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7th March, 2013: Peter Banki: Philosophy and Sex


Sex has never constituted one of the great philosophical questions or themes.  The philosophers themselves almost never wrote about their own sex lives, as if such discourse were taboo, as if it would endanger the capacity of their work to be taken seriously.  Kant famously feared that sexual attraction puts in danger the categorical imperative.


And yet, sexuality and desire is probably one of the most decisive elements of our lives.  Philosophy may indeed have a lot to do with sex.  In his talk, Peter looked at some of the ways in which sex has been alluded to in the work of Plato, Kant and Nietzsche as well as more radical attempts to bring sex and philosophy together in the works of Georges Bataille and Friedrich Schlegel.






During most of the history of philosophy, there has been a strong aversion to talking about sex. At least this is the argument made by a recent study by two philosophers Avital Ronell and Anne Dufourmantelle. Sex, with its irreducible relation to the body and physicality, has never constituted one of the great philosophical questions or themes. The occasion of Dufourmantelle’s study is a casual, almost whimsical remark by Jacques Derrida that philosophers themselves almost never write about their own sex lives, as if such disclosure were taboo, as if it would endanger the capacity of their work to be taken seriously. Kant, for example, in his Lectures on Ethics famously feared that sexual attraction puts in danger the categorical imperative, because it “makes the loved person an object of appetite… as soon as a person becomes an Object of appetite for another, all motives of moral relationship cease to function.”[1]


Although there are exceptions to this rule, (notably Michel Foucault and feminists such as Elizabeth Grosz and Judith Buttler), for the most part philosophers rarely attempt to broach the relationship between sexual desire and the work that they do, as if the two were utterly distinct. Those who have mixed erotic writing with philosophy, such as Friedrich Schlegel, Georges Bataille or the Marquis de Sade remain marginal to the canon of philosophers whose work is considered to be important and serious.[2]


“Philosophy prides itself on taking hold of life and exploring its very articulations. Why this unabating level of discretion and self censorship?


Plato’s Banquet. One of the most famous accounts of sexuality in the history of philosophy is in Plato’s Symposium, which stages a banquet, a drinking party, where each man must deliver a speech in praise of love (eros). Aristophanes recounts the fable of Zeus cutting humanity into two halves, which is always seeking its other half to become whole again.

“After the division the two parts of man, each desiring his other half, came together, and throwing their arms about one another, entwined in mutual embraces, longing to grow into one, they began to die from hunger and self-neglect, because they did not like to do anything apart; and when one of the halves died and the other survived, the survivor sought another mate, man or woman as we call them,--being the sections of entire men or women,--and clung to that.”

Sex is reduced to a metaphor of lost unity. This idea goes all the way to the 18th Century, where there is an androgynous ideal where the lacks inherent in both men and women are supplemented by erotic love.

Socrates in his speech asserts that the highest purpose of love is to become a philosopher or, literally, a lover of wisdom.  Socrates informs the guests that he had sought out Diotima of Mantinea (lit. "honored by Zeus") for her knowledge. Socrates then proceeds to relate her story of Love's genealogy, nature and purpose (201d). Eros is the son of "resource and need." In her view, love is a means of ascent to contemplation of the Divine. For Diotima, the most correct use of love of other human beings is to direct one's mind to love of Divinity.[3] With genuine Platonic love, the beautiful or lovely other person inspires the mind and the soul and directs one's attention to spiritual things. One proceeds from recognition of another's beauty, to appreciation of Beauty as it exists apart from any individual, to consideration of Divinity, the source of Beauty, to love of Divinity.

Love's function is "giving birth in beauty both in body and in mind." All people, she asserts, are pregnant in body and mind and naturally want to give birth when they reach a certain age. Sex is one means of giving birth, and it is through reproduction that we achieve immortality. 

This, my dear Socrates," said the stranger of Mantineia, "is that life above all others which man should live, in the contemplation of beauty absolute; a beauty which if you once beheld, you would see not to be after the measure of gold, and garments, and fair boys and youths, whose presence now entrances you; and you and many a one would be content to live seeing them only and conversing with them without meat or drink, if that were possible-you only want to look at them and to be with them. But what if man had eyes to see the true beauty-the divine beauty, I mean, pure and dear and unalloyed, not clogged with the pollutions of mortality and all the colours and vanities of human life-thither looking, and holding converse with the true beauty simple and divine? Remember how in that communion only, beholding beauty with the eye of the mind, he will be enabled to bring forth, not images of beauty, but realities (for he has hold not of an image but of a reality), and bringing forth and nourishing true virtue to become the friend of God and be immortal, if mortal man may. Would that be an ignoble life?" 


However, Alcipiades comes in late to the party and interrupts Socrates’ speech and argues in fact that Socrates is in fact the greatest seducer of all.  Alcibiades begins by comparing Socrates to a statue of Silenus; the statue is ugly and hollow, and inside it is full of tiny golden statues of the gods (215a-b). He compares Socrates to the satyr[9]Marsyas; Socrates, however, needs no flute to "cast his spells" upon people as Marsyas did—he needs only his words (215b-d).

He then goes on to recount the whole of tale of his seduction by Socrates. And how Socrates rejected him. Socrates, he concludes, is unique in his ideas and accomplishments, unrivaled by any man from the past or present (221c); but be warned: Socrates may present himself as your lover, but before you know it you will have fallen in love with him.


What was condemned in the Hellenic world was excess in all its forms, and not the appetites of the flesh as such, the ideal of wisdom as ̛measured desire and the pathway toward the good.  In the Laws, Plato invokes the existence of three major, fundamental appetites that have to do with food, drink and reproduction, the latter being the strongest. Socrates asks his interlocutor in the Republic whether he is acquainted with any pleasure greater or keener than sexual pleasure.” If the danger for rational being, is that he or she may be carried away by sexual pleasure, this is because sexual passion is capable of superseding all the others and affecting the subject’s capacity to think, to discern and to behave as a citizen.”

I think this idea is still very much with us. Aristotle says that “the appetitive should be in harmony with reason.” For Aristotle, “the desire for the pleasant is insatiable and indiscriminate, in a mindless person”, it will increase to an excessive degree if one is not “ready to obey and be under the control of the ruling element” which is the logos to which the appetitive must conform.

With the advent of Christianity the pathway toward the good underwent a fundamental change, because the idea of original sin, formulated by Paul and Augustine, was applied to all humanity. Humanity was charged with an inericable debt. It wasn’t possible anymore to spiritualize eros, as the Greeks had done. Being born human afflicts us with an original debt to evil. Erotic love can’t be associated with a spiritual quest. 


[1] I. Kant Lectures on Ethics Lectures on Ethics, Louis Infield (trans.), New York: Harper and Row, Publishers, 1963. p. 163

[2] Cf. Paul de Man “Reading and History” in The Resistance to Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002)


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