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18: Sex Love and Marriage in Pagan Philosophy and the Use of Catharsis

PART II: Value of the Emotions Cognitive Therapy and the Role of Philosophy
18: Sex Love and Marriage in Pagan Philosophy and the Use of Catharsis
Before I leave the subject of the value and therapy of the emotions I want to consider the value put on erotic emotions. This not only reveals the difficulties felt by the Stoics on that subject but uncovers the huge variety of attitudes taken by the pagan Greek philosophers. It thus provides a contrasting background for the very particular view that Augustine stamped on the Western Christian tradition which will be the subject of Chapter 26.
The variety of views

In pagan philosophy being in love (erōs) sex (aphrodisia sunousia mixis sunkoimēsis) marriage (gamos) and having children came apart. Each could be advocated without the others. This was not the case in early Christian thought nor was it acknowledged as acceptable in the Christian milieu of my own childhood. But I think it is once again widely accepted in the English-speaking countries. Indeed new permutations are being explored such as homosexual marriage and surrogate motherhood. A difference however in the ancient philosophical texts is that the perspective is almost exclusively male so that it is necessary for example to talk about their views on the wise man rather than on the wise person.

Sex being in love marriage and having children come apart
The separation of the four can be illustrated in many permutations. In Plato's Phaedrus Plato's Socrates advocates homosexual love without sex or marriage.1 But this is only after Plato has ascribed to the orator Lysias2 and put into the mouth of Socrates3 the opposite view that sex is better with those who are not in love.
This last is but one of many examples of sex being advocated without regard to being in love or marriage. There is another example in Plato's Republic. There Plato advocates community of women in the ideal city.4 During the age approved for procreation the rulers will regulate sex between whatever pairs they choose for eugenic purposes. After that age men and women can have sex (sungignesthai) with whomever they like provided any offspring are aborted or killed.5 Although the word ‘marriage’ (gamos) is still used for the sexual unions approved by the rulers6 in fact neither marriage nor being in love as we understand them is envisaged. For no one can say ‘mine’ of any one woman or man rather than of any other.7
Plato's ideal of community of women is repeated by the Cynic Diogenes. Sex (suneinai) should be had with anyone by consent.8 Diogenes downgrades not only marriage but sex itself. For it can be dealt with most conveniently by masturbation in his view. This is easier than reliance on women9 and easier than the alleviation of hunger.10 Diogenes’ Cynic pupil Crates was something of an exception since he married a woman Hipparchia who was in love with him (ēra).11 But he too reportedly debunked the sexual side of marriage by stripping to show his possessions when she insisted on marriage12 by copulating with her (sungignesthai) in public13 and by showing his son a brothel to illustrate how his marriage took place.14
To the consternation of later Stoics the founder of Stoicism Zeno of Citium who studied with Crates accepted Plato's community of women and random sex as a practice for the wise which would obviate the jealousies arising from adultery. This view propounded in his Republic and by the later Stoic Chrysippus in his On Government15 hardly takes account of being in love if it expects to eradicate jealous).
Earlier than Diogenes but in the same Socratic tradition Antisthenes who is sometimes classed as a Cynic treated sex marriage and love entirely separately.16 Marriage is chosen for procreation with eugenics in mind but little expectation of contentment. It is good to be in love if you are wise enough to know whom to choose but normally love is a destructive disease. Sex should be had with such women as will feel grateful for it.
The advocacy of sex without regard to being in love or marrying comes up again in Epicureanism. The Epicurean Lucretius warns that being in love (amor) entails care distress a sore frenzy and gloom (cura dolor ulcus furor aerumna). If you feel it coming on you should distract your attention (the Epicurean recipe) at once by having sex indiscriminately (vulgivagāque vagus venere).17 It is only occasionally that despite physical imperfections love (amor) and co-habitation can succeed provided you don't expect too much.18 Marriage is by no means excluded. But it is treated merely as a source of children19 and even then Lucretius mentions without disapproval the practice of taking another woman for procreation if your wife is infertile.20 The preference for sex over being in love is expressed in these lines:
But it is fitting to flee the images and to frighten away from yourself what nourishes love to turn your mind elsewhere and to squirt the collected fluid into any chance bodies not to retain it wrapped up once and for all in the love of one person thus keeping care and certain distress for yourself. For the sore quickens and is made inveterate by feeding. Day by day the frenzy swells and the gloom grows heavier if you do not confound the first wounds by new blows and cure them while still fresh (recens) indiscriminately with an indiscriminate Venus or cannot turn the movements of your mind elsewhere.21
So far the ideals canvassed have been being in love without sex or marriage in Plato's Phaedrus sex without being in love or marrying elsewhere in Plato in the Cynics the early Stoics and Lucretius a debunking of sex itself by the Cynics and marriage for procreation without being in love in Antisthenes and Lucretius. But there are further permutations in store. For marriage does not necessarily imply sex and procreation is sometimes disfavoured even where sex is allowed.
Marriage without sex is illustrated by the Neoplatonist Porphyry who married Marcella to help bring up her children. He writes very frankly in his letter to her that he married her not as a woman22 and thus he keeps to the spirit of his injunction that the philosopher should not marry at all.23 Among Christians we find praise of abstinence from sex within marriage by mutual agreement from Tertullian in the second and third centuries to Augustine in the fifth.24 Augustine insists very strongly on the need for mutual consent before abstinence25 although in the case of a would-be martyr husband the wife is very strongly pressured.26 No praise is offered for another practice: cohabitation without sex on the part of Christian virgins known as subintroductae.27
Much commoner than marriage without sex is the restriction that sex in marriage should be only for the purposes of and during the period of procreation. This idea appealed to Philo the Jew to Musonius Rufus the Stoic to Porphyry speaking of the non-philosopher to various neo-Pythagoreans and to a number of Church Fathers and lay Christians.28 Augustine does allow health as well as procreation as a legitimate reason for sex.29 He does not adopt Aristotle's quaint formula that sex in marriage after childbearing age is for health or some other reason.30
As for procreation we have already noticed Plato favouring sex without procreation after the eugenically preferred age in his Republic.31 The Presocratic philosopher Democritus holds that it is better to adopt a child whose nature is known from a friend's family than to risk procreating oneself.32 More startling is the Manichaean view which will become relevant in Chapter 26 that procreation is much worse than sex because it traps divine soul in the bodies of the offspring.33 Sex does not do this if it is practised with contraception.34
The closest thing among the pagan philosophers to a romantic view of marriage which associates it with companionship and with sex is perhaps found in Plutarch's treatise On Being in Love. Plutarch stages a debate on whether the young man under discussion should continue a homosexual relationship or marry the widow who wants him. He presents marriage as involving not just procreation but a sharing of life (homilia) and he sees sex as a treaty whose renewal enables you to put up with the annoyances of daily living.35
Plutarch may have been drawing on the favourable Stoic attitude to marriage. He uses the same metaphor as that earlier used by the Stoic Antipater in his praise of marriage according to which it is a genuine chemical combination not a mere juxtaposition of ingredients. Antipater had made the point that the partners share their bodies in this way not just their souls.36 Although he repeats as an inducement to males what Euripides’ Medea had expressed as a complaint that the wife's one aim in life must be to please one person the husband he adds that each must give the first fruits of goodwill to the other.
The Stoic Musonius Rufus goes further. Not only does he look for much more in marriage than procreation which he points out does not require marriage. In marriage he says there should also be sharing (koinōnia) agreement (homonoia) and mutual concern (kēdemonia)37 and husbands should abstain from extramarital sex even with unmarried women since injustice to other husbands is not the only consideration.38
Two kinds of being in love
Two connected questions were much rehearsed in pagan philosophy. Should the wise man fall in love and are there two kinds of being in love? Plato exerted a great influence on both questions: on the question of kinds because he included speeches for and against being in love both in his Symposium and in his Phaedrus. Moreover in the Symposium he has Pausanias say there are two kinds of being in love one heavenly one earthly.39 Socrates is made by Xenophon to draw a similar distinction between a heavenly and a bodily kind.40 In the Phaedrus too Plato distinguishes different types of reaction in people in love. Some react like a four-footed beast (tetrapous) whereas others have sex seldom or never.41 Already before Socrates Democritus had distinguished a just kind (dikaios erōs) which desires what is admirable (kala) and warned that sexual pleasure merely creates painful need.42 Thus a tradition arose that love has a good and a bad form.
Such a distinction between good and bad love continued in at least three of the later schools the Aristotelian the Middle Platonist and the Stoic. Though not in Aristotle's extant works it is ascribed to Aristotle:
Aristotle says that being in love (erōs) is a passion of the whole soul and if reasoning prevails it is directed to friendship if emotion (pathos) to sexual intercourse (sunousia).43
[Aristotle says that] being in love is directed not only to sexual intercourse (sunousia) but also to philosophy.44
The distinction may rather have originated in the school with Aristotle's successor Theophrastus who disparaged being in love (erōs) in two of the surviving fragments.45 But in a third fragment from his treatise On Being in Love he distinguishes the moderate (metriazōn) kind as gracious from the intense and disturbing kind which is called very difficult.46
The Middle Platonist treatise Didaskalikos makes a threefold distinction. The friendship of male couples in love may be refined (asteia). It is then free of emotion (pathos). As regards its aim (skopos) it is for the sake of the other's soul alone. It is an art (tekhnikē tis) which belongs to the rational part of the soul an art of recognizing winning and putting to use another who is worthy to be loved because his intentions are directed to what is admirable (kalon). He will put him to use by transmitting the means by which the other may become perfect through practice and his goal (telos) will be their becoming friends not lovers. By contrast the bad kind of being in love is for the sake of the body like that of cattle (boskēmatōdēs). The third kind desires both body and quality of soul.47
It is not only three kinds of love that are distinguished by this Middle Platonist text. There are also three successive objectives pursued by the art of refined loving the objectives of recognizing winning and putting to use the beloved. Ovid's mischievous poems The Art of Love and The Remedies of Love parody such philosophical advice and John Dillon has pointed out that The Art of Love still divides the art into three similar objectives: recognizing winning and stabilizing the love.48 One Neoplatonist source Hermeias says that it is the First Alcibiades ascribed to Plato which shows how to achieve three such objectives: discerning who is worthy of love waiting for the critical moment and teaching the principles of love so that love is returned (anterōs).49 It must be acknowledged however that the three objectives in Ovid in Hermeias and in the Didaskalikos though similar do not correspond perfectly. The verbal echoes are in one case positively misleading since the descriptions of the third stage as getting love returned (anterōs) and as becoming friends instead of lovers (anti erastou) are strictly incompatible.
The later Stoics are the third group to have adopted a distinction between the refined and the bad kind of being in love. The fullest report runs as follows:
Some supposed being in love to be just bad like Epicurus who defined it as an intense desire for sex (aphrodisia) accompanied by a sting (oistros) and distress.… Others supposed it to be just refined (asteios) like Heracleides who said that being in love was directed to friendship and to nothing else although some people as it happened (kata sumbebēkos) fell into sex (aphrodisia). The Stoics were formerly said to think that being in love was just one thing. But now I have heard of them too saying that it is of two kinds one refined and one bad.… [lacuna]… It is an appetite (epithumia) and desire (orexis) for sexual intercourse (sunousia) according to Pausanias and to the tragedian who said ‘Love (erōs) you blow with two winds.’ Aristotle said that being in love is a passion of the whole soul and if reasoning prevails it is directed to friendship if passion to sexual intercourse (sunousia).50
Epicurus and the Platonist Heracleides of Pontus are the two people selected as not allowing two kinds of being in love Epicurus because he thinks the desire for sex always essential Heracleides because he thinks it always inessential to being in love.
Will the wise man fall in love?
The existence of two kinds of love is relevant to the further question: will the wise man fall in love? This question was particularly acute for the Stoics given their rejection of emotion. It will be no surprise in light of the passage just quoted and the earlier reference to Lucretius that Epicurus is supposed to have answered ‘No’.51 The Stoics are said to have been on the other side and to have made falling in love an activity of the wise52 although they exploit the distinction of a superior kind of love as we shall see and Panaetius warns that the non-wise cannot be trusted to avoid being carried away.53 Positions on the issue are ascribed to many other thinkers54 but the views of the Stoics and Epicureans need more careful description. The Stoic view in particular has received different interpretations and calls for explanation.
The Stoics
The Stoic view on falling in love is startling in a way in which their view on marriage and procreation is not. Marriage and procreation are preferred indifferents and we saw in Chapter 12 that the wise Stoic should do everything in his power to attain these while regarding the right aim as the thing that matters not the attainment.
What is startling is the view that some Stoics take about falling in love. I say ‘some Stoics’ because Epictetus for example rejects erōs.55 But other Stoics hold that the wise man will fall in love56 with younger men.57 This is startling because the wise man is supposed to avoid emotion. I have already discussed in Chapter 2 whether the so-called eupatheiai and family affection are exceptions to this. Is Platonic love an exception?
In fact the Stoics appeal to the idea of a superior kind of love. The Stoic wise man will fall in love with younger men but the definitions are very carefully crafted to make sure that his love at least will not involve emotion. One point that leaps to the eye at once although it is not on its own decisive is that being in love is often defined not as an emotion (pathos) but as an epibolē.58 An epibolē is in turn defined as an impulse preceding an impulse59 and I believe we can see what the two impulses are. The full definition of being in love is an epibolē for making friends because of the appearance of beauty. So the first impulse is for making friends but for what is the second? Here I conjecture60 there will be different answers in the case of the wise man and of the fool. The fool no doubt will be making friends in order to have sex. But there is evidence that the wise man makes friends in order to inculcate virtue and this inculcation will be his second impulse. Thus it is said that the wise man will fall in love with those who through their demeanour (eidos) show a natural bent (euphuia) towards virtue.61 There is as in Platonism a special virtue connected with being in love (erōtikē aretē).62 This virtue is the scientific understanding of hunting for young men with a natural bent and it encourages people to virtue and63 in general to an understanding of how to be in love in a noble way. It is explicitly said that this kind of being in love is not an appetite (epithumia) but only an epibolē.64 I have already suggested in Chapters 2 and 13 that rather than being a pathos it is best classed as a eupatheia.
This is one part of the explanation of why this kind of being in love involves no emotion. The point just made is that the second impulse is not an appetite for sex but an impulse to inculcate virtue. The further point is that all emotion appetite included involves erroneously judging something to be good (or bad). But the wise Stoic knows that sex is indifferent and so is being in love65 in so far as it can take the wrong form. At the same time he is perfectly correct in supposing that the virtue inculcated in the right form of love is a genuine good. So his impulses are unlike emotions in that they involve no misevaluation of an indifferent as if it were a good.
But why it may be asked does Diogenes Laertius speak of being in love as not only an epibolē but also an appetite (epithumia) for the Stoics? The answer is that he is explicitly speaking about the kind of being in love that the wise man avoids. There is no confusion here. The second impulse in this inferior kind is indeed an appetite for sex. The passage runs:
But being in love is an appetite (epithumia) not concerning good people for it is an epibolē for making friends because of the appearance of beauty.66
This inferior kind of love is an emotion or appetite because being in love insists on seeing its objective as something good which in the ordinary case it is not. There would presumably be no objection to wanting sex provided sex was seen as a preferred indifferent not as something good. Such a desire would be parallel to the wise man's love for his family which I discussed in Chapter 2. For there too the Stoic attitude is to foster the welfare of your family as a preferred indifferent and there too such an attitude avoids emotion.
The Epicureans
As regards the Epicureans I have already said that Lucretius’ exposition of Epicurus is opposed to falling in love. It has nothing against sex as a palliative although it does ridicule the expectations which lovers have of sex.67 It treats marriage as a source of procreation but not one from which contentment can particularly be expected. On falling in love and on marriage this agrees quite well with what we know independently about Epicurus. We have seen that he defined being in love as something bad. He also denied that the wise man would marry except in special circumstances (kata peristasin) or have children.68
What is less clear is what Epicurus thought about sex. The hostile tradition was that he had sex (suneinai) with courtesans (hetairai) called Tits (Mammarion) Pleasure (Hēdeia) Lovey (Erōtion) and Little Victress (Nikidion).69 This would fit very well with the view of sex as a palliative which we have found in Lucretius. A scholiast on a text of Aristotle tells us that Epicurus distinguished the appetite for sex (epithumia tōn aphrodisiōn) as natural but not necessary from appetite for food and clothing which is both natural and necessary and from the appetite for particular kinds of food clothing and sex which is neither natural nor necessary but a reflection of empty beliefs.70 That sex is not necessary to preserve one's own life could be one rationale. But the Epicureans distinguished necessity for life from necessity for health happiness71 or freedom from discomfort or pain (algēdōn).72 From these points of view sex could have been treated as necessary as it is by Plato in the Republic.73
So far there is no clash with what Lucretius tells us. But there is evidence of a much more austere view in Epicurus. He is said to believe that sexual intercourse (sunousia) never benefited (oninanai) anybody and you should be glad if it does not actually harm you.74 And the later Epicurean Philodemus warns that sex is itself a source of pain.75 But there need still be no clash with Lucretius. In Epicurus the danger may be that sex can lead you to fall in love. If so his attitude will still be in line with that in Lucretius because Lucretius too wanted sex to be casual. No doubt Epicurus’ caveat will have been used without further explanation in efforts to defend the school from charges of immorality.
The Neoplatonists: Porphyry and Iamblichus
There are new developments in the Neoplatonists and in particular a controversy between Porphyry and Iamblichus. Porphyry's views have already been mentioned. The philosopher should not marry.76 Porphyry married a widow only to help raise her children and wrote to her that he did not marry her as a woman.77 The Neoplatonist way of life requires us to abstain from sex (aphrodisia) because it is incompatible with using the intellect78 and he approves the holy men who have forbidden sex.79 He tells his wife Marcella that the gods have ordered us to abstain80 and that one should never use the parts of one's body for mere pleasure.81 One of the reasons for his vegetarianism is that we should abstain from foods which stir up lust.82 He describes how we may progress from moderating emotions (metriopatheia) towards being free of them (apatheia). We must start by not indulging in sex (aphrodisia) even unchosen sex (aproaireton) unless perhaps merely in dreams.83 It has been conjectured that Porphyry wrote a treatise now lost On the Chaste Life and that Jerome took from here the catalogue of virgins he put into his treatise Against Jovinian although he was not willing to name his pagan source.84
Iamblichus probably attended Porphyry's lectures85 but despite Porphyry having dedicated a book to him (On ‘Know Thyself’) Iamblichus attacks Porphyry sometimes with unconcealed disdain. Iamblichus was interested enough in marriage to write a book of which one fragment survives On the Use of Marriage. Each philosopher wrote a Pythagorean Life.86 But while Porphyry acknowledges that Pythagoras had a wife and children he makes Pythagoras say that sex is like the song of the Sirens.87 Iamblichus by contrast has Pythagoras make a speech on marriage to the people of Croton and describe children as like a treaty for the parents.88
Iamblichus answers the questions which Porphyry had posed in his Letter to Anebo for Egyptian religious practice. The magisterial reply purports to come from Anebo's teacher.89 That piece of one-upmanship against Porphyry is augmented by another if the teacher's name Abamon meant in Egyptian Father of God90 a title reserved by Porphyry for someone who has reached the highest level of virtue.91 Iamblichus’ treatise is called On the Mysteries of the Egyptians. He has Abamon address Porphyry as ‘you’ and explain that he is offering arguments addressed to the intellect on Porphyry's account although he does not think this the most appropriate approach.92
Porphyry had expressed a worry that the gods were made to tempt people through magic to have sex. Iamblichus’ reply is entirely relaxed its burden being that this is done only by humans bad demons and ghosts.93
The most striking contrast for our purposes comes when Iamblichus answers Porphyry's question about why the ritual practices of ‘theurgy’ treat the gods as if they had emotions. Iamblichus’ reply takes us back to Aristotle's theory of catharsis discussed in Chapters 1 and 5 above. He refers to obscene sights and sounds in religious rituals and to the setting up of phalli and the uttering of obscenities (aiskhrorrhēmosunē tōn aiskhrōn rhēsis)94 and he offers two justifications. Either the obscene language may work as an aversion therapy turning people's desires towards the beautiful instead or it can work like catharsis in tragedy and comedy. (This is the fullest surviving reference to Aristotelian catharsis since he applied it to the theatre some 650 years earlier as will be seen in the next chapter). The idea is that a moderate exercise (metrios energeia) of our emotions can make them moderate which is the Aristotelian ideal and then (if this is what is meant by apopauesthai and apallagē) rid us of them as required by the Stoics. The standard Neoplatonist view is that these should be successive stages in our progress.
Again the question admits another rationale too. When the power of human emotions (pathēmata) in us is everywhere confined it becomes stronger. But when it is brought to exercise (energeia) briefly and to a moderate (summetros) extent it rejoices moderately (metriēs) and is satisfied. By that means it is purged (apokathairesthai) and ceases (apopauesthai) by persuasion and not in response to force. It is by this means that when we see the emotions (pathē) of others in comedy and tragedy we still our own emotions and make them more moderate (metriōtera) and purge them (apokathairein) and in sacred rites through the sight and sound of obscenities we are freed from the harm that comes from actual indulgence (erga) in them. So things of this sort are embraced for the therapy of our souls and to moderate the evils which come to us through the generative process to free us from our chains and give us riddance (apallagē).95
Porphyry too believes in persuasion rather than force96 but the contrast between Iamblichus’ view and his own as expressed in his On Abstinence from Animal Food could hardly be greater. Porphyry too speaks of aiskhrorrhemosunē obscene language but his point is that one must avoid it at all costs.97 Similarly one must avoid the sight of things like food which arouse the passions.98 This avoidance of all temptation is almost the opposite of Iamblichus’ idea that an actual exercise (energeia) of the emotions if moderate can rid us of them. Porphyry's strategy of avoidance recurs in his idea that we must avoid killing animals because this will help prevent us being led on to inhumanity to our fellow humans.99 He is a little embarrassed however that Plato had recommended getting experience in handling lust no less than fear.100 Porphyry is more attracted to avoiding experience and rather grudgingly says:
And one should be wary about a struggle and let me say even a victory too if it is based on experience as well as about lack of practice based on inexperience.101
The obscene element in pagan religious ritual remained a pressure point. Augustine attacks it unsparingly while acknowledging that he had gone to watch as a young man.102