BMCR 2003.02.34

Eros and Polis: Desire and Community in Greek Political Theory

, Eros and polis : desire and community in Greek political theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 1 online resource (xiii, 398 pages). ISBN 0521810655 $65.00.

Within the study of political theory, the subjects can be divided into the sexy and the un-sexy thinkers, and in teaching the history of political thought there is something extremely sexy about Greek political thought. Yet, one could ask, why is this so? Paul Ludwig’s Eros & Polis attempts to answer the question. Ludwig (hereafter L.) works to sketch out the connection between eros (desire) and polis (political community) in Greek political thought, with a focus on Plato, Aristophanes, and Thucydides, while also bringing in other Greek thinkers such as Aristotle, Aeschylus, Euripides, Herodotus, Hesiod and Xenophon.

L.’s book combines textual analysis, historiography, the study of human sexual desire (including classical philosophic accounts as well as those of modern psychology) and the study of man’s political nature and human political community. This gives the book both the depth and the breadth that the topic requires. The mixing can, however, leave the reader feeling unsatisfied, for often one senses that something is not dealt with or is treated in a way which seems skewed by the author’s choice of texts. Though the breadth of Greek thought is indeed addressed, there is a much greater focus on Plato’s Symposium and the plays of Aristophanes than others who might have better illuminated the topics in question. However, what L. does cover is thought-provoking and, indeed, sheds new light not only upon the theme but also the authors upon whom he chooses to focus.

This book deals with the theme of eros and in doing so does not shy away from discussing the role pederasty played in forming the various civic cultures found in the Greek poleis. This theme naturally forces us to confront the perceived homosexual bias from which Classical Greek civic culture seems to encourage as well as the question of homosexuality within the scope of human sexuality and how Greek practices differ from modern theorizing about homosexuality currently in vogue in postmodern thought. Thus, there seems to be a kinship between the current postmodern fixation with sexual identity and the role pederasty played in shaping the civic virtues of regimes that value civic liberty and community. An attempt to understand the character of political eros in Greek thought can provide a valuable contribution to the contemporary discussion of the political construction of the sexual identity of human beings and this is what L does in this book.

Eros & Polis is divided into three parts, with a 23 page introduction. The first part is an examination of Plato’s Symposium, focusing on Aristophanes’ speech and the political character of eros. Part one has two chapters which deal with that speech, one on statesmanship and sexuality and the other addressing the interconnection of law and nature. This part could have been a book in its own right, giving an account of political eros within the Symposium and making a very strong case for the dialogue’s political character. I would also suggest, however, that L. may fall victim to Plato’s successful depiction of Aristophanes and his position as the triumph of manliness, which, if taken to its logical conclusion, leads to the triumph of homosexual relations over heterosexual relations. The Platonic attempt to associate the triumph of political virtue per se with a certain view of pederasty reflects more the Platonic view that politics is lower than the pursuit of wisdom and the philosophic way of life. Thus, in order to suggest to the thoughtful among those of good birth that the philosophic way of life is noble and choiceworthy, the political life and how it is valued by society has to be brought down a notch or two.

The second part deals with what L. calls the “The Discourse of Political Eros.” It has three chapters. The first deals with the scientific and poetic tradition of eros in Thucydides. L. makes a strong case that there exists within Thucydides and the literary tradition he inherits from Homer a strong interconnection between eros and the political. The second chapter deals with human aggression and how a human community attempts to focus such aggression towards beneficial ends rather than destructive ones. L. starts by looking at the political history of Athens, specifically, the fact that its democracy rested upon the rule of a certain class and the problems that arose from that class’s hubris. In the first part of this chapter, L. delves into the relationship between homoerotic practices and the aristocratic political character it engendered. I wonder, however, if in focusing on the details of this relationship, he misses the fact that, if the values in such relations are ‘aristocratic’ (and by this I mean the rule of the class of families of good and fine birth), they may be at odds with the view of justice (both political and personal) that a democratic regime may desire to foster among its citizens.

In the second chapter L. again returns to the Symposium, this time to deal with the relationship between eros and philia, with a focus on Aristophanes’ Wasps. L. suggests that by turning to the Wasps one can find clues to the apparent conflation of eros with philia in the Symposium (212). L. suggests that although in the Symposium, “Plato’s Aristophanes merely relates, rather than equates eros and philia“, when “one turns to the other Platonic dialogues, the conclusion that Plato wishes to make [Aristophanes] equate them become inescapable” (213). Thus Plato’s criticism of Aristophanes’ equating of the two would indicate that for Plato eros is less social and less civic. In trying to expose the difference, L. turns to a comparison of Diotima’s account of eros with Aristophanes’ and comes to the conclusion that the “dialectic between [their] speeches is best viewed as a dialectic between idealistic and pragmatic accounts. Viewed purely from the limited perspective of politics, Aristophanes’ speech is prudently calculated to tell the necessary truths while doing no harm. Diotima’s speech, by contrast, imprudently evokes an idealistic and quasi-mystical image and desire for the erotic life, while reckoning nothing of the potential harm” (218-219). Thus Aristophanes’ view, not Diotima’s, seems the politically wisest and truer to the everyday experiences of life in Athens; but from the prospective of philosophy, the desire to encourage erotic longing seeks to push the young towards striving beyond the political and towards the transpolitical goals of philosophy, “to purify eros from the love of one’s own in order to save eros for the philosophic life” (220).

In the final chapter of the second part, L. deals with what he calls “the problem of sublimation”. L. argues that the so-called higher activities towards which eros is directed by ‘conventional morality’ can be just as violent and politically dangerous as unrestrained sexual desire, so sublimation may not be as opposed to unrestrained eros as is commonly thought (221). In dealing with the question of sublimation, L. turns to Plato’s Lysis, historical accounts of Athenian conventions, Freud’s account of the barriers to fulfillment, and Aristophanes’ Clouds, dealing with what L. calls “the Fragility of Greekness.” Yet again, the book’s focus on the homoerotic aspect of Greek political culture perhaps echoes the fact that our understanding of that culture comes mostly from elite sources. We must remember that the political elites of Athens and other Greek cities were not friends of either democracy or the demos and that the way of life they themselves lived was wholly at odds with the way of life that logically follows from democratic justice. The violence and the aggression of the homoerotic character of Greek political life perhaps has less to do with sexuality and more to do with the particular politics fostered by such elites. It is useful to note that similar problems tend to plague oligarchic regimes throughout history. Readers of history often note the cruelty of the Spanish ruling elites in the handling of their ‘colonies’ in the 16th Century not just in the New World but also their Dutch possessions. Also think of how the vices (political as well as sexual) of the English aristocracy of the late 19th and the 20th Century directed that class’s growing antipathy towards Britain’s developing democratic character, leading them to romantically (and sometimes actively) side with totalitarian forces both on the right and the left (e.g., Lord Haw Haw, members of the Cambridge spy ring, among others).

The third and final part deal with the polis, which L. calls ‘a school for eros’. It is composed of two chapters. The first deals with ‘civic nudity’ and what role it had in forming the civic culture of the Greek polis. The second deals with the erotic character of patriotism and imperialism. The focus of third part thus is clearly political and attempts to show the scope of eros-both positive and negative-within the political community and, therefore, the importance of examining it politically and philosophically. Simultaneously, however, this part is the least satisfying. It could be that, unlike the other parts, this part does not have as much of a focus upon an author or text as did the other parts; rather, L. skips from one thinker to another, choosing the author to fit the theme upon which he is focused. Or it could be that the focus suggested by the topics in question needed to be much more historiographic in presentation than the other two parts and thus gives a far different feel to this part than the other two. Perhaps this third section was not so much a separate part but rather a conclusion, which the book perhaps needs to tie the last part in with the other two parts.

Overall, even with some of the (small) problems mentioned above, L.’s Eros & Polis is wonderful and a much needed contribution to the examination of Classical Greek political thought. It is well written, and it advances an interesting and important argument about the interconnection and importance of desire and community in Greek political thought. It brings together much diverse scholarship from psychology, gender studies, classics, political thought, classical history, classical philology, and literature to help flesh out that interconnection far more clearly than an appeal to any single mode of approach might have been able to do on its own terms. Thus L.’s book is a fulfillment of the interdisciplinary ambition that the Committee of Social Thought at the University of Chicago seeks to bring about, yet which most so-called interdisciplinary scholarship fails to achieve.