Plutarch's Dialogue on Love opens and closes under the sign of marriage. Shortly after their wedding, Plutarch has come with his wife on a pilgrimage to Thespiae. They wish to offer a sacrifice to the god and to ask him to bless this union, which a quarrel between their families has placed under unfavourable auspices.
On arriving at their host's, they find themselves in the midst of a minor commotion: Should the young Bacchon, a coveted ephebe, marry the woman who is pursuing him? Debate, turn of events, abduction. The dialogue ends with everyone preparing to form a procession for this new married couple and to offer a sacrifice to the benevolent god. The dialogue unfolds between one marriage and the other.
It also unfolds under the sign of Eros, during the time of the Erotidia, the holidays that were celebrated at Thespiae every four years, “in honour of Eros as well as the Muses.” He is the god whom Plutarch was anxious to ask for protection for his marriage. He is also the god who will be invoked for the contested marriage of Bacchon with Ismenodora, for it seems that he “approves and is graciously present at this affair”.
Meanwhile, Plutarch will have had time to sing a long eulogy of Eros, of his divinity, of his antiquity, of his power, of his good works, of the force by which he elevates and attracts souls. In this way Plutarch will have contributed to the worship of the god who is being celebrated throughout the festive city.
Eros and Gamos, the strength of love and the marriage bond in their mutual relations: such is the theme of the dialogue. The purpose of the religious rites that serve as its background is clear: that the power of Eros, invoked for the protection of the couple, may triumph over the misunderstanding of families; that he may appease dissensions between friends and ensure the happiness of conjugal lives.
The theoretical aim of the debate is in harmony with this devotional practice. It will provide the rational justification for the latter: to show that the conjugal relationship, more than any other, is capable of accommodating the force of love, and that, among humans, love has its privileged place in the couple.
The pretext for the conversation and the external peripeteia that give rise to its successive developments are recounted in a solemn and ironic fashion. A “pathetic” situation has arisen, which “merely wants a chorus to sympathize and lacks a stage, for no other element of drama is wanting”.
In reality, what has transpired is a little comic episode. Bacchon, the desirable adolescent -- he is handsome and virtuous -- is pursued by an erastes but also by a widow, who is much older than he. She had been commissioned to find a suitable wife for him, but she didn't find anyone better than herself. She tries to seduce the boy, chases after him, abducts him, already organizes the wedding under the nose of his male lover, who is furious, then resigned.
The dialogue begins when the plans of the formidable widow are already known, but before she has carried out her coup de force. The boy is therefore still torn between the two suitors. He doesn't know which path to choose. As he has entrusted the decision to his elders, the latter will deliberate on the matter.
The debate thus takes place between the advocates of the love of boys, Protogenes and Pisias, and two advocates of the love of women, Anthemion and Daphnaeus. It unfolds in front of Plutarch, who soon abandons the role of witness, takes charge of the discussion, and leads it in the direction of a general theory of love.
The first champions of the two loves having disappeared by then, his interlocutors and adversaries will be Pemptides and especially Zeuxippus, who have a materialistic conception of marriage and an aggressively critical idea which Plutarch will need to answer.
Here we touch on one of the notable features of the dialogue. It starts from the traditional schema -- be it in the mythical figures or in the moral casuistry -- of the crossroads. There are two paths: Which does one choose, that of love for boys or that of love for women? Now, in actual fact the debate does not exactly raise this problem.
Whereas in the Platonic texts the noble, masculine Eros is contrasted with the facile, multiple, physical, “pandemian” Eros (which, clearly, is the love that can be practiced with boys and with girls outside marriage), in Plutarch the choice is between boys on the one hand and marriage on the other, as if it were in the latter that the relationship with women is fulfilled.
Another distinctive element in Plutarch's dialogue is the personage of the woman who is pursuing the boy. All the traits that characterize her are significant.
This kind of situation was not unusual in Greece - both because of the scarcity of women and because of the strategy of marriages. But people nevertheless felt a certain reticence with regard to this kind of union. The younger and poorer husband was in a somewhat awkward position with respect to his wife, seeing that the pre-eminence of the husband was statutory in marital relations.
Moreover, one finds numerous remarks concerning these drawbacks. Plutarch, in the Life of Solon, advises the magistrate who discovers a young man zealously attending an old woman, “like a cock-partridge in her service,” to have him removed to the house of a young woman in need of a husband.
Nor will Pisias fail to recall these habitual fears to the advocates of Bacchon's marriage. Without being totally exceptional, this was a paradoxical and dangerous union, where the interests of one party and the appetites of the other were too salient for it to hold the promise of a happy and reasonable existence.
What Bacchon sees himself being offered -- in opposition to pederastic love -- is therefore not the best but the least good of all possible marriages. The value of the discussion that will justify it and of the outcome that will see it triumph will be only increased by this fact.
But still another paradoxical trait should be noted. Ismenodora, the passionate widow, is a woman full of good qualities: she is virtuous, she leads a “life of decorum”. She commands the respect of public opinion. There has never been “a word of censure” concerning her. Never “did any hint of wrongdoing leave a stain on her house.”.
Yet she has shamelessly set out in pursuit of the boy. He had been entrusted to her so that she might promote his marriage; but after hearing so many good things said about him, after seeing his beauty and his qualities with her own eyes, she loves him in turn. What is more, she chases after him. Being unable to accompany him to the gymnasium, she watches for him when he returns. And with the collusion of some friends, she “kidnaps” him.
We know that such “kidnappings” - in part “real”, in part arranged also - were a frequent element if not in reality itself, at least, certainly, in pederastic literature. Many mythical and historical narratives revolve around one of these episodes of violence. The Love Stories attributed to Plutarch and those Lectures of Maximus of Tyre that are devoted to Socratic love make reference to them.
If a person as virtuous as Ismenodora gives way to such an assault, this is because she has been possessed by “some divine impulse, more powerful than human reason”. Now all these traits
are easily recognizable. They are those which characterize the lover of boys in the traditional pederastic model.
Ismenodora, in Plutarch's description, is exactly in the position of the erastes. So that, in essence, Bacchon does not really have to choose between two fundamentally different forms of love - the love that can develop between a gifted young man and an older man who is interested in the beauty of his friend, and the love that can be established between a husband and a wife with a view to managing an estate and rearing children - but between two forms of the same love, the only difference being that in one case it is love of a man and in the other, love of a woman.
Plutarch makes it quite clear, in one of his statements in favour of the marriage with Ismenodora, that the same type of relationship is involved. No one, he says, can do without authority, or be perfect by himself; “the ephebe is ruled by the gymnasiarch, the young man by the erastes, the adult by the law and by the strategus."
Since this is so, what is there dreadful about a sensible older woman piloting the life of her young husband? She will be useful because of her superior understanding (toi phronein mallon); she will be sweet and affectionate (toi philein) because she loves him.
One sees two movements running beneath Plutarch's dialogue.
The objective of the entire debate is clearly visible in the little drama that underlies the vicissitudes of the dialogue: what is wanted is to form a conception of a single love. This conception will not reject the characteristic values of pederastic love. Instead, it will include them in a broader, more complete form, which ultimately only the relationship with women, and more precisely with the wife, will be able to put into practice.
One is tempted to see in this dialogue by Plutarch one of the numerous rhetorical contests that staged an encounter, with a winner declared at the end, between the love of women and the love of boys. Viewed in this way, it can pass for one of the most fervent pleas in favour of conjugal affection and the pleasures of marriage. It is legitimate to place it alongside the Stoic treatises on marriage. It has many themes and formulations in common with them.
But we are dealing, in this text, with something quite different from an argumentation in favour of marriage and against pederasty. We can see in it the first shape of an important change in the old erotics. This transformation can be summed up briefly: whereas scarcely any discontinuity, impassable boundary, or important difference of values was recognized in the practice of the aphrodisia, in return the elaboration of the erotics was clearly dualistic.
This dualism was, moreover, double and, in itself, rather complex.
Furthermore, these two dualisms tended to overlap, since it was held that “true” love for boys could only be a pure love, a love free of the vulgar pursuit of the aphrodisia
A continuous domain of the aphrodisia, and an erotics with a binary structure: it is this configuration that begins to be reversed here.
Plutarch's Dialogue may bear witness to a movement that will not actually be completed until much later, when an absolutely unitary conception of love will be constructed, while the practice of pleasure will be divided by a strict boundary: the one that separates the conjoining of one sex with the other and relations within the same sex.
It is roughly this order of things which is still ours today, solidified as it is by a unitary conception of sexuality, which enables one to delimit strictly the dimorphism of relations and the differential structure of desire. In Plutarch's Dialogue, one sees the effort to constitute a unitary erotics, very clearly organized on the model of the man-woman, and even husband-wife, relationship.
In comparison with this single love
the pederastic attachment will in fact be disqualified, but without a rigid line of demarcation being drawn, as it will be later, between “homo-” and “heterosexual” acts. The whole burden of the text bears on this unification of erotics. The latter is carried out through a critical discussion (that of “dualism”), through the working out of a unitary theory (that of love), and through the bringing into play of a fundamental concept (that of charis, grace).
The exposition and criticism of the traditional “dualism” can be quickly summarized. This dualism is of course defended by the partisans of the love of boys. Moreover, Protogenes and Pisias will very soon leave the stage -- as soon as one learns of Bacchon's abduction. They were there long enough to celebrate differential erotics one last time.
According to this erotics, the love of boys is both different from the attraction to women and superior to it, for two reasons:
The advocates of the love of boys do refer briefly to the frequent argument that contrasts everything that is artificial about women (adornments and perfumes for some; razors, philters, and makeup for the most shameless) with the naturalness of the boys one sees at the palestrae.
But their main argument against love for women is that it is nothing more than a natural inclination. In reality, it is nature, says Protogenes, that has placed an appetite (orexis) in us that draws the two sexes to each other. Indeed, it was necessary that we be induced to procreate, just as we are prompted to feed ourselves. But it is clear that this same type of appetite is found in flies for milk and in bees for honey. It will be found, too, in cooks for their fowls and their calves.
Protogenes would not think to give the name “Love” to all these “appetites”. The naturalness of the attraction to the other sex obviously does not condemn the indispensable practice that brings men into union with women. But it restricts the value of this practice to that of a behaviour found everywhere in the animal world, a behaviour whose reason for being is basic necessity.
The natural character of relations with women is put forward by Protogenes in order to underscore its defectiveness and to show how it differs from a love of boys, which scorns such necessities and aims much higher. Actually he does not explain what he understands by this love that is beyond nature. It is Plutarch who will take up these Platonic themes, but only to integrate them, against the apologists of boys, into a unitary conception of love.
The other difference is marked by the role of pleasure. The fondness for women cannot be detached from pleasure. The love for boys, on the contrary, does not truly accord with its own essence unless it frees itself of pleasure. The argumentation used by Protogenes and Pisias in support of this principle is Stoic, if anything. They observe that intercourse with women was indeed designed by nature for the conservation of the species. But things were arranged in such a way that pleasure is associated with this act. For this reason, the appetite and the impulse (orexis, horme) that induce us to perform it are always apt to become violent and unrestrained; in this case, they are transformed into desire (epithumia).
Thus we are led in two ways toward that natural object which a woman constitutes:
It is clear that neither the one nor the other can be love in its true form: not the first, because it is common to all the animals; not the second, because it exceeds reasonable limits and attaches the soul to sensual pleasures.
It is only logical, then, to rule out the very possibility of Eros in relations between men and women. “True love has nothing to do with the women's quarters”, says Protogenes in a turn of phrase that is given two meanings by the adherents of boys:
Hence there is only one true love, the love of boys, because unworthy pleasures are absent from it and because it necessarily implies a friendship that is indissociable from virtue. If, moreover, the erastes finds that his love does not give rise to friendship and virtue in the other, then he abjures his attention and his fidelity.
To this traditional line of argument, there will be an expected reply: Daphnaeus' denunciation of pederastic hypocrisy. As if a tearful Achilles had not evoked the thighs of Patroclus, as if Solon, apropos of boys in the flower of their youth, had not praised “the sweetness of their thighs and their lips,” the fancier of boys likes to pose as a philosopher and a sage. But undoubtedly he waits only for an opportunity. At night when all is quiet, “sweet is the harvest when the guard is away.”
One sees the dilemma: either the aphrodisia are incompatible with friendship and love, and in this case the lovers of boys who enjoy in secret the bodies they desire have fallen from the heights of love; or one admits that sensual pleasures have a place in friendship and love, and so there is no reason to exclude from the latter relationships with women.
But Daphnaeus does not stop there. He also recalls the other great disjunction, which was often cited as an objection to the conduct of lovers and to the pleasure they tried to take: if the eromenos is virtuous, one cannot obtain this pleasure except by subjecting him to violence; and if he consents, one has to recognize that one is consorting with an effeminate. Hence the primary model of all love is not to be sought in the fondness for boys.
The latter should be thought of, rather, as “one come late and untimely to the world, illegitimate and ill-favoured, [who] drives out the legitimate and older love”; unless, as Daphnaeus suggests, the fondness for boys and the fondness for women are basically one and the same thing.
But the real working out of the general theory of love is done after the departure of the first adversaries and outside their presence -- as if it were necessary, in order to reach the main object of the debate, to take leave of this familiar confrontation. Up to this point, remarks Pemptides, the debate has focused on personal questions; it needs to be directed toward general themes.
The central part of the dialogue consists of a eulogy of Love in the traditional manner of praising a god; his truly divine nature is thereby established. Here Plutarch opposes the Epicurean-inspired argument outlined by Pemptides, according to which the gods are nothing more than our passions; and he shows that the Love that takes possession of us is the effect of a necessarily divine power.
This power is compared to that of the other gods, an important passage because it shows how Eros is a necessary complement of Aphrodite. Without him, the work of Aphrodite would be nothing more than the pleasure of the senses and could be bought for a drachma. Contrary to what people say, he is also stronger and more courageous than Ares: it is out of mutual love that lovers, in battle, throw themselves on the enemy, fighting boldly to their death rather than fleeing in shame.
Plutarch describes his action on men's souls, which he renders
Finally, the eulogy ends with a reference to Egyptian myths and an exposition of the Platonic theory. The remarkable thing about this eulogy is that all the elements stem from the traditional erotics of pederasty. Most of the cases are borrowed from the love of boys or from the example of Sappho (Alcestis and Admetus form almost the only exception). And in fact it is as the god of boy love that Eros appears in the praises addressed to him.
Yet these praises are sung by Plutarch, who calls himself at the same time “a chorist of freminine love.” He intends to illustrate the general proposition advanced by Daphnaeus:
This seems to be the essential business of the dialogue.
The little drama of the “pederastic” kidnapping of Bacchon by Ismenodora merely serves as its immediate context and illustration. Everything that the erotics of boys was able to claim as properly belonging to that form of love (in opposition to the false love for women) will be re-utilised here, without anything from the great pederastic tradition being overlooked - on the contrary. But it will be used as a general form capable of subsuming both loves. In particular, it will be applied not only to the fondness for women, but to the conjugal relationship itself.
After a speech by Zeuxippus - which the manuscripts have not passed down to us and which is supposed to have criticized conjugal love, not on behalf of pederasty, but in Epicurean terms - Plutarch speaks again in order to establish three essential points.
First, he observes that if Love is indeed what he is said to be, he will make his presence, his power, and his actions felt in relations between the two sexes as well as in relations with boys.
Let us assume for a moment that the Epicurean argument is correct: the images which emanate from the loved body, which are conveyed to the eyes of the one who loves, which enter into his body, fill it with emotion and agitate it to the point where sperm is formed - there is no reason why this mechanism should be set in motion by boys and not by women.
On the other hand, suppose that we accept the Platonic argument toward which Plutarch inclines: if “through the freshness and grace of a body” one perceives the beauty of a soul, and the latter, recalling the heavenly spectacle, gives wings to our soul, why would the difference between the sexes matter here, where it is only a question of “beauty” and “natural excellence”?
Plutarch shows that this element of virtue, arete, by which the traditional erotics of boys marked one of its important differences from the fondness for women, transcends any difference of sex:
As for the friendship that the pederasts wish to reserve exclusively for the love of boys, Plutarch shows that it can also characterize the relationship of a man with a woman, or at least with his wife (this specification is obviously crucial). It is conjugality and it alone that engenders the form of friendship in the relationship between the sexes.
Plutarch evokes this conjugality briefly here, in a few strokes reminiscent of the Marriage Precept.
It is concerning this last point that the transposition of the theory of Eros to the practice of married life is most interesting, for it suggests an idea of the high value of marriage very different from that found in the Stoics.
As a matter of fact, against the moderation that “comes from without,” which is nothing but obedience to laws and is imposed by shame and fear, Plutarch opposes the moderation that is the effect of Eros: it is Eros in fact, when he inflames the two spouses for one another, who teaches “self control, decorum, and mutual trust.” Into the amorous soul of the husband and the wife, he introduces “modesty, silence, calm”; he bestows “a reserved manner” on them and makes them “attentive to a single being.”
It is easy to recognize in this sketch the characteristics of the pederastic Eros, the bringer of virtue and measure to the souls of lovers, the source, in the more perfect beings like Socrates, of that self restraint which made him hold his silence and keep control of his desires in the presence of those he loved. Plutarch transposes to the married couple the traits that had long been reserved for the philia of lovers of the same sex.
However, the elaboration of a general theory of love, equally valid for the relationship with women and the relationship with boys, is skewed: Plutarch has not gone, as Anthemion asked him to do and as he claimed to be doing, from a particular love to a more general love. He has borrowed from the erotics of boys its fundamental and traditional features in order to demonstrate that they can be applied, not to all forms of love, but to the conjugal relationship alone.
Such is in fact the ultimate goal of the dialogue: to show that this single chain of love, which can find its perfect realization in marriage, cannot be accommodated, at least not in its complete form, in the relationship with boys. While this reltionship, with its traditional values, has been able to serve as a support and model for the general conception of love, it finds itself, in the last analysis, invalidated and fallen into disfavour: an imperfect love when one compares it with that of husband and wife.
Where does Plutarch have this imperfection reside?
So long as one had a dualistic erotics that distinguished true love (true because it was pure) from false, delusive love (false because it was physical), the absence of the aphrodisia was not merely possible, it was necessary if this was to be made the love relation par excellence.
But the elaboration of a general erotics, linking Eros and Aphrodite closely together, changes the terms of the problem. The elision of the aphrodisia, ceasing to be a precondition, becomes an obstacle. Plutarch says this explicitly: if Aphrodite without Eros offers only a momentary pleasure that can be purchased for a few drachmas, Eros without Aphrodite, when physical pleasure is lacking, is no less imperfect. A love without Aphrodite is
Now, can the love of a boy find a place for the aphrodisia?
We know the argument (here Plutarch repeats the argument put forward by Daphnaeus). Either sexual relations will be imposed through violence and the individual who undergoes them will feel only anger, hatred, and desire for revenge. Or they will be consented to by an individual who, because of his “softness,” his “femininity,” “enjoys being passive” (hedomenos toi paschein), which is a “shameful,” “unnatural” thing, and which reduces him to the lowest condition.
Plutarch has gone back to the “dilemma of the eromenos”: compelled, he feels hatred, and consenting, he becomes an object of contempt. The traditional adversaries of pederasty let it go at that. But Plutarch's analysis goes further, attempting to define what is lacking in the love of boys, what prevents it from being, like conjugal love, a harmonious mixture of Eros and Aphrodite, in which the bond between souls is associated with physical pleasure.
Plutarch designates this deficiency with one word: the love of boys is acharistos. The word charis which appears several times in the course of the dialogue, seems to be one of the keys to Plutarch's reflection. It is introduced with a good deal of solemnity at the beginning of the text, before the formulation of the great theory of a single love.
Daphnaeus is the first to use it, as an “overpowering” argument in favour of his thesis: the love of women is special, he says, in that through the practice of such sexual relations as nature has established, it can lead to friendship (eis philian) by way of charis. And Daphnaeus attaches so much importance to this term that he immediately undertakes to define it and to give it a few great poetic sponsors: charis is the consent that a woman willingly grants to a man, a consent that can appear only with nubility, according to Sappho, and the absence of which can result, according to Pindar, in ungraceful births; thus Hephaestus was born from Hera “aneu charito.”.*
The role that is assigned to this acquiescence is clear: to integrate sexual relations, with their two naturally defined poles of activity and passivity, into reciprocal relations of kindness and to bring physical pleasure into friendship.
After this preliminary presentation, and once the unitary doctrine of love is established, the question of charis becomes preponderant at the end of the dialogue. It will serve as a discriminant between the love of women and the love of boys, only the former being able to engender that complete form in which are joined, owing to the gentleness of consent, the pleasure of Aphrodite and the virtue of friendship.
Now Plutarch does not conceive of this junction simply as a tolerance that could concede, in the conjugal relationship, a more or less utilitarian place (e.g., for procreation) to sexual acts. On the contrary, he makes the latter the starting point of the whole relation of affection that should animate the relationship. Physical pleasure, precisely insofar as the gentleness of consent excludes everything in the way of violence, deceit, or base compliance, can be at the very origin of the affectionate reciprocities that marriage requires:
Sensual pleasure is a small matter (this is even a traditional expression among the enemies of physical pleasure); but, Plutarch immediately adds,
To this fundamental role and this germinative function of physical pleasure, Plutarch gives a solemn historical sanction. He finds it in the legislation by Solon, which prescribed that husbands must have intercourse with their wives “not less than three times a month.” In The Life of Solon, he also referred to this law, pointing out that it applied only to the marriage of heiress girls. The reason for it was the need for offspring to whom one could leave the estate.
But, Plutarch added, this was not the only reason: for this regular intercourse, even when
To this role of sexual intercourse as an inducement to regular intimacy and a guarantee of good understanding, Plutarch, in the Dialogue on Love, lends an even more solemn formulation. He makes it a way to put new life into the conjugal relationship, similar to the way in which one renews an agreement:
Sexual pleasure is therefore at the heart of the matrimonial relation as a source and a token of the relationship of love and friendship. It founds the relationship, or in any case, reaffirms it as a covenant of existence. And if Plutarch acknowledges that the sexual relations at the beginning of marriage may be “wounding” to the wife, he also explains how this very “bite” is necessary for the formation of a vital, solid, and durable conjugal unity.
He resorts to three metaphors:
A certain suffering, agitation, and disorder are inevitable at the beginning of conjugal relations; but this is the necessary condition for a new, stable unity to be formed. And Plutarch thus arrives at the basic formulation:
The statement is important given that in every love relation, the traditional erotics laid strong emphasis on the polarity of the lover and the beloved and on the necessary dissymmetry between them. Here it is the double activity of loving, by the husband and the wife, that forms the essential element. And for reasons that are easily determined. This double activity of loving is a source of reciprocity. It is because each of the two spouses loves the other that they consent to receive the tokens of the other's love, that they like to be loved. The activity therefore is a source of faithfulness as well, since each of the two can take the love they feel for the other as a guide for their conduct and a reason for limiting their desires.
This union owes its value and its stability to the schema of a double love in which each partner is, from the standpoint of Eros, always an active subject. Owing to this reciprocity in the act of loving, sexual relations can have their place in the form of mutual affection and consent.
In terms of this relational model, pederasty can only be inadequate in view of the strongly marked difference between the erastes and the eromenos, the dilemma of passivity, and the necessary fragility that is due to the age factor. It lacks the double and symmetrical activity of loving, hence it lacks the internal regulation and the stability of the couple. It is wanting in that “grace” which makes it possible for the aphrodisia to be combined with friendship in order to constitute the complete and perfect form of Eros. Pederasty, Plutarch might say, is a love that lacks “grace.”
Plutarch's text testifies to the formation of an erotics that, on certain essential points, differs from the erotics Greek civilization had known and developed. It is not entirely different, since, as the great central passage devoted to the eulogy of Eros shows, the traditional notions continue to play an essential role.
But this Platonizing erotics is used by Plutarch to produce effects different from those with which it was usually associated. For a long time it had served to mark the existence of two distinct and antithetical loves
but also to re-establish between them a kind of unity since only the second was considered genuine, the other being only its earthly shadow and simulacrum.
Plutarch brings these same Platonic notions into play in an erotics that seeks to form a single Eros capable of accounting for the love of women and the love of boys, and to integrate the aphrodisia into it. But in the interests of such a unity, this erotics ultimately excludes the love of boys, for it lacks charis.
Starting from a dualistic erotics traversed by the question of truth and semblance, and
intended essentially to provide a rational foundation for the love of boys, but at the cost of an elision of the
aphrodisia, one sees, in Plutarch, a new stylistics of love being formed. It is monistic in that it includes the
aphrodisia, but it makes this inclusion a criterion allowing it to keep only conjugal love and to
exclude relations with boys because of the deficiency that characterizes them. There can no longer be a place for them in this great unitary and integrative chain in which love is revitalized by the reciprocity of pleasure.