Liberating pleasure: sexuality

November 16, 2013 § Leave a comment

These are expectations of sexual practice in both classical antiquity & today.

– moderation
– self-awareness
– roles of activity & passivity
– a preference for the indoors
– preoccupation regarding cleanliness

It appears that the attitudes of these vastly different times run smoothly one from the other. An argument follows that such preoccupations are necessary to keep society orderly & in good health; as requirements of logic & the social contract, very different mindsets have been attracted to the same dispositions.

Michel Foucault finds this account insufficient. He is firm in asserting in The Use of Pleasure — Volume II of The History of Sexuality, sometimes estimated as the disappointment of Foucault’s career — that the present system & the ancient one are philosophically incongruous. In the book, he sources what writings remain from ancient Greece on erotics & marriage to show how classical antiquity was not pressed by ethical prescriptions, the likes of which we see in Judeo-christian tradition & have inherited. Instead, their practices were determined by an aesthetic. Beauty was the measure of goodness [beauty being more momentously entwined with desire]. The popular aesthetic in ancient Greece was for balance & moderation. It was believed that through self-mastery, perfectly conscious activity, &  restraint an individual would behave reasonably & have no need for enforced rules. Although this austerity would be exercised in a perpetually “agonistic relationship with oneself” (67) [what might otherwise be deemed “inner-dialogue” or simply thinking], it would ensure an active interaction with the world & its ethical systems. The onus was on each individual to decide; there is no moral code outside of the aesthetic predisposition for moderation. Such thinking allows for much broader sexual definitions, thus the remarkable concessions in ancient sexual practices arise: a disregard of fidelity & “ungendered” sexualities are the major ones.

Christian systems & the law attempt to cheat the middle step. They do not treat their subjects as free agents, save for the choice of putting themselves in the hands of god [of course, tradition & forced conversion complicate even this initiatory step]. To the critical classical eye, these systems belong not to the free but to slaves. “Thus, in the Laws, Plato distinguishes between two kinds of doctors: those who are good for slaves (they are usually slaves themselves) & who confine themselves to giving prescriptions without offering any explanations; & the freeborn doctors who attend to free men. Not contenting themselves with prescriptions, they enter into conversation with the patient” (107).

The eradication of critical thinking is among the most common criticisms of religion — worse still is to accept a moral code based on a system that denies critical thought & not even to have faith in that system! Happily, today critical thinking has returned to its high esteem after the cognitive upheaval of the scientific revolution. Scepticism is being applied to all forms of received notions: we ask Why? to be free. Among the great names of this sceptical army is Foucault’s, who writes in the introduction of this volume that “[t]he object was to learn to what extent the effort to think one’s own history can free thought from what it silently thinks, & so enable it to think differently” (9). That is the hope of such work: liberation from the “silent” thoughts. [It should be added that, again, we are witnessing an aesthetic thinking in practice. Exactly how the text wants its readers to “think differently” is never made explicit. Unlike the ancient Greek aesthetic for moderation, the type of history or cultural criticism Foucault engages has an aesthetic for unbinding, undoing, disrobing, unveiling, dethroning, & debasing. If anything, it is immoderate, but all done in good spirit & scholarship.]

Basing a system on aesthetics may seem unintuitive to the modern mind, nothing but a narrow relativism. The notion needs some more explaining. At its heart is the hedonistic value of desire in all its shapes — for, regardless of the desired act’s predisposition to reproduction, desire was always an act of defying death. “[I]t is this same desire that makes some individuals who love boys eager, not to sow their seed in the body, but to engender in the soul & to give birth to that which is, of itself, beautiful” (134). No desire is wrong in & of itself, rather “[t]he practices that contravene nature & the principle of procreation are… merely the result of immoderation” (44). Moderation was desirable not only for its presumed health benefits but also because the power that was associated with it. After all, “the man who ought to lead others was one who had to be completely in command of himself” (80); an idea based on the macrocosmic perspective of the state as a body.* In this society, it is the practices & habits that define a person, never the act.

We should not pretend that this was an ideal system simply because it accepts what our own continues to struggle against. Like ours, it was solely “for the smallest minority of the population, made up of free, adult males” (253). “[I]t is the male act that determines, regulates, stimulates, dominates” (129) to the exclusion of women & slaves. Not recognising the agency of these other bodies, what we consider sexual crimes were rife & often unpunished. This was simply because the “austere arts” belonged to the masculine values, pertaining to the active role. In the same way, they were expected to be in control of their households: “The domestic art was of the same nature as the political art or the military art, at least insofar as all three involved ruling others” (154). It befell women to listen to their mates & follow instructions; the ideal partnership was one where the woman was so well trained [girls were expected to marry at half the age of men, 15 & 30 respectively] that there could be an apparent equality in their home, a political order. By extension, the well-running of the body was expected to achieve a well-run wife & home — allowing for the state’s prosperity. All these elements were in congruity.


*”The prince’s relationship with himself & the manner in which he forms himself as an ethical subject are an important component of the political structure; his austerity is part of it, contributing to its solidity” (174). So perhaps the tabloids are not wrong to fuss over the movements of royals (or equivalents). In any case, this is where we source the common notion of “noble virtues”.


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