01 January 2017

A realist approach to the pelvic issues, part 1.1: do the chains of being liberate the flesh?

So, my previous piece, attempting to set out a brief outline of a Platonic-realist understanding of sex, elicited a spirited exchange with one gentle reader of this blog, Mr Cal P—. We covered quite a bit of ground, and after a couple of attempts to formulate a cogent response in the comments, I thought it best to break out my response to him and turn it into a separate blog post. He had several criticisms of my approach, some of which I believe are fair and valid, others of which are slightly misaimed but still interesting and worthy of fuller explication, and still others of which I found well wide of the mark, completely missing or misconstruing the points I was attempting to convey. We covered so much ground, in fact, that I find I have to structure my response in a somewhat counter-intuitive way.

Firstly, I feel I should clarify and explicate what it is I am seeking to recover from Plato’s works on love, particularly Phædrus and the Symposium. The central insight that that excellent Russian Platonist and dialogist in his own right, Vladimir Solovyov saw in these works is that erōs belongs to a dimension of the human being that is not fully subject to reason, let alone to rationalisation. Erōs is primal. It is protean. It is (to use Solovyov’s formulation) both animal-instinctive and super-animal. It appears behind reason and overpowers it. It should be clear that Plato, and Solovyov after him, are not indulging generalities and superstitions at this point, but treating with hard, experimentally-demonstrable (as in behavioural economist Dan Ariely’s experiment whose conclusions appear in Predictably Irrational, widely credited in psychological literature as authoritative) natural fact that eroticism distorts judgement and ethical reasoning. Arousal can lead someone to discount future consequences, and even disregard elements of her own dignity and autonomy (let alone those of others) for the sake of immediate animal gratification. At this point, the only value-judgement I am making is that erōs is a powerful force in human biology and spirituality both, and is not to be underestimated by reason. I am not as yet casting any normative judgements on particular sexuate forms or sexual behaviours.

But, the behavioural science has proven Plato’s Socrates right: erotic desire can and does approximate a kind of temporary insanity or madness. But far from leading him to reject or shun erōs for the sake of preserving reason, Socrates argues instead that some of the greatest blessings can come from inspired or sophic madness, madness that is open to divine agency. In spite of his insistence elsewhere that wisdom, acquired by rational self-reflection, is the highest good, it is clear from Phædrus that Plato’s Socrates places a high value on the irrational elements of human life – especially erotic love, which he holds to be the highest form of divinely-inspired madness.

This is what I mean by having a realist view of sex. We human beings are political animals; we are social animals; we are reasoning animals; but we are animals. We are created beings with sexuate natures and physical senses. We have physical desires, both healthy and unhealthy. And it is naïve in the extreme to believe that these desires are always and at all times subject to domestication or the exhortations of duty and temperance. Plato’s Socrates fully comprehended this, and placed a very strong emphasis on it as a form of madness, with each and every one of the dangers and capacity for (self-)destruction that such implies.

But it is a madness which has within it a sophic, creative germ – a potential for that divine inspiration, similar to that which visits the Oracle at Delphi or the visitation of the Muses, on which Socrates places such value and which he holds to be the source of man’s highest deeds of nobility. Eroticism is, in Socrates’ own words, ‘the greatest of heaven’s blessings’; but it would be a very dire mistake to think that he either degrades its consummation or holds it valuable only in sublimation. Socrates is no Gnostic or hater of the flesh. As Solovyov himself put it, in his commentary on these two Platonic dialogues:
In the Symposium and the Phædrus, [Plato] clearly and definitely separates and juxtaposes the lower and higher activities of erōs—his action in the animal-instinctual man and in the super-animal man. Yet one must recall that even in the higher man, erōs acts, creates, generates, and does not merely think and ratiocinate. Here, too, [erōs’] main object is not intellectual ideas, but full, bodily life.
My interlocutor, Mr P—, was very much in the right when he held forth that Plato’s Socrates did not affirm or embrace the Dionysian impulse with both arms open. Eroticism is only to be distinguished from the other, infirm and degrading forms of human madness, by how it harmonises with philos toward the beloved, and directs the inspired – or, we might say, afflicted – toward more noble and virtuous ways of living. But the old saw that ‘Platonic love’ is one which shuns consummation for the higher and for the sake of the spiritual – that, unfortunately, is a canard which ought to be retired. In the Symposium, Socrates, though he resists the immediate physical charms of Alcibiades and exhorts him to improve his soul, demonstrates through his discourse that the heavenly, philosophical love can exist even within consummate marriages, or between parents and children – which would imply an erotic love that has already been consummated, and passed down properly into parental affection. Socrates’ account of his dialogue with the wise Diotima affirms the ‘divine’ character even of procreative love: ‘an immortal principle in the mortal creature’. (But the trick – one realised by Solovyov in his The Justification of the Good – is that this immortal principle is an impersonal and necessitarian one which pales next to considerations of the immortality of the soul!) The ‘chains of being’ which mark Plato’s teachings have not been wrought along a single dimension, nor are they in the first instance meant to serve the crude purpose of fettering the flesh to free the spirit. Rather, they serve to link one form of love to the other without confusion. Plato ‘intimates’, in the words of his English interpreter Jowett, for ‘the lover of wisdom… the union of the spiritual and fleshly, the interpenetration of the moral and intellectual faculties’.

Having in this brief response attempted to acquit the honour, as it were, of Plato and his version of Socrates in their understanding of and complex appreciation for the erotic impulse, I shall attempt to move on to more recent quibbles, which are primarily historiographical in nature, but which link directly to this realist view of sexuality.

On that note: a very happy new year to one and all! My best wishes to my gentle readers for a warm and festive beginning to 2017.


  1. I didn't realize how much you depended on Solovyov for your reading of Plato. I haven't read him, so I'm lacking a full grasp of how you are trying to read Plato. There is certainly a tension in Plato. In the Phaedo, Plato describes the body, and all of its corporeality to a prison; the Republic, while not a blueprint for a totalitarian society, reveals how Plato considers the inner appetitive urges, namely peasants to keep happy and subordinate.

    So, at a fundamental level, I have suspicions about Solovyov's reading of Plato and the tradition. But that's irrelevant for the purposes of a creative new reading of Plato. If all you want to say is: Humans are not brains-on-a-stick and/or Humans have physical desires like animals (food, sex, survival etc.). That's all good, but you don't need Plato for this.

    But that wasn't my main issue here. It's the fact that it is a fundamental error to have eros for time-bound things. The only way Solovyov saves this is through the immortality of the soul, which is a very Platonist anthropology. I think its unbiblical, the source of many theological problems, and devalues Human persons and the creation as a whole. This is the radical problem I have, and why Solovyov is a heretic (even as he was creatively resourced by later Russians, in varying ways). It's a similar relation between Origen and the Cappadocians.

    Anyway, thanks for this.


    1. Let me re-elaborate my concern: I think there's a way to love things and people, in their time bound conditions, that emerges out of the love of God, which is the Immortal which grounds all things. I find a Platonic anthropology damaging for this. Humanity construed as such, I don't think the basis of this is a good base for arguing against pornography or prostitution. If anything, I think it's a kind of aestheticization of it. Hardcore porn is wrong because its too fleshy and not uplifting, in a way that Kallipygos is. This connects to my complaint about class-difference, but I think it's also non-biblical.


  2. Hi Cal!

    It's true, that I've largely been working backward to Plato from a starting-point with Solovyov. My classics education up until then had largely been in the Chinese tradition (with Confucius, Mencius and Dong Zhongshu, among others).

    As to the point I'm trying to make, I hope it's a little meatier than that - er, so to speak. It's all well and good and true that we aren't brains-on-a-stick, but more to the point there is a dimension to our fleshly being that is not fully under the brain's control, one that bypasses our reasoning and is capable of touching the divine-immortal directly. It's only in Solovyov that I've seen this appreciation for eros and its power explicated to its full extent, and to a certain degree I think that is in part due to his Sophianism and his (heretical) emphasis on the creative divine-feminine.

    So, yes... I am well aware that Solovyov has certain theological and philosophical problems. We probably have a differing assessment of what those problems are and how severe they are, though.

    The immortality of the soul, though - that is very Biblical. That's literally in the Gospel and the teachings of Christ, in His discourses with the Sadducees in particular (who denied the immortality of the soul). From an Orthodox perspective, the anthropology of Solovyov (along with Plato) is on pretty sound footing there.

    Where Solovyov tends to slip up (again, from an Orthodox perspective), is precisely where he exalts the creative divine-feminine above and beyond this Platonic anthropology, and which leads him to a weird, almost Gnostic monism at precisely the points where Plato (and, indeed, the Orthodox Church more broadly) would insist on a balanced dualism.

    I will have to reread the Phædo, though, in light of the Phædrus and the Symposium. Your comments have something of a ring of truth to them, and I wouldn't want to think I'm missing something here.


    1. Per the Immortality of the Soul: No! The Sadducees denied the resurrection, not the immortality of the soul. There is an enlightening debate on this text between Thomas More and William Tyndale on this. It's worth checking out. Only God is immortal by nature. Human immortality is strictly conditional. Unless the conditions are stated, a nude doctrine of the immortality of the soul is anti-Christ, and quite literally, because it denies His work.

      Platonic anthropology is what you see in Origen, which always threatens to rear its head. Read Origen. Study him. He is a genius. In Origen, you see the fundamental problem with the Christian-Platonic synthesis. If you don't understand Origen, you won't understand why Christianity and Hellenism are radically at odds, even if there are, at times, shared grammar. Solovyov was an Origenist, and why he, ultimately, was more comfortable with Rome than with Moscow.


    2. But a contingent immortality is still immortality. That's the thing. Neither Solovyov, nor Origen, nor Plato advocated a 'naked' immortality of the soul - precisely because the 'chain of being' which you have been deprecating in our discussions here prevents such a 'naked', unmediated reading!

      Again, I think that you're missing some very important shades of nuance here, and insisting on a nakedly Tertullianist false dichotomy, one which later Patristic thought would not favour.

      Orthodoxy does not reject Hellenism in toto, and we never have. In part, this is because we have Saint Gregory Palamas and the essence-energies distinction, which serves to recover the Origenist doctrine of the soul's immortality (achieved by participating in the energies of God), without repeating his mistake of thinking the soul to be uncreate.

      Hellenic thinking, to some degree, has been implicit in Christianity from the very beginning. The debate over Hellenism and the attitude the Church should take to it, goes back to the dispute between Peter and Paul over whether or not Gentiles should be baptised, and their argument cut straight to the question of whether Gentile souls could participate in the life of God without being mediated by Jewish law in its entirety.

      Of course, Paul was right. The law of God is inscribed, at least in part, on people outside the qahal as understood by classical Jewish thinking. The classical Christian approach to Hellenism - never fully embracing it but also never fully rejecting it - has always been conditioned by this insight.

    3. We? You are the voice of Orthodoxy? Yet you mangle Biblical interpretation and appeal to two heretics and a pagan? This fundamentally kills all dialog.

      Quite frankly, your appeal to authority in the midst of an otherwise pleasant dialog, which I'm not even sure if you were cognizant of what you were writing, is symptom and proof that you're basically a fundamentalist. The only difference is that your fetish is not a KJV Bible, but aesthetics and a tradition. At least the classic fundamentalist has the charm of his rusticity and simplicity, rather than the high-handed brutality of an uppity faux-noble. Many a convert is like a parvenu, rank with the stench of angst and excitement in a newly acquired position of power and authority.

      Maybe you'll post this, maybe you'll delete it, and maybe you won't read any of this and think I'm a loon. But I'll cease from responding. You may have some profound thoughts, but they come through the tongue of a fool.

      May God save you,

    4. I am one voice within Orthodoxy. Probably not the most authoritative one. And I may indeed be a fool. Certainly I still carry idols and false assumptions with me.

      I do demur at the charge of being a faux-noble, though. I'm not quite as plebeian as they come, but almost. I would have thought my musical tastes and my championing of the peasant cause would have demonstrated that effectively.

      But, I'm sorry, what I posted above was nothing but truth as I see it. We have always had the more 'Hellenistic' voices within the Orthodox Church, who are recognised as spiritual guides. St. Dionysius the Areopagite being the most famous, but also St. Jerome, St. Maximus the Confessor, St. Gregory Palamas, and many of the neo-Patristics as well. And these voices all appeal to an insight that Christ was a recapitulation, not only for the Jews, but for all people (including the Gentiles)!

      None of these writers were heretics or pagans. Tertullian, on the other hand - who rejected Greek philosophy in toto - ended up embracing the heresy of Montanus because of it.

      On the contrary, though, those who did engage in a partial, critical embrace of Hellenic philosophy did much to radicalise it and to bring its insights and wisdom effectively to people whom Aristotle would have thought as being morally 'unlucky'.

      Women in the post-classical world, slaves, barbarians - these people could take on the entire teaching of Christ, precisely because it was no longer a parochial religion belonging exclusively to a single bloodline. For that, you have the 'Hellenists' to thank! And in the end, this tendency changed the face and the shape of the world, such that barbarians were elevated to civility, slaves were freed, and women were seen as more than just breeding-machines.

      At any rate, I am indeed sorry for the anger I have caused you, and would be sorry to see you go. But I hope eventually you can see where I'm coming from on this.