whole corpus of moral reflection on sexual activity and its pleasures seems to
mark, in the first centuries of our era, a certain strengthening of austerity
themes. Physicians worry about the effects of sexual practice, unhesitatingly
recommend abstention, and declare a preference for virginity over the use of
pleasure. Philosophers condemn any sexual relation that might take place outside
marriage and prescribe a strict fidelity between spouses, admitting no
exceptions. Furthermore, a certain doctrinal disqualification seems to bear on
the love for boys.
this mean that one must recognize, in the schema thus constituted, the
lineaments of a future ethics, the ethics that one will find in Christianity,
when the sexual act itself will be considered an evil, when it will no longer be
granted legitimacy except within the conjugal relationship, and when the love
of boys will be condemned as unnatural? Must one suppose that certain
thinkers, in the Greco-Roman world, already had a presentiment of this model of
sexual austerity which, in Christian societies, will be given a legal framework
and an institutional support? One would thus find, formulated by a few austere
philosophers isolated in the midst of a world that did not itself appear to be
austere, the outline of a new ethics, destined, in the following centuries, to
take more stringent forms and to gain a more general validity.
The question is important, and it has a long tradition behind it.
Since the Renaissance, it has laid down, in Catholicism and Protestantism alike, relatively similar dividing lines.
The point at issue, however, was not just to bring certain of the ancient philosophers within the bounds of the Christian faith or to preserve the latter from any pagan contamination; the problem was also to determine what foundation to give to an ethics whose prescriptive elements seemed to be shared, up to a point, by Greco-Roman philosophy and the Christian religion.
The debate that developed at the end of the nineteenth century is not unconnected with this problematic either, even if it sets up an interference with problems of historical method.
Zahn, in his famous address,
did not try to make a Christian of Epictetus, but to call attention to the signs
of a knowledge of Christianity and to the traces of its influence.
But it was also a matter of knowing where to look for the basis of the moral imperative and whether it was possible to detach Christianity from a certain type of ethics that had long been associated with it.
Now, in this debate it seems that the participants granted, in a relatively confused way, three presuppositions:
It is hardly possible, however, to let the matter remain there.
One has to bear in mind, first, that the principles of sexual austerity were not defined for the first time in the philosophy of the imperial epoch. We have encountered in Greek thought of the fourth century B.C. formulations that were not much less demanding. After all, as we have seen, the sexual act appears to have been regarded for a very long time as dangerous, difficult to master, and costly; a precise calculation of its acceptable practice and its inclusion in a careful regimen had been required for quite some time.
Plato, Isocrates, and Aristotle recommended, each in his own way, at least some forms of conjugal fidelity. And the love of boys could be held in the highest esteem. But the practice of abstention was demanded of it as well, so that it might preserve the spiritual value expected of it.
Hence a very long time had passed during which concern for the body and for health, the relation to wives and to marriage, and the relationship with boys had been motifs for the elaboration of a severe ethics. And in a certain way, the sexual austerity that one encounters in the philosophers of the first centuries of our era has its roots in this ancient tradition.
It is true that one should not ignore the carefully maintained
continuity and the conscious reactivation evident in this thought of the first
centuries, so manifestly haunted by classical culture. Hellenistic philosophy
and ethics experienced what Henri Marrou called “a long summer”. But the
fact remains that several modifications are perceptible: they prevent one from
considering the moral philosophy of Musonius or that of Plutarch simply as the
accentuation of the lessons of Xenophon, Plato, Isocrates, or Aristotle; they
also prevent one from considering the recommendations of Soranus or Rufus of
Ephesus as variations on the principles of Hippocrates or Diocles.
As concerns dietetics and the problematization of health, the change is marked by
And this is not just a greater preoccupation with the body; it is also a different way of thinking about sexual activity, and of fearing it because of its many connections with disease and with evil. With regard to wives and to the problematization of marriage, the modification mainly concerns the valorization of the conjugal bond and the dual relation that constitutes it; the husband's right conduct and the moderation he needs to enjoin on himself are not justified merely by considerations of status, but by the nature of the relationship, its universal form and the mutual obligations that derive from it.
Finally, as regards boys,
the need for abstinence is less and less perceived as a way of giving the
highest spiritual values to the forms of love, and more and more as the sign of
an imperfection that is specific to sexual activity.
Now, in these modifications of pre-existing themes one can see the development of an art of existence dominated by self-preoccupation. This art of the self no longer focuses so much on the excesses that one can indulge in and that need to be mastered in order to exercise one's domination over others.
It is not the accentuation of the forms of prohibition that is behind these modifications in sexual ethics. It is the development
And it is in this context that a dual phenomenon, characteristic of this ethics of pleasure, occurs.
On the one hand, a more active attention to sexual practice is required, an attention to its effects on the organism, to its place and function within marriage, to its value and its difficulties in the relationship with boys. Hut at the same time as one dwells on it, and as the interest that one brings to bear on it is intensified, it increasingly appears to be dangerous and capable of compromising the relation with oneself that one is trying to establish.
It seems more and more necessary to distrust it, to confine it, insofar as possible, to marital relations -- even at the cost of charging it with more intense meanings within that conjugal relationship.
Problematization and apprehension go hand in hand; inquiry is joined to vigilance. A certain style of sexual conduct is thus suggested by this whole movement of moral, medical, and philosophical reflection. It is different from the style that had been delineated in the fourth century, but it is also different from the one that will be found in Christianity.
Here sexual activity is linked to evil by its
form and its effects, but in itself and substantially, it is not an evil. It
finds its natural fulfillment in marriage, but - with certain exceptions -
marriage is not an express, indispensable condition for it to cease being an
evil. It has trouble finding its place in the love of boys, but the latter is
not therefore condemned as being contrary to nature.
Thus, as the arts of living and the care of the self are refined, some precepts emerge that seem to be rather similar to those that will be formulated in the later moral systems. But one should not be misled by the analogy.
Those moral systems will define other modalities of the relation to self:
The code elements that concern the economy of pleasures, conjugal fidelity, and relations between men may well remain analogous, but they will derive from a profoundly altered ethics and from a different way of constituting oneself as the ethical subject of one's sexual behaviour.