Chastity seen through the Greeks

I have meditated often over the past years on what chastity is really like.  In our sex-obsessed times, our image of chastity can hardly help but be distorted.  Yet forming a proper image of the person we want to become is essential in the process of coming to full virtue. That is why knowing people who really live a particular virtue is crucial for getting us beyond our misconceptions.

I have frequently meditated on episodes from the lives of the saints to help, but I was surprised to realize that two of the great works of ancient Greece this past year provided me with important insights.  Euripides’ Hippolytus provided an important embodiment of a distorted image of chastity.  Hippolytus rejects all interaction with women except the disinterested masculine pursuits he enjoys in the company of Artemis.   His “perfect chastity” is fueled by a hatred of love, which presents itself as an uncontrollable interior madness in Phaedra’s desire for him.  His chastity quickly becomes hatred of women and all they stand for in their relation to men.

I can never satisfy my hate for women, no! not even though some say this is ever my theme, for of a truth they always are evil. So either let some one prove them chaste, or let me still trample on them for ever.

In Plato’s Symposium, in the midst of a celebration of homoerotic love, Socrates is presented as an example of the truly chaste person, one who chastity is fueled by a passionate love of the beauty of the souls of those upon whom he gazes.  And we also see the reaction of a sex-driven world — Alcibiades is at once astounded by and violently angry with the Socrates whose chaste love rejects his sexual advances while challenging him to love what is really beautiful.  Here is Socrates’ answer:

“And when he heard this, he said very ironically, and
exactly as he is, and in his usual fashion, ‘Really, my dear
Alcibiades, you’re no sucker if what you say about me is really
true and there is some power in me through which you could
become better. You must see, you know, an impossible beauty
in me, a beauty very different from the fairness of form in
yourself. So if, in observing my beauty, you are trying to get a
share in it and to exchange beauty for beauty, you are intending
to get far the better deal. For you are trying to acquire the truth
of beautiful things in exchange for the seeming and opinion of
beautiful things; and you really have in mind to exchange “gold
for bronze.” But, blessed one, do consider better: without your
being aware of it — I may be nothing. Thought, you know,
begins to have keen eyesight when the sight of the eyes starts to
decline from its peak; and you are still far from that.’

Socrates never ceased pursuing Alcibiades.  He did not fear the effect Alcibiades might have on him, he only wanted to help bring the beauty in his soul to full fruition.

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About Andrew Seeley

Executive Director, Institute for Catholic Liberal Education Tutor, Thomas Aquinas College
This entry was posted in Literature, Reflections on the Books. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Chastity seen through the Greeks

  1. Jon Greig says:

    I wonder if there is an essential connection between the more perfect love expressed in, say, the Symposium passage you mention and the etymology of the word for “chastity”, σωφροσύνη, which is a combination of σώφρον and (I think, if I’m not mashing up suffixes) -συν, implying a wise/sound mind (σώφρον) together with, or in coordination with (συν), the body (by implication). A more perfect love and action seems, then, to imply an ordering of the mind and body together and a rejection of impulses that go against a sound mind. At least do is my impression when I look at both those texts.

  2. Ananda Coomaraswamy translates σωφροσύνη as sanity. I’ve always thought he was on to something.

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