Start Volgende




In 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”: 

“Pupils are transferred to the school of rhetoric when they are practically grown up, and they continue there when they are young men; accordingly, we must at this stage exercise even greater care that the stainless character of the teacher may preserve their more tender years from harm and that the weight of his authority may deter their bolder age from excess”. 

The teacher must therefore 

“adopt the attitude of a parent toward his pupils and consider that he is taking the place of those who entrust their children to him” . 

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 discussion.  

Three important texts remain nevertheless: 

Plutarch’s dialogue on love, 

the later dialogue attributed to Lucian, and 

the four lectures by Maximus of Tyre on Socratic love. 


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: 

the love that is fine and just and 

the love that is not. 


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. 

In terms of the qualities that belong to each: 

the first comprises virtue, friendship, modesty, candour, stability; 

the second comprises excess, hatred, immodesty, infidelity. 

In terms of the ways of being that characterise them: 

the one is Hellenic and virile; 

the other is effimate and barbaric. 

And lastly, in terms of the behaviours in which they are manifested: 

with the first, the lover takes care of the beloved, accompanies him to the gymnasium, goes hunting with him, into battle with him; he will be with him in death; and it is not in darkness or solitude that he seeks his company; 

with the second, on the other hand, the lover flees the sun, seeks darkness and solitude, and avoids being seen with the one he 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: 

the relation with boys and 

the relation with women (and more specifically the relation that one may have with one’s lawful wife in the context of marriage). 


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. 


The 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.  

Plutarch’s 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.



  Start Volgende