Literature Study GuidesHistory Of SexualityVolume 2 The Use Of Pleasure Summary

History of Sexuality | Study Guide

Michel Foucault

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History of Sexuality | Volume 2: The Use of Pleasure | Summary




Right off the bat, Foucault announces a change of direction. His History, he says, will now be broader in scope, going all the way back to antiquity in order to understand the origins of the modern concept of sexuality. He lays out a three-part plan. This volume will cover sexual ethics in Greece during the 4th century BCE. The next volume will look at Greek and Roman thought during the first two centuries CE. A final volume (ultimately left unfinished) will trace the rise of distinctly Christian ideas concerning sexual desire and activity.

Before this history resumes, Foucault identifies a few points that pre-Christian and Christian sexual ethics have in common. In both cultures, there existed a fear that improper sexual activity would weaken the individual and harm society. Both cultures upheld ideals of sexual conduct, and both stigmatized certain sexual behaviors. Finally, both Christian and Greco-Roman cultures admired abstinence. However, Foucault warns against reading too much into these similarities. Though the fundamental themes are similar, Christian and pre-Christian morality responded to them in distinct ways. In the Christian world, a code arose that forbade certain types of behavior and encouraged or compelled others. In the cultures of the ancient Mediterranean, however, sex was part of a "practice of the self," guided by ideals of moderation and self-mastery.

Part 1: The Moral Problematization of Pleasures

The ancient Greeks, Foucault says, did not have a concept of "sexuality," or what medieval Christians would call "the flesh." They were concerned with sexual activity not as a sinful temptation or as a marker of identity, but as a pleasure to be indulged with moderation and care. Foucault picks out the Greek word aphrodisia—literally, "works of Aphrodite"—as an umbrella term for sexual behavior as viewed in the ancient world. In their thinking about aphrodisia, he says, Greeks of the classical age were not interested in praising or condemning specific acts. Rather, their overriding concern was with moderation (sōphrosynē) and self-mastery (enkrateia).

Surviving writings on the subject of sexual ethics almost universally address the male citizen, who occupied a privileged place in Athenian society. Men were encouraged to engage in sexual behavior consistent with their needs (i.e., don't overindulge), timely (with respect to season and stages of life), and appropriate for their social status. A life of such moderation demanded a continual struggle of reason and will against emotion. Mastery of oneself was both a source of personal freedom and a prerequisite for exercising mastery over others.

Part 2: Dietetics

Ancient Greek writings on sexual ethics frame the issue in a few recurring ways. In some writings, sexual activity is treated under the heading of dietetics, a word that originally referred to an all-encompassing regimen of food, drink, and physical activity. In this sense, several classical authors treated sex as part of the "diet," something to be indulged with respect to one's physical condition and the seasons of the year. Importantly, aphrodisia does not play a significant role in these texts: it is often included in lists alongside such concerns as when to bathe and what exercises to perform. Like other types of physical activity, sex could be overdone, potentially harming the individual. It was viewed, too, as an inherently violent act that "expended" a man's life forces. Indulging in sex too frequently, or at inopportune times, could also weaken one's future offspring and thus undermine one's lineage. Thus, Greek dietetic texts took care to explain when future parents ought to attempt to procreate. As the means of reproduction, sex was also linked to death, since children offered the best available substitute for physical immortality.

Part 3: Economics

Sex also naturally entered into discussions of economics, in its original meaning of "household management." The Athenians, Foucault says, acknowledged a distinction between a man's "lawful wife" and various mistresses and concubines with whom he might also associate. The wife administered the household under the husband's supervision and was expected to remain monogamous to guarantee her children would be his heirs. Relations with mistresses and concubines were for pleasure, not procreation, and these classes of women did not enjoy the protections or the privileges of a wife. The husband was not required to practice sexual exclusivity—marriage "did not restrict him sexually."

Marital ethics were not, Foucault concludes, merely a "first draft" of the more restrictive sexual ethics that arose during the Christian era. Some moralists of this era did, in fact, urge married men to practice sexual exclusivity. Their rationale for doing so, however, was different from the Christian principle of marital fidelity. In the Athenian view, husbands who had sex only with their wives were showing self-control and preserving peace within the household. In other words, sexual exclusivity was deemed desirable because of a man's status within society—as a citizen and head of household—not because of his relationship to his wife. Under this system, husbands and wives were not equal: a husband was expected to train and supervise his wife in household management, making her the second-in-command. Wives, in turn, were to be treated as preeminent among the women in their household. Having affairs with servant girls was apt to undermine this privileged status and sow disorder in the home.

Part 4: Erotics

Foucault now turns his attention to pederasty—the custom in classical Athens of aristocratic men forming relationships with adolescent males. To say that pederasty was practiced among upper-class Athenians is not, Foucault points out, the same as saying that Athenian society tolerated homosexuality. For one thing, pederasty was an accepted, mainstream part of Athenian culture, not just "tolerated." For another, the men and boys involved in pederastic relations would generally also engage in sexual relations with women. From the point of view of this culture, it was natural to love and pursue "'beautiful' human beings, whatever their sex might be."

Male love of this kind posed ethical problems for the ancient Athenians, but these problems arose mainly from the age and social status of the individuals involved. The erastes or lover—almost invariably the older male in the relationship—was "expected to play the socially, morally, and sexually active role." The eromenos or beloved, a younger male who had not quite reached manhood, might have many suitors and, after a period of courtship, would be expected to choose one to be his erastes. The choice was to be made deliberately, based on the personal qualities and virtues of the erastes rather than on material gifts. But the consent of the eromenos entailed a willingness to be the passive partner in a relationship, something classical Greek culture deemed unacceptably "effeminate" for a man to do.

Thus, a question arose as to when an adolescent was too old—too close to being a man—for such a relationship to still be honorable. Though authorities differed as to the precise age limit, the existence of such a limit meant that pederastic relationships were doomed to be short-lived. As the eromenos matured, eros (sexual love) was expected to give way to philia (friendship). An asymmetrical love relationship between man and youth would, according to the classical ideal, transform into a lifelong friendship between two equals. An entire rhetoric of shame and honor developed around this idealized relationship, differentiating it from less "noble" couplings based purely on physical attraction. Boys as well as men had to conduct their affairs with moderation, or their reputations would suffer.

Part 5: True Love

The pederastic relationship was scrutinized by philosophers not just for its moral and social significance, but for what it might reveal about true love. The most influential classical writings on this subject come from Greek philosopher Plato (c. 428–347 BCE), who viewed love—and not the beloved himself—as the true prize of an erotic relationship. By coming to love an individual, one gains an experience of love that can then be broadened and heightened until, ultimately, the object of one's love is beauty itself. Love of the eromenos—his body as well as his soul—is a stepping stone toward a higher experience. Moreover, this higher spiritual love is one in which both the erastes and the eromenos can take part, obviating the question of who is the lover and who is the beloved.


Thus, Foucault says, the Greek philosophers of the Golden Age developed sophisticated sexual ethics even as they said little about sex directly. In their calls for moderation and even abstinence, some of these philosophers drew close to themes that would later be taken up by Christian thinkers. Still, Foucault insists, these classical thinkers advocated sexual self-control for different reasons than their Christian counterparts. To them, and to their Greco-Roman successors, controlling one's sexual behavior was a path to self-mastery. It took the form not of a moral code dividing right and wrong, but of an "art of living" that responded to one's social position and stage of life. The metamorphosis of this art into a strict moral imperative would be the work of later centuries.


Greece in the Golden Age

The period Foucault describes in this volume, sometimes called the Greek Golden Age, is widely seen as representing the height of classical Greek culture. Politics of this era were dominated by city-states, with Athens and Sparta at the head of the pack. The Golden Age came after what is usually called the Archaic Period (c. 800–500 BCE), the age in which Greek poet Homer (fl. 9th/8th centuries BCE) wrote his epics, democracy arose in Athens, and Persian rule was definitively rejected. It was followed by the Hellenistic Period (c. 323–30 BCE), during which Greek colonies sprang up in Asia and Africa. Foucault has little to say about this later period in The History of Sexuality, and instead springs ahead to the rise of the Roman Empire in the first two centuries CE.

Of the two preeminent Golden Age city-states, Athens has had the more pervasive effect on later Western culture: things popularly thought of as "Ancient Greek," whether in art, literature, or politics, are typically Athenian. Athens is well known as one of the world's earliest democracies, but its democratic ideals did not extend to all of the city-state's residents. Only male citizens, who constituted an elite minority, were eligible to hold office, to vote, or to participate in public affairs. Miners and other manual laborers—as well as many craftsmen, tutors, and doctors—were slaves rather than free men. Thus, in writing about Athenian culture, it is important to acknowledge (as Foucault does) that this was the culture of a privileged few: the advice of Athenian philosophers is addressed to current and future citizens, not to the populace as a whole. Physical exercise, not optional for the many slaves engaged in tilling fields and mining silver, was willingly embraced by elite Athenian men as part of a ritualized daily regimen.

Oratory, not the written word, was the Athenians' main way of settling any question of public interest. The most prominent Greek politicians were also famed orators, and the most important of their addresses were written down for posterity. Thus, it is not a coincidence that many of the writings cited in this volume are records of, or recreations of, speeches and conversations. Some orators, such as the statesman Demosthenes (384–22 BCE), were even engaged as speechwriters (logographers) to others, who had to represent themselves in lawsuits, since oratory was central not only to Athenian politics but also to its legal practices. Demosthenes's speech Against Neaera, which Foucault cites as evidence of Golden Age Athenian attitudes toward marriage, was made in the context of an inheritance lawsuit.

Sparta, Athens's major rival, was a highly militarized city-state in which a small group of soldier-citizens ruled over a larger population of helots, or peasant farmers. Unlike Athens, where literature and philosophy flourished, Sparta during the Golden Age was preoccupied with diplomacy and, above all, warfare. Thus, apart from the writings of a few lyric poets, the literary record of Sparta comes mostly from Athenian writings about Sparta, rather than from works written by Spartans. Foucault mentions Sparta mainly as a counterpoint to Athenian customs—perhaps as one more way of showing the diversity of ancient thought.

The Socratic-Platonic Tradition

Three figures form a kind of founding lineage in Greek Golden Age philosophy: Socrates (c. 470–399 BCE), Plato (c. 428–347 BCE), and Aristotle (384–22 BCE). Plato, whose writings are extensively used by Foucault in this volume, frequently explored philosophical problems in the form of dialogues, either imagined or recalled (and embellished) from his student days. Socrates, Plato's mentor, typically appears as the central character in these dialogues. For this reason, they are sometimes called "Socratic dialogues." Particularly important dialogues for The History of Sexuality include The Republic (360 BCE), The Laws (360 BCE), Phaedrus (360 BCE), and Symposium (360 BCE).

In both The Laws and The Republic, Plato sets out some ideas concerning the life and customs of an ideal city. The Republic suggests that a "just city" would regulate the sexual life of its citizens by allowing the best and brightest—the "guardians"—to reproduce essentially at will, with the children to be raised in common. The Laws offers a less contrived system for arranging marriage and mating, though it penalizes men who fail to do their civic duty by finding a wife. Importantly, both works present philosophical speculation about what an ideal city would be like: neither one is a call for a system of arranged marriages to be implemented immediately in the Athens of Plato's time.

In the other two dialogues mentioned above, Plato drops down to the level of the individual and investigates the nature and purpose of love. In Phaedrus, the titular character is a young man with whom Socrates is enamored. The dialogue begins with Phaedrus reflecting on a speech about love. This is in a sense a practical speech, weighing the issue of when and to whom a young man should "grant his favors" (in the context of Athenian pederasty). Socrates listens and replies with not one but two speeches in which he ultimately broadens the subject to a reflection on love in general. He admits, as Phaedrus already believes, that love is madness, but he denies that this is a reason to avoid or despise lovers. Love, he says, is a special kind of madness that leads to happiness and inspires one in the pursuit of beauty and truth.

A similar point is made in Symposium, which takes the form of a speech contest on the theme of love. The participants offer varying definitions of love and various explanations of its power over the individual. One speaker describes a distinction between divine and earthly forms of love, with the former focusing on the beloved's soul and intelligence and the latter focusing on the merely physical. Another, more famous speech—attributed by Plato to the Greek playwright Aristophanes (c. 450–388 BCE)—describes a myth in which each person living today is part of a whole that was split apart long ago. Thus, love and desire consist of each person searching for their "other half." Socrates synthesizes ideas from some of the preceding speeches to arrive at a ladder-like ideal of love. Love, he says, can begin with the physical, but it naturally tends to grow into more and more abstract forms of beauty. Ultimately, the truly inspired lover will find himself face to face with absolute, eternal beauty.

Another participant in the Socratic tradition was Xenophon (c. 430–350 BCE), a contemporary of Plato's who wrote his own Symposium. Possibly modeled on the Platonic work of the same name, Xenophon's Symposium is lighter and wittier in character, but it makes some serious points about the nature of love and underscores some of Socrates's teachings as relayed by Plato. A notable insight is that love relationships can inspire both parties—the lover as well as the beloved—to grow in virtue, so as to be worthy of each other.

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