Where philosophy and sex both went wrong

Plato’s Phaedrus, tr. Hackforth, Library of Liberal Arts, 1952.

Plato, tr. Hamilton,The Symposium, Penguin, 1951

According to Plato philosophy is eros, but it is an entirely non-carnal eros which is not the desire for physical consummation, but instead the desire for the knowledge of abstract, invisible Ideal Forms. It was upon this lucus a non lucendo that Western philosophy was founded. Plato’s description of the carnal eros (from which philosophy developed in stages) hardly prettifies it — eros, after all, is the desire or need for a Beauty which is absent, and is not itself beautiful.

The obsessed lover is driven almost mad with desire, and must misperceive the beloved as a god:

[The lover] beholds a godlike face or bodily form that truly expresses beauty, first there comes to him a shuddering and a measure of that awe which the vision inspired, first there comes on him reverence as at the sight of a god ….with the passing of the shudder, a strange sweating and fever seizes him; by reason of the stream of beauty entering through his eyes comes a warmth…. [he] throbs with ferment in every part…. (Phaedrus pp. 96-7).

Lovers are broken and desperate, driven helplessly by their need:

Each of this is thus the broken tally of a man…. and each of us is perpetually in search of his corresponding tally (Symposium p. 62).

A lover’s perception of the beloved is a delusional, grotesquely exaggerated self-projection of self which destroys self-control and causes the lover to remove himself from human society:

And so each selects a fair one for his love after his disposition, and even as if the beloved were himself a god he fashions for himself as it were an image, and adorns it to be the object of his veneration and worship (Phaedrus p. 99).

He perceives that all his friends and kinsmen have nothing to offer in comparison with this friend in whom there dwells a god…. the “flood of passion” pours in upon the lover; and part of it is absorbed within him, but when he can contain no more the rest flows away outside him…. so he loves, but knows not what he loves: he does not understand, he cannot tell what has come upon him; like one that has caught a disease of the eye from another, he cannot account for it, not realizing that his lover is, as it were, a mirror in which he beholds himself (Phaedrus p. 105).

Carnal eros is personified as brutish and untamed horse in rut who fights both against both the placid gelding he is harnessed with, and against his master. The carnal horse

is crooked of frame, a massive jumble of a creature, with thick short neck, snub nose, black skin, and grey eyes; hot-blooded, consorting with wantonness and vainglory, shaggy of ear, deaf, and hard to control with whip and goad…. (Phaedrus p. 103).

In the face of temptation

the obedient steed, restrained now as always by modesty, refrains from jumping the beloved; but his fellow, heeding no more the lover’s whip, leaps and dashes on sorely troubling his companion and the driver , forcing them to approach the loved one and remind him of the delights of love’s commerce. For awhile they struggle, indignant that he [the bad horse] should force them to a monstrous and forbidden act; but at last. finding no end to their evil plight, they yield and agree to do his bidding. And so he draws them on, and now they are quite close and behold the spectacle of the beloved flashing upon them (Phaedrus p. 104).

Nonetheless, it is upon desire that philosophy is modeled:

When a man, starting from this sensible world and making his way upward by right use of his feeling of love for young men, begins to catch sight of that beauty, he is very near his goal [i.e., philosophy and wisdom]. This is the right way of approaching or being initiated into the mysteries of love, to begin with examples of beauty in this world, and using them as steps to ascend continually with that absolute beauty as one’s aim…. (Symposium p. 94).

But only desire for young men: the wise man does not “go after the fashion of a four-footed beast” and have sex with females (except out of family duty). Nor does he have sex with young men, though he desires them. He puts himself in the company of beautiful young men, in the place where temptation is at its highest, but he does not succumb; he wrestles the short-necked, snub-nosed, hot-blooded bad horse to his knees and forces him into submission.

The beauty of young men is is not illusory, according to Plato; it is the visible sign (or “lustre”) of invisible virtues of Justice, Temperance, etc. These virtues are what the philosophical lover loves, rather than the young man’s beauty itself.

Now in the earthly likenesses of justice and temperance and all other prized possessions there dwells no lustre; nay, so dull are the organs wherewith men approach their images that hardly can a few behold that which is imaged; but with beauty it is otherwise. (Phaedrus p. 93).

Rather than having sex and making babies, however, the lover and the beloved now become parents of Truth:

The partnership between them will be far closer and the bond of affection far closer than between ordinary parents, because the children that they share surpass human children by being immortal as well as more beautiful. Everyone would prefer children such as these to children of the flesh (Symposium p. 91).

The problem I see here is this: according to Plato himself, eros is not itself beautiful; it is the desire for beauty and implies a lack of beauty.

To judge by what you said, you identified Love as the beloved object instead of with what feels love; that is why you thought that Love is supremely beautiful (Symposium p. 83).

In the same way, then, philosophy or love of truth is not true; it is the needy and delusory desire for a truth which it does not have, and whatever “truth” it finds will just be a desperate projection of self, just as is the beloved as perceived by the lover, or the lover as he wished himself to be perceived by the beloved.

The horses of philosophy have been out of the barn for two and a half millennia by now and we’re not going to get them back inside, but you have to ask yourself whether it was ever a good idea to model the pursuit of truth on an abnormal mental state resulting from a transient hormone imbalance. Are truth-seekers indeed needy, obsessive, broken human units whose desired truths are really just distorted, fetishized projections of their own neediness and lack? should we make this our ideal?

According to Plato, if it were not for the Ideal Forms of Truth, Beauty, Being, Justice, etc., we could not know anything at all; but to the extent that our understanding of these Ideal Forms is comparable to the obsessed lover’s self-projection of his (compensated) deficiency onto his love object, it seems that these Ideal Forms must be grossly distorted misperceptions, and that in consequence, if this theory is true,  we in fact cannot know anything at all. Socrates’ primary human love object, after all, was the licentious, intemperate, impetuous, traitorous Alcibiades, a man who did Athens as much harm as any foreign enemy ever did, and if Socrates’ carnal eros led him to Alcibiades, how much trust should we place in his philosophical eros?

of course, a teacher teaches the students he has, not the students he wishes he had. As Leo Strauss pointed out, it is possible that Plato’s philosophy took the specific form it did because Socrates and Plato lived in a society dominated by oversexed, violent males, and that he expediently expressed his ideas with the help of metaphors that they would understand. If this is so, one can imagine that if he had been dealing with, e.g., farmers, he would have spoken of timely rains and sudden storms, fertilizers and pests, droughts and blights, spades and hoes, granaries and root cellars, and so on; or if he had been dealing with businessmen, he would have spoken of credit and bankruptcy, transport costs and tariffs, interest rates and inflation, bargains and windfalls, etc. — and so on through carpentry, weaving, navigation, dentistry, sausage-making, embalming, and the various other trades. Would we not be in a better place now if one of these other paths had ended up being chosen?


The Platonic understanding of eros has something to displease almost everyone but Allan Bloom. Conservatives would react to Socrates’ firm disapproval of heterosexuality and family life by calling him a hater and a bigot (and worse), while his mention of “monstrous and forbidden acts” and his snark about sissies would not go over well with liberals:

We shall find [the man enslaved to pleasure] pursuing a weakling rather than a sturdy boy, one who has had a cozy, sheltered upbringing instead of being exposed to the open air, who has given himself up to a soft unmanly life instead of the toil and sweat of manly exercise, who for lack of natural charm tricks himself out with artificial cosmetics, and resorts to other similar practices which are too numerous to need further enumeration; yet before leaving the topic we may sum it up in a sentence: the boy will be of that physical type which in wartime, and other times that try a man’s mettle, inspires confidence in his enemies and alarm in his friends (Phaedrus p. 44).

Socrates’ sexology is in fact thoroughly militaristic, but few of today’s militarists would accept his suggestion that military morale would be at its highest if the army were composed entirely of male couples (as the Theban Sacred Band indeed was):

If then one could contrive that an army or state should consist entirely of lovers and loved it, would impossible for it to have a better organization than that which it would then enjoy through their mutual avoidance of all dishonor and their mutual emulation (Symposium p. 43).

Both in the Phaedrus and in the Symposium Socrates is described as a dude magnet, albeit a chaste one, and the Symposium (p. 98) additionally describes him as a master of chugalug, which made him a major figure in the Athenian fratboy world. All through his flirtation with Phaedrus Socrates takes the high road and entirely rejects the carnal expression of eros (though of course it’s possible that he’s just setting Phaedrus up by perhaps playing hard to get). However, he does include a “devil made me do it” / “whoops I did it again” escape valve for those who slip, offering them a sort of silver medal for at least trying:

But if they turn to a way of life more ignoble and unphilosophic, yet covetous of honor, then mayhap in a careless hour, or when the wine is flowing, the wanton horses in the two soul shall catch them off their guard, bring the pair together, and choosing that part which the multitude accounts blissful, achieve their full desire. And this once done, they continue therein, albeit but rarely, seeing that their minds are not wholly set thereupon. Such a pair as this are also dear friends, but not so dear as the other [philosophical] pair… (Phaedrus p. 106)

Plato’s sexology has it all: homosociality, homosexuality, misogyny, homophobia, sex guilt, celibacy, and obsession. Renaissance Neoplatonists picked up Plato’s belief that a physical beauty is the mark of a beautiful soul, but they adapted it to heterosexuality (Villon actually thought that Alcibiades was a lady), and they didn’t always avoid the carnality. In the 19th century Gautier described himself as a Platonist when he cruised Paris looking for an ideally beautiful grisette. Freud’s studies of the Viennese bourgeoisie, who were pathologically horny but hamstrung by multiple layers of rigid conventionality, led him to ground an entire psychological theory on sexual obsession, and many true believers came to think of sexual obsession as a necessary part of mental health and even an obligation. In sexology as in philosophy, we really have to ask ourselves whether we’ve been on the wrong track almost from the very beginning.


I have never been able to figure out the horses. The first horse is obviously man’s carnal nature, but what is the second, obedient horse? If the obedient horse is Reason, then what is the charioteer? Why are there two horses at all?

UPDATE: The second horse is presumably the spirited or honorable part of the soul. Why it should be called the “obedient” horse is a mystery to me, however, since spirited Hellenes were murderously impetuous on the model of bandits and Vikings.  Perhaps this is just another indicator of Socrates’ militarist skew. (Thank you John Holbo).

Published in: on December 7, 2013 at 2:31 am  Comments (5)  

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  1. This is excellent. Last I looked at Crooked Timber, it was going through yet another explanation of how analytic philosophy thought experiments are whimsical and funny, and that’s part of it, but really they’re also trashy adventure stories. Save the people on the trolley tracks by pushing the fat man to his death! What is the mystery of the disembodied brain in a jar?

    My favorite of them all was the one in which Lewd keeps giving Prude erotic novels. Here we were getting back to philosophy’s roots, I thought, for the same kinds of reasons that you outline above; the start of philosophy is all about handing each other erotic novels, so to speak. No one keeps giving erotic novels to someone else unless they want to sleep with them, but this gets sublimated into, voila, philosophy. I wrote a whole series of Lew and Pru adventures in romantic pulp style in the comment box in which they go through a different thought experiment in each episode (which they solve via handing off an erotic novel); I really should put them up in an organized fashion somewhere.

  2. St. Augustine commented on the Latin romances he had loved to read, but now disapproved of. Alcuin complained about the sagas his monks would recite after class.

  3. Interesting, but it seems to me that you’ve misread, for one thing, the passage in the Phaedrus that you quote which begins: “Now in the earthly likenesses….”

    The “earthly likenesses” of the Forms of Justice and Temperance don’t call forth much response b/c they can’t be perceived well by embodied humans, whose keenest sense is vision. In the Platonic mythos (or choose another word if you want), the disembodied soul has seen the Forms before its incarnation or embodiment. Because vision is the most powerful of the physical senses, it is earthly beauty that provokes a strong response, and what it reminds embodied humans of is the Form of Beauty (“Beauty itself”) that the disembodied soul saw before it became yoked to a body.

    So whereas you write that for Plato/Socrates “the beauty of young men … is the visible sign (or ‘lustre’) of invisible virtues of Justice, Temperance, etc.”, I think it’s more that earthly beauty is the visible reminder or “sign” of the Form of Beauty (which might then connect to the other Forms, but it’s more indirect).

    Phaedrus 250b-250d:
    “Justice and self-control do not shine out through their images down here, and neither do the other objects of the soul’s admiration; the senses are so murky that only a few people are able to make out, with difficulty, the original [i.e. the original Forms] of the likenesses they encounter here. But beauty was radiant to see at that time when the souls…saw that blessed and spectacular vision and were ushered into the mystery that we may rightly call the most blessed of all. And we who celebrated it were wholly perfect and free of all the troubles that awaited us in time to come, and we gazed in rapture at sacred revealed objects that were perfect, and simple, and unshakeable and blissful…. Now beauty, as I said, was radiant among the other objects [i.e., the other Forms]; and now that we have come down here [i.e. to earth] we grasp it sparkling through the clearest of our senses.”

    (quote from the translation of Phaedrus in C.D.C. Reeve, ed., Plato on Love, p.115)

  4. […]  (If you liked “Monomania as Philosophy” you will probably also like “Where Philosophy and Sex Both Went Wrong”.) […]

  5. Interesting!

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