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Who would have thought that men loving real women was a sign of Christian cultural progress? But in tracing views of love from the ancient period through the middle ages and the Reformation, we find just that.
In the golden era of ancient Greek thought, Socrates, said he was “in love with two objects—Alcibiades, son of Clinias, and philosophy.”1 Socrates’ homosexual enchantment with Alcibiades elsewhere provokes teasing: “Where have you come from Socrates? No doubt from pursuit of the captivating Alcibiades. . . . He’s actually growing a beard.” Socrates replies, “What of it? Aren’t you an enthusiast for Homer, who says that the most charming age is that of the youth with his first beard, just the age of Alcibiades now?”2 Socrates elsewhere explains the excitement young men give him, as well as the erotic experience he once gained from seeing inside the cloak of a young male. Alcibiades himself tells of a particular attempt to seduce Socrates one night, and though they slept in the same bed, Socrates restrained his lusts and received praise for his self-control.3 K.J. Dover notes that, “We encounter Socrates in a strongly homosexual ambience; some of Plato’s earlier dialogues are set in the gymnasium, Socrates’ youthful friends are commonly—one might say normally—in love with boys, and he fully accepts these relationships.”4
But the story is mixed. Socrates himself was also married, and both Plato and Aristotle later condemn homosexuality on the grounds that it is unnatural. Yet the homosexual themes are always strong in Ancient Greece, and not just among philosopher types. A long Greek tradition recognized the homosexual relationship between Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad, among others.
Yet there is something distinctly favorable to homosexuality within Platonism. Matter was, of course, the arch enemy of Platonism; it infected human souls and hindered them from direct contact with the most real world of the Forms. Women were intellectually inferior and “mating” with them introduced more matter into the world—”those whose procreancy is of the body turn to woman as the object of their love, and raise a family. . . . But those whose procreancy is of the spirit rather than of the flesh. . . bear the things of the spirit.”5 So creative thinkers who copulated with men not only connected with more rational (and therefore more beautiful) persons, but they also didn’t introduce any more nasty matter into the cosmos—”their communion [is] even more complete, than that which comes of bringing children up, because they have created something lovelier and less mortal than human seed.”6
With the ascent of Christianity and its love of creation and its divine condemnations of sodomy, we find a natural and welcome tension developing in the medieval period between Greek thought and Christianity. Both are intertwined, but slowly Christianity sheds much of the Platonism that had been tacked onto it by some of the fathers. And we find the growing literary and philosophical pursuit of women taking prominence. But the pursuit is still a little strained; unashamed philosophical love for women hasn’t taken command yet among the literary-philosophical types (though it was robust among real people). So we find such halfway notions as “courtly love,” where a man can unashamedly pursue a woman (contrary to the Platonists), but only as an ideal. Dante’s love for the flesh-and-blood Beatrice, even in his later maturity, remains an ideal, just south of the virgin Mary. The remnants of Platonism make a very comfortable place for the ideal of virginity. Yet the fact that Dante loves a woman is a wonderful sign of Christian progress.
But it would take the struggle of the Reformation to complete Dante’s path. Roman Catholics at the time of the Reformation were noted for such claims as: “For there is no service in the world more pleasing to God, no way of life more loved by him, than total virginity of body and mind.”7 A common sort of Protestant reply was given by Kettenback, a Franciscan convert during the Reformation, “You [papists] say, `Marriage is a sacrament,’ but then you go on to reckon the spiritual fruit of virginity to be a hundredfold, that of widowhood sixtyfold, and that of marriage thirtyfold. . . . I reckon the spiritual fruit of marriage to be a hundredfold, that of monks and nuns [the equivalent of] three ripe pears.”8
One of the best and most positive statements of the Christian drive to love real women comes from a Puritan-sort, John Milton. He takes to task both the Courtly-lovers and pious-Platonists, preferring a good, Protestant love for a real, womanly body and mind. He has no place for the fictions of courtly love: “Here Love his gold shaft employs. . . . not in the bought smile / Of Harlots, loveless, joyless, unendeared,/ Casual fruition, nor in Court Amours / Mixt Dance, or wanton Masque, or Midnight Ball,/ Or Serenade, which the starv’d Lover sings.”9 And he gives no place to those Christians compromised with Platonic idealizations of virginity: “Whatever Hypocrites austerely talk / Of purity and place and innocence, / Defaming as impure what God declares / Pure, and commands to some, leaves free to all. . . . / Hail to wedded love, . . . / Founded in Reason, Loyal, Just, and Pure, / Far be it, that I should write thee sin or blame, / Or think thee unbefitting holiest place, / Perpetual Fountain of Domestic sweet, / Whose bed undefil’d and chaste pronounc’t”10
So we can indeed hail the Puritans for giving us sexual liberation. And when next you embrace your naked spouse unashamedly, remember the great strides you mark in the long millennial, antithetical struggle for loving a real woman—oh, the joys of Christian apologetics!