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Plato: The Serpent in the Garden of Sexuality
deutsche Übersetzung)

Although Plato is credited by some historians of sexuality as an early proponent and theorist of homosexual activity, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Plato can be blamed for having first devised the oppressive sexual moral code under which the West has suffered since the early middle ages.

Admittedly, Plato's dialogues are full of references to homosexuality, and the contemporary (male) Greek society displayed through his work apparently rated love between males higher than any other form of love. This is clear from the statements of characters in the dialogues, but these are mainly characters who do not represent Plato's point of view.

In Plato's dialogues, it is always the case that one of the characters is meant to represent the standpoint of true wisdom (usually Socrates, but in the "Laws" an anonymous Athenian), while the other conversants range from arrogant fools (Ion, Protagoras) to eminent men of Athens who nonetheless fall short of Socrates' wisdom (Symposium) to earnest seekers of wisdom (Republic, Laws, Phaedrus) to gifted disciples of Socrates (Timaeus).

Although the character "Socrates" concedes the supreme status of chaste love between males, any positive statements about homosexual sex all come from the less wise conversants, never from "Socrates" himself. On the contrary, the wise character is confronted with a society in which same-sex sexuality is prevalent, and wishes to find ways to discredit it with an aim to abolishing it altogether.

This indicates two things: First, that Plato was no advocate of homosexuality. Second, and consequently, that assertions regarding the prevalence of same-sex sexuality among the Greeks are based on real facts of life in Greece, not the wishful thinking of some homophile elite. After all, since Plato seeks to abolish non-marital sexuality through his work, why would he pretend that homosexuality was prevalent if it was not so? Such would not only make no sense, it would contradict one of Plato's main educational principles: don't show people behaviors in literature that you don't want them to imitate in life.

If Plato's work is a treasure trove of positive ancient characterizations of homosexuality, that is only because those positive characterizations were current in his world. They are the starting point from which Plato wishes to lead his followers and his society into exclusive heterosexuality in marriage.

In the Republic, the Laws, and his other works, Plato sought to devise a system of education that would promote what he considered to be the qualities of an ideal man: wisdom, justice, temperance, and courage. Sexuality was fundamentally dangerous and antithetical to his project, so he said, because it was characterized by mental frenzy as opposed to rationality (Republic 403) and because sexual acts failed to teach courage to one partner (the passive) and temperance to the other (the active) (Laws 836). The only justification for sexuality to exist at all was for procreation. Therefore, all sexuality outside of marriage should be forbidden by law (Laws 838-9). If only that were possible! he laments (Laws 835). Getting everyone to agree to this moral code would be difficult, but once it was established it would perpetuate itself, if only all people could somehow be prevented from ever contradicting or denying it (Laws 838). He offers various potential means for establishing the acceptance of such a moral code, including telling children at an impressionable age that non-marital sex is hated by God (Laws 838), that abstinence from sex represents a victory even more glorious than any athletic or military victory, and that failure to be abstinent is ugly and makes you lower than the animals (Laws 840). He also suggests requiring that people hide their sexual practice, so that the sight of some people enjoying sex would not become an enticement to others (Laws 841). Finally, one could simply enact a law forbidding all homosexual sex and all sex outside of marriage or concubinage (Laws 841).

This is Western sexual morality in a nutshell. It should not be surprising that it was first formulated by Plato, since he is undoubtedly the most significant thinker in Western intellectual history. I say it should not be surprising, and yet it is, because we have all been taught (as Plato suggested we should be) that these ideas come from religion and are ordained by God. What surprises us is to find that they are not eternal truths revealed through a prophet, but rather the product of faulty rational thought by an essentially disbelieving man.

Plato is not a prophet of God. Rather, he suggested a way in which divine myth could and should be manipulated and twisted to achieve "rational" purposes.

Plato's way of thinking spread throughout the Mediterranean world and engulfed the Jewish religion long before Jesus was born. Following Alexander the Great's conquest of the Middle East, political power was in the hands of people who had been trained in Greek philosophy, in which Plato was the towering figure. This was a period in which several books of the Bible were written, more were being edited, and all were being translated, commented on, and interpreted. These interpretations and commentaries were colored by rational philosophy. Whether you want to say that religious scholars adapted the scriptures to meet the challenges of the dominant philosophy, or that they were in fact philosophers seeking to use their traditional holy scriptures as foundation myths to achieve some of the aims of moral philosophy -- either way, the impact of philosophy on revealed religion was thorough, profound, and insidious.

It was in this context that the story of Sodom began to be used as a pretext to ban all homosexuality. The Biblical story of Sodom had traditionally been viewed as a story of God's punishment on a people who exemplified boundless violence and cruelty. It had never been viewed as a story about sex and gender deviants. Then along came a Jewish philosopher called Philo of Alexandria, a man trained in Greek philosophy as well as the Hebrew scriptures. Columbia Encyclopedia calls Philo  -- who was about sixteen years older than Jesus and survived him by about twenty years -- "the first important thinker to attempt to reconcile Biblical religion with Greek philosophy." Philo made the earliest recorded argument that the city of Sodom was destroyed because its acts were unnatural and perverted (as opposed to merely violent and unjust), and he was also the first to associate the prohibitions of Leviticus against "lying with males" with so-called gender-differentiated homosexuality, in which the bottom partner is a person who is socially defined as not male. (See Philo, On Abraham 135-141; Special Laws I 324-325; Special Laws III 37-42.)

According to the Biblical story (told in Genesis 19), the city of Sodom was destroyed after its inhabitants attempted to rape two messengers of God whom they took for ordinary males. The city of Sodom was populated by men who lusted after men, but that did not mean they were distinctly homosexual men -- they weren't. The violators were "all of the men of the town, from the youngest to the oldest, down to the last one," according to the Bible, not just the small minority of homosexuals that might exist in any town. If there is doubt that non-homosexual men would desire to rape other men, one can check out statistics of male rape which show that the vast majority of rapists of men are otherwise heterosexual (see the bottom of my page of recommended books for references), or one can simply turn to the Biblical story of the rape committed by the men of Gibeah as told in Judges 19, in which the men of the town initially ask to rape a man, and then are satisfied to rape a woman instead.  These men were criminals, but they were not homosexuals. Most so-called "heterosexual" men can be naturally aroused for a homosexual act and carry it out as well as homosexuals. Although there was nothing unusual or unnatural about their desire to use men as sex objects, it is nonetheless true that to act on those desires by penetrating other "males" was considered criminal by the ancient world. The fact that they wanted not merely to penetrate males, but in fact to rape them, only further emphasizes the criminal nature of their intended acts, but other verses in the Bible state that the penetration of males is a crime in and of itself (Leviticus 18:22, 20:13).

In order to interpret the story of Sodom and the prohibition of Leviticus properly, one must know that the attribute of "maleness" in the ancient world entailed a certain responsiveness toward the female sex and was not  considered an anatomical characteristic alone. Maleness was the attribute of those who played the "male" role in procreation. The kind of man who by nature showed no sexual arousal with females, like a gay man today, was not considered male but rather a "natural eunuch."

So the sin of Sodom, being defined as the sexual abuse of "males," is a sexual crime comprised of one extremely rare form of homosexuality: the penetration of non-gay men. It is not sex between women. It is not sex between homosexual men. It is not even sex between straight and homosexual men when the straight man is on top. It is only when a potentially heterosexually active man is penetrated that there is even a question of sodomy. Thus, sodomy comprises only a very small portion of the entire range of what we call homosexual activities.

When you present this interpretation of the story to many religious believers, and argue that most forms of homosexuality are not prohibited and that only one rare form of it is, they often abandon the story of Sodom, at that point preferring to claim that, after all, all sex outside of marriage is prohibited and noting that marriage is only contractable between a man and a woman. In this way these religious believers only show themselves to be good Platonists! They will not find the doctrine of "no sex outside of marriage" stated anywhere in the Bible or Qur'an (not counting the epistles of Paul, who was trained in Greek philosophy like Philo). However, through constant and unwavering repetition by religious leaders it has become an axiom that is accepted and never contradicted, just as Plato had recommended. It is an example of what is called in the Qur'an: saying something is from God while it is not from God.

In the Qur'an and Bible, God does tell people to restrain themselves sexually, but there is no call for complete sexual abstinence or for avoidance of all sexuality outside of marriage. In fact, according to the Qur'an men are explicitly allowed to have sex with as many slaves as they can afford to own (e.g. 4:3, 23:6, and 70:30, not to mention 33:50). And there is no statement about what the slaves' gender has to be.

The sexual restraint that is called for in the Qur'an and Bible (excluding the philosopher Paul) is not about curbing your appetite in the Platonic sense. Rather, it is about not treading on other people's rights and thereby causing strife. Therefore, you can have sex with those people with whom you have a right to have sex, but not with people with whom you do not have a right to have sex. That sounds like a tautology, so let me state it more clearly. The God of revelation allows you to have sex with anyone you like as long as you are not infringing on someone else's rights. It is the infringement of rights that constitutes the crime, not the sexual pleasure.

In adultery it is obvious who the injured parties are: the husband of the adulterous woman or the child resulting from the adultery if the legal husband disowns it. In sodomy, the injured parties are the penetrated man, if he is a victim of rape, and potentially the wife or future wife of even a willing passive recipient of sexual penetration, as well as her children. Although we moderns know that the penetrated man will not pass the seed of the penetrator to his wife, we also know that he may pass infections to her and to her offspring.

For example, according to estimates I have seen, HIV infection is ten times easier to pass from the active to the passive partner than from the passive to the active partner. So if a man is penetrated by another man, and subsequently has sex with a woman, he is ten times more likely to pass HIV to her and her offspring than he would be due to having penetrated another man. Concern about the spread of disease to unborn children may well be behind the prohibition of sexual penetration of men who also have sex with women.

(This raises the issue of condom use, and whether voluntary sexual penetration using condoms would be a violation of the sodomy prohibition. Perhaps not. On the other hand, there may be some other concerns that we are unaware of, perhaps having to do with preserving the gender self-identification or sexual preferences of heterosexually active men. The philosopher Aristotle, for one, warned that boys allowed to indulge in passive homosexuality might become heterosexually impotent.)

Most ancient authors assumed that a "real man" would not want to be penetrated anyway. If men who loved women did let themselves be penetrated by other men, it was assumed to be for some purpose other than sexual desire, such as payment. Such men were deemed contemptible sellers of their own dignity as men. Conversely, men who really did desire sexual penetration were assumed to be impotent, effeminate and not real men, and as such they were ineligible for marriage.

The logic went as follows: if you were a real man, you must not want to be penetrated, so if you actually wanted to be penetrated, you must not be a real man. If you wanted to marry a woman, that meant you were going to play the role of a man, so you could not be penetrated by another man. If you were penetrated, you could not marry a woman. It was a very simple rule, made perfect sense, and was easy to comply with. The social stigma of losing male status would be enough to check a heterosexually active male's curiosity about playing the passive role, if he felt any. Meanwhile, a man who was naturally impotent with women, and thus was a "natural eunuch," never had obtained male status to begin with and therefore did not have to worry about losing it.

This system was entirely in accordance with nature. Moreover, it allowed for a fulfilling exercise of sexual desire and development of love relationships, which are often fragile, without the danger of pregnancy associated with heterosexuality. Heterosexual relationships on the other hand were tightly controlled because of the consequence of childbirth. This was the system that Plato himself grew up with.

The rule was homosexuality for "falling in love" (which is fleeting), heterosexuality for childraising (which is permanent). This was what constituted planned parenthood in ancient times. While women could forge sexual relationships with any other women, men had to take care that their passive sex partners were not "male" in the procreative sense. The partners available to them were female prostitutes, beardless boys, and natural or artificial eunuchs. In fact, these are the three groups from which ancient men chose their beloveds. The "natural eunuchs," who felt no lust for women but only for men, would have been allowed to penetrate one another or to be penetrated by men.

Infatuation was no basis for establishing a permanent relationship of marriage, however. Marriage was an agreement to produce children together, and infatuation was, if anything, an obstacle to making that kind of agreement. Infatuation could color the judgment, and might cause you to form an attachment that you might later regret. Since infatuation was a temporary joy, not expected to last, it was best experienced with someone from whom no permanent commitment was to be expected. Therefore, a same-sex partner was ideal. Even Plato approved of male-male infatuation, although he insisted there should be no actual sex involved (so-called Platonic friendship).

It took centuries for Plato's restrictive views on sex to become prevalent. And as I point out in another essay on this website, it was not until 390 CE, over seven hundred years after Plato's death, that the first enforceable law was promulgated against gender-differentiated homosexuality (i.e., homosexuality between men in which the bottom partner is deemed not male, due to his lack of arousal for women or for some other reason).

But in the twentieth century we have gone further than even Plato's intention to remove the sex from male-male love. Through the work of twentieth-century psychologists, sealed by late 1940's politically-motivated hysteria about "perverts" taking over society and the subsequent obsession with appearing "normal," the marginalization of same-sex love has led to the disappearence of even chaste love and affection between men, something that was still quite common in the nineteenth century and even until recently in societies that had not yet experienced waves of hetero-paranoia.

In the title of this paper I called Plato the serpent in the Garden. After all, he took a natural world in which human beings allowed themselves to experience numerous pleasures with only a few important restrictions, and, after promising to raise them out of ignorance into knowledge of good and evil, he ultimately led them to cast themselves out of paradise into a world of shame and torment.