Plato’s Phaedrus

Plato Phaedrus cover image

The Phaedrus has long been one of Plato’s most popular dialogs–perhaps because, like the closely associated Symposium, it ostensibly deals with the topic of Love. The dialog opens when Phaedrus, who has obtained a copy of a new speech and has been studying it, encounters Socrates outside the walls of Athens and reads the speech to him. The speech, purportedly written by the rhetorician Lysias, is intended to convince a hypothetical boy that he is better off sexually gratifying a man who is not in love with him than one who is. It is not a particularly well written speech; after Socrates points out some of its defects Phaedrus challenges him to do better. Naturally, Socrates’ speech on the same subject is considerably superior in both structure and logic. Beginning with an elaborate psychological definition of love as a form of madness, Socrates points out all the ways the boy might suffer from an affair with a mad man.

Almost as soon as he finishes the second speech, Socrates’ daemon prompts him to make a third speech (often referred to as the palinode), arguing the opposite position. This speech contains a lengthy Platonic myth about the soul, touching on such concepts as the theory of forms, the tripartite soul, and reincarnation. Basically, before being incarnated as humans, some souls have had the opportunity to witness true divine beauty. As men, these souls see a reflection of this beauty in the forms of pretty boys and attempt to experience it more closely. Those with less developed souls, once they achieve sexual gratification, will go no further. The true philosophers, however, will gratify themselves instead by educating the boy and forming a deep relationship that may even last beyond the current lifetime. To Plato this represented the ultimate and ideal scenario for erotic love.

The three speeches are about love, but they are really just examples of rhetoric. Socrates is now able to make the point that rhetoric is only valuable if the speaker truly understands both the topic and the audience and that speeches designed merely to entertain or to convince without reference to the truth are to be despised. We are reminded at this point of the passages in Gorgias that characterize all rhetoric as a form of “pandering” and contract it with true education. In fact, Plato is on his way towards the true thesis of the dialog which is that dialectic–the so called “Socratic Method” is superior to other forms of education, including lectures and books. I find I must agree. While I tend to use all three (dialectic, lecture, and written materials) in my own teaching, I can say from experience that the majority of students learn the most through dialectic.

While the speeches on love, especially the first two, are only introduced as examples, their content provokes thought on gender and sexuality in Classical Greece, particularly among the hopelite and aristocrat classes to which Socrates and his friends belonged. In these two upper classes at least three sexually active genders were implicitly acknowledged: men, boys, and women. By far the most common romantic or erotic love situation was between men and boys (typically teenagers who had not yet begun shaving). Women were objectified and mainly considered useful to making babies. They were normally restricted to the women’s section of the house and took no part in the intellectual life of the society. Of the three genders, only men were allowed to take an active sexual role, and only men were expected to enjoy sex much. Boys could benefit from a relationship with an older lover, however, through mentorship and access to the older man’s political connections. While they accepted homoeroticism, Greek society was actually much more gender-restrictive than ours, since there was no freedom for someone to move beyond their gender. The few Greek women we know who of who were educated and enjoyed a public life, such as Pericles’ companion Aspasia of Miletus, were clearly exceptional in every way and often endured high levels of scathing criticism. Likewise, a post-pubescent man who continued to behave effeminately or have sexual relationships with other grown men was greatly looked down on. Nor could teenage boy take on an active sexual role or easily avoid the attentions of grown men. And then there were female slaves, who were called “girls” regardless of age and expected to be sexually available at all times. Fourth century Greece was not a place where you could choose your gender.

It’s true that certain scholars, such as Donald Kagan, have pointed out that we may not have a complete picture of gender roles in Greek society. For one thing, gender traits and sexual mores might have been radically different among the priests and priestesses of the various gods. In face, “priestess” may have essentially been a different gender than “woman” for upper class Greeks–we don’t know enough to say. There are also, as I have mentioned in the past, a number of female mythical and historical figures who seem to have been very powerful, including at least one queen who led triremes into battle as late as the Persian wars. But all of these would have represented rare exceptions in what was, overall, a fairly gender-repressive environment.

Finally, I should mention that the Phaedrus itself is seen by some scholars as a commentary on Greek sexuality and gender repression. There are several double entendres in the dialog between Socrates and Phaedrus which can be taken either as Socratic irony, active flirtation, or both. It is generally considered that Phaedrus, at the time the dialog was set, would have been too old to be a socially acceptable sexual partner for Socrates, but that doesn’t mean that the sexual tension wasn’t there. In an often-cited article, Zelia Gregoriou argues that Phaedrus contains textual and extra-textual elements which take it to a “liminal space” which is effectively “beyond gender”. Objectively, this is probably a bit much to expect from the rather conservative Plato. Subjectively, the dialog may very well have this effect on modern readers.

Gender Theory in Plato (The Symposium)

I agonized over which aspect of Plato’s Symposium to write about in this post, since this dialog contains so much material, and so many “hooks” for a blogging. The overall theme is “Love” (Eros), the conceit being that several of the leading intellectuals of Athens are at a dinner party and have decided to entertain themselves by each giving a short speech about love. This allows Plato to write in several different voices and introduce different–and sometimes conflicting–views before Socrates, the last to speak, lays down the “official” Platonic platform: while it is fine and natural for common people to love other people and seek creative fulfillment through reproduction, the truly elevated philosopher loves Wisdom above all earthly attachments and is only fulfilled when philosophizing and creating knowledge.

Those who are pregnant in the body only, betake themselves to women and beget children—this is the character of their love; their offspring, as they hope, will preserve their memory and giving them the blessedness and immortality which they desire in the future. But souls which are pregnant—for there certainly are men who are more creative in their souls than in their bodies—conceive that which is proper for the soul to conceive or contain. And what are these conceptions?—wisdom and virtue in general. And such creators are poets and all artists who are deserving of the name inventor.

Just as Socrates finishes a drunken (or at least drunk acting) Alcibiades crashes the party and tells how his many attempts to seduce Socrates have failed. This serves to underscore Socrates’ point; Alcibiades is the iconic sex symbol of his time–at the peak of his physical beauty and as yet untouched by the political problems which will plague his later life. To the Greek mind it is extraordinary that anyone, male or female, would be impervious to his charms.

Symposium. Anselm Feuerbach. 1869. [public domain via Wikimedia]

Symposium. Anselm Feuerbach. 1869. [public domain via Wikimedia]

As is happens, though, I have already devoted whole posts to Alcibiades, while Socrates and his pursuit of Wisdom are the theme of the past few weeks. The section I would rather focus on now is Aristophanes‘ speech. While undoubtedly written by Plato, it is completely Aristophanic, capturing both the playwright’s intellectual brand of humor and his penchant for wild flights of mythopoetic fantasy. Humanity, says Aristophanes, was not always as it is now,

The sexes were not two as they are now, but originally three in number; there was man, woman, and the union of the two, having a name corresponding to this double nature, which had once a real existence, but is now lost, and the word ‘Androgynous’ is only preserved as a term of reproach. In the second place, the primeval man was round, his back and sides forming a circle; and he had four hands and four feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, set on a round neck and precisely alike; also four ears, two privy members, and the remainder to correspond. He could walk upright as men now do, backwards or forwards as he pleased, and he could also roll over and over at a great pace, turning on his four hands and four feet, eight in all, like tumblers going over and over with their legs in the air; this was when he wanted to run fast.

However, these four-legged, rolling humans were too powerful, and soon challenged the gods themselves. Zeus, after considering how to punish them, decides to split them in half,

‘[A]nd then they will be diminished in strength and increased in numbers; this will have the advantage of making them more profitable to us. They shall walk upright on two legs, and if they continue insolent and will not be quiet, I will split them again and they shall hop about on a single leg.’

Unfortunately, mankind longs so much for their sundered halves that,

After the division the two parts of man, each desiring his other half, came together, and throwing their arms about one another, entwined in mutual embraces, longing to grow into one, they were on the point of dying from hunger and self-neglect, because they did not like to do anything apart; and when one of the halves died and the other survived, the survivor sought another mate, man or woman as we call them,—being the sections of entire men or women,—and clung to that. They were being destroyed, when Zeus in pity of them invented a new plan: he turned the parts of generation round to the front, for this had not been always their position, and they sowed the seed no longer as hitherto like grasshoppers in the ground, but in one another; and after the transposition the male generated in the female in order that by the mutual embraces of man and woman they might breed, and the race might continue; or if man came to man they might be satisfied, and rest, and go their ways to the business of life: so ancient is the desire of one another which is implanted in us, reuniting our original nature, making one of two, and healing the state of man. Each of us when separated, having one side only, like a flat fish, is but the indenture of a man, and he is always looking for his other half. Men who are a section of that double nature which was once called Androgynous are lovers of women; adulterers are generally of this breed, and also adulterous women who lust after men: the women who are a section of the woman do not care for men, but have female attachments; the female companions are of this sort. But they who are a section of the male follow the male, and while they are young, being slices of the original man, they hang about men and embrace them, and they are themselves the best of boys and youths, because they have the most manly nature.

This story then, besides being an artful Aristophanic pastiche, is also another one of the beautiful myths which Plato inserts into so many of his dialogs where they server besides the elenchus as a different and complementary, yet never inferior, vehicle for the exposition of his philosophy. It is important to remember that Plato never expects the reader to take these myths literally. Rather, they constitute a developing symbolic shorthand with which to manipulate constructs in conjunction with his theory of ideas.

This particular myth is important because it offers an explicit recognition of a concept of gender which is distinct both from reproductive sex and sexual orientation, a concept which Western thought has only recently rediscovered. Plato, at least in a limited sense, is the father of gender theory. Add the context of his argument for equality of women in The Republic, and he appears very modern indeed.

So if Plato was so far ahead of his time in the area we now call Gender Studies or Philosophy of Gender, why did so many centuries pass before the next big break-through? medieval Christianity, with its emphasis on asexuality as a gender ideal, clearly played a role. The gender dialog had gone silent long before Christianity became the dominant religion, however. It was in the bourgeoisie and aristocratic society of late pagan Rome, where nearly any sexuality was acceptable as long as it happened discretely and did not result in a scandal, that it became unacceptable to talk about gender. Upper caste Romans could (and did) do and be almost anything they wanted sexually, especially if the passive partner was a slave or other non-citizen. But it was in incredibly bad taste to talk about it. The whole society functioned on don’t-ask-don’t-tell basis. By the time Christianity took over, with its overall distrust of sexuality in general, combined with biases inherited from ancient Judaism, which acknowledged only two genders corresponding to the two most common reproductive sexes, Plato’s ideas on the subject had already been tabled for a very long time.

Six Major Social Trends for the Rest of the 21st Century

Tonight I think I will depart from my usual blogging style.  It’s a beautiful spring evening, and I’m in the mood to ponder big ideas.  I thought it would be fun to list a few of my personal predictions for major social trends that will happen over the course of the 21st century.  These are ideas that I’ve had kicking around my subconscious for a few years.  Ideas are all they are; in most cases I have done little or no research or theoretical work on them.  Actually, the only qualifications I have as a “futurist” are the thirty years I’ve spent reading and writing everything I could find and the years I was in college learning how to be a professional analyst and forecaster–which is less impressive than it sounds, since the educational system in this country rarely encourages students to think more than five years out.  In 85 years or so I’ll probably be dust, but maybe someone will dig up a copy of this post on whatever passes for an Internet by then and have a good laugh over how many of these came true.

All of these predictions apply only to Western Civilization, and then only if Western Civ. continues to be allowed to chart its own destiny, rather than being conquered or assimilated by some other culture.

1.  The End of Binary Gender

Few myths have dogged out society as persistently and perniciously as binary gender, the idea that people are either “men” or “women” and everything else is an aberration.  I firmly believe that gender is a complicated construct and that, in fact, it is unlikely that any two people are the same gender.  There are already many signs that our society is preparing to embrace a much wider interpretation of gender.  In another couple of generations, the gender of of another person will cease to matter unless someone is trying to decide whether to mate with them, and possibly not even then.

Once this happens, it will have two subsidiary effects, which are also already beginning to show themselves.

a.  The Redefinition of Marriage

As soon as society finally accepts that there are more than two genders, they will need to throw away the notion that marriage is between a “man” and a “woman”.  This will open the door for dozens, or hundreds of different forms of marriage and domestic partnership, with different combinations and numbers of partners, limited only by the participants ability to draft a valid contract.

b.  The End of Male Chauvinism and Privilege

Once we realize that “male” refers to a biological state, and it becomes increasingly easy to change that state, the old notions of male superiority will finally die.  This doesn’t mean that some genders will not enjoy a competitive advantage in certain times and places, however.  For instance, in Hanna Rosin’s book The End of Men, she actually argues that people with more feminine traits are now enjoying a relative advantage in modern workplaces.

2.  The Decline of the Middle Class

The bourgeoisie grew from being a tiny and relatively uninfluential segment of the population in the middle ages to being the dominant class in Western Civ. in the 20th century.  While most bourgeoisie believe that his represents some sort of divinely ordained natural state, the fact was that the new economies of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution required a large middle class to function.  That is no longer the case.  Now their numbers and political influence are steadily declining.  Expect most of them to be reabsorbed into the proletariat and the aristocracy/oligarchy by the end of the century.  This trend also has subsidiary effects,

a.  Temporary Ascendancy of the Intelligentsia

I use the word Intelligentsia in the same sense as historian Arnold Toynbee used it in his Study of Civilization:  a member of a different civilization that learns enough of the technology and external culture traits of the dominant civilization to function in it at some level, yet is never entirely a part of it.  As Western Civ.’s native middle class dwindles, we increasingly import professional and technical workers from other civilizations to make up for temporary shortages.  At the moment, the presence of large numbers of intelligentsia in our civilization make the middle class seem more robust than it is.  However, since very few will ever be assimilated and become full members of our culture, they don’t count.  Eventually we won’t need nearly as many of them and we will stop importing them.

b.  No Change or a Positive Change for the Intellectual/Creative Class

We will still be needed to educate and advise the aristocracy and to create culture for the whole society, so our relative numbers will stay about the same.  Once we again rely on the aristocracy for patronage, our job stability and renumeration may actually improve.  Of course, all the pseudo-intellectuals and poseur artists are actually members of the bourgeoisie in disguise, and will find they have no such protection.

3.  Decline of Democracy

Democracy has had its longest and most successful run so far, but it is on its way out, at least in the “one citizen, one vote” sense we know it in the United States.  As the middle class disappears the aristocracy will again find ways to disenfranchise the proletariat (assuming the proles are interested in voting at all).  This sounds like a bad thing, and it could be–particularly if it allows our culture to swing back towards facism.  On the other hand, it could allow people who actually know enough to make decisions start undoing some of the damage caused over the last hundred years by demagoguery and populism.  Whether it’s ultimately good or bad, though, this change is going to happen.  Democracy is just one of many possible political systems, and nothing stays the same forever.

4.  Reevaluation of Education

Our current educational focus has long been on educating the middle class.  Once most of them are gone, the educational system will once again split into a system of education for the aristocracy and a system of training for the proletariat.  This is already happening; just compare the programs at Harvard with those at University of Phoenix.

5.  Abandonment of Money

Money, in the sense we usually think of it, mostly matters to the middle class.  The proletariat never has much of it, whereas the aristocracy handles it only in an abstract sense.  The basic functions of money–a medium of exchange, a store of value, and unit of account–will be increasingly served by other media.  For instance, computers of the future will be able to immediately compare the relative values of labor and commodities and allow frictionless barter, removing the need to translate everything into currency as a unit of exchange.  Material goods in general will become far less important as most possessions become virtual and cheap 3D printers and similar technology allow anyone to manufacture anything for which they have a computer model, then recycle the material when they are done with it.  Energy and intellectual property will become the only stores of value that matter.  Energy will probably become the unit of account, because anything can be expressed in terms of energy.  Naturally, we will need to revise our entire concept of intellectual property.

6.  Changing Perceptions of Space and Distance

As telepresence becomes “as good as being there” and most property is either virtual or manufacturable on demand, there will be less and less reason to travel.  Few people, even the very rich, will have any incentive to ever go more than a couple kilometers from their homes.  The physical world will become much smaller, while the virtual world becomes much bigger.

What form these homes take depends on our ability to control overpopulation.  With a reasonable population density everyone, even the poorest of the proletariat, will be able to live in idyllic villages.  A more likely scenario is for most people to live in massive arcologies or other high density mega cities, where technology races constantly to ensure the survival of people for the minimum possible resource cost.

The Two “Wild Cards”

Looking at the list I just typed, I actually feel like my predictions are all throughly plausible.  There are two factors so powerful that no one can account for their effects, though.  The first, which will almost certainly be negative, is climate change.  If the changing climate damages our biosphere too badly, it is possible that we will see a significant portion of our population killed off, while the remainder have to abandon all technology and culture that doesn’t directly contribute to survival.  If that happens, the survivors could become the futuristic equivalent of Greenland Inuits or Saharan nomads.  In that case, all bets are off.  The other factor, which will probably be positive, is space travel.  We are entering an age when commercial space travel will become viable.  Potentially, the ability to harvest energy and materials from the rest of the solar system, combined with the new cultures that will develop among space travelers, will change our society in was that no one could predict.

Is 2015 the Year of the Transsexual?

If you read any news at all you have probably noticed the recent deluge of stories about trans-people. The tabloids (and now the mainstream media) are obsessed with Bruce Jenner’s sex change.  MTF actress Laverne Cox, seems to be everywhere at once. Leelah Alcorn’s suicide, and subsequent time-delayed tumbler messages, have outraged millions of readers and drawn attention to the role of gender issues in many teen suicides. The New York Times, always a good barometer of the left-of-middle zeitgeist, has been dropping stories at a rate of about one a week profiling various photogenic young people with non-binary sexual identities. Brad and Angelina, always on trend, have discovered that they have a transgendered child. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Tambor turns in a stellar performance as a transitioning MTF on Amazon’s visually stunning and generally well written show Transparent. The producers of Glee, seemingly in an attempt to prop up their ratings, have announced that one of their regular characters is going to transition gender in the show’s final season.

Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent [Copyright Amazon Studios]  Fair Use Justification: This is a single low resolution still image from a television show, used for purposes of criticism or education.  There is no public domain substitute available and it does not affect Amazon Studios' future profit potential.

Jeffrey Tambor in Transparent [Copyright Amazon Studios]

Why is the media suddenly flooded with trans-related content? Are we witnessing the results some sort of transsexual conspiracy? No. Not really. Overall, any coverage that portrays transgender individuals as human beings and makes the population aware of gender issues is a good thing. It is far healthier than the way transsexuals have previously been portrayed on TV: as clowns, freaks, and sexual deviants. It helps undue some of the damage caused by pornography which objectifies transsexuals, portraying them as little more than mindless, pliable sex toys. But gender rights activists like Kate Bornstein, Riki Wilchins, and many others have been trying to raise awareness of transsexual issues in the media for decades without ever achieving an effect of this magnitude. This trend is obviously coming from another quarter; there is no way it can be attributed solely to activism and identity politics.

I believe that we are about to witness another major shift of battle lines in a culture war which has been fought for over 200 years.

Gender rights first emerged as an issue in the context of women’s rights. However women’s rights was not initially seen as a separate issues. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century the civil rights movement attempted to secure human, civil, and political rights for women, blacks, and everyone else who wasn’t an affluent white male. Most of the important nineteenth century abolitionists were also feminists; nearly all of the important feminists were abolitionists. This changed dramatically right after the civil war, when the 39th Congress passed the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. Suddenly, it looked as if black Americans had a real chance of securing the full rights of citizens. The leadership of the women’s rights movement put pressure on black leaders and Radical Republican congressmen to hold out for equal rights for women as well. Unfortunately, it was believed that bringing up the question of women’s rights would be politically unpalatable and kill the entire project.

Prior to that time Frederick Douglas, the most influential and charismatic black activist of the period had been a close ally of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Harriet Beecher Stowe, the acknowledged leaders of the feminist movement. They broke when Douglas told them that he planned to support the civil war amendments because blacks needed civil rights more than women did. From that point on the black rights movement remained separated from the women’s rights movement. Slowly and painfully, the ruling powers decided to accept black men as full members of the society, but dug in and continued to fight against female equality.

American women finally received the right to vote fifty-five years later, the first big victory in their campaign. Now, after many more battles, women are also–mostly–considered equal citizens of the polity.

The gender wars were far from over, though. Homosexuals and transsexuals, long an oppressed minority in America, began to assert themselves in 1969 with the Stonewall Riots. This movement too began as a coalition: homosexuals, cross-dressers, sex workers, and transsexuals. Again, after many battles, the forces of freedom pushed back the reactionary battle lines. By the 1990’s society had–grudgingly–agreed to accept the membership of homosexuals as long as they were “normal” in every other way. It had now become acceptable for a person to be gay or lesbian as long as they still fell within society’s binary conception of what a “man” or “woman” was. The establishment dug in again and “mainstream” homosexuals began doing everything they could to distance themselves from transsexuals, cross-dressers and queers who might spoil their hard-won acceptance.

The Stonewall Riots [Student Project]

Now the reactionary establishment is preparing to execute another strategic withdrawal. The “moral majority” is going to come to the decision, articulated by the mass media, that it is acceptable to be a transsexual as long an individual transitions all the way. The male-female binary must be maintained, and they will go on fighting to protect it. “Real” transsexuals, having anticipated this moment, have already begun cutting themselves loose from cross dressers, gender queers, and anyone else who doesn’t fit the correct stereotype.

But gender isn’t binary. It isn’t even a two-dimensional spectrum that runs from male to female, but a complex construct of many variables. Many people fall somewhere in the middle. The most likely result of any either-or system as a prerequisite of social acceptance is to pressure transgender people, especially young people, into seeking a full transition, dooming them to an expensive, painful, dangerous process that they might not need or want. I am completely in favor of people being able to live in their own gender, but it is ridiculous to only offer two extreme choices and tell them they have to choose.

Society will be forced to accept this too, in time. But rest assured, there will be some other group which is marginalized and made to fight for their rights. The culture war continues, exhausting our civilization and leaving us so focused on identity politics that we are unable to deal with the real issues of our time. Honestly, why are we obsessing over transgender people instead of global warming or overpopulation or a top-heavy system of wealth distribution that is a revolution waiting to happen? I wish we could just make peace in the culture war and move on to the real problems.


Further Reading:
Bornstein, K. (1994). Gender Outlaw: on Men, Women, and the Rest of Us. New York, NY: Routledge.

Epps, G. (2006). Democracy Reborn: The Fourteenth Amendment and the Fight for Equal Rights in Post-Civil War America. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.

Wilchins, R. A. (1997). Read My Lips: Sexual Subversion and the End of Gender. Ithaca, NY: Firebrand Books.