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Modern critics are quick to assert that Socrates failed in his role as a teacher to Alcibiades by refusing to engage in sexual relations. Upon closer investigation of both the traditional form and Socrates’ own revised form of pederasty, the reasoning behind the lack of sexual activity is gleaned. In classical Athens, the traditional, established form of pederasty had a complex interchange between lover and beloved that involved predetermined exchanges among the two parties. As the relationship between Socrates and Alcibiades deviated from the normal model, it followed that the two were not forced to play within the traditional guidelines and, thus, sexual gratification was unnecessary. When investigating the relationship of Socrates and Alcibiades through the microscope of Socrates’ own reformed model of pederasty, the absence of sexual relations is, again, unsurprising. Socratic pederasty had less to do with the exchange of knowledge for sexual gratification and more to do with the achievement and enrichment of beauty through the education and observance of a youthful beauty, here, Alcibiades. Plato’s Symposium provides one with speeches made by dinner guests in classical Athens, most especially speeches made by Socrates and Alcibiades, demonstrating contemporary views on pederasty and the nuances of the relationship between Socrates and Alcibiades—illustrating with finality the exact basis of and failures within their close association.
Pederasty, in its traditional form, which was observed by the majority of Athenian citizens, was the cornerstone of Greek democratic values and life. The roles of lover and beloved were already molded into the ideals of the older wise pursuer and the young beautiful pursued each offering their respective and balanced qualities to the other. Athenian society felt that one could “hardly point to a greater good for someone to have from youth onward than a good lover, and for a lover, a beloved.” The importance of the two to each other led to an accountability system for politics and warfare as a whole. As neither the lover nor the beloved could withstand public shame before their partners, their actions would, ideally, remain beyond reproach and complete a corruption free civic society. The pederasty relationship was also very integral to the educational system, providing the younger generation with an irreplaceable source of knowledge and experience. Athenian Greeks felt “that which should guide human beings who are going to live fairly throughout their lives can be implanted by neither blood ties, nor honors, nor wealth, nor anything else as beautifully as love.” Thus, the mutuality of this relationship stood for the same key values as the government and provided the basis for which the new generations would continue to lead the society.
The traditional form of pederasty was only loosely defined by the presence of both a lover and a beloved, but many societal notions were formed based on the pretenses of the relationship. Athenian society dictated in which situations pederasty could actually be seen as an honorable practice and in which it could be seen as ignoble and worthy of disgrace. Harmodius and Aristogeiton, heroes of the republic, characterized the ideal form of the relationship—that which was based upon the goodness of the soul and was, thus, honorable. Athenian democratic legend credited this pair of lovers with bringing about the fall of tyranny in Athens, leaving this noble homosexual pairing as the republican ideal to be emulated. Conversely, in the Symposium, dinner guest Pausanias speaks of pandemian lovers who based their pederasty relationships completely upon the outward appearance of the young boys rather than the goodness of their souls—forming a transient and completely looks based bond. Pederasty relationships in which the lover discerns purely on the basis of appearance and the beloved is easily swayed by offers of money and political power are those relationships that Athenian society saw as barbaric and even worthy of criminal charges, as in Aeschines’ speech Against Timarchus. Athenian society prided itself that “here [in Athens] there are much finer customs than elsewhere…[for] it is said to be a finer thing to love openly than in secret and particularly to love the noblest and best even if they are uglier than others.”
The notions governing Athens’ traditional form of pederasty proclaimed the institution to be noble and fulfilling for both the lover and the beloved in only very particular circumstances. For the lover should be “able to contribute to prudence and the rest of virtue, while the other [the beloved] stands in need of them for the acquisition of education and the rest of wisdom. Then and only then—when theses laws converge—does it result that a beloved’s gratification of his lover is noble; but in any other circumstance it is not.” In the relationship between Socrates and Alcibiades these conditions were fulfilled, as Socrates could be described as Alcibiades’ “‘only deserving lover.'” Alcibiades, in fact, states to Socrates that he “‘should be far more ashamed before men of good sense for not gratifying a man like you [Socrates] than I should be before the many and senseless for gratifying you.'” In these terms Alcibiades offers himself to Socrates, but, strangely, the prudence and virtue that labeled Socrates as a deserving lover also proved him above accepting Alcibiades’ offer, as Socrates refuses the traditional pederast exchange of wisdom and experience for sexual gratification.
Socrates’ refusal to accept Alcibiades proffered sexual gratification is not only merely acceptable but rather almost commendable. The pederast relationship has no clear cut rules stating that the lover must seek out and accept sexual exchanges although it does, indeed, seem to prohibit a pursuing nature within the beloved. As Alcibiades clearly admits in Plato’s Symposium, he was deceived “into thinking of him [Socrates] as the lover, [but] he brings it about that he is the beloved rather than the lover.” Whether Alcibiades is seen in the role of lover or beloved his sexual advances towards Socrates would be seen as socially unacceptable because they do not fit within the narrow confines of the noble pederast relationship. As a lover Alcibiades would have nothing to offer Socrates by way of wisdom or experience and in the role of beloved, Alcibiades is required to fill the role of the submissive pursued not of the sexual aggressor. Socrates’ refusal to engage in sexual relations is also admirable when seen from Athenian social standards. With Athenian society’s structured focus upon the importance of the soul rather than the body, Socrates’ strict adherence to only matters of the soul (i.e. matters concerning wisdom, prudence, and other enviable qualities) in his relations with Alcibiades is more idyllic than problematic. As the Athenians prided themselves upon their tradition of idealized pederasty, that is pederasty based upon the nobility of the soul, placing importance upon the base sexual relations would have cheapened the institution by placing importance upon the body. Thus, Socrates’ own lack of desire to engage in sexual relations made Alcibiades’ pushing of the issue socially incorrect and the actual nature of pederasty allows for the idyllic meeting of souls without the complication of the body.
In the revised form of pederasty put forth by Socrates the main objective becomes, not the shared love and friendship between the two parties but, rather, the advancement on a intellectual and spiritual level through the relationship. Under the auspices of this model the “lover,” here Socrates, was to seek out “a beautiful, generous, and naturally gifted soul…and to this human being he is at once fluent in speeches about virtue—of what sort the good man must be and what he must practice—as he tries to educate him2E” Through the implementation of these educational speeches and works, the beloved was to gain wisdom and virtue while the lover was to advance intellectually. Most importantly, these lessons or “children” remain as the immortality of the lover—a testament to the virtue and wisdom of the lover for future generations. This process could only take place within the confines of the pederast relationship for the lover’s attempts at educating the beloved are “in order that [the lover], on his part,…may come to believe that the beauty of the body is something trivial…[and may] behold it [beauty] and give birth—in ungrudging philosophy—to many beautiful and magnificent speeches and thoughts.”
Socrates’ reformed version of pederasty, while staying true to the basic principle of lover and beloved, reevaluates many of the benefits to be gleaned from the association. This model follows the same guidelines as the traditional method in the dichotomy between body and soul, although here the division is in terms of achieving immortality while the traditional pederasty model is in terms of love. The ultimate achievement in the Socratic method is to obtain immortality, rather than wisdom, and for this the more ignoble populace “turns rather to women and are erotic in this way, furnishing for themselves through the procreation of children immortality, remembrance, and happiness (as they believe) for all future time.” However, the practitioners of the pederast model “are others who are pregnant in terms of the soul—for these…in their bodies conceive those things that is appropriate for a soul to conceive and bear…prudence and the rest of virtue.” Through the pederast relationship, those that are “pregnant in terms of the soul” are able to achieve their immortality through producing a legacy of great works and speeches pertaining to wisdom and virtue.
Once again the question must be asked, within this model should Socrates have engaged in sexual relations with Alcibiades? The answer here remains a resonant no as, once again, the complications of the flesh would convolute the greater good of the soul. In the words of Socrates, the lover “must be the lover of all beautiful bodies and in contempt slacken this [erotic] intensity…in the belief that it is petty.” In the Socratic method, the reliance is placed even more heavily upon the importance of the soul and the advancement to be found there—to engage in pursuits of the flesh would only distract from the objective of the relationship. Thus, by refusing sexual relations with Alcibiades, Socrates was just true to his own model of the pederast relationship.
Thus, in accordance with the two forms of pederasty, did Socrates fail in his role as educator by refusing to have sexual relations with Alcibiades? The answer to this question is no. Within the confines of both models of the relationship, Socrates engaged in the far more noble mating of the soul—without confusing the issue with sexual relations. If anything, Socrates’ failure as a teacher to Alcibiades lays, not in his refusal to engage in sexual acts, but perhaps in a flawed theory as to how to obtain further education for oneself while imparting that knowledge upon one’s educational pupil.
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