Pausanias and Agathon: a ‘same sex relationship’?

Thinking Anglicans notes that the Evangelical Group of the General Synod, EGGS, has issued this briefing document to its members and friends ahead of General Synod’s shared conversations, scheduled to start on 10 July. The document proposes that “The ideas/opinions/statements expressed (in bold) are amongst those that members might hear articulated and which we believe can (and need) to be responded to. The thoughts/responses offered are a resource from the (elected members of) the Committee to help reflection on the likely issues and questions.”

Like other commentators on this document, I’m not sure the ‘if you hear that, respond like this’ format is very helpful; if you’re listening out for the trigger words of a particular dodgy statement, will you really hear what someone is saying to you? But I’ve a deeper concern, and that regards something I’ve commented on already in this blog: the use of the ancient Greeks without any sense of historical context. This, I think, is systematic of the casual use of history by some Christians, and it contributes to a rejection of Christianity, as something requiring believers to leave their brains outside the church door.

The section of the document I have in mind is a potential response to someone expressing the view that ‘Scripture isn’t clear on a number of issues regarding human sexuality’ and it goes like this: “Some have suggested that faithful same sex relationships were not known in (pre) biblical times and therefore the bible is silent on this matter. This is not true: such relationships are acknowledged by Plato and others, and it is likely that Alexander the Great was in a same sex relationship with Hephaestion, as was Pausanius with poet Agathon.”

Wikimedia commons

Hyakinthos: Wikimedia commons

So the argument being made is that those who say the Bible doesn’t mention ‘faithful same sex relationships’ because they didn’t exist are wrong: such relationships did exist, so if the Bible had wanted to mention them, it could have done. The term ‘(pre) biblical times’ makes no sense to me; I wonder if they meant ‘pre-New Testament times’. Leaving aside a different sort of oddity, the way of talking about ‘the Bible’ as one entity when it is a collection of works in different genres from different periods, there’s a complete disregard for the methods of historical study here.

I’ve discussed elsewhere the range of different forms of behaviour that were around in the classical Greek world and which modern readers have too readily assimilated to ‘homosexuality’: an inappropriate amount of interest in personal grooming (seen, by the ancient Greeks, as indicating far too much interest in appearing attractive to women); temporary relationships in which one man (the erastês) was older and dominant with his partner (the erômenos) being younger and passive; male friendship with a strong spiritual bond but no physical expression; and men who preferred to dress and act in a way seen as ‘feminine’. Ancient categories weren’t the same as ours and ‘in a faithful same sex relationship’ simply can’t be applied.

I’ll concentrate here on the claim about Pausanias (not Pausanius) and Agathon. It’s not a separate example from EGGS’ comment on ‘Plato and others’. The main source for Pausanias and Agathon is actually Plato, who in the Symposium imagines a conversation about love. Both Pausanias and Agathon are present, as is the playwright Aristophanes. No women are in the room, because the only woman who was there – a flute-girl – has been asked to leave. The men talk about whether love between a man and a woman is different from love between men, and conclude that the latter is better because men are, simply by being men, better. When it’s his turn to speak, Pausanias contrasts the bad sort of love, only interested in the body, with the good sort, attracted to the soul. One can feel the first sort for boys or for women, but the second sort is only felt for men. A boy should wait for the right sort of man, one who is interested in his soul rather than his body, and it is right for such a man to be given sexual access to the boy’s body.

The other main source for Agathon, a prize-winning playwright, is Aristophanes who, in his comedy Women at the Thesmophoria, has a camp, cross-dressing Agathon. Giulia Sissa identifies the two Agathons as two versions of the same man, and compares the ‘platonic glorification’ of one Agathon to the ‘comedic denigration’ of the other. Where is the real Agathon? We simply can’t say. It’s not just that in the two genres – Platonic philosophy and Athenian comedy – the same man comes out very differently, but that there’s an intertextual game going on between the two pieces of literature.

And the other references to Pausanias and Agathon simply riff on Plato. Aelian (2.21) and Xenophon (Symposium 8.32) refer to them as erastês and erômenos. The suggestion that the relationship was unusual because it went on longer than normal, beyond the point when the younger partner grows body hair, is clear. But was this like a modern ‘faithful same sex relationship’? I think not. Aelian (13.4) and Plutarch (Moralia 177a) have an anecdote about the tragic poet Euripides getting drunk and kissing Agathon even though the latter was ‘about 40 years old’ (Aelian) or ‘already bearded’ (Plutarch). When challenged on this, Euripides replied ‘it’s not just spring that is excellent in attractive men – so is autumn’. Diogenes Laertius (Life of Plato 32) quotes a verse attributed to Plato about kissing Agathon and feeling his soul was trying to pass across to the other man, but this is included in a range of other lines attributed to Plato about both men and women he loved, and from its verse form appears to have been written after Plato’s death.

I’m not denying that Pausanias and Agathon were used in the ancient world as an example of a relationship which went on for much longer than the erastês and erômenos type normally did. But I do challenge the suggestion that we can map this on to modern relationships. Whether we see Agathon as the effeminate man of Aristophanes’ play or the champion of love (only to be challenged by Socrates!) in Plato, this isn’t the twenty-first century. Bizarrely, in making him modern, EGGS are believing what some ‘famous gays’ websites say e.g. ‘Agathon was an Athenian dramatist (c. 450-400 BC) and he was gay. His boyfriend was Pausanias and they had a 10-15 years long relationship.’

I think Christian writers need to do a lot better than this sort of casual history which treats all the sources at the same level and assumes a simple mapping between then and now.

About fluff35

I blog on a range of subjects arising from various aspects of my life. On, I focus on my reactions to early retirement and think about aspects of teaching and research which I hope will be stimulating to those still working in higher education. On, I blog as an authorized lay preacher in a pretty standard parish church of the Church of England, who needs to write in order to find out what she thinks. I took part in the Oxford/St Albans/Armed Forces C of E 'Shared Conversations' in March 2016, worked on the Living in Love and Faith resources from 2017 and was elected to General Synod in October 2021, and continue to try to reflect on some of the issues. On I share my thoughts on various aspects of the history of medicine and the body. I have also written for The Conversation UK on
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2 Responses to Pausanias and Agathon: a ‘same sex relationship’?

  1. Pingback: Sexuality and the body: using ancient sources to support modern ideas

  2. Pingback: Sexuality and the body: using ancient sources to support modern ideas | MotionBump Reader

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