Copyright (c) 1993 First Things 34 (June/July 1993): 6-8.

Athens and Jerusalem, Again

Peter J. Leithart

President Clinton's push to lift the ban on homosexuals in the military has been called many things: a waste of political capital, a declaration of war against biblical morality, a declaration of war against the warrior class. I call it calling a bluff.

For decades, conservatives have celebrated Greece and Rome as foundational pillars of Western civilization. The late Allan Bloom, hailed by many conservatives for his assault on the modern university, claimed that Plato's Republic was for him the great book on education. While honoring Christianity as a major contributor to Western civilization, conservatives have attempted to defend a cultural synthesis of Jerusalem and Athens that currently goes by the name of "traditional values."

This synthesis is not, of course, an invention of twentieth-century conservatism. On the contrary, from the earliest centuries the West has been built upon its foundation. Despite its endurance, however, the cracks in this inherently unstable synthesis are becoming more evident as the twentieth century slouches toward a close. Particularly on abortion, homosexual rights, and other sexually related issues, the historic pretense of amiability between Athens and Jerusalem is eroding. Contemporary Athenians now think they can get along well enough without meddling from Jerusalem. And inhabitants of Jerusalem are shocked at what appears to be the sudden hostility of Athenians who once seemed content to help construct the walls and towers of the city of God.

From this perspective, Clinton's proposal emerges as a simple demand that the defenders of the Greco-Christian synthesis put up or shut up. It was in Plato's Symposium, after all, that Phaedrus made the suggestion that an army "made up of lovers and their loves" would "overcome the world," since each soldier would rather die than act the coward in the presence of his lover. As Paul Kahn has recently explained in The New Republic, Plato himself saw this proposal as a dangerous confusion of public and private love. Still, Socrates agreed with the suggestion made in the Republic that heroes of battle should be rewarded by a kiss from each of their fellows; in this way, "if there be a lover in the army, whether his love be youth or maiden, he may be more eager to win the prize of valor." Clinton's action throws down the gauntlet: If a gay army is a "traditional" notion, why don't the defenders of "traditional values" support it?

It would be an evasion to say that these hints of ancient support for homosexuals in the military are unrepresentative. In fact, homosexuality, or pederasty, was an important part of Greek civilization. Greek pederasty was not, to be sure, what we call pederasty (sodomy with an immature boy); it was normally a homosexual relationship between a mature man and a post-adolescent young man. Moreover, it was in all probability limited to certain elites; all evidence suggests that the majority of Greeks maintained heterosexual monogamy. Scholarly admirers of Greek civilization have in the past argued strenuously that pederasty was a purely spiritual ideal, but archeological evidence, not least from many a Grecian urn, unequivocally proves the contrary. It cannot be denied that sodomy (pederastic and otherwise) was not only practiced, but was also held up as an ideal.

As Henri Marrou says in his history of ancient education, "Pederasty, like the athletic nudity with which it was once closely connected, was one of the distinguishing marks of Hellenism-one of the practices in which it contrasted most sharply with the 'barbarians,' and hence in its own eyes one of the privileges establishing the nobility of the civilized man." This general assessment is supported by H.D.F. Kitto, who, in commenting on the relations of men and women in Greece, notes that "the romantic attachments that we do hear of are with boys and young men, and of these we hear very frequently: homosexual love was regarded as a normal thing and treated as frankly as heterosexual love."

Classicist Oswyn Murray has emphasized that the institution of the "symposium provided the focus for liaisons of both 'earthly' and 'spiritual' types, whether in relation to fellow drinkers or the slave boys." Murray relates the symposium to another distinctively Greek institution, the gymnasion: "Young men spent much of their day at the gymnasion where they exercised naked, pursued their loved ones, or passed time in conversation. It is no accident that two famous gymnasia, the Academy and the Lyceum, gave their names to two famous schools of philosophy, those of Plato and Aristotle; for these philosophers had established their activities deliberately in proximity to the exercise grounds."

In Plato's Symposium, Phaedrus provided a "theological" argument for the superiority of pederastic love. He noted that Eros is the offspring of the goddess Aphrodite, but added that there are two Aphrodites, the common and the heavenly. The Eros that comes from the common Aphrodite "has no discrimination, being such as the meaner sort of men feel, and is apt to be of women as well as of youths, and is of the body rather than of the soul." Love that springs from the heavenly Aphrodite, by contrast, "is derived from a mother in whose birth the female has no part-she is from the male only; this is that love which is of youths, and the goddess being older, there is nothing of wantonness in her. Those who are inspired by this love turn to the male, and delight in him who is the more valiant and intelligent nature; any one may recognize the pure enthusiasts in the very character of their attachments. For they love not [little] boys, but intelligent beings whose reason is beginning to be developed, much about the time at which their beards begin to grow." In short, pederastic love is superior because it combines the love of a beautiful body and the love of a beautiful soul-a combination, so Phaedrus seemed to think, rarely, if ever, to be found in a woman.

The point is that what Clinton's opponents are really defending is not "traditional morality" but an ordering of sexuality that derives from the Bible. Failure to distinguish the two will, in the long run, prove counterproductive. The fault lines that separate Jerusalem and Athens are becoming too pronounced to accommodate fence-sitters, and those who combat Clinton in the name of undefined "traditional values" are wielding blunted weapons. Clinton has called the conservative bluff; he has, probably unconsciously, exposed the scam of "traditional values." His opponents had best seize the opportunity to oppose his program on forthrightly biblical grounds.

Peter J. Leithart, a regular contributor to First Things, is Pastor of Reformed Heritage Presbyterian Church in Alabaster, Alabama.

The Newtape File IV

You seem to have grasped the point about eviscerating distinctions of any serious content. I am delighted to witness the scenes of domestic discord, and you coached young Bud wonderfully in the donnybrook with Mother Smith. She seems rather shaken, fretting, as any good American must, about whether she is in fact unduly curbing her young son's high- spiritedness and "freedom of expression." Keep up the godless work. There may even be a bonus come No Saints Day. May I instruct you briefly on several other fine points in the distinctionlessness in behalf of which we must all put our shoulders to the wheel.

My first example is victimization. We must promote this idea and encourage everyone to find a grievance-a gaping, voracious wound that must continuously be fed. The worst possible outcome for us would be a restoration of human self-respect. So long as we can convince these gullible creatures that they are always menaced by something outside their puny selves-that what they call evil (our own delectable goodness, in other words) is outside "the self" and any nastiness on their own parts has somehow been implanted by others-we put them on the sure and certain low road.

No doubt, my little fiend, this sounds mysterious to you. But it is really quite simple. Our Father Below's great demiurgic allies planted the Manichean notion eons ago that evil was its own autonomous principle, a great and gloriously destructive force. The saying, "The Devil Made Me Do It," although turned and twisted by noxious humans into something of a joke, really expresses our sort of Truth. So long as we convince people that they are not responsible, so long as we encourage them to whine and moan and whimper over any slight, so long as we encourage them to disdain any distinction between a snub and slavery (each creates victims!), our side can breathe easier.

A second example. I know you will lap it up eagerly with that purple tongue of yours. Convince as many as you can that "family values" is whatever anybody says it is. What finer example of distinction riddance could we hope for? The media once again are enormously helpful. Although much of the data shows how "ordinary people" continue to daunt us somewhat, they are in the direct line of fire by our allies. For example, 49 percent of top television writers and executives believe adultery is wrong, but 85 percent of "everybody else" find it so. I say, look on the gloomy bright side. We are half there with the entertainment moguls. I find myself so cheered every day by the way statistical abuse plays into our hands my temperature drops by 10-15 degrees. Recently, for example, I read that only one in five families fits the Ozzie and Harriet model. When people read this they believe it means only one in five families consists of two parents with children. Not at all, my uncuddly one! Sleight of hand is a great thing. It means that only one of five families consists of a father who is the sole wage earner, a mother who works for pay not-at-all, and two, precisely two, children. How delectable! And how the social scientists line up with us: we have so many recruits from sociology and political science we have had to add clerks to our Higher Education for Lower Purposes division. A wretched fellow named David Blankenhorn keeps trying to put out accurate information on this score, but I am determined that you not have precise information on what he calls "the truth" for fear you might inadvertently let the cat out of the bag that the vast majority of families consist of a mother and father with children.

I read a definition of family the other day that would suit our purposes if we could strip it of all humor. Unfortunately, as written, the description evokes laughter and perhaps moments of recognition on the part of those not solidly in our camp. I include it here but please do not, I repeat, do not under any circumstances, permit this to circulate in its present funny form. What we must do is get this or a similar definition accepted as solemn "truth": family (n.) A social unit involving a mother, a father, and children; a father, a father, and children; a mother, a mother, and children; a father and children; a mother and children; children and children; a social worker and children; a lawyer and a child; the Children's Defense Fund, lawyers, and a child; or any group of people who appear together on "Donahue."

I know we are making serious headway when the current superstar of country music, one obnoxiously nice chap named Garth Brooks, includes a song called "Freedom of Choice" on his most recent album. It is a marvel of distinction erosion and particularly effective coming, as it does, from such a decent fellow. Fortunately for us, he is naive, as he has swallowed wholesale our statistics and proclaims that those who proclaim traditional family values "believe family values are June and Walt and 2.3 children. To me it [family values] means laughing, being able to dream." Then he goes on to offer up in all seriousness the definition of family as any arrangement that makes people happy and healthy.

This may-just may-disqualify a truly estimable story that I clipped the other day about family values as no values at all. A pregnant singer named Courtney Love posed, large with child, for Vanity Fair with a smoldering cigarette between her fingers. She confesses to "her long love affair with the painkiller Percodan and with heroin, which she says she used during the first trimester." In fact, she and hubby, a punk rocker named Kurt Cobain of a group called Nirvana (they thanked Satan for their MTV music-video award on the annual show, a real high point for me), used "a lot of drugs" and "copped dope" and decided to get pregnant because it was a "bad time" to do so and because she and hubby "need new friends." Need I add that Demonica, the force majeure behind this delicious debacle, was dishonored recently by Our Father Below with an Infernal Hall of Fame membership at our annual awards ritual.

You have much to aspire to and I want you to step up your efforts with young Bud Smith. He remains glum around his mother but he continues to accompany the family to church. This must stop.

Your affectionate uncle,

Jean Bethke Elshtain, to whom the contents of the Newtape File were originally leaked, teaches political philosophy at Vanderbilt University.