The Sleep of Reason: Erotic Experience and Sexual Ethics in Ancient Greece and Rome

The Sleep of Reason: Erotic Experience and Sexual Ethics in Ancient Greece and Rome

by Martha C. Nussbaum, Juha Sihvola

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Sex is beyond reason, and yet we constantly reason about it. So, too, did the peoples of ancient Greece and Rome. But until recently there has been little discussion of their views on erotic experience and sexual ethics.

The Sleep of Reason brings together an international group of philosophers, philologists, literary critics, and historians to consider


Sex is beyond reason, and yet we constantly reason about it. So, too, did the peoples of ancient Greece and Rome. But until recently there has been little discussion of their views on erotic experience and sexual ethics.

The Sleep of Reason brings together an international group of philosophers, philologists, literary critics, and historians to consider two questions normally kept separate: how is erotic experience understood in classical texts of various kinds, and what ethical judgments and philosophical arguments are made about sex? From same-sex desire to conjugal love, and from Plato and Aristotle to the Roman Stoic Musonius Rufus, the contributors demonstrate the complexity and diversity of classical sexuality. They also show that the ethics of eros, in both Greece and Rome, shared a number of commonalities: a focus not only on self-mastery, but also on reciprocity; a concern among men not just for penetration and display of their power, but also for being gentle and kind, and for being loved for themselves; and that women and even younger men felt not only gratitude and acceptance, but also joy and sexual desire.

* Eva Cantarella
* Kenneth Dover
* Chris Faraone
* Simon Goldhill
* Stephen Halliwell
* David M. Halperin
* J. Samuel Houser
* Maarit Kaimio
* David Konstan
* David Leitao
* Martha C. Nussbaum
* A. W. Price
* Juha Sihvola

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University of Chicago Press
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The Sleep of Reason: Erotic Experience and Sexual Ethics in Ancient Greece and Rome

By Juha Sihvola

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2002 Juha Sihvola
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0226609154

Chapter One - Forgetting Foucault: Acts, Identities, and the History of Sexuality

David M. Halperin

When Jean Baudrillard published his infamous pamphlet Forget Foucault in March 1977, "Foucault's intellectual power," as Baudrillard recalled ten years later, "was enormous." After all, the reviews of La volonte de savoir, the first volume of Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality (published the previous November), had only just started to appear. At that time, according to Baudrillard's belated attempt in Cool Memories to redeem his gaffe and to justify himself--by portraying his earlier attack on Foucault as having been inspired, improbably, by sentiments of friendship and generosity--Foucault was being "persecuted," allegedly, by "thousands of disciples and . . . sycophants." In such circumstances, Baudrillard virtuously insisted, "to forget him was to do him a service; to adulate him was to do him a disservice." Just how far Baudrillard was willing to go in order to render this sort of unsolicited service to Foucault emerges from another remark of his in the same passage: "Foucault's death. Loss of confidence in his own genius.. . . Leaving the sexual aspects aside, theloss of the immune system is no more than the biological transcription of the other process." Foucault was already washed up by the time he died, in other words, and AIDS was merely the outward and visible sign of his inward, moral and intellectual, decay. Leaving the sexual aspects aside, of course.

(Baudrillard freely voices elsewhere what he carefully suppresses here about "the sexual aspects" of AIDS: the epidemic, he suggests, might be considered "a form of viral catharsis" and "a remedy against total sexual liberation, which is sometimes more dangerous than an epidemic, because the latter always ends. Thus AIDS could be understood as a counterforce against the total elimination of structure and the total unfolding of sexuality." Some such New Age moralism obviously provides the subtext of Baudrillard's vengeful remarks in Cool Memories on the death of Foucault.)

Baudrillard's injunction to forget Foucault, which was premature at the time it was issued, has since become superfluous. Not that Foucault is neglected; not that his work is ignored. (Quite the contrary, in fact.) Rather, Foucault's continuing prestige, and the almost ritualistic invocation of his name by academic practitioners of cultural theory, has had the effect of reducing the operative range of his thought to a small set of received ideas, slogans, and bits of jargon that have now become so commonplace and so familiar as to make a more direct engagement with Foucault's texts entirely dispensable. As a result, we are so far from remembering Foucault that there is little point in entertaining the possibility of forgetting him.

Take, for example, the title of a conference, "Bodies and Pleasures in Pre-and Early Modernity," held from 3 to 5 November 1995 at the University of California, Santa Cruz. "Bodies and pleasures," as that famous phrase occurs in the concluding paragraphs of Foucault's History of Sexuality, volume 1, does not in fact describe "Foucault's zero-degree definition of the elements in question in the history of sexuality," as the poster for the conference confidently announces. To be sure, the penultimate sentence of The History of Sexuality, volume 1, finds Foucault looking forward to the day, some time in the future, when "a different economy [une autre economie] of bodies and pleasures" will have replaced the apparatus of sexuality and when, accordingly, it will become difficult to understand "how the ruses of sexuality . . . were able to subject us to that austere monarchy of sex." An incautious reader might take that phrase, "a different economy of bodies and pleasures," to denote a mere rearrangement of otherwise unchanged and unchanging "bodies and pleasures," a minor modification in the formal design of the sexual "economy" alone, consisting in a revised organization of its perennial "elements" (as the conference poster terms them). But such an interpretation of Foucault's meaning, though superficially plausible, is mistaken--and in fact it runs counter to the entire thrust of his larger argument. The change of which Foucault speaks in the next-to-last sentence of The History of Sexuality, volume 1, and which he seems fondly to anticipate, involves nothing less than the displacement of the current sexual economy by a different economy altogether, an economy that will feature "bodies and pleasures" instead of, or at least in addition to, such familiar and overworked entities as "sexuality" and "desire." Foucault makes it very clear that bodies and pleasures, in his conception, are not the eternal building blocks of sexual subjectivity or sexual experience; they are not basic, irreducible, or natural "elements" that different human societies rearrange in different patterns over time--and that our own society has elaborated into the cultural edifice now known as "sexuality." Rather, "bodies" and "pleasures" refer to two entities that modern sexual discourse and practice include but largely ignore, underplay, or pass quickly over, and that accordingly are relatively undercoded, relatively uninvested by the normalizing apparatus of sexuality, especially in comparison to more thoroughly policed and more easily pathologized items such as "sexual desire." (Or so at least it seemed to Foucault at the time he was writing, in the wake of the sexual liberation movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which had exhorted us to liberate our "sexuality" and to unrepress or desublimate our "desire.") For that reason, bodies and pleasures represented to Foucault an opportunity for effecting, as he says earlier in the same passage "a tactical reversal of the various mechanisms of sexuality," a means of resistance to the apparatus of sexuality. In particular, the strategy that Foucault favors consists in asserting, "against the [various] holds of power, the claims of bodies, pleasures, and knowledges in their multiplicity and their possibility of resistance." The very possibility of pursuing such a body- and pleasure-centered strategy of resistance to the apparatus of sexuality disappears, of course, as soon as "bodies" and "pleasures" cease to be understood merely as handy weapons against current technologies of normalization and attain instead to the status of transhistorical components of some natural phenomenon or material substrate underlying "the history of sexuality" itself. Such a notion of "bodies and pleasures," so very familiar and uncontroversial and positivistic has it now become, is indeed nothing if not eminently forgettable.

In what follows I propose to explore another aspect of the oblivion that has engulfed Foucault's thinking about sexuality since his death, one particular "forgetting" that has had important consequences for the practice of both the history of sexuality and lesbian/gay studies. I refer to the reception and deployment of Foucault's distinction between the sodomite and the homosexual--a distinction often taken to be synonymous with the distinction between sexual acts and sexual identities. The passage in The History of Sexuality, volume 1, in which Foucault makes this fateful distinction is so well known that it might seem unnecessary to quote it, but what that really means, I am contending, is that the passage is in fact so well forgotten that nothing but direct quotation from it will do. Foucault writes,

As defined by the ancient civil or canonical codes, sodomy was a category of forbidden acts; their author was nothing more than the juridical subject of them. The nineteenth-century homosexual became a person-age--a past, a case history and a childhood, a character, a form of life; also a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology. Nothing in his total being escapes his sexuality. Everywhere in him it is present: underlying all his actions, because it is their insidious and indefinitely active principle; shamelessly inscribed on his face and on his body, because it is a secret that always gives itself away. It is consubstantial with him, less as a habitual sin than as a singular nature.. . . Homosexuality appeared as one of the forms of sexuality when it was transposed from the practice of sodomy onto a kind of interior androgyny, a hermaphroditism of the soul. The sodomite was a renegade [or "backslider"]; the homosexual is now a species.

[La sodomie--celle des anciens droits civil ou canonique--etait un type d'actes interdits; leur auteur n'en etait que le sujet juridique. L'homosexuel du xixe siecle est devenu un personnage: un passe, une histoire et une enfance, un caractere, une forme de vie; une morphologie aussi, avec une anatomie indiscrete et peut-etre une physiologie mysterieuse. Rien de ce qu'il est au total n'echappe a sa sexualite. Par-tout en lui, elle est presente: sous-jacente a toutes ses conduites parce qu'elle en est le principe insidieux et indefiniment actif; inscrite sans pudeur sur son visage et sur son corps parce qu'elle est un secret qui se trahit toujours. Elle lui est consubstantielle, moins comme un peche d'habitude que comme une nature singuliere.... L'homosexualite est apparue comme une des figures de la sexualite lorsqu'elle a ete rabattue de la pratique de la sodomie sur une sorte d'androgynie interieure, un hermaphrodisme de l'ame. Le sodomite etait un relaps, l'homosexuel est maintenant une espece.]

Foucault's formulation is routinely taken to authorize the doctrine that before the nineteenth century the categories or classifications typically employed by European cultures to articulate sexual difference did not distinguish among different kinds of sexual actors but only among different kinds of sexual acts. In the premodern and early modern periods, so the claim goes, sexual behavior did not represent a sign or marker of a person's sexual identity; it did not indicate or express some more generalized or holistic feature of the person, such as that person's subjectivity, disposition, or character. The pattern is clearest, we are told, in the case of deviant sexual acts. Sodomy, for example, was a sinful act that anyone of sufficient depravity might commit; it was not a symptom of a type of personality. To perform the act of sodomy was not to manifest a deviant sexual identity, but merely to be the author of a morally objectionable act. Whence the conclusion that before the modern era sexual deviance could be predicated only of acts, not of persons or identities.

There is a good deal of truth in this received view, and Foucault himself may even have subscribed to a version of it at the time he wrote The History of Sexuality, volume 1.8 Although I am about to argue strenuously against it, I want to be very clear that my aim is to revise it, not to reverse it. I do not want to return us to some unreconstructed or reactionary belief in the universal validity and applicability of modern sexual concepts or to promote an uncritical acceptance of the categories and classifications of sexuality as true descriptors of the basic realities of human erotic life--and, therefore, as unproblematic instruments for the historical analysis of human culture in all times and places. It is certainly not my intention to undermine the principles and practices of the new social history, let alone to recant my previous arguments for the historical and cultural constitution of sexual identity (which have sometimes been misinterpreted as providing support for the view I shall be criticizing here). Least of all do I wish to revive an essentialist faith in the unqualified existence of homosexual and heterosexual persons in Western societies before the modern era. I take it as established that a large-scale transformation of social and personal life took place in Europe as part of the massive cultural reorganization that accompanied the transition from a traditional, hierarchical, status-based society to a modern, individualistic, mass society during the period of industrialization and the rise of a capitalist economy. One symptom of that transformation, as a number of researchers (both before and after Foucault) have pointed out, is that something new happens to the various relations among sexual roles, sexual object-choices, sexual categories, sexual behaviors, and sexual identities in bourgeois Europe between the end of the seventeenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. Sex takes on new social and individual functions, and it assumes a new importance in defining and normalizing the modern self. The conception of the sexual instinct as an autonomous human function without an organ appears for the first time in the nineteenth century, and without it our heavily psychologized model of sexual subjectivity--which knits up desire, its objects, sexual behavior, gender identity, reproductive function, mental health, erotic sensibility, personal style, and degrees of normality or deviance into an individuating, normativizing feature of the personality called "sexuality" or "sexual orientation"-- is inconceivable. Sexuality is indeed, as Foucault claimed, a distinctively modern production. Nonetheless, the canonical reading of the famous passage in The History of Sexuality, volume 1, and the conclusion conventionally based on it--namely, that before the modern era sexual deviance could be predicated only of acts, not of persons or identities--is, I shall contend, as inattentive to Foucault's text as it is heedless of European history.

Such a misreading of Foucault can be constructed only by setting aside, and then forgetting, the decisive qualifying phrase with which his famous pronouncement opens: "As defined by the ancient civil or canonical codes," Foucault begins, "sodomy was a category of forbidden acts." Foucault, in other words, is making a carefully limited point about the differing styles of disqualification applied to male love by premodern legal definitions of sodomy and by nineteenth-century psychiatric conceptualizations of homosexuality, respectively. The intended effect of his rhetorical extravagance in this passage is to highlight what in particular was new and distinctive about the modern discursive practices that produced the category of "the homosexual." As almost always in The History of Sexuality, Foucault is speaking about discursive and institutional practices, not about what people really did in bed or what they thought about it. He is not attempting to describe popular attitudes or private emotions, much less is he presuming to convey what actually went on in the minds of different historical subjects when they had sex. He is making a contrast between the way something called "sodomy" was typically defined by the laws of various European states and municipalities as well as by Christian penitentials and canon law, on the one hand, and the way something called "homosexuality" was typically defined by the writings of nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century sexologists, on the other.

A glance at the larger context of the much-excerpted passage in The History of Sexuality, volume 1, is sufficient to make Foucault's meaning clear. Foucault introduces his account of "the nineteenth-century homosexual" in order to illustrate a more general claim, which he advances in the sentence immediately preceding: the "new persecution of the peripheral sexualities" that occurred in the modern era was accomplished in part through "an incorporation of perversions and a new specification of individuals." (Earlier efforts to regulate sexual behavior did not feature such tactics, according to Foucault.) The whole discussion of this distinctively modern method of sexual control is embedded, in turn, within a larger argument about a crucial shift in the nature of sexual prohibitions as those prohibitions were constructed in formal discursive practices, a shift that occurred between the premodern period and the nineteenth century. Comparing medieval moral and legal codifications of sexual relations with nineteenth-century medical and forensic ones, Foucault contrasts various premodern styles of sexual prohibition, which took the form of specifying rules of conduct, making prescriptions and recommendations, and discriminating between the licit and the illicit, with modern styles of sexual prohibition. These latter-day strategies took the form of establishing norms of self-regulation--not by legislating standards of behavior and punishing deviations from them but rather by constructing new species of individuals, discovering and "implanting" perversions, and thereby elaborating more subtle and insidious means of social control. The ultimate purpose of the comparison is to support Foucault's "historico-theoretical" demonstration that power is not only negative but also positive, not only repressive but also productive.

Foucault is analyzing the different modalities of power at work in premodern and modern codifications of sexual prohibition, which is to say in two historical instances of sexual discourse attached to institutional practices. He carefully isolates the formal discursive systems that he will proceed to discuss from popular moral attitudes and behaviors about which he will have nothing to say and that he dismisses from consideration with barely a parenthetical glance: "Up to the end of the eighteenth century, three major explicit codes [codes]--apart from regularities of custom and constraints of opinion--governed sexual practices: canon law [droit canonique], Christian pastoral, and civil law." Foucault goes on to expand this observation in a passage that directly anticipates and lays the groundwork for the famous portrait he will later sketch of the differences between "the sodomy of the old civil and canonical codes" and that novel invention of modern psychiatry, "the nineteenth-century homosexual." Describing the terms in which premodern sexual prohibitions defined the scope of their operation and the nature of their target, he writes, "What was taken into account in the civil and religious jurisdictions alike was a general unlawfulness. Doubtless acts 'contrary to nature' were stamped as especially abominable, but they were perceived simply as an extreme form of acts 'against the law'; they, too, were infringements of decrees--decrees which were just as sacred as those of marriage and which had been established in order to rule the order of things and the plan of beings. Prohibitions bearing on sex were basically of a juridical nature [de nature juridique]." This passage prepares the reader to gauge the differences between these "juridical" prohibitions against "acts" "'contrary to nature'" and the nineteenth-century prohibitions against homosexuality, which did not simply criminalize sexual relations between men as illegal but medically disqualified them as pathological and--not content with pathologizing the act--constructed the perpetrator as a deviant form of life, a perverse personality, an anomalous species, thereby producing a new specification of individuals whose true nature would be defined from now on by reference to their abnormal "sexuality." The nineteenth-century disciplining of the subject, though it purported to aim at the eradication of "peripheral sexualities," paradoxically required their consolidation and "implantation" or "incorporation" in individuals, for only by that means could the subject's body itself become so deeply, so minutely invaded and colonized by the agencies of normalization. The discursive construction of the new sexual perversions was therefore a ruse of power, no longer simply prohibiting behavior but now also controlling, regulating, and normalizing embodied subjects. As Foucault sums up his argument, "The implantation of perversions is an instrument-effect: it is through the isolation, intensification, and consolidation of peripheral sexualities that the relations of power to sex and pleasure branched out and multiplied, measured the body and penetrated modes of conduct." Want an example? Take the case of homosexuality. "The sodomy of the old civil and canonical codes was a category of forbidden acts; their author was nothing more than the juridical subject of them. The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage . . . " So that's how the overall argument works.


Excerpted from The Sleep of Reason: Erotic Experience and Sexual Ethics in Ancient Greece and Rome by Juha Sihvola Copyright © 2002 by Juha Sihvola. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Martha C. Nussbaum is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago. She is the author of numerous works, including Women and Human Development, Cultivating Humanity, and Upheavals of Thought.

Juha Sihvola is a professor of history at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland. He is the author of Decay, Progress, and the Good Life? and Hesiod and Protagoras on the Development of Culture, and the editor of Ancient Scepticism and the Scepticist Tradition.

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