The Making of Fornication: Eros, Ethics, and Political Reform in Greek Philosophy and Early Christianity

By Kathy L. Gaca | Go to book overview

Chapter 2
Desire's Hunger and
Plato the Regulator

Plato's ideas about human sexual desire (έπιθυ7mgr;ίαpiyumπoρνεíαa) and sexual activity (éfrodπoρνεíαsia) are a critical part of his social reforms in the Republic and Laws. Why is Plato (ca. 429–347 B. C. E.) interested in curbing what we loosely— and he not at all loosely—call our sex drive? Why does sexual desire seem far more problematic to him than do desires for less intense pleasures, such as the longing for a cool drink under a shady tree? What does he think unrestrained sexual activity puts at risk? Plato finds something significant at stake, for he maintains that individual sexual conduct and collective sexual mores should undergo restrictive reform in order to create a better social order. The sexual principles that he offers are central to his ethics and political philosophy.

Plato's sexual reforms also have great significance in the history of sexual morality in Western culture. In a transmuted form, his ideas influenced the sexual prescriptions of the Jewish Platonist Philo and Christian Platonist church fathers, such as Clement. Plato's dream to break and bridle Greek sexual mores finally gained authoritative power in this Alexandrian religious venue, which was itself undergoing a turbulent, and at times violent, transition between the times of Philo (ca. 30 b.c.e. –45 c.e.) and Clement (ca. 150–216 c.e.), for this was when Christianity in Alexandria was developing partly from, and partly in opposition to, Judaism in Alexandria. In this venue, however, Plato's ideas succeeded only in a limited way and on religious terms distant from his own. He would have needed an interpreter to understand how the problems that he associates with uncontrolled sexual desire were written into the Tenth Commandment that Philo and Clement produced. My concern in this chapter, however, is to elucidate Plato's principles of sexual and reproductive conduct along with their underlying mo

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