Pederasty and Power in Plato's Mythological Dialogues

By Paul Regan
2017, Vol. 9 No. 10 | pg. 1/2 |


As a topic of philosophical interest the Socratic dialogues play a pivotal role in many of Plato’s works of more than thirty authentic dialogues. This paper discusses pederasty and power through myth and story-telling to teach Ancient Greek communities about the soul, morality and character through three of Plato’s mythological dialogues on Socrates: Symposium, Phaedrus and the Republic. Each work falls within several categories of investigation, speculation and argumentation. The re-telling of a story suggests that myth offers an economical framework from which to balance the soul, love, dialogue and power.

Plato’s early works advance the ideas of Socrates, who preferring to maintain the oral traditions of discourse, failed to write down any of his thinking (Plochmann, 1973). Plato’s dialogues offer an ironic approach to philosophical debate by appearing to agree with an interlocutor and then later challenging them to develop an alternate view, as if his thoughts had been moulded by the experiment of the discussion (Halperin, 1992). This is demonstrated in this paper in relation to pederasty and power which Plato challenges as a social issue using his dialectic technique. Plato’s use of Socrates dialectic empowered individuals to find their own answers to problems through a “…greater precision of enquiry…” and learning through question and answer discourse (Plochmann, 1973, p. 15). This approach also engages the reader into the story line through the unfolding drama and the choice of words used in story-telling and the use of myth (Halperin, 1992). Therefore, Socratic myth promoted a form of moral teaching which Plato then brought to a wider audience in his dialogues; to debate a need for virtue, to balance life, the soul, love, dialogue and power for the common good. Plato’s Socratic use of myth will be discussed through three of Plato’s mythological dialogues on Socrates: Symposium, Phaedrus and the Republic. However, Plato’s lessons on morality continue to have a contemporary resonance especially when citizens in democracies around the glove feel disenfranchised and impassive against the sense of power that corrupts society.

Plato’s Mythological Dialogues: Symposium, Phaedrus and Republic

First let me define what myth is. A myth is a system of communication that strikes at the very heart of social and cultural identity (Barthes, 1973). A myth is a traditional Greek tale with an evocative reference to something of collective importance, such as the soul, morality and character (Bremmer, 1987). Plochmann (1973) suggests there is one great myth evident near the end of Gorgias, Republic and Phaedo after the main dialectical messages have been made explicit. In other dialogues it becomes noticeable in the middle (Phaedrus, Symposium, 176b-180b, and the Apology, 40c-42a, 38). That myth is the soul and Plato proposes the soul’s afterlife is conditional and dependant on the power and self control exerted when dealing with life’s appetites, ambitions, people, choices and reason. How a person exerts self control and how they treat another person are of concern to Plato and in his quest to promote self-reflection Plato offers a view of the soul as being disembodied from its human host. The cost of choices made in life become evident when returning to life and being born again with a higher level of moral consciousness (Plochmann, 1973).

The main points in Timaeus, Republic, Phaedrus and Phaedo are directed towards the soul and the last three dialogues are similar in their treatment of it. Plochmann (1973) suggests the notion of the soul depicted in the dialogues can be divided into three sections. First, the soul’s appetite drives the human to act, and includes instincts such as desire, thirst, hunger which may be abused at any time and moderated after reflection. Second, the soul’s ambition and willingness to cope with whatever the world throws at someone requires a competitive edge to ensure survival (Plochmann, 1973). Third, the brain controls human appetite and ambition by the activation of reason, which is the domain of the philosopher (Plochmann, 1973). Discussion of the soul therefore is relevant to a discussion on pederasty because the soul appears to be a psycho-somatic metaphor for understanding life, and the mind like the body, can be subject to rehabilitation (Claus, 1981).

Simmias in Phaedo suggests Socrates impending death by the state of Athens challenged his dualistic view of the soul as a separate entity, to one more attuned to the tuned state of a musical instrument (85e-86d, Gallop, 1999, xviii). The soul’s immortality in Phaedo emphasises the “…lover of knowledge takes their soul in hand…” and effectively releases it from being imprisoned by its own ignorance (Gallop, 1999, 82e-83a). An ignorance that prefers self-deception and desire to self- reflection, therefore, according to Socrates the “true” philosopher’s soul abstains from the distraction of bodily pleasures, desires and pain (83b5). If unable to abstain from these vices, the soul remains mortal and riveted to the body and in doing so shares its sensations to impact on the soul’s capacity to reason (83d5). By avoiding bodily pleasures, such as sex, the soul is suggested to be set free to reach a state of immortality. Hence, Socrates rationalised at his impending death the soul would separate and transcend his body (Phaedo, 64c) which is the first of many mythical arguments (69e-72e, 102a-107b) about the immortal soul in the after-life (Gallop, 1999, xvi-xvii). The synchronicity of the mind and body hypothesis of course is later taken more seriously in philosophy (Claus, 1981; Descartes, 1984).

Culture of the Time

Before I move onto discuss pederasty and power I will set the scene of Plato’s dialogues. When attempting to understand Symposium, Phaedrus and Republic, the contemporary reader needs to be aware of the cultural context of Plato’s times, and perhaps acknowledging the readers own understanding about what Plato meant in his mythological dialogues (Ricoeur, 2013). Symposium is initially a baffling introduction to Plato and a lesson in temporally complex speeches, with past and present conversations quoted three to four persons removed (Gill, 1999; Halperin, 1992).

The creation of myths however, within Plato’s dialogues, plays a vital role in developing the interlocutors’ discussions as Socrates hones his views by logically and inscrutably examining the underlying premises of the stated beliefs and assumptions (Rowe, 1986). Symposium and Phaedrus are ideal companion dialogues (Rowe, 2005) and cover the topics of one vice which involves lust, and that is eros, love (Rowe, 2005). Love and the vice of lust appear to be prevalent in the thoughts of the assembled symposium. Plato’s dramatic visual imagery depicted in Symposium and Phaedrus hide deeper interpretive messages and his dialogues reinforce the critical practice of a philosopher and developing an Athenian’s oratory and debating skills necessary for the assembly (Waterfield, 1998). Plato’s philosophy therefore is not only a way of life for politics, it has the capacity to reorganise and restructure lives through dialectical devices (Gill, 1999). More about politics later. How the text is received, what biases and assumptions become known, how the text comes alive and how a greater degree of objective understanding can be achieved, are all interpretive issues to be addressed by the reader (Ricoeur, 2003).

The text is brought to life in the reader’s attempts to understand it and in this way Plato’s activation of philosophical thought, prevalent as mini dialogues within dialogues, allegory and storytelling, stimulate learning for the contemporary reader. Like the actors in the dialogues, the reader negotiates the discursive nature of the various conversations before realising there is more to be revealed and in each revelation, the reader becomes beguiled by Socrates methods.

Symposium and Phaedrus

The word symposium roughly translated means a drinking party, but also a night of fine dining, mainly for aristocratic Athenians celebrating the Greek good life amongst like minded friends in convivial surroundings (Gill, 1999). Once at the party, Plato’s Symposium sets the theatrical scene, situated in the large hall of the host’s house. In contrast Phaedrus is much simpler in structure, situated outside on the road and a conversation between two players, Socrates and Phaedrus. Like Symposium the conditions for dialectical enquiry are made explicit at the beginning of each dialogue and the rules of engagement firmly set for challenging any stated views within the safe confines of friendship. Symposium is a multi-layered dialogue with many mythical messages found within it, and acts as an elaborate interplay of indirect narrative dialogues, speakers of the past reported in the present a curious use of reporting and clever use of time (Gill, 1999; Johnson, 1998).

Apollodorus is approached by an old friend requesting a report from a recent party at Agathon’s, which turns out to have been years ago. What is different to Phaedrus is the aspect of time used as an interpretive and erotic device as Apollodorus tells the newcomer hat his version of events had come from Aristodemus who had been at the party and after meeting with Socrates, he had been invited to accompany him to Agathon’s party. This invite creates a sense of the good life, of friendship and lengthy debate where everyone is expected to parallel being involved in the dialectical style of debate (Halperin, 1992). By mutually engaging in debate, the exponents honour the virtues of high discourse with each other, and the mutuality of their male gender by inviting differing views towards consensual agreement. In contrast, an inability or lack of discursive response in a symposium would be considered a slight to all who assemble for that specific task (Protogaros 348a-c).

In Symposium, a young Phaedrus is fresh from meeting Lysias, the famous orator and son of Cephalus, a prominent player in Plato’s Republic and the story in Symposium takes some time to reach the same point that Phaedrus begins with; of Phaedrus obsession with learning the contents of Lysias most recent speech. On the first page Phaedrus talks about Lysias message of love, between lover and beloved, where a beautiful man may be propositioned and favoured by someone not in love, rather than a man not in love (227c5). Socrates responds in the form of a joke to reinforce the greater good, and in attempting to make his point he swaps the young man for an old man, a poor for rich, and a weak man for a strong man to identify the games being played in the name of homo erotic desire and the promotion of pederasty. Socrates flatters and challenges Phaedrus views by attempting to identify the underlying premises which support his views and in so doing attempts to get from the moral intuitions of knowledge to the truth of the matter (Rowe, 1986).

In contrast in Phaedrus, Plato uses two speeches from Socrates with the first one mimicking the grandiose prose of Lysias and ironically agreeing initially with Phaedrus. Socrates pretends to be saddened and apparently lets himself down with an unusually ill prepared poor conversation whilst all the while imitating Lysias style or oration. This mimetic action aims to elevate the emotion of an encounter and allow Phaedrus to reveal any unguarded thoughts, in other words he is caught up in the moment of speech to reveal his inner and most authentic views. What follows is a famous eulogy by Phaedrus on love, the gods and myth which pagan Greek culture used when pious opinions were expressed (Rowe, 2005). This preamble identifies the genus under which the one thing to be defined falls under, and dividing the genus even further before reaching the final definition, the thing, object or subject to be defined and discussed (Rowe, 2005). Hence, Plato’s ideas about eros belongs to the genus of madness, where irrationality, desire, blind love, dignity, immortality and procreation can be further made explicit (Rowe, 2005). An erotic madness in keeping with the theory of love that Plato vocalises through the myth of Diotima of Mantineia (Symposium, 201d to 212a, Gill, 1999) which I discuss later.

Pederasty and Eros

Plato’s use of characters and events always symbolises a deeper possible meaning and late in Symposium and in the first page of Phaedrus, Plato’s theory of love, of eros suggests desire is an object which then itself becomes desired (Brentlinger, 1970). What is striking about both dialogues is their homo-erotic focus from which Plato espouses his theory of Platonic love and non-lovers. The Symposium party was traditionally male only, waited on by young boys and male youths in an environment of male bonding, a celebration of masculinity, where flirting, games, homosexual activity and initiation into adult male social life may be practised. Due to the newly democratised Athens, free born boys were replaced by slaves (Gill, 1999) and in Symposium unlike the usual mix of female and male slaves, all the female entertainers were sent away to enable the necessary conditions for Plato’s intellectual debate on homo-erotic relationships (Gill, 1999).

From a contemporary view-point such a party may be the grooming of young pre-pubescent boys or young men for sexual favours and would be considered morally wrong and illegal today (Bloch, 2001). This aspect of Symposium initiates a sense of surprise and resistance to the new reader of Platonic dialogues, perhaps wondering what to think and feel when reading such unfamiliar discourse. However, both Symposium and Phaedrus must be read with an understanding that modern European values are very different to ancient Athenian practises of the day, which even at the time were considered inappropriate by non-Athenians (Gill, 1999). They also offer the reader a rationalisation of pederasty, when it is desire and power that dictates the course of events.

Through Symposium, Plato expands on the long-term aspects of a male only relationship, where age is celebrated with youth, and vica versa, where yielding and mutual satisfaction are rewarded with attentiveness, learning and social advances in society. However, unrepresentative of Greek culture the practice of pederasty which this refers to was widely accepted (Gill, 1999). An older man, called the lover, would be interested in a boy (boyfriend, beloved or the loved one) whose age was somewhere between puberty, twelve and sixteen and growing a beard was considered a rite of passage into male adulthood (Gill, 1999). The clear distinction in this practice is that the lover is the active paramour and the loved one passive (Gill, 1999).

This process was underlined by the premise of mutuality and a sense of time and grooming, where consent was finally agreed after sustained attention was given. Eventual consummation in the sexual act was one of romance rather than degradation (Gill, 1999).Plato negotiates the dialectical discourse of pederasty in a speech by Pausanias (181b) to introduce the issue of personal motivation when competing for a youth’s attention over time and allowing for consenting affection (Agathon, 197d). Pausanias presents the older lover and boyfriend as an ideal form of love (Gill, 1999) and in time clarifying the lover’s good intentions and avoiding the common love that “…inferior people feel…” (181b) opposed to the “heavenly” attraction of homo-eroticism inspired by the god Eros (181c). Plato introduces the notion of good intentions by both parties engaging in loving acts based on transparency and virtue when Pausanias makes a distinction between a heavenly love for a young man with a beard, maturing and developing intellectually, over the love of a boy whose age heightens his vulnerability (181e) to suggest such love should be made illegal. This conflicts with the ill-intentioned lover who uses his position to lust over a vulnerable boy for his own satisfaction (Gill, 1999).

In contrast, the motivations of the loved one needs to be devoid of turning tricks for money or favours but if the lover is a good man it is suggested to be right for the loved one to gratify him (185b). Again, the hope of gaining virtue is used to excuse such relationships as it forces both lover and beloved to pay attention to the soul and the virtues of morality, self-control and drawing strength from the fact that pederasty should be seen considering the give and take mentoring role, rather than a taken for granted relationship. In short the Symposium participants give many excuses for favouring homo-erotic practises and the conception of virtue and happiness centred on high status activities is generally left to men (Gill, 1999). Therefore, Socrates’s discussion of love and lust being reserved for homo-sexual relationships is due in part at the time to Greek women’s lesser education and political power, with marriage being perceived primarily for reproductive purposes (Amir, 2001; Plato, 1991). Socrates therefore reinforces Pausanius ideal of love but within a non-sexualised relationship (Gill, 1999).

Diotima in Symposium

To reinforce his point about consent and power, Socrates introduces a mythical conversation with Diotima (201d-212b), a woman who taught him the ways of love “…so wise about this and so many things…” (201d) to deal with Agathon’s views sensitively. Rowe (2005) suggests this is a typical Platonic strategy, for his dialogues start by appearing to agree with the very premises that are later questioned, yet clarify the terms of the argument and at the end the reader and interlocutor finally understand what he really thought at the beginning. The story is intended to restate, clarify, summarise and expand on the discussion so far by referring to a past conversation between wisdom and ignorance and a need to know why we think we know something to be true (Symposium, 202a).

Socrates' conversation with Diotima emboldens him as the expert on love, not of desire but promoting love against abusive pederasty (Halperin, 1990; 177d). Perhaps, for Socrates the act of vocal transmission was most important and enabled an elevation from the physical act and actions of male suitors to warn men of the virtuous dangers of pleasure at another’s expense. Diotima asks “…the lover of beautiful has a desire, what is it that he desire?” (204d). Socrates answers that beauty is love and that can be found within philosophical analysis and wisdom through the symbolism of procreation of ideas and philosophy. Philosophy is a substitution for what love refers to. This suggestion of man not only as a “pleasure chaser” but a pro-creator of ideas also appears in Phaedrus where the spoken word immersed within the soul of the listener becomes metaphorically, like the speaker’s own son (278a6, Halperin, 1990).

There are clues to Diotima’s fictitious state with the same premises in Socrates conversation with Agathon and Diotima’s lessons on love (Halperin, 1990) and also found in Phaedrus (243d5-257a). Halperin (1990) suggests Diotima’s femininity is an illusion, a Socratic myth tailor made to give the assembled male audience an authoritative female voice from the past to impact on their view of women in the present. However, Socrates use of women for dramatic purposes may have been due to the cultural domination of males over women and this would have challange classical Greek mythology treatment of women as not being equal to men (Arkins, 1994). The use of Diotima’s femininity therefore, aimed to confront men’s notion of pederasty as being romantic and mutually beneficial (Halperin, 1990). In contrast, Greek writers’ portrayal of women effectively silenced them through male impersonation of the female form, instead allowed men to express themselves and their desires across the generations to each other (Arkins, 1994; Foley, 1992). However, the male imitation of a woman would suggest there was a power play between lover and his beloved, which Socrates aimed to illuminate in debate.

Taylor (2002) suggests Plato’s erotic mentoring role represents Socrates in Symposium (216d) being emotionally attracted to young, attractive and intelligent men (Charmides 155c-e, Gorgias, 481d). In Symposium Socrates is apparently not against pederasty or all other pleasures but instead extols the virtues of balance, self-control, mutual gratification and intellectual development (Gill, 1999). However, because of his age it is suggested that by not physically acting on his attraction, he instead sought to promote the younger man’s soul and afterlife through intellectual and moral development (Rowe, 2005). This intellectual activation is evident in Symposium when Socrates praises the reluctant Agathon as he presents a tragic-rhetorical view of love (194e-197e). In so doing, Socrates comes down to the very nature of what love means and does not mean in Athenian culture (Rowe, 2005), when speech turns to an unforced love being just, because mutually consenting love seeks similar qualities of both lover and beloved (196-7c).

In Agathon’s speech on how happy the gods are, he suggests the male god Eros is happiest because he is the most beautiful (195a) and he then goes onto extol Eros’s many virtues to reinforce the notion that aesthetic beauty is likened to being god-like. Socrates, in attempting to develop an alternative viewpoint then sets up Agathon firstly with gentle humour to incrementally identify the underlying premise behind each statement made (Gill, 1999). In the end Socrates eventually exposes Agathon’s inconsistent views and lack of wisdom about love through the type of non-sexualised and familial love, namely the love for a relative (199d).

For Socrates, the philosophical discourse was not only a pursuit of wisdom but also an erotic narrative of beauty (Halperin, 1992). The beauty or excellence of Socrates narratives paralleled his power as a “philosophical lover,” whose love for beautiful boys was only activated by stimulating their intellectual abilities. This overt lack of physicality of Socrates is intriguing, especially considering the cultural acceptance of male lovers in Athenian society (Bloch 2004). Perhaps Socrates was even playing devil’s advocate as he challenged those all around to be virtuous and good, including himself. For example, Socrates words appeared to enact the cherished memories of a lover suspended in time and the past re-presented in men’s speeches and eulogies (Halperin, 1992).

Through his oratory Socrates demonstrated a powerful potency to capture the attention of male listeners, and was drawn to boys with a flirtatious enthusiasm for discourse, rather than intercourse. In short, Socrates challenged pederasty’s lustful “…inciting and renewing the desire it gratifies… through the voice of Diotima and re-enacting the issues of loss, regeneration, emptying and filling, the impulse of the narrator and as a sensory experience of procreation its effect on the reader (Halperin, 1992, p. 102). Hence, the regeneration and procreation of the narrative of desire ensures Socrates immortality in the afterlife (Halperin, 1990). In Symposium Socrates also challenges those assembled to reflect on their sexual beliefs yet Bloch (2004) questioned Socrates non-physicality towards boys, despite his predispositions to the opposite sex, suggesting an alternate view of pederasty from a boy’s perspective. Perhaps Socrates may have experienced it as a boy himself and contrary to the rite of passage from boy to man, Socrates may have perceived man’s coercive pretence of mentorship on a vulnerable and unschooled boy, as abusive and predatorial (Bloch, 2004). Bloch (2004) therefore contradicts the acceptance of pederasty as a cultural Athenian quirk by suggesting Socrates episodes of immobility as a child for hours on end may have been the emotional reaction of an abused boy himself.

If this is the case Socrates dialectical method of discourse may indicate a suppressed anger, not for the mutual benefit of lover and beloved, but against dominance, submission and abuse under the guise of enhancing a boy’s prospects (Bloch, 2001; 2004). Socrates immobility as a child may therefore be seen in an alternate light; against a culture depicted in Greek vases of immobile boys, as depersonalised and used receptacles for the abusive desires of men. This immobility of boys depicted in Greek vases refers to risk the sanctity of the male citizen’s body and if young boys and adolescents had submitted willingly to sexual coupling the likely result was being excluded from becoming citizens (Arkins, 1994). The beloved’s feminisation and pursuit by the lover under the guise of educational and social elevation may also have caused an identity crisis for the boy and the risk of demotion to a non-citizen status because of the shame of appearing to enjoy sex (Arkins, 1994). Socrates had perhaps found a way out of the Athenian boy’s dread through philosophy and without raising a hand to the fathers of Athens, the sexual symbolism of Socrates as the “penetrating gadfly” challenged and empowered others to action (Bloch, 2001).

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