Tuesday, January 5, 2010



Over the last few weeks, I have been delving deeper into Aristotle's Politics. In a previous essay, I wrote that I had begun to read Aristotle with more forgiveness. Now, I can confidently say that some of his ideas actually "work" for me. I no longer cast a suspicious eye on everything he writes. Rather, I closely evaluate his arguments to parse points that make sense to me.

In the past, I criticized Aristotle because he was too metaphysical. He presumed that everything on earth has an identifiable "purpose," and that absolute "truth" was obtainable by analyzing various interactions between "purposes." I first read Aristotle when I was college. At the time, I was making discoveries about my own sexuality. Aristotle's metaphysics appeared to argue against "non-procreative" sexuality because "male sexual organs" and "female sexual organs" have absolute, reproductive "purposes." Accordingly, using sexual organs for purposes beyond procreation amounted to "misuse." It is not surprising that the medieval Church and the modern Catholic Church closely read Aristotle. They used this very argument to demonize all sexuality-- with special vehemence reserved for homosexuality.

But a much different picture emerged when I sat down to read Aristotle again. Rather than condemning homosexuality as an abomination--as I always assumed he did, without ever reading as much--he espoused a much less judgmental attitude. To the contrary, he seemed to echo my own belief that homosexuality exists in nature, and that it makes little sense to condemn it. See, e.g., http://reasoncommercejustice.blogspot.com/2009/01/oesterhoudt-strikes.html.

In analyzing the Spartan Constitution, for example, Aristotle reasons as a biologist, observing: "[C]ertainly all people seem compulsively attracted by sexual relations, either with males or females." The Politics, Book II, Ch. ix ¶ 1269b23. Earlier in the same paragraph, he actually praises "societies in which male homosexuality is openly esteemed," because male-centered societies--unlike Sparta--tend to keep avaricious women in check. Id. Aristotle believed that males "naturally" ruled females; thus, it was more an abomination to tolerate females "ruling" men than to allow males to have sex with each other. But in the final analysis, Aristotle suggests that sexuality is natural, no matter whether it involves males or females. Human beings are simply "compulsively attracted" by sexual relations. And that "compulsion" does not draw a bright gender line.

Aristotle does not simply conclude that homosexuality is natural. He even observes that homosexuality performs an essential State function by restraining birthrates. In analyzing the Cretan Constitution, he notes that the lawgiver actually prescribed "sexual relations between males" in order to "keep[] down the birthrate." The Politics, Book II, Ch. x ¶ 1272a12. He also notes that the lawgiver strictly separated males and females in order to prevent unnecessary pregnancies. Id. Put another way, the Cretan lawgiver understood that all human beings are "compulsively attracted by sexual relations" with each other, so he allowed both men and women to find sexual outlets in a manner that would not bankrupt the Kingdom by overpopulation.

I found this fascinating for several reasons. First, I never thought that a classical philosopher--let alone Aristotle--would argue that homosexuality could actually be exploited to fulfill a beneficial State objective. I always thought that Western governments took a moral stance against homosexuality. Apparently that is not true. In the Politics, Aristotle frankly discusses homosexuality as both a natural phenomenon and worthwhile social policy. Morality does not even enter the analysis.

Second, I found it interesting that Aristotle repeatedly speaks out against birthrates. Although he only mentions homosexuality in connection with birthrates in the Cretan example, he mentions low birthrates many times throughout the Politics. He equates high birthrates with poverty, discord and ruin. At the same time, he praises States that carefully control their populations. This makes sense given Aristotle's belief that States should strive to cultivate "good" people, not just "many" people.

Aristotle's views on homosexuality and birthrates fundamentally differ from modern views on the same subjects. For centuries, Western society has learned to revile homosexuality in all its manifestations. Church dogma called homosexuality a "sin;" it warned homosexuals that they would go to hell if they "practiced" it. The law labeled it a "crime;" it warned homosexuals that they would be executed or imprisoned for it. Even the scientific community diagnosed it as a "disease;" psychiatrists did not remove it from the book of "mental illnesses" until about 1970.

Although extreme institutional intolerance toward homosexuality has slowly weakened over time, there remains a virulent moral strain against homosexuality in Western societies. It is still "not normal." It is still somehow illegitimate and "disgusting." Put another way, it may not be "illegal" anymore; but it is still "immoral." Despite some modest legal advances in recent years (i.e., it is no longer constitutionally permissible to jail gay men for having sex), these attitudes force homosexuals to live on the fringes of society. They risk everything by living truthfully. They face a difficult decision whether to tell others about their own sexuality, a decision that no other people need to worry about in society. Or they can simply to choose to live in secret.

These are hardly appetizing decisions to make in life.

Against this background, it is almost inconceivable that a respected scholar would suggest that homosexuality is "natural," let alone that it could serve a "beneficial social purpose." If anything, attitudes toward homosexuality in Western civilization reveal little more than contempt. Until the late 19th Century, "sodomites" hanged in Great Britain. That is a far, far cry from Aristotle's argument that homosexuality actually could provide a benefit to society through lower birthrates.

But Western societies traditionally do not like low birthrates, either. That is why Aristotle's views on low birthrates seem so fascinating today. Historically, Western societies have done their best to encourage high birthrates. They have generally wanted to increase their populations. This coincided with Church dogma that men and women should "honor God" by "blessing Him" with as many offspring as possible. Just as the Church preached against homosexuality, so too did it praise prolific childbearing.

Modern America is no exception to these attitudes. For the most part, the United States encourages procreation among its citizens. Families with many children earn social praise, even congratulations. By the same token, modern America does not fully tolerate homosexuality. Homosexuals, after all, do not procreate. Is there a conceptual link between historical hatred for homosexuals and their inability to contribute to the birthrate?

Is there a moral link? After all, Western history shows that high birthrates bespeak "moral" living, while homosexuality bespeaks "immorality" because it does not contribute to the birthrate. In this sense, there is an inverse relationship between homosexuality and birthrates in modern society: The capacity for high birthrates is moral and good, while homosexuality is immoral and bad because it does not lead to high birthrates.

These views have reigned in the West for centuries. But a quick read through Aristotle reveals that it has not always been so. If a philosopher as renowned as Aristotle suggested that homosexuality is natural and that low birthrates are good, what does that say about "traditional" Western views on these subjects? After all, those who demonize homosexuality as an immoral abomination prize arguments based in "tradition." They say that "tradition" provides a reason to hate homosexuality because "our society has always reviled homosexuality."

But what if "tradition" is wrong? Or at least conveniently tailored to meet ideological ends? When it comes to homosexuality, Aristotle provides a historical example that not everyone in the "Western tradition" thought homosexuality was an abomination. Put simply, Aristotle's divergence from the so-called "tradition against homosexuality" shows that "tradition" arguments can be very misleading. After all, it is easy to just ignore inconvenient voices in a historical tradition, then call the tailored version "tradition."

I do not think that "tradition" categorically supports an argument that homosexuality is necessarily "immoral," or that high birthrates are necessarily "good." We simply must reference Aristotle to wreck any argument that "tradition" on these subjects has been unanimous. It hasn't.

And to those who think arguments based in tradition somehow carry special weight, I offer another quote from Aristotle to temper reliance on tailored history: "Generally, of course, it is the good, and not simply the traditional, that is aimed at." The Politics, Book II, Ch. viii ¶1269a3.

Put another way, it is no answer to a problem to say: "That's the way we've always done it." Solving problems takes independent thought, not blind imitation or historical charades.

1 comment:

angelshair said...

Good point! I guess that if the argument of "tradition" does not work anymore, homophobics will find something else to support their view.
I never read Aristotle, and I am happy that you shared some of his views with us.