the first centuries of our era, compared with the lofty formulations of the
classical period, reflection on the love of boys lost some of its intensity, its
seriousness, its vitality, if not its topicality. Where it appears, it has a
facile, repetitive sound. Playing on ancient themes, often those of Platonism,
it participates in the reactivation of classical culture, but in a dull way.
Even when philosophy tries to restore to the figure of Socrates some of its
former prestige, the love of boys, with the problems it poses, does not
constitute an active and vital focus of reflection (the four speeches of Maximus
of Tyre cannot furnish an argument to the contrary).
This does not mean that the practice disappeared or that it became the object of a disqualification. All the texts plainly show that it was still common and still regarded as a natural thing. What seems to have changed is not the taste for boys, or the value judgement that was brought to bear on those who had this partiality, but the way in one questioned oneself about it. An obsolescence not of the thing in itself, but of the problem; a decline in the interest one took in it; a fading of the importance it was granted in philosophical and moral debate.
There are no doubt many reasons for this “deproblematization”.
Certain of them can be traced to the influence of Roman culture. It is not that the Romans were more insensitive than the Greeks to this sort of pleasure, but the difficult question of boys as objects of pleasure was posed, in the context of their institutions, with less acuity than in the Greek city.
In the first place, children of good birth were “protected” by parental right and by public laws. Fathers were determined that the power they exercised over their sons would be respected; and the famous Lex Scantinia, which, as Boswell has shown, did not prohibit homosexuality, defended the free adolescent from abuse an violence.
Second, and doubtless by way of a consequence, love for boys
was practiced for the most part with young slaves, about whose status there was
no reason to worry. “In Rome the freeborn ephebe was replaced by the slave,”
says Paul Veyne. Hellenised though it was, and saturated with philosophy, Rome,
whose poets were so fond of singing of adolescents, offered few echoes of the
great speculation of the Greeks on the love of boys.
Further, the forms taken by pedagogical practice and its modes of institutionalisation made it much more difficult to valorise the relationship with adolescents in terms of educational efficiency. When Quintilian speaks of the moment when a boy should be entrusted to the rhetoric teacher, he emphasises the need to make sure of the latter’s “morals”:
The teacher must therefore
In a more general way, a certain lessening of the
importance of personal relations of philia, together with the
valorisation of marriage, no doubt had much to do with the fact that the love
relation between men ceased to be the focus of an intense theoretical and moral
Three important texts remain nevertheless:
We can leave aside this last text: not because of its rhetorical and artificial character – Pseudo-Lucian’s Affairs of the Heart are scarcely less so, and the reactivation of ancient themes in academic exercises was a feature characteristic of the epoch. But the text by Maximus of Tyre is essentially devoted – this is what constitutes its traditionalism – to the distinction and comparison, in male relations, between two sorts of love:
Conforming to the Socratic tradition, Maximus of Tyre has this distinction coincide with the opposition between true love and the love that is only a simulation. Starting from this point, he develops a systematic and traditional comparison of the two loves.
Plutarch’s and Pseudo-Lucian’s dialogues on love are constructed quite differently. Their erotics is also binary and comparative: it is still a matter of distinguishing two forms of love and contrasting their value. But this time, instead of operating within an Eros that is dominated, if not entirely represented by masculine love, in order to isolate two morally unequal forms of the latter, the comparison starts from two forms of relations that are naturally distinct:
It is to these two distinct forms that the questions of value, beauty, and moral superiority will be directed. This will have various consequences, which will modify the question of erotics considerably: love for women and, particularly, marriage will belong indisputably to the domain of Eros and its problematisation. The latter will not rest on the natural opposition between love for one’s own sex and love for the other sex.
Finally, the ethical valorisation of love will
no longer be able to be carried out through the elision of physical pleasure.
This is a paradox: it was around the question of pleasure that reflection on pederasty developed in Greek antiquity; it is around this same question that it will go into decline. Marriage, as an individual tie capable of integrating relations of pleasure and of giving them a positive value, will constitute the most active focus for defining a stylistics of moral life.
The love of boys will not become a doomed figure for all that. It will find many other ways for expressing itself in poetry and art. But it will undergo a kind of philosophical “disinvestment”. When it is examined, instead of asking it to reveal one of the highest possible forms of love, one will criticise it for a radical inadequacy, for its inability to accommodate relations of pleasure.
difficulty of accounting for the relations between this form of love and the use
of the aphrodisia had long been the cause for its philosophical
valorisation. Now the difficulty becomes the reason for seeing it as a taste, a
practice, a preference, which may have their tradition, but which are incapable
of defining a style of living, an aesthetics of behaviour, and a whole modality
of relation to oneself, to others, and to truth.
dialogue and that of Pseudo-Lucian attest both to the legitimacy that is still
granted to the love of boys and to its increasing decline as a vital theme of
the stylistics of existence.