Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Impossible Love and Victorian Values: J. A. Symonds and the Intellectual History of Homosexuality

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Impossible Love and Victorian Values: J. A. Symonds and the Intellectual History of Homosexuality

Article excerpt

On February 1, 1889, the British historian and essayist John Addington Symonds (1840-93) wrote Benjamin Jowett a letter. Jowett was the Master of Balliol College, Oxford, and Symonds's former tutor; Symonds had been helping him to revise his popular translation of Plato's dialogues. The letter asked how Jowett could be so ignorant of history as to regard homoerotic love described in Plato as "mainly a figure of speech." Symonds explained what the "concrete facts" of love between men in ancient Athens could mean to modern men innately predisposed to same-sex attraction. He described the "heaven in hell" of reading about homoerotic love in Plato, then seeing it disavowed by Jowett's commentary. He emphasized the duplicity and hypocrisy of educators who hid the truth about homoeroticism, demonstrating themselves not to have their students' best interests at heart.1

This expression of frustration-passionate, but grounded in empirical evidence-is characteristic of Symonds's writing about same-sex desire. Since the 1960s, scholars have richly detailed the fin-de-siècle European literary and artistic community of men who desired men, and some have recognized Symonds's significance within it. But they have focused on cultural context or sexual identity rather than on the origins of his ideas.2 Practitioners of "traditional" intellectual history have likewise breathed new life into late-Victorian intellectuals who found self-understanding in reading and scholarship. Yet those who have treated Symonds have tended either to shy away from sexuality or, in focusing on the fundamental nature of sex, to exclude the wider context.3 Though we now know much about Symonds's cultural milieu, his distinctive blend of scholarship and sexual identity could be better understood. He was shaped by the same thinkersHegel, Arnold, Ranke, Whitman-and used the same intellectual tools as many others, but he stood apart in his conviction that modern thinkers had wrongly suppressed the existence of same-sex desire, and in his ability to conceive new possibilities for expressing it. By situating his ideas about homosexuality within their intellectual context, this article hopes to cast him in a new light: not as a sexual radical, but as a Victorian scholar whose subject was love.

Like most educated men of his time, Symonds began as a classicist. Taught Latin and Greek from the age of seven, he attended Harrow, where he would have encountered the Iliad, the Republic, and other canonical classical texts.4 In mid-nineteenth-century Harrow, the masculine ideal of "muscular Christianity" held sway, and homoerotic sentiment was expressed through furtive sexual explorations.5 But in his last year of school, Symonds chanced upon the Symposium and the Phaedrus-and discovered paiderastia, the social institution of erotic relationships between an older and a younger elite Athenian man.6 Reverence for Plato and for the Greeks generally prepared him to read these dialogues as faithfully as the ones he had already encountered, and he found that they acknowledged a kind of desire which he lacked the words to articulate in English-he referred to it with a Greek phrase, ëçcoç tgjv âôvvàrojv, the love of impossible things. As he recorded in his Memoirs, he believed himself to have discovered "the true liber amoris at last, the revelation I had been waiting for."7 Symonds never lost his respect for the Greeks or his belief that they could be a guide to ethical public life. Seeing new erotic possibilities in the classical tradition did not mean rejecting its other aspects.8 But nor did he forget-or forgive-the hypocrisy of the system that had taught him to view Plato as the route to manliness and worldly success.

In 1858, Symonds matriculated at Balliol, entering a university consumed by philosophical, moral, and pedagogical questions.9 Debates about how to teach and learn, how to read, and how to believe in God shaped his sense that same-sex love needed to be considered on both historical and moral terms. …

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