Didn't Teach me THAT in Western Civ
By Erin Prophet
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
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.
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
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
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.