Greek Ways: How the Greeks Created Western Civilization

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In the classics departments of today’s universities, Bruce Thornton says, the Greeks are accused of stealing their achievements from black Egyptians, of oppressing their wives and daughters, and of hypocritically speculating about freedom while holding slaves. Most of all, classic Greek culture has come under attack precisely because its glorious achievement, extended into history, is what defines the West and makes it distinct. In Greek Ways, Thornton clears away these misconceptions. Writing with wit and erudition, he discusses in fascinating detail those areas of Greek life - sexuality and sexual roles; slavery and war; philosophy and politics - that some modern critics have made into “contested sites.” Perhaps more importantly, he also reclaims the importance of those core ideas the Greeks invented, ideas about human fate and purpose that have shaped the modern world. Nearly seventy years ago, Edith Hamilton published The Greek Way, a book that educated two generations of readers about the debt we owe the handful of city-states that developed “the spirit of the West” some 2500 years ago. Bruce Thornton’s Greek Ways is for our time what Hamilton’s book was for a prior era: a classic inquiry holding up a mirror to Greek culture in which we can see ourselves.
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Editorial Reviews

Thornton (classics and humanities, California State U.-Fresno) reasserts the crucial role of Greek city-states of 2,500 years ago in the subsequent history of the Europe and its diaspora. He is reacting to contemporary academics who question the traditional view of Greek primacy. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
From The Critics
Greek Ways examines how the Greeks created Western civilization, re-examining the role of the Greeks in creating core concepts which fuel our civilization's foundations in modern times. Thornton argues that Greek ideals are alive in modern life, and that it was the Greeks who began to recognize a common human culture. High school to college students will find Greek Ways most accessible.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781893554573
  • Publisher: Encounter Books
  • Publication date: 9/28/2002
  • Pages: 198
  • Sales rank: 1,516,971
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.98 (h) x 0.75 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Eros the Killer

In 1998, President Clinton was impeached for actions he allegedly either took or ordered in an attempt to keep secret certain sexual improprieties he had committed with a White House intern. In the reams of analysis that attended the daily drama unfolding in the House of Representatives and then in the Senate trial, our culture's received wisdom and unspoken assumptions about sexuality were readily apparent. Defenders of the president dismissed the sexual activity as a private matter of no concern to the citizenry, with no implications for his political ability to lead the most powerful nation on earth. They dismissed Clinton's critics as repressed Puritans whose morbid fascination with his private behavior revealed their own unresolved sexual conflicts and fears. No one interpreted the affair the way an ancient Greek would have: as an example of the destructive power of Eros, a turbulent and potentially pernicious force that overthrows the mind and judgment and threatens the social and political orders that make human life possible.

    To the popular imagination, such a statement might sound odd. Weren't the Greeks those jolly hedonists, those liberated celebrators of bodily beauty and pleasure, those carefree, "polymorphously perverse" nymphs and satyrs uninhibited by the grim repressions—either exclusive heterosexuality or chastity—that Christianity introduced in its neurotic hatred of the body and its guilty pleasures? This myth of ancient sexual libertinism—"a sentimental paganism which blamed the cold breath of theGalileanfor blasting a world of joyous innocence"—cropped up in the nineteenth century, when the mores of the Greeks, with all their cultural authority, were touted as an alternative to the repressive hypocrisies of Victorian society. The myth resurfaced in the sixties when gurus like Herbert Marcuse and the classicist Norman O. Brown preached a Dionysian sexual liberation as the necessary precursor to a politically free, egalitarian utopia. Besides being wrong, this interpretation of ancient Greek sexuality illustrates how the Greeks can be distorted to suit present obsessions—thus obscuring any possible value their ideas might have for us.

    No more enlightening are the approaches to Greek sexuality that are fashionable in the academy today. A radical social constructionism, which reduces sexuality and human identity itself to mere epiphenomena of totalizing power networks, has produced an equally distorted view of Greek sexuality. In this interpretation, the Greek "conceptual blueprint of sexual relations ... corresponded to social patterns of dominance and submission, reproducing power differentials between partners in configuring gender roles and assigning them by criteria not always coterminous with biological sex. Intercourse was construed solely as bodily penetration of an inferior." Only academics could reduce something as intricate, intimate and interesting as sex into a boring, depersonalized "system" in which mechanically penetrating or penetrated "subjects" are compelled to act out robotically their politically programmed "roles."

* * *

In Greek culture, sexuality is considered a force of nature. Like all such forces it is powerful, volatile, amoral, and destructive; it must be controlled by the orders of the mind and the institutions of culture—lest it sweep them away. Like all ancient peoples, the Greeks lived intimately with the powers of nature. The daily imperative to find enough food made them dependent on nature's fickle fertility, while the impact of storms, plagues, predatory beasts, and fires was much more disastrous than it is for us, protected as we are in our cocoon of technology. The passions and appetites of humans were considered natural forces as well, equally destructive, equally in need of restraint and limit.

    Plato's image of the soul in the Republic illustrates this link of the appetites to nature: the soul comprises a "multifarious and many-headed beast, girt round with heads of animals, tame and wild," along with a lion and a man. The beasts are the passions and appetites; if they gain the upper hand over the "man" (reason), and corrupt the "lion" (the nonrational part of the soul amenable to reason), they will "bite and struggle and devour one another," ultimately destroying the soul. Only by "awing the beast," as Emerson put it, can reason cultivate and tame the nonrational part of the soul so that reason can direct its energy towards ends suitable for human virtue and happiness. The Greeks may have disagreed over whether it is possible for reason or culture to control passion, but nowhere in Greek literature is there any evidence of something like our culture's peculiar delusion that liberating sexual passion will lead to the individual's fulfillment and happiness.

    In the Greek context, on the contrary, sexuality is an irrational force, full of destructive potential. Greek literature developed a large repertoire of images to communicate the disorder of sex, linking it with storms, fire, disease, insanity, animals, violence, and death. Our Valentine's Day icon, baby Cupid with his bow and arrows, has its origins in a much less benign view of sex that connected it with the violence and suffering of war, and to ancient warfare's most feared weapon, the arrow. The late-seventh-century poet and mercenary Archilochus wrote of passion, "Wretched I lie soulless with desire, pierced through my bones by the bitter pains of the gods." The phrase "pierced through the bones" is from Homer's Iliad (5.69), where it describes the effect of an arrow; thus it links the experience of desire to the danger and misery of battle. The soldier Archilochus, unlike most of us, knew first-hand what edged steel can do to human flesh, and his metaphor, although dead for us, forcefully described the lethal consequences of desire to the soul.

    Other Homeric phrases that describe the fallen warrior's experience are similarly applied to sexual passion. In another fragment Archilochus writes, "For such was the passion for lovemaking that twisted itself beneath my heart and poured a thick mist over my eyes, stealing the tender wits from my body." Readers of Homer will recognize the "dark mist" over the eyes as one of his striking images for the dying warrior's experience. Another phrase that describes death, "limb-loosening," is often used to convey the loss of rational control that accompanies desire. Hesiod (late eighth century) calls the god of sexual passion, Eros, the "limb-loosener" who "conquers the mind and shrewd thoughts of all the gods and men." The seventh-century poet Sappho uses the same epithet in a fragment that records for the first time that old standby expression, "bittersweet": "Once again Eros the limb-loosener shakes me, that bittersweet, irresistible creature." The linking of desire to death emphasizes how high the stakes of passion are: one's self-control, mind, humanity itself are all at risk.

    Other sexual imagery in Greek literature links passion to the forces of nature. Fire is particularly significant since, like sexuality, it is necessary for civilization even to exist—remember that Prometheus saves the human race by stealing fire from heaven. Yet fire obviously is destructive as well. Sappho's catalogue of erotic symptoms includes a "delicate fire running beneath the skin." Apollonius of Rhodes (third century) says of Medea's fierce passion for Jason—incited by Aphrodite so that Medea will betray her father and help Jason steal the golden fleece —"Coiling round her heart secretly burned Eros the destroyer." For us, fire might be a harmless prop in a romantic tableau; for the Greeks, who used fire every day and knew intimately its destructive potential, the fire of sex could wipe out whole cities, just as the illicit passion of Helen and Paris led to the burning of Troy.

    Disease and insanity are also used as metaphors to describe the baneful effects of sexual passion. In his play Hippolytus (429), Euripides tells the story of an austere, ascetic intellectual who hates the disorder of sex and the body and so considers himself naturally chaste, in effect denying his own sexuality. This angers Aphrodite, the goddess of sex, "mighty among men," whose power extends over every creature that lives and must reproduce, and who "trips up" those who "think big" against her. So she sets out to destroy Hippolytus by making his stepmother Phaedra conceive an overwhelming sexual passion for him. Euripides brilliantly manipulates his culture's repertoire of sexual imagery to dramatize the destruction of Phaedra's soul. When she first is brought on stage, she is literally out of her mind, "wracked with fever," as her nurse describes her, wasting away, a victim of "sheer madness, / that prompts such whirling, frenzied, senseless words." Phaedra drifts in and out of sanity, struggling to fight against her disease and tormented by her powerless sense of shame. She finally kills herself after her nurse's attempt to arrange a liaison with Hippolytus ends in a humiliating rejection; but first she destroys Hippolytus, accusing him of rape and thus leading his father Theseus to curse him.

    For us, being "lovesick" or "crazy" about someone is harmless, even agreeable. To the Greeks, however, such metaphors conveyed the awesome power of sexuality, a force that, unregulated, could overthrow the mind and civilization itself. Excessive sexual desire wasn't like a disease, it was a disease. No wonder the aged Sophocles, when asked if he missed the pleasures of sex, responded, "I feel as if I had escaped from an insane and furious despot."

* * *

Greek homosexuality has always been one of the major battlefields in the war over the Greek legacy. To early Christian Europe the sexual proclivities of the Greeks were part and parcel of their general pagan corruption, graphic evidence of their fallen status. Once the Hellenic heritage was assimilated into Christian culture, Greek practices like pederasty became guilty secrets available only to the learned. In the Victorian heyday of idealizing the Greeks, their homosexuality was explained away or rationalized, as when the German scholar Ulrich von Wilamowitz interpreted Sappho's fragment 31 as a heterosexual wedding song, rather than a brilliant description of the poet's powerful sexual attraction to a girl. When middle-class sexual liberation began in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a cult of sentimental homosexuality idealized the Greeks as inventors of the worship of male beauty and youth, something scorned by a Philistine, heterosexual Victorian establishment.

    Today we have our own received wisdom about "Greek love." According to the social constructionists in the academy, the Greeks regarded various sexual acts such as homosexual sodomy with indifference, as neutral practices obtaining meaning only in the context of the game of political power and citizenship. Sexual objects, one theorist tells us, were determined not so much "by a physical typology of sexes as by the social articulation of power." The implication is that our most important cultural arbiters, the Greeks, are now spokesmen for some modern version of gay sexual "liberation." Their practice allegedly legitimizes any and all sexual practices, none of which is inherently good or bad, natural or unnatural, constructive or destructive, since all bear merely a contingent meaning as required by a particular culture's power structure, by the way it distributes the prizes of citizenship. The evidence from Greek literature, however, tells a different story.

    Consider the story Plato has Aristophanes tell in the Symposium about the origins of heterosexuality and homosexuality: Humans once were double creatures with four arms and four legs; some were male, some female, and others both. In their arrogance these wheel-like creatures conspired against the gods, who punished them by splitting them in two. Consequently we have a powerful drive to seek our lost "other half"— descendants of the all-males seek men; of the females, women; and of the mixed sex, their opposite. Aristophanes' obvious implication is that people are born either heterosexual or homosexual; the latter marry and have children, says Aristophanes, not because of "nature" (phusei) but because of "custom" (nomou). Ancient Greek natural philosophers also explain homosexuality as a phenomenon resulting either from nature or from individual habit, rather than from arbitrary social "constructs." The Problems, doubtfully attributed to Aristotle, explains what the author considers the oddity of men enjoying passive sodomy by postulating a physical deformity, arising either naturally or from abuse, that causes semen to collect in the anus. The fluid collects and creates desire that cannot be gratified because the semen cannot be discharged. Hence the passive homosexual seeks out anal intercourse to relieve the pressure. Aristotle also accounts for what he calls "diseased practices"—compulsive behavior such as pulling out one's hair, nail-biting, eating coals or earth, or "sex between males"—by attributing them to either "nature" or "habit." These passages show that some Greeks, at least, saw homosexuality both as a type of deviant behavior and as a phenomenon of nature, albeit a deformed nature.

    The Greek view of Eros as an indiscriminate force implied that most people would gratify their imperious desire by means of just about any object available. Euripides' Laius, in a fragment from the lost play Chrysippus, explains his rape of the boy Chrysippus—the act that starts the chain of disaster culminating in Oedipus' crimes—by saying, "Nature drove me on." But contrary to the Christian-influenced view that any sexual act between males is a sin, the Greeks mainly condemned the passive homosexual; they saw the male who would submit to penetration by another male as having abandoned the soul to destructive passion. The active male was faulted if he was excessive or outrageous or chose the wrong partner, as did Laius.

    Occasionally one finds condemnation of active same-sex acts. In the philosopher Prodicus' allegory concerning Heracles' choice between a personified Virtue and Vice, the former accuses the latter of "using men like women." But the Greeks' harshest censure was reserved for the male who played the woman's role in sex. Such a man was called a kinaidos, a word whose range of meaning goes from the specific—the effeminate, penetrated male; to the general—someone whose excessive sexual appetite compelled him to behave in shameful and degrading ways. Since the Greeks defined humanity as the rational control of appetite, anyone who willingly gave in to shameful pleasures—to a compulsive "itch," as Socrates described it—had sacrificed not just his manhood, but his humanity itself.

    Similar opprobrium met the adulterer, the man who so lacked self-control that he would seduce a citizen-wife—at the risk of his life, since a wronged husband could legally kill an adulterer. As the Cynic philosopher Antisthenes asked, who but a senseless man would risk his life in such a way when gratification was available on every corner for a pittance? Another traditional punishment for adultery, sticking a radish up the offender's anus, suggests that the Greeks viewed the adulterer and the passive homosexual in the same light: as creatures of appetites that drove them to destructive behavior. Aristophanes specifically connects the two in the Clouds (423), where the Athenian audience is scorned as utterly dissolute, their "wide assholes" evidence of either buggery or the radish punishment. Such men were considered unfit to wield political power, for all their decisions would reflect the tyrannous demands of appetite rather than a rational assessment of the state's best interest.

    The contempt that the Greeks felt for the kinaidos is reflected in the insulting epithets that focus on the anus stretched out by buggery. Words such as katapugôn, "passive homosexual/lecher," and euruprôktos, "wide-anused," formed from the words for "rump" and "anus," were obviously derived from the experience of being buggered, and were used to describe the worst examples of sexual incontinence even when homosexuality was not at issue. Other, similar insults included "gapers," "gaping-assed," and "cistern-assed." When applied to men, they often were accompanied by derogatory references to effeminacy and "softness" (malakos, still an insult in modern Greek), since the man who would play the woman's role during sex was thought to cultivate on purpose a woman's appearance and to share her characteristic weaknesses. Thus in the Laws Plato can assume that the passive homosexual will be a coward, since the man who is sexually penetrated like a woman will display a woman's timidity. The implication of these insults is that the man who plays the woman's role in sex has sacrificed not only his masculinity but even his humanity to bestial pleasure.

    Aristophanes' comedies are full of characters, many based on historical models, who are ridiculed for passive homosexuality and effeminacy. The tragic poet Agathon, a late-fifth-century contemporary of Euripides and Socrates, is pilloried for his effeminate dress, his habit of depilating himself, and the unsavory sexual practices that his appearance suggests. In the Women at the Thesmophoria (411), a play about Euripides' trial by the Athenian women who are angry over the playwright's alleged misogyny, Agathon is described as wearing a woman's robe and hair net, as well as being "fair of face, white, clean-shaven, woman-voiced, soft, pretty." Since men in Athens didn't shave their beards, anyone clean-shaven was assumed to be effeminate not just in appearance but in sexual practice as well. When the character of Euripides wants to disguise an old relative of his as a woman to infiltrate his accusers' counsels, he borrows Agathon's razor and singes off the unfortunate elder's pubic hair, not just because Athenian women singed their pubic hair, but because passive homosexuals were assumed to depilate their anuses. (Another mocked effeminate, Cleisthenes, is accused of "plucking the hairs from his anus among the tombs"—cemeteries being notorious trysting spots.)

    The old relative of Euripides, Mnesilochus, has no doubt that Agathon's sexual practices reflect his appearance: when the tragedian sententiously announces that misfortune must be met with "endurance," literally "things suffered," Mnesilochus snorts, "Yeah, and you, oh sodomite, are wide-anused not with words, but with the things you've suffered." Plato also, in the midst of one of the most famous encomia to same-sex Eros, the Phaedrus, assumes that a boy who cultivates a girlish appearance and lives an "unmanly and delicate way of life" would be capable of sexual practices too shameful to mention.

    Jokes of this kind take for granted that most of the Athenians in the audience would find men who are effeminate in appearance and sexual behavior to be natural objects of scorn and ridicule. Aristophanes, however, is not just trying to get a laugh. He has a more serious political point: that the corruption of Athenian politics, evident in the growth of the Athenian Empire and in the destructive, costly war with Sparta, resulted from unrestrained greed for power, wealth and self-gratification—from an inability to exercise self-control, whose most potent metaphor is the male who submits to buggery. The passive homosexual functions as the concrete image for all the destructive appetites. He is linked as well to the late-fifth-century "new man," whom Aristophanes regarded as evidence of Athenian decline from the hardy generation that stopped the Persians at Marathon. The "new man" included "the smooth-talking orator and Sophist, the lupine careerist and ambitious demagogue, the 'laconizing'—pro-Spartan— snooty aristocrat, all of whom promote war and weaken the fabric of society for private gain and the gratification of appetite."

    Several of Aristophanes' comedies link a corrupting greed to sexual excess, especially passive homosexuality, in order to explain the decline of Athenian society. In the Knights (424), the vulgar Sausage-Seller's rise to political preeminence is partly attributable to his indiscriminate sexual appetite. He tells the story of how, as a boy, he stole some meat and hid it between his buttocks. An orator who witnessed this obvious reference to buggery commented, "That boy is certain to go far; he's bound for public office." In other words, thieving, lying, and enduring buggery are prime qualifications for political success.

    Later, the Sausage-Seller confirms that in his youth he was "fucked" in the marketplace for money. His rival for the affections of Demos, the personified Athenian citizenry, is the Paphlagonian: his anus lies "among the Gapers," those whose anuses have been stretched out by constant buggery. When the Paphlagonian claims that he cut down on the number of "fucked ones," passive homosexuals, the Sausage-Seller retorts that his opponent was simply reducing the number of both his sexual and political rivals. Finally, the contest between the Sausage-Seller and the Paphlagonian is compared to the rivalry between two men for the affections of a "boy-love"—the implication being that the winner will get to "fuck" the city both literally and metaphorically. In other plays as well, Aristophanes links the corruption of politics, of language, of mores, even of theater itself to the unnatural "itch" to be sodomized. The moral is clear: the man who so lacks self-control that he will submit to such shameful practices merely because of a sterile pleasure will submit to any and all desires, and will put the city and its institutions at risk in order to gratify his appetites.

    This view of passive homosexuality is not unique to the humorous requirements of comedy. Among the orators and philosophers, too, a soul-destroying lack of self-control finds its worst manifestation in the kinaidos. The orator Aeschines' politically motivated attack on Timarchos (345) accused him of selling his body to men for sex; this was damaging because in Athens, being a prostitute barred one from holding political office. Throughout the speech, a link is made between "excessive incontinence," whose worst manifestation is committing a "woman's sins" (passive sodomy), and unfitness to participate in the machinery of government. As a "slave to the most shameful pleasures," including heterosexual excess, gambling, and gluttony, a man such as Timarchos is not fit to be trusted with the business of the city, for his lack of self-control will make him vulnerable to every form of corruption. The man who will abandon his body to shameful pleasures will sell out his country as well.

    But surely a philosopher like Plato, who wrote two of the most famous paeans to homosexual Eros, must think differently from the comic poet or the orator, both of whom must play to the prejudices of their audiences? In fact Plato, like other writers who praise pederasty, does not thereby condone physical gratification between males, but condemns it as "shameful" and "unnatural." In the Phaedrus Plato describes the soul attracted to a beautiful boy's body instead of his soul as "not ashamed to pursue pleasure contrary to nature." Likewise, in the Erotic Essay attributed to the fourth-century orator and statesman Demosthenes, the "just lover" neither does to nor requests from a boy anything "shameful"; rather, he "associates chastely" with him and gives him the benefits of love "without shame." So too Socrates, in Xenophon's Symposium (set in 421), calls acts of physical gratification between males in a pederastic relationship "the most thoroughly shameful things."

    Aristotle defined shame as a "pain or disturbance in regard to bad things ... which seem likely to involve us in discredit"—the "bad things" including "carnal intercourse with forbidden persons." This concept of "shame" was critical for the ancient Greeks, who lived their lives much more publicly and valued public esteem far more than we do. Their persistent references to shame in connection with passive homosexuality belie the modern notion that they were indifferent to sodomy as long as certain social and political protocols were observed. On the contrary, the anxiety about shame arising from passive homosexuality permeates even the writings of the pederastic apologists, who must continually ward off the charge, apparently widespread, that the pedagogical and character-building rationale for the relationship between an older male and a teenager is nothing more than a pretext for illicit sex. Hence Pausanias, depicted in Plato's Symposium as Agathon's lover far beyond the age considered respectable for the younger partner in a pederastic couple, admits that the sexual gratification practiced by the "vulgar" lovers, those unconcerned with building a noble character, is responsible for the view of "some" that it is "shameful to gratify a lover."

    The characterization of passive sodomy as "contrary to nature" (para phusin) used by Plato in the Phaedrus marks out the passive homosexual as someone whose appetites deform his natural humanity. Thus Aeschines in his speech against Timarchos accuses him of "outraging his body contrary to nature." And in the Laws, the Athenian Stranger outlines for his utopia sexual laws similar to those that existed "before Laius," the father of Oedipus, whose rape of Chrysippus was often considered the origins of pederasty—that is, laws forbidding sex with men "like women" (kathaper thêleiôn). Such laws Plato describes as "following nature" (tê phusei), while sexual practices like adultery and homosexuality are called "contrary to nature" (para phusin). Some modern commentators go into interpretive contortions in their attempts to explain away the obvious implication of the phrase "contrary to nature": that at least Plato and Aeschines viewed sex as having a natural function, procreation, which by its absence rendered homosexuality "unnatural." And Aristotle would seem to agree, for his abovementioned efforts to account for the desire to be sodomized assume that such strange behavior results from a deformity, and represent it as a compulsive anomaly, like eating earth or tearing out one's hair. This is hardly the view that one modern scholar has attributed to the Greeks: that they "did not see a gulf between a desire to penetrate and a desire to be penetrated."

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Seeing with Greek Eyes 1
1 Eros the Killer 15
2 The Best and Worst Thing 37
3 The Roots of Emancipation 61
4 The Father of All 84
5 The Birth of Political Man 109
6 The Birth of Rational Man 139
7 The Birth of Freedom 162
Conclusion: The Critical Spirit 188
Acknowledgments 199
Notes 200
Bibliography 226
Index 234
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