Setting Plato Straight: Translating Ancient Sexuality in the Renaissance

Setting Plato Straight: Translating Ancient Sexuality in the Renaissance

by Todd W. Reeser

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Setting Plato Straight: Translating Ancient Sexuality in the Renaissance by Todd W. Reeser

When we talk of platonic love or relationships today, we mean something very different from what Plato meant. For this, we have fifteenth and sixteenth-century European humanists to thank. As these scholars—most of them Catholic—read, digested, and translated Plato, they found themselves faced with a fundamental problem: how to be faithful to the text yet not propagate pederasty or homosexuality.

In Setting Plato Straight, Todd W. Reeser undertakes the first sustained and comprehensive study of Renaissance textual responses to Platonic same-sex sexuality. Reeser mines an expansive collection of translations, commentaries, and literary sources to study how Renaissance translators transformed ancient eros into non-erotic, non-homosexual relations. He analyzes the interpretive lenses translators employed and the ways in which they read and reread Plato’s texts. In spite of this cleansing, Reeser finds surviving traces of Platonic same-sex sexuality that imply a complicated, recurring process of course-correction—of setting Plato straight.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226307145
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 12/28/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 416
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Todd W. Reeser is professor of French and director of the gender, sexuality, and women’s studies program at the University of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Moderating Masculinity in Early Modern Culture and Masculinities in Theory.

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Setting Plato Straight

Translating Ancient Sexuality in the Renaissance

By Todd W. Reeser

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-30714-5


Solving the Problem with Plato


In the introduction, I used the modern term "sexuality" in reference to Plato, so I will begin this chapter with the question of what Platonic sexuality might be taken to mean in a Renaissance context. What elements in Plato provoked anxiety or debate with respect to sexuality? What aspects of Plato will serve as sources of textual tension or anxiety throughout the rest of this book? After responding to these questions in the first section of this chapter, I will then discuss the ways in which Renaissance thinkers or writers attempt to deal with these problematic elements of Plato. The two sections of this chapter, however, are related, since certain elements of Plato are problematic precisely because of their ambiguity with regard to sexuality. It is not simply the case that male-male eros is present in the original and had to be dealt with by Humanists, for in some cases, Plato's text already poses hermeneutic problems on its own terms, ones which Humanists could not avoid, whatever their relation to eros.

As the example from Leonardo Bruni's Latin translation of the Phaedrus with which I began the Introduction suggests, Renaissance revisionings of Platonic eros aim above all to configure the sexuality of Socrates himself. Most invest much of the idea of Platonic eros in the idea of the chastity of Socrates, as his chastity — though not necessarily his desire — is taken for granted beyond a reasonable doubt. If Socrates does not have sex with boys or adolescents, and if Socrates is the model of character in Plato, then the ideal Renaissance man does not, and should not, have sex with younger males either. That Socrates was sometimes taken as a persecuted Christ-like figure only made his chastity more of a necessity. In his repeated flirtation with males in the dialogues, Socrates never reveals that he actually undertook sexual acts with males. His popular Diotima speech in the Symposium (173d–212a) is almost entirely devoid of pederastic or even homoerotic references, and his well-known charioteer speech in the Phaedrus (244a–257b) privileges noncarnal over physical love. Both speeches can easily be transposed into a nonsexed or a nonsexual context.

But if Humanists had to invest energy to guarantee Socrates's chastity, it was because there was potentially a problem to begin with. Describing his master's character at the end of the Symposium, Alcibiades explains that Socrates "is a passionate lover of good-looking boys" [erotikos diakeitai ton kalon], and that "he constantly follows them around in a perpetual daze." Socrates's Diotima speech and his charioteer speech are not totally devoid of pederastic references either: he refers to "the right method of boy-loving" [to orthos paiderastein] (205, 204) in the latter, and to two males "teeming with passion," embracing, kissing, lying together, and having sex in the former. In the opening scene of the Lysis, Socrates visits a wrestling school with many handsome boys, asking at one point "who is the handsome one" and commenting that he knows how "to recognize quickly a lover [eronta] or beloved [eromenon]" (9, 8). References to Socrates's love of beautiful boys are not limited to the erotic dialogues, but can be found throughout Plato. In the Charmides, for instance, Socrates relates: "I saw inside [Charmides's] cloak and caught fire, and could possess myself no longer."

Extant biographical texts from the ancient world painted a bifurcated picture of Socratic eroticism to which Renaissance Humanists had access. In particular, Diogenes Laertius's widely circulated biography of Socrates provided the image of an asexual, married man with children, mentioning that "according to some he scorned the beauty of Alcibiades" (161). Dio Chrysostom calls him a philanthropos [a lover of his kind]. Athenaeus discounts the possibility that "he lay down to sleep with Alcibiades under the same coverlet." Aulus Gellius explains that because of his temperance [Temperantia], he "lived almost the whole period of his life with health unimpaired," even in the "havoc of the plague." On the other hand, ancients such as Maximus of Tyre and Lucian presented more sexualized views of Socrates. In "Dialogues of the Dead," Menippus comments that the dead Socrates is still following beautiful boys, to which he responds: "What could I find to do more agreeable? But won't you lie down by us, please." In "The Parasite," Simon says that Socrates fled battle and went to the gymnasium, and that he "thought it far nicer to sit and philander with boys and propound petty sophistries to anyone who should come along than to fight with a Spartan soldier." In an important Renaissance biography, Leon Battista Alberti's Momus (c. 1450), Socrates meets Mercury in the form of an adolescent "traveler with an outstanding physique and a handsome face" and begins to flirt with him. Despite the circulation of these images of the figure of Socrates, the reality of a historical Socrates in fact is not particularly relevant to the Renaissance since the only version of the man available was mediated by texts. Socratic eros circulated significantly more widely through Plato than it did through other sources, and Plato's erotic dialogues provoked by far the greatest response, which explains why the reception of Plato serves as the focus of this book. Without direct access to "Socrates the man," Plato's depiction of the philosopher in large part equaled Socrates.

The relation between homoerotics and Socrates was a recurring problem in part because of one of the most sexually blatant sections in all of Plato, the tail end of the Symposium (215b–223d) known as Alcibiades's seduction speech. "Believing [Socrates] had a serious affection for [his] youthful bloom," Alcibiades recounts in vivid detail — unavoidable for a translator — his attempts to seduce Socrates and then tries to seduce him at the drinking party. Though he does not succeed in his attempts, clearly he thinks that he has a chance and remains himself "amorously inclined [erotikos echein]" (241, 240) with respect to Socrates. At one point, "expecting to gain [his] point" (225), Alcibiades recounts that they wrestled naked together (225). He employs classic pederastic language in his discourse, including erastes [the older lover] and paidikois [the younger beloved] (224), and as the speech gets hot and heavy, he admits that what he is about to say should not be heard by everyone as "the domestics, and all else profane and clownish, must clap the heaviest of doors upon their ears" (229). On the other hand, however, Socrates repeatedly resists and rebuffs the advances of Alcibiades, who himself retracts his statement about Socrates's craze for beautiful boys and concludes that "all the beauty a man may have is nothing to him" (223). Despite his mad state of eros, Alcibiades serves as the foil to Socrates in the end, converted from eros to an acorporeal love of philosophy. In this way, he follows in Socrates's footsteps as erotically affected [erotikos] on the outside but sober on the inside and thus can serve as a Renaissance figure for the rejection of homoeroticism.

Socrates intimates or expresses desire for males at numerous points, but did he really feel desire for boys or adolescents? Or was his expression a ruse? Central to the reception of Socratic eros is the question of the extent to which Socrates is ironic, as Plato closely links irony [ironia] with his master: Alcibiades describes him as eironeuomenos (222) and eironikos (228) in the Symposium. The Roman Quintilian, in his discussion of ironia as a trope, articulates the possibility of ironia as a "whole life," offering Socrates as his example. Interpreting the philosopher in his "Life of Socrates" (c. 1440), Giannozzo Manetti writes: "In that irony of his, as the Greeks call it (or dissimulatio, to use the Latin expression), Socrates is said to have excelled all others in kindness and wit." In a very large sense, then, Socrates was taken to mean and not mean what he says in Plato. When Alcibiades explains that no one really knows Socrates, his relation to eros is a key element of that not-knowing in the explanation of his master as a lover. The Socratic expression of same-sex eros opens up a larger question about meaning in Plato — the extent to which erotic elements have to be taken seriously. For if Socrates is not always serious, then other speakers in Plato may be following his lead and not be serious either. Because this question of serious meaning haunts Renaissance thinkers, the relation between Socrates and homoerotics should be taken as an interpretive as much as a philological question. When Leonardo Bruni replaces the scroll under Phaedrus's cloak with a book in the example with which I began my introduction, he interprets Socratic irony as much as he translates words.

Even if Socrates were ironic in all erotic situations, the question still remains: did Socrates ever act on those desires? There is no documentation that Plato's Socrates did, but neither is there any that he did not. And in fact, the Platonic Socrates arouses suspicion among Renaissance Humanists about his relation to sex. In his charioteer speech in the Phaedrus, for instance, Socrates idealizes the winged chariot that represents higher forms of love, but he does not rule out physical love as balanced with higher forms of love: "The lover comes near and touches the beloved in the gymnasia and in their general intercourse, then the fountain of that stream which Zeus, when he was in love with Ganymede, called 'desire' flows copiously upon the lover; and some of it flows into him, and some, when he is filled, overflows outside." In addition, there are stories in circulation that Socrates was prone to vice earlier in his life, but that he overcame those vices. Cicero mentions anecdotes of the physiognomist Zopyrus, who reads Socrates's physical features as revealing that he is "addicted to women," a comment to which Alcibiades "is said to have given a loud guffaw." The speaker adds that "these defects may be due to natural causes; but their eradication and entire removal, recalling the man himself from the serious vices to which he was inclined, does not rest with natural causes, but with will, effort, training" (205). In a similar anecdote about vice in Cicero's Tusculan Disputations, Socrates "was naturally inclined to the vices named, but had cast them out of him by the help of reason." On the one hand, his homoerotic remarks can be taken as proof of having successfully trained himself to be chaste, but on the other hand, if Socrates's vices (including sexual desire) are natural, what is to prevent them from reasserting themselves?

While Plato the man is less visible than Socrates in Renaissance Neoplatonism, he is often taken as more potentially problematic than his master, in part because of stories of his life circulating widely in Renaissance culture. Unlike with Socrates, Traversari's Latin translation of Diogenes Laertius's "Life of Plato" cites Plato's own homoerotic poems and other homoerotic elements of his biography, including his being "amore captum" [captured by love] by the youth Aster and being seduced by Dionysius in Sicily. On the other hand, Plutarch categorizes Plato with Socrates and "that whole band of men who sanctioned affection between men, and thus guided the youth onward to learning, leadership, and virtuous conduct," and for this reason Plutarch is "inclined to emulate their example." Ficino's own "Life of Plato" (Platonis vita) includes sections on the philosopher's sobrietas, continentia, sanctimonia, and pietas, and is included in numerous Renaissance editions, including right after Diogenes Laertius's vita in Cornarius's 1559 edition of the complete Plato. The Stephanus edition includes Augustine's clean description of Plato's life from The City of God (8.4) since "it was not pleasing to copy Diogenes Laertius's life of Plato."

The author Plato remains a question, too, because he is not a character in the dialogues and because he includes so many direct and indirect references to homoerotic desire and pederasty throughout the Symposium and the Phaedrus, and at the beginning of the Lysis. If Socrates is a problem as a figure, Plato is more a problem as an author. In the Symposium, Pausanias casts the love of boys in a potentially positive note when he states that "even in the passion for boys [paiderastia] ... [men] love boys only when they begin to acquire some mind ... those who begin to love them at this age are prepared to be always with them and share all with them as long as life shall last" (111, 110). Aristophanes's myth describes in idealized terms boys who grow up to become pederasts, using the verb paiderastousi and the noun paiderastes (142). Terms that refer to man/boy love are ubiquitous: erastes repeatedly refers to the older lover and eromenos to the younger beloved. Peppered throughout the corpus are references to males having sex and to "gratifying" [charizo] lovers, even if graphic sex is not part of Plato. And, of course, perhaps the most problematic term of all is eros itself, with its incorporation of energetic sexual desire. As Gregory Vlastos discusses, Platonic eros and Socratic eros are distinct forms of desire in Plato, with the former incorporating a close link between boy and beauty, madness, and sex — all as normal phenomena. If Socrates's form of eros is not ultimately linked to the boy, or even to the male body, but rather to the mind's eye, and if Socratic eros can be dealt with as a chaste and ironic form of homoerotic desire, then Renaissance readers still have to confront the problem of what to do with Platonic eros. As a result, many Humanists focused on Socratic eros instead of Platonic eros, which is significantly harder to recuperate for Christian readers.

As we will see, problems arise for the Renaissance not simply because of erotic terms, but also because of the erotic content of certain sections of the dialogues. If another passage rivals Alcibiades's seduction speech as problem, it is without a doubt Aristophanes's famous myth of the origin of love in the Symposium (189c–193e). This speech is a recurring hotspot in the reception of Plato and, consequently, will be a major element of the story that I will tell. The myth is a potential threat, for one reason, because it recounts the story of "three kinds" [gene] of joined beings living at the beginning of time (135, 134): a "composite sex" termed the "androgunon" (man/woman), the woman/woman, and the man/man, who are all three separated and then spend their lives trying to be reunited with their other half (140). The myth could be taken as assuming or inventing three types of God-given orientations organized by desire (akin to what we might call heterosexual, lesbian, and gay today). While the female-female kind of being is mentioned almost only in passing, the myth articulates in unambiguous terms male desire for other males and the erotic pleasure pertaining to relocating one's other half. In one passage, Plato writes: "Men who are sections of the male pursue the masculine, and so long as their boyhood lasts they show themselves to be slices of the male by making friends with men and delighting to lie with them [sugkatakeimenoi] and to be clasped in men's embraces [sumpeplegmenoi tois andrasi]" (141 and 143, 140 and 142). But also, the myth is unambiguous about the superiority of the being whose type of eros is necessary to govern the city-state: "these are the finest boys and striplings, for they have the most manly nature" (143). The virtue of manliness is closely linked to pederasty. While men who love women are "adulterers," boys in this category grow up to become boy-lovers, men who "are quite contented to live together unwedded all their days" (143). Such a man is "born to be a lover of boys [paiderastes] or the willing mate of a man [philerastes], eagerly greeting his own kind" (143, 142). He has "no natural interest in wiving and getting children" (143). For the Renaissance, this textual moment is a potential threat not only to male-female love, but also to marriage as a religiously defined institution aimed at procreation.


Excerpted from Setting Plato Straight by Todd W. Reeser. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Preface: Strictly Platonic
Note on Translations Used

1: Solving the Problem with Plato
2: The Antitheses of Same-Sex Sexuality in Bruni
3: Ficino and the Theory of Purging Same-Sex Sexuality
4: Ficino and the Practice of Purging Same-Sex Sexuality
5: Importing Ficino: Gender Balance in Champier
6: Seducing Socrates: The Silenus in Erasmus and Rabelais
7: The Gates of Germania: Space, Place, and Sexuality in Cornarius
8: Fractured Men: Feminism and Neoplatonism in Mid-Sixteenth-Century France
9: Orientations: Female-Female and Male-Male Eros in Dialogue
10: Reading Sexuality Skeptically in Montaigne

Conclusion: Bending Plato
Appendix: Major Translations of Plato’s Erotic Dialogues

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