Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.10.14

Martha C. Nussbaum, Juha Sihvola, The Sleep of Reason: Erotic Experience and Sexual Ethics in Ancient Greece and Rome.   Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2002.  Pp. viii, 457.  ISBN 0-226-60915-4.  $26.00.  

Contributors: Martha C. Nussbaum, Juha Sihvola, David M. Halperin, Maarit Kaimio, Stephen Halliwell, David Leitao, A. W. Price, Kenneth Dover, Eva Cantarella, J. Samuel Houser, David Konstan, Simon Goldhill, Christopher A. Faraone

Reviewed by Julia Annas, University of Arizona (
Word count: 1672 words

This collection of fifteen essays originates from a conference at the Finnish Institute at Rome, bringing together scholars from Finland and Italy as well as Britain and the United States. Conferences involving a wider scholarly community and the inevitably small-scale but vigorous community of classical scholars in Finland continue to produce a series of high-level publications, including the present volume, pleasingly, published by a more accessible and affordable press than the two collections already available.

The collection is marked by a thoughtful approach to exploring issues of sexuality and gender in Greece and Rome, issues which have in recent years often been discussed in one-sided ways. Many of the chapters display an approach which David Halperin argues for explicitly: a considerable softening of the idea, which has been extracted from Foucault, that the ancients focussed on sexual acts and were unconcerned with people as sexual actors or sexuality as an aspect of the personality as a whole. Halperin argues interestingly and persuasively that this was never an adequate reading of Foucault in the first place and has led to interpretations of ancient culture which are not merely one-sided but which tend to set up and then take for granted a dogmatic 'theory of sexuality' of a sort that Foucault's work was meant to oppose. Whatever its impact on Foucault studies, this kind of reappraisal of the way his work has been used is welcome just for its greater adequacy to the ancient texts. As well as his more theoretical discussion, Halperin engages with Bernadette Brooten's book Love Between Women, which he criticizes for finding continuities too readily between modern lesbianism and ancient same-sex relations between women. The problems, and the satisfactions of understanding, that arise when we think about ancient sexuality come across vividly, leaving the reader in no doubt that this is not a field with dogmatically established positions but an ongoing and exciting series of debates.

Foucault's work has been seminal in getting us to appreciate how different were ancient categorizations of sexual issues from our own, but work in this area has often been one-sided; an understanding of ancient sexuality is still something we aspire to, and remains a task requiring focussed work in several classical disciplines. The contributions come from a variety of areas and perspectives. Stephen Halliwell studies the context of Aristophanes' treatment of sex, Old Comedy's institutionalization of a type of shamelessness. Within the genre, norms of public decency are violated in ways which Halliwell shows greatly complicate our attempts to understand certain scenes, notably the sex scene in Eccleziasousai. J. Samuel Houser explores Dio Chrysostom's attitude to male same-sex relations in the light of his hostility to hedonistic attitudes more generally, showing that the claim made by some scholars that Dio is opposed to all male single-sex relations cannot be supported. Eva Cantarella reappraises Cato's notorious 'loan' of his wife to Hortensius in the framework of Roman law, which permitted patriarchal interference in established marriages. She brings out both the strangeness to us of a system which gives a father continuing authority in a daughter's marriage and the surprising but apt analogy to the modern idea of surrogate motherhood. Maarit Kaimio carefully explores the erotics of married sex in tragedy, and is particularly illuminating on the differing use of reference to the marriage bed as a way of alluding to sexual relations. David Leitao establishes that the Theban 'Sacred Band', as a band of erotic male couples, is a legend from the early fourth century, produced to support utopian suggestions that such bonding might support political unity. This idea has received recent discussion because of renewed interest in the analogous role of Eros in Zeno the Stoic's ideal state, and Leitao perceptively brings out a basic problem for all such utopias: the asymmetry of the pederastic erotic relation, even in idealized form, seems exactly wrong as a model for civic relations on an equal basis. Kenneth Dover briefly discusses an epigram apparently attacking female same-sex relations, a notoriously elusive topic in the ancient world. David Konstan explores reciprocity in love in a brilliant essay which moves from Lucian's Zeus, upset because his crude approach does not get him loved, to a sensitive and compelling reading of some of Catullus' Juventius poems. All these studies lead us to take a thoughtful and nuanced approach to certain texts, and, often, to rethink a current less thoughtful and nuanced one. Sensitivity to the particularities of texts encourages a less crude application of theoretical categories, and this in turn leads to a better-prepared and more nuanced reading of other texts. This is, of course, just the familiar bootstrapping situation whereby a theoretical approach is built up, as opposed to being imposed in a top-down way.

Also important is the stress laid by Martha Nussbaum on the importance of philosophical debates about eros in the ancient world and the importance of modern philosophers acquiring a proper understanding of those debates. Nussbaum contributes a chapter which stresses how crucial it is to study these debates in their historical context, something which modern philosophers have often failed to do. It is hard to disagree with her complaint that philosophy remains too far outside the picture in an increasingly interdisciplinary engagement with ancient sexuality and sexual ethics. (As if to underline the point, two of the chapters, Simon Goldhill's on conflicting attitudes to images and looking at them in Empire culture and Christopher Faraone's on gender distinctions in ancient magic, deal with subjects not familiar to many people who study ancient philosophy and deal with central texts in Plato and the Stoics. And Nussbaum is correct that these subjects are important parts of an interdisciplinary approach to the subject and that philosophers could learn from them.)

The relative distance of ancient philosophers in the discussions of this topic is in part an institutional problem; specialists in ancient philosophy typically work in philosophy departments, where outside their own area their time and attention is demanded by other areas of philosophy rather than other fields of classical studies. And it is also relevant that interdisciplinary conversation requires (at least) two people willing to converse. Classicists in this area would have benefitted over the last decade if they had read some of the excellent discussions of sexuality in modern philosophical debates (prominently Nussbaum's own). And some acquaintance with the work done in ancient philosophy over the last decades on virtue and character in ancient ethics might have modified what has often been a relentlessly one-sided focus on sexual acts as opposed to sexual actors.

The chapters in this collection on ancient philosophical texts certainly show sensitivity to the relevant contexts. Martha Nussbaum produces a just appreciation of 'the incomplete feminism' of Musonius Rufus, an author often praised on an oddly insufficient basis. Nussbaum shows where 'feminism' is a genuinely helpful tool in understanding this Stoic text, and how it can highlight its virtues and its limits. Anthony Price's chapter challenges Nussbaum on the adequacy of the Stoics' solution to what she has aptly called a 'cultural dilemma': how to reconcile the recognition of eros as a destructive force with Plato's, and the Stoics', claims that it can be a powerful educational force, leading to altruistic conduct and virtuous character. Nussbaum thinks no philosophical answer succeeds. Price (to summarize crudely) thinks that this underestimates the potential of the Stoic account of perception and its infusion by our thoughts and conceptualizations. It is not glamour that will attract the Stoic wise person but the potential for ethical development which he will be able to discern in the loved one's features, and thus the problem is solved of how ethically serious involvement can develop from what for most people is an attraction based on highly contingent and arbitrarily distributed factors. Juha Sihvola shows us that Aristotle (contrary, incidentally, to the assumptions of most people who only read and teach the Ethics) does have interesting things to say about sex and its relation to love. Sihvola, looking thoughtfully at the corpus as a whole, finds, for example, a fascinatingly blunt example about sex and love in the logical works, and his discussion brings disparate texts convincingly together. These papers more than bear out two points robustly stated by Nussbaum. Firstly, ancient discourse about sexuality is not remotely like one which is 'norm-free' or unmoralized; over-emphasis on ancient sexual relations in terms of power has led to neglect of the ways in which the ancients did think of sex and affection in ethical terms and thus, since ancient ethical theories focus on virtue and character, as being important for the kind of person you are. Secondly, as Nussbaum eloquently states, the ancient paradigms are not just different from ours; they give us alternative possibilities which are worth our attention in thinking about our own problems in this area. As she puts it (p 87), 'the not simply free us; they also give us some worthy paradigms to follow.'

A short review can do no more than indicate some themes in a collection like this, but even so much should show that anyone interested in ancient sexuality or ancient ethics should read this exceptionally rich collection. No unified approach is imposed on the contributors, and they rightly do not try to come to any unified conclusion. Rather, we are shown, over a variety of areas and with the aid of a number of classical disciplines, two important things. Even when we appreciate accurately just how different from ours are ancient sexual norms, we also discern common problems -- particularly, as Nussbaum has constantly stressed, the tension between the destructiveness of Eros and its potential for loving unification. And, as we pursue these lines of thought, we keep realizing how complex and difficult it is for us to understand ancient sexuality, and how unsatisfying over-simple approaches are. This tension between recognizing community of concern and respecting differences is standard in any historical enquiry but is particularly marked here. But such a conclusion is stimulating, and a mark of the book's unqualified success.

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