Students are usually surprised at the discussion of what we would now call homosexual pederasty in Plato. Two of the greatest dialogues, the Phaedrus, and the Symposium, take it as normal. The dynamic described between “lover” and the “beloved” in the Phaedrus mirrors exactly the male and female romantic dynamic that most of us will be more familiar with, although what is being described is a much older man besotted with a teenager.
This kind of pederasty was fashionable among the Classical Greek élite. It was not necessarily popular prior to this time, although Achilles’ reaction to Patroclus’ death in The Iliad suggests the two might have had more than a “Platonic” relationship. Cultures where women are rigorously sequestered from men and go about in public only when chaperoned tend to indirectly promote homosexual sex because women are simply not widely available – much as at boarding schools or prison. The Greek prohibition on educating women also means that romantic love between the two sexes will be inhibited. In romantic attraction (not merely sexual) we first see an appealing surface. The next step is to actually talk to someone to find out whether we actually like the person or not. If yes, then we may come to respect, admire, and trust the person. In other words, come to love her. If you are a member of a literate, educated elite, then full romantic heterosexual love would perhaps be rare, since women’s minds would be undeveloped, and literacy and broad reading are prerequisites for being interesting to talk to. Being admired by someone you do not respect is not enjoyable or flattering. Hoi polloi would have much lower standards of intellectual attainment, being less mentally accomplished themselves, and likewise did not embrace single-sex pederasty. Plato, tall, handsome, smart, educated, aristocratic, and thus most definitely élite, acknowledges that women can definitely be physically beautiful and attractive, but such a brilliant mind as his would be looking for a beautiful psyche too.
The Greeks did have an interesting class of women called hetaerae (hetairai). They were educated women, artists and entertainers, who were expected to be smart, educated, and good conversationalists. They seem more like professional girlfriends than prostitutes, somewhat in keeping with American ideas concerning “dating,” where someone might be going out with several men, and/or “date” for years. Such goings on are a complete mystery to a naturalized U.S. citizen like me. New Zealand men and women of my generation restricted themselves to one boyfriend or girlfriend (i.e., sexual partner) at a time and would be unlikely to live in separate residences if the relationship continued for years. Hearing “I ‘dated’ so-and-so for seven years” registers as “Caution. Caution. Does Not Compute,” in my mind. Every Saturday the boy turned up with flowers, you went to the movies and had an ice cream, maybe held hands, for years and years, is what it sounds like! Hetaerae had just a few clients and had long term relationships, unlike the pornai who had multiple clients and might work in a brothel. The consort of Pericles, the ruler of Athens at its peak when it was beautified with temples and statues, was Aspasia and she was a hetaera.
Classical Greek culture had a custom of mentor and mentee. Older men would be on the look out for promising young talent. The idea was then to help promote the youth’s career, introducing him to the right people for both political and economic advancement, with the understanding that when the youth attained a prominent societal position, these favors could be repaid with favors and influence. Part of the deal in the meantime was that the youth would “service” that older man. As can be seen in the Phaedrus, there was no expectation that the teenager would feel any kind of attraction for the sagging flesh and wrinkled face of the lover in return. Sex would be strictly for career advancement, rather than mutual desire, hence the division between lover and beloved. The ideal age for the youth was supposed to be before his beard had come in and thus, he would still be relatively androgenous. Hence, the sexual connection had a strongly heterosexual element to it. The young man is very much a replacement woman. It is anachronistic to describe this as “homosexual,” because nearly all the men involved in all this would have a wife and children. Pederasty would almost always be in addition to family life, not a replacement for it.
Plato was in favor of the mentor/mentee relationship. He himself had become a devoted follower of Socrates, annoying those who had hoped to make use of Plato’s burgeoning political career to advance themselves. Becoming a philosopher meant the end of that. However, though Plato thought that young men need older men to develop themselves, he was not in favor of sex between the two, hence the phrase, a “Platonic relationship.” Plato justifies this stance in the Phaedrus by using the metaphor of the human soul as constructed of a charioteer with two horses. One beautiful and well-trained, the other ugly and unruly. Only the gods have two beautiful horses. We humans have to manage with this less-than-ideal arrangement and to resist the impulses of the unruly ugly horse. Such a horse will wantonly copulate with any body [sic] of even moderate attractiveness indiscriminately. Love as respect and admiration will have nothing to do with it, and any ascent of the soul to a more spiritual realm with sacred insights will be forestalled. Physical attraction, for Plato, is promiscuous – though we might add more on the part of men than women. Recent studies suggest that nearly all women direct their attention at the top 20% most attractive men, which is highly selective, and regard the rest as “four” or lower on a scale of one to ten, while men give a much more accurate and more charitable “rating” to women. Female chimpanzees mate indiscriminately, but women are hypergamous and that might be why human and chimpanzee evolution has diverged so significantly. As a rule, women mate either across or up in the social hierarchy. Sexual selection thus is thought to have pushed the human race to develop big brains as men compete with great ingenuity to get to the top of hierarchies that men have devised. In the meantime, women sit back, wait to see who succeeds, and then select from the winners, if they are in a position to do so. Female lobsters and many other species do the same thing. Harvard University plays the role of a pretty woman by selecting as tenured faculty professors who have proved themselves immensely successful elsewhere, rather than by promoting new hires to the permanent ranks.