Milo Yiannopoulos recently resigned from Breitbart amid controversial comments about that a relationship between an adult male and a teenager could be beneficial. Without wishing to imply a defence of his claims, what I wanted to ask is -- didn't Socrates make essentially the same claim 2500 years ago in the Symposium, and what has changed between now and then to make the idea less intellectually respectable?

A lot that Milo Yiannopoulos said about sex calls the Symposium to mind, and for all I know was intended to. He distinguished between relations involving pre-pubescent children and those involving teenagers past the age of puberty, and the latter type certainly existed in Plato’s time. Moreover the relationships discussed in the Symposium take place, with very few exceptions, between males.

But let’s subdivide your two questions into three. 1) Did Socrates claim that adult/teenager relationships could be beneficial? (You don’t specify to whom they would be beneficial, but I assume you mean “to the teenager.”) 2) Were relationships of this kind considered normal in Socrates’ time? 3) What has changed since then?

It’s worth adding question (2) because Plato presents Socrates attempting to give a philosophical interpretation and clarification of existing practices. What he says makes fuller sense if we recognize what was being done in that time and place. Thus it’s not that Socrates saw people around him engaging in relationships exclusively among adults and proposed that they seek teenage partners.

What was actually done in antiquity is notoriously difficult to determine. The written evidence comes for the most part from elite authors; visual evidence is available on vases, for example, but it stands in need of interpretation. Beginning with Kenneth Dover’s Greek Homosexuality in 1978, modern authors have tried to refine our conception of what was done in antiquity and how it was perceived. Some of Dover’s claims have been challenged or superseded: David Halperin, Martha Nussbaum, and James Davidson are three authors worth consulting for informed and thoughtful explorations of the issues at stake. On broader questions about ancient conceptions of sex, the anthology Before Sexuality (edited by Halperin, John Winkler, and Froma Zeitlin) is excellent.

One great difference between the time of Socrates and Plato and our own time is the change in attitudes toward male same-sex love and desire. An erotic relationship between two men has carried enough of a stigma in most of the modern world that making one of the two a teenager only intensified the social disapproval already attached to homosexuality. In ancient Greece, by contrast, and even when there were prohibitions in place about sexual practices, the desire for someone of the same sex does not seem to have been treated as problematic or strange.

But given that different social backdrop, what Socrates says in Plato’s dialogues still stands at some distance from what Yiannopoulos says. In the Symposium he reports a theory of love that he attributes to a woman named Diotima (and I’ll treat this as what Socrates is saying for our purposes). It clearly indicates that love, or eros, can begin as attraction between men. But Socrates does not talk about older and younger, as other participants in the Symposium’s conversation to (especially the characters Phaedrus and Pausanias). In fact he does not say much about the object of love at all; he’s interested in the one who feels desire and what that desire is like. One makes progress in erotic attraction by going from a single beautiful body to appreciating the beauty in all bodies, and from there to appreciating the beauty in all souls. And even that is not the end of the story, for the lover who pursues beauty then advances to loving the beauty in customs, then the beauty in every kind of knowledge, and finally beauty itself.

Is this beneficial? Without question. It’s the benefit of becoming philosophical. But the benefit goes to the one who feels the eros, while human objects of love quickly disappear from view altogether. Again: Socrates is speaking to people who assume that romantic, sexual relations are going to be paradigmatically those between older and younger male partners, but he does not talk about human relationships.

What Socrates says in another dialogue, the Phaedrus, is closer to what your question asks about. In the Phaedrus Socrates describes erotic pursuit in which one partner is an older man, the one who feels eros or desire, and the other is a younger man who feels something referred to as “counter-love,” a returning desire that is not quite as strong as the older partner’s emotion. (David Halperin’s article on anteros is particularly valuable.) The relationship between the two of them is much more clearly a love-relationship than anything Socrates advocates in the Symposium is, and the benefit goes to both. They both can become more philosophical under the influence of the love between them than either one would have become alone. And the younger partner learns how to be more like the kind of god whom his soul resembles; so there’s a particular pedagogy at work in the relationship.

But the very word “relationship” leads us to an important difference from Yiannopoulos’s claims that needs to be spelled out. In the Phaedrus the love Socrates describes has to be non-sexual. Those who give in to sexual desire quickly lose the benefits that love has to confer on human beings. Their relationships are bound to be erotic, and what we would call romantic, but Socrates does not allow them to turn into sexual relationships.

So what has changed from Socrates to our time? First of all there is Socrates’ faith that erotic attraction can work productively with philosophical enlightenment. People would be less likely to believe that any more.

Second is the change I already noted between a society that did not perceive homosexuality as peculiar and one that does.

Third, attitudes toward inequality in such relations have changed since antiquity. It was important to men in classical Greece to be the active partners in sexual relations. I have been discussing male-male relations, but when you look at male-female relationships, as between husbands and wives, they aren’t the breath of fresh air that Yiannopoulos might present his views as being. A man of thirty might take a bride of fifteen and immediately start trying to produce offspring. Whatever the reason is behind our cultural transformation to prohibiting this kind of marriage, the reason should be applauded. In many respects we value equality in love relations to the same degree that the ancient Greeks presumed and valued inequality. And if you value equality, your first reply to Socrates might be: How can we learn from erotic attachments and become more philosophical through those attachments when the partners in them have an equal role? Why does learning have to mean learning from a superior?

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