31 July 2017

Realism and the pelvic issues, part 6.1: is ‘sex work’ work?

The philosopher Diotima and the hetæra Aspasia

As I wind this eight-month-long series down, I want to thank everybody who helped participate in it, whether publicly in the comments sections, or anonymously by private message. I did my best to present each side as fairly and as respectfully as possible, and true (I hope!) to the spirit of Plato, this really was a dialogue. I certainly came off much the wiser in many regards after having made several bad false starts, and in some ways much chastened. Reality, approached through dialogue, often demands a curbing of moral stridency in the face of human weakness (my own no less than anyone else’s!), and in this case it did so several times. I hope that it was as useful and enlightening to my readers as it was to me.

To recap briefly: I spent the last entry in this series talking a little bit about Plato’s embodied view of justice. This view, rather than starting from the standpoint of propertarian law or power or utility or the harm principle (all of which were put forward against Socrates at the beginning of the Republic), instead started by considering human animal needs and capacities in the ‘city of utmost necessity’ in Book III. From there it began to consider complex human needs, trade, defence and, ultimately, the ideal of rulership – though it did so in a comic way which deliberately lampooned Socrates’ portrayal by Aristophanes in The Clouds. The conversation crescendoes into a vision of liberation from politics in the famous allegory of the cave, and the contemplation of absolute truth at which even Socrates falls silent. The remainder of the conversation, including the schema of the régimes, concerns the return of the philosopher to the cave: not (pace Glaucon) in pursuit of the Ring of Gyges, but to bear the light of truth from the outside down to where everyone else is chained to the wall.

But, as with all of Plato’s Dialogues, the dialectical form is every bit as important as the conclusion. In Glaucon’s city-in-speech, the ultimate demand on the guardian class, that they forgo the private in all forms, is dependent on a ‘noble lie’, which is at its core a lie about sex. To protect the guardian class from conflicts of interest, all the guardian-class children must be shielded indefinitely from the knowledge of procreation, and instead be taught the myth that they sprang out of the earth on which the city is founded. The demands of justice, which involve ‘forgetting the body’ in the interests of equity and commonality even to the degree of denying sex itself, are still in fact grounded in the working body in all of its specific, sittlich, subjective and sexuate fleshiness. Contrary to the popular caricature of Plato, when pressed on the subject he never demands that the young abstain from the private demands of the body – sensuality and sexual pleasure – altogether. To do so would be to ‘forget the body’ in an impossible way. Without the body, rooted in Adeimantus’ ‘city of utmost necessity’, the demands of justice and equality spiral off into comic absurdity. Justice, both as a political virtue of cities and as a personal one of citizens, is grounded in work, meaning that you can’t ‘forget’ the body permanently even if you try!

This holds true even on the ‘psychological’ level, that of the logos of the soul, which Socrates explores with Adeimantus in Books VIII and IX – not just on the level of régimes. Justice exists where the knowing part of the soul, the willing part and the desiring part all work together harmoniously, and are ruled by the knowing part (aristocracy, or the philosopher-kingdom). Injustice begins to arise when the willing part (timocracy) or the desiring part (oligarchy-democracy-tyranny) takes over. Still, the charioteer of the Phædrus cannot do his job without both his horses, no matter how much he struggles to keep at least one of them in check; likewise, justice cannot happen in a polis where there are not cobblers, carpenters, tailors, smiths, farmers…

It’s worth noting that Plato treats work in other places as well – the common Sophist gripe against Socrates that he only talks of ‘cobblers and carpenters and smiths’ indicates that this is a broader theme, and that Socrates clearly believes that seeking knowledge from the know-how of these common people, in the tangible and physical realm, rather than seeking knowledge from the sophists, rhetoricians or politicians, is the better course for the wisdom-loving man (ἀνήρ φιλόσοφος). The brutal trouncing which Socrates deals the student of the sophists, Hippias, in the shorter Dialogue bearing his name is, in fact, about work and its relation to justice. Hippias believes himself to be a self-made man possessed of all the technical arts as well as Homeric poetry, and of the power and cunning to use them well. However, in a discussion centred around the topic of lying (in the light of a comparison between the ‘cunning’ Odysseus and the ‘honest’ Achilles), Socrates at once forces Hippias to admit that even for a liar, knowledge and flattery makes him more effective and ‘better’ than ignorance – all the while showing the onlookers that Hippias’ vaunted cunning in the technical arts is in fact a fraud.

Plato’s gist in the Lesser Hippias, though, is not to be gained from the ‘gullible’ reading of Socrates’s sophistic argument about lying to which Hippias falls victim. Socrates does want to demonstrate a link between justice and the sort of technical skill needed to do good work, but at the same time he shows the latter is not sufficient for the former. Skill and the capacity for work are needed for justice (and thus virtue more broadly considered), but not all forms of work are ennobling or just. Our instincts tell us that a good liar is not a just man, and so – as Plato intends it – we recoil from the ‘immoral’ conclusion of Socrates in the Lesser Hippias.

A profounder, though still partial, treatment of work and its complex relation to justice can be found in the Gorgias. This is the one in which Socrates engages Polus with the argument that rhetoric and cookery are not truly ‘arts’ (τέχνη) but are instead ‘knacks’ (τριβή) or ‘experiences’ (ἐμπειρίᾱ) which are in fact different expressions of flattery: tricks that can be used to bypass knowledge of things, and appeal directly and monologically to the ‘belly’ or the will. Plato’s work consistently militates against things that seem true and produce illusory convictions of knowledge among the ‘many’ and pride among the ‘great’, in favour of those elusive things that actually are true and must be approached dialectically. For this reason, cookery, rhetoric and even poetry to some extent come under critique by Plato’s Socrates.

This is all a very roundabout way of coming to the topic at hand. Prostitution was widely practised and broadly accepted in ancient Greece. Plato’s attitude toward it, as may be expected, is complex. As mentioned before, on gender issues, Plato was quite radical even among Greek philosophers. He was willing to entertain the notion that women, despite their physi(ologi)cal limitations, were capable of receiving educations in strategy, war and statecraft, as well as in philosophy – in the Symposium Socrates places the highest discourse on the topic of love in the mouth of a female philosopher, Diotima of Mantinea. It is no accident, therefore, that Mary Astell, the High Church Tory advocate of women’s education, was a fierce devotee of Plato and one of the Cambridge Platonists.

But in the several instances prostitution is mentioned directly or appears even as a tangential subject in the Dialogues, it is almost always as an impediment to the pursuit of truth, and one that must be legally discouraged or suppressed. In the Symposium the flute-girl is dismissed by Eryximachus (a doctor, note well – this is important) almost as soon as she appears, in favour of the conversation and measured drinking among the assembled symposiasts. In Book III of the Republic, likewise, Glaucon bans Corinthian girls from the city-in-speech, for the same reasons fine Sicilian cuisine and Attic cakes are to be banned: they are bad for the bodies of young men and athletes. (A side note: Corinth had the same status among classical Greek city-states that Vegas and Amsterdam do now – it was a cult centre of Aphroditē and a major hub of prostitution. Not for nothing did Saint Paul save his direst warnings about lust for his epistles to that city!) And then in the Laws, the Stranger recommends to Cleinias a ‘second law’ (an unwritten or customary stigma) to forbid the ‘indulgence’ of prostitution: it ought to be considered honourable to conceal a mistress or hetæra, and shameful to disclose her or make the relationship public.

The only other treatment of prostitution is somewhat more ambiguous and indirect. When speaking with Menexenus in the Funeral Oration, Socrates places the speech praising the Athenians in the mouth of Aspasia – the famous Milesian hetæra and mistress of the ‘great’ statesman Pericles. On the one hand, Socrates clearly has a high and unfeigned respect for Aspasia’s learning, urbanity and rhetorical ability. On the other hand, the entirety of the Funeral Oration should probably be regarded as an intricate satire of the genre, aimed at lampooning the pretentious chauvinism of the professional rhetoricians: ‘even the pupil of very inferior masters… may make a figure if he were to praise the Athenians among the Athenians’. There are many allusions to the Republic in Aspasia’s speech: the city as earth-mother (that ‘noble lie’ about procreation popping up again, in the mouth of a hetæra no less); the total brotherhood of the Athenians; the juxtaposition of aristocracy with democracy. It is as though Socrates is subtly skewering the rhetorical practice of confusing the earthly city with the city-in-speech!

It is possible to read all this – particularly the Symposium and the Funeral Oration – in a male-chauvinist way, of course. But allow me to present instead an Astellian-feminist reading. Plato places prostitution alongside cookery and sweets in the Republic and alongside rhetoric in the Funeral Oration, and opposes it to (Eryximachus’) art of medicine in the Symposium and the art of gymnastic in the Republic and especially the Laws. Contextualising all of these references with Socrates’ schema in the Gorgias, we can see a bit more clearly Plato’s attitude toward the practice of selling sex, even though it’s never really spelt out in bold letters. It’s a form of flattery that is opposed to philosophy: it’s women telling men what they want to hear about themselves – but not the truth – in exchange for money. Even if, in the Laws, he doesn’t ultimately favour banning it with written legislation and punishments, he still believes prostitution ought to carry a stigma for the indulgent men, because women are capable of so much better! Women deserve, like Diotima, the chance to bear truth – and not, like Aspasia, to be forced to bear flattering lies to the powerful.

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