They Didn't Teach me THAT in Western Civ

By Erin Prophet


Ah, Western Civilization. A procession of white busts marching up the library wall. A row of neat gold-stamped titles on the library shelf. Monolithic and inexorable, moving toward perfection. And straight. At least that is the way I learned about it in high school and even college.

Moses, of course, condemned homosexuality, Deuteronomy is clear on that. It is to be punished by death. But what do all of the other busts think?

I read somewhere that many famous artists, like Michelangelo, were gay, but I thought of it as a simple aberration. God will forgive Michelangelo because he did such beautiful work. And gays tend to be artistic. But to find homosexuality at the root of some of the most important ideas in Western civilization. That was a surprise.

In high school, I studied Plato's ideas for an ideal republic and learned about Socrates' program for what came to be called Platonic love, an intellectual, non-physical sort of love. But did anybody tell me that the starting point for the discussion was homoeroticism? That maybe Socrates and Moses might have disagreed, frowning across the shelf, white marble to white marble? Not a hint.

We don't know whether Socrates was gay; but he certainly took homosexuality for granted and didn't condemn it. It was a part of his world. In fact, the love that Plato writes about so eloquently is the love of an older male teacher for a younger male pupil. This fact is sanitized out of high school texts.

In the Phaedrus, Plato describes what is obviously a frequent occurrence in Greek life: an older male lover losing his head over a beautiful young man. He writes, "[The lover] is old and his companion is young, yet...he is driven on by an irresistable itch to the pleasures which are constantly to be found in seeing, hearing, and touching his beloved, in fact in every sensation which makes him conscious of his presence; no wonder then that he takes delight in close attendance on him." Socrates, in this dialogue, goes on say that a higher form of love should be the ultimate goal of lovers. But his starting point is pure homoeroticism.

In another dialogue, the Symposium, Socrates celebrates a teacher and student who share both erotic love and intellectual companionship. He says, "Men in this condition [love] enjoy a far fuller community with each other than that which comes with children, and a far surer friendship." Shame is not even a part of the discussion. Later, just before his death, Plato did write in his Laws that love between men should be discouraged, but this does not alter his record of social norms. And he certainly didn't think that it should be punished by death.

The marble busts whisper back and forth. Some of them turn their heads. They aren't looking in the same direction any more. "Enough!" says Augustine. "We know that homosexuality was a part of Greek culture. But that doesn't make it O.K."

Another bust begins to wrinkle his brow. It's the Bard, chief interpreter of Western civilization, some say the inventor of modern ideas about humanness. He didn't write about homosexuality in his plays, although they brush against it with the repeated theme of cross-dressing and mistaken identity. But what about in the sonnets? Here, in some of the most beautiful love poems in the English language, Shakespeare does celebrate homosexual love just as much as Plato had centuries before. Only twenty-six out of his one-hundred fifty four sonnets even mention a woman at all. This clearly disturbed some people in Shakespeare's day, for in the second edition of his sonnets, the editor changed many of the words "he" and "him" to "she and her."

Scholars argue about whether or not Shakespeare is revealing in the sonnets that he was gay, or that he was simply writing from the viewpoint of somebody who was. But most of these sonnets clearly speak of the passion of an older for a younger man. And given their personal nature, and the fact that they were published in an extremely limited first edition, we might suspect that they do reflect Shakespeare's own feelings. At the very least, we must conclude that Shakespeare didn't see anything wrong with love between men. And that in his time, it was not uncommon.

Sonnet 108 reads: "What's new to speak, what new to register,/That may express my love or thy dear merit?/Nothing, sweet boy; but yet, like prayers divine,/I must each day say o'er the very same;/Counting no old thing old, thou mine, I thine." Does the form of love make these words any less beautiful, their message any less timeless?

Now the busts are murmuring back and forth, their ruler-straight bases slipping on the polished wood of the shelves. It's a little too much agitation. One falls off and shatters on the hearth. It's the head of Moses, beard shaped in the style created by that famous artist, Michelangelo.

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