June 26, 2003
(Continued from above) To many
(Continued from above)
To many modern people, sexuality is so loaded with guilt, morality, religion, and personal judgments as to be incapable of rational discussion.
Complete misunderstandings of the ancients are common to both sides of the debate over homosexuality. Modern gay rights activists often scream about how "gay sex" was common among ancients, while moral conservatives go to great, often tortuous lengths to deny homosexuality. Thus, clear references to sexual relations between men are hailed as endorsements of gay sex by gay advocates -- while indignantly labeled as lies by moral conservatives. Descriptions of the Spartans' sexual conduct (or that of Julius Caesar) are seen as advancing or threatening modern agendas, and in the process it is forgotten that these sexual details mattered to the ancient authors about as much as Julius Caesar's concerns about his hair loss. I spent some time yesterday poring over Diodorus Siculus in New York's wonderful neoclassical Public Library, and as I read about ancient sexuality I realized how pointless was my search for truth -- for my source would be hailed by liberal activists as a champion of a modern position never even contemplated -- and simultaneously dismissed as "unreliable" by today's moral conservatives.
In a logical and dispassionate world, why should it matter whether or not Spartan soldiers were paired as lovers in battle? Or whether the Celts seemed to prefer sex with men to sex with women?
"Despite the fact that their wives are beautiful, the Celts have little to do with them, but instead abandon themselves to a strange passion for other men. They usually sleep on the ground on skins of wild animals and tumble about with a bedfellow on either side. And what is strangest of all is that, without any thought of modesty, they carelessly surrender their virginity to other men. Far from finding anything shameful in this, they feel insulted if anyone refuses the favors they offer..." From Diodorus Siculus
A recent observation by John Derbyshire may, I hope, serve as a starting point not for any debate, but to show the difficulty in judging the ancients by modern standards:
RE: "REMEMBER THERMOPYLAE" [John Derbyshire]I won't make light of this issue, because it reveals a gap between us and the ancients so profound as to defy ordinary understanding -- as well as my ability to write about it.
The irony is that Mr. Derbyshire does not know how right he is. Likewise, the gay activists are equally right, but not for the reasons they think.
The Three Hundred neither asked nor told because there was nothing before them to ask or tell about. We cannot analyze ancient sexuality in modern terms. Any attempt to do so fails utterly. We do not understand true sexual tolerance. No; I am wrong right there. Tolerance is the wrong word. There was a very basic acceptance of sexuality that saw no need to define it. (I say this notwithstanding the additional issues of dominance and hierarchy, which, while complicated by modern standards, nonetheless did not invoke modern guilt or shame.) There was no such thing or such word or category of people as "homosexual." Nor was there any such thing as heterosexual. Putting a question like that in front of the Spartans and expecting an answer is an exercise in the absurd. To "ask or tell" would require a very lengthy modern lecture about such things as sexual guilt and sexual shame. Homosexuality would have to be defined for them as a thing, a concept. While we alternately condemn, stigmatize, celebrate, tolerate, refuse to tolerate homosexuality, we have the concept. Spartans never defined homosexuality, and they would not understand this. Of course Spartan men had sexual intercourse with each other. Anyone who claims they didn't ignores clear historical evidence. But applying the word "gay" or "homosexual" is absurd.
To even begin to understand the ancients is to suspend all modern prejudices and values and visit an alien culture in the truest sense of the word.
That's why I'm here. To try to do that. The very best I can do is not much at all. The more I read, the more I understand, the more I don't understand. (At this rate I'll be completely ignorant by the time I die.)
I am not saying that sexual guilt is entirely a modern concept. (To do so would deny the antiquity of the Old Testament.) However, sexual guilt was definitely not the dominant concept in ancient Greco-Roman times. It set in later. (Much, I think, to human detriment.)
These underlying Classical Values, which burst forth in the Renaissance (and were in turn repressed vigorously by puritanical zealots) can't be kept down forever. They have a way of resurfacing over and over -- no matter how many fig leaves are welded on top of them.
Historical references may shed light on facts, but they do not explain the feelings of the ancients. Sexual guilt -- especially sexual shame -- was not there as far as I can see. Thus, any attempt to judge them by people steeped in sexual guilt (either by enforcers of it or victims reacting against it) will be problematic at best.
However, we are no longer engaged in a simple dispute between guilt-mongers and guilt victims. There is a growing class of people who do not identify with the guilt at all -- people who cannot understand this insistence upon defining and then judging a man by what he wants to do with his penis.
To me, that's a good thing. It is a return to Classical Values.
posted by Eric on 06.26.03 at 04:53 PM
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