eryximachus does not touch on homosexuality since it is couched in general physiological terms. Nor does Agathon's speech take up the social and ethical themes broached by his lover Pausanias. It is a flowery exercise in rhetoric that Socrates punctures with ironic questions.

Socrates, in developing his own theory of love pursues a wholly different line from the preceding speakers. He confirms the homoerotic bias of the others by assuming that love will first be inspired by the beauty of boys, but argues that love for the beauty of an individual should give way to love for beauty generally.

Love should, indeed, ultimately be directed not to persons at all but to abstract ideals such as beauty, justice, and truth. In its highest manifestation, it will take the form of love for the constitutions and laws of utopian states. In the end, Socrates sublimates erotics into politics, leaving personal relations behind entirely.

The final speech, by Alcibiades, who has burst in drunk upon the party, is a detailed account of how the handsome young Athenian tried in vain to seduce Socrates in order to make him his mentor. He expresses astonishment, which he expects the others to share, that Socrates should have resisted his charms.

The dialectic of the Symposium leaves an important question unanswered. Though Socrates obviously regards the love of beautiful boys as the lowest step on the ladder of love, it is not clear if its physical manifestation is simply given a lower place in his moral scheme of things or is entirely forbidden. The Phaedrus focuses on this issue.

The Phaedrus

Phaedrus begins by showing Socrates a clever speech by the orator Lysias: It argues that a young man ought to yield his favors not to someone who is in love with him but to a nonlover since the latter will be less jealous and less likely to betray him by boasting of the affair.

After some typical irony, Socrates reveals that he regards such an idea as a kind of blasphemy against the sacred idea of love, which for him is a form of "divine madness." He then presents the myth of the soul as a charioteer driving two horses. The ugly black horse is passion, the noble white horse reason and self-control.

Though the beauty of the male beloved may lead the black horse to assault him, the lover must do everything he can to subdue and tame the animal. Only then will he grow the wings that will take the pair to heaven. The lover may touch, kiss, and embrace the beloved, but they must remain chaste.

The passage in which Plato sets forth this fantasy is one of the most eloquent, imaginative, and beautiful in Greek prose. Never has anyone praised love between males in more exalted terms, or worked harder to make frustration sound seductive.

At the end of the Phaedrus, Plato relaxes his strictness slightly by admitting that those who momentarily "accomplish that desire of their hearts which to the many is bliss" may, if they later learn control, also soar to the skies as winged beings. Again, in the Republic, Plato goes so far as to allow the man who has demonstrated unusual courage in battle to kiss the boy or girl of his choice as a reward, though no more than this.

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