Philosophical Interventions: Book Reviews, 1986-2011

By Martha C. Nussbaum | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIVE
The Bondage and Freedom of Eros

JOHN J. WINKLER (1990), The Constraints of Desire: The Anthropology of Sex and Gender in Ancient Greece; DAVID M. HALPERIN (1990), One Hundred Years of Homosexuality and Other Essays on Greek Love

The ancient Greeks, like most people who now study them, tended to think, and teach, that where sex is concerned some things are natural and other things are not, some things are up for grabs as expressions of personal taste and preference and others ruled out (or in) by our universal animal nature itself. Like many civilizations, they had strong views about what “nature” was here, and they were prepared to argue for these views using examples from the animal kingdom. Consider the following passage from Philo’s On Animals—a typical example drawn from John J. Winkler’s brilliant book, The Constraints of Desire—in which Philo “proves” the naturalness of having sexual relations only for reproductive purposes, and “proves,” too, the naturalness of male self-restraint, which subdues female greediness:

Not only among animals domesticated and reared by us but also among
the other species there are those which appear to have self-restraint.
When the Egyptian crocodile … is inclined to copulate, be diverts the
female to the bank and turns her over, it being natural to approach her
(when she is) lying on her back. After copulating, he turns her over with
his forearms. But when she senses the copulation and the impregnation,
she becomes malicious in purpose and pretends to desire copulation once
more, displaying a harlot-like affection and assuming the usual position
for copulation. So he immediately comes to ascertain, either by scent or
by other means, whether the invitation is genuine or merely pretense. By
nature he is alert to hidden things. When the intent of the action is truly
established by their looking into each other’s eyes, he claws her guts and
consumes them, for they are tender. And unhindered by armored skin
or hard and pointed spines, he tears her flesh apart. But enough about
self-restraint.

-69-

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