Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


If the love called Socratic and Platonic is only a becoming sentiment, it is to be applauded; if an unnatural license, we must blush for Greece.

It is as certain as the knowledge of antiquity can well be, that Socratic love was not an infamous passion. It is the word “love” which has deceived the world. Those called the lovers of a young man were precisely such as among us are called the minions of our princes — honorable youths attached to the education of a child of distinction, partaking of the same studies and the same military exercises — a warlike and correct custom, which has been perverted into nocturnal feasts and midnight orgies.

The company of lovers instituted by Laius was an invincible troop of young warriors, bound by oath each to preserve the life of any other at the expense of his own. Ancient discipline never exhibited anything more fine.

Sextus Empiricus and others have boldly affirmed that this vice was recommended by the laws of Persia. Let them cite the text of such a law; let them exhibit the code of the Persians; and if such an abomination be even found there, still I would disbelieve it, and maintain that the thing was not true, because it is impossible. No; it is not in human nature to make a law which contradicts and outrages nature itself — a law which would annihilate mankind, if it were literally observed. Moreover, I will show you the ancient law of the Persians as given in the “Sadder.” It says, in article or gate 9, that the greatest sin must not be committed. It is in vain that a modern writer seeks to justify Sextus Empiricus and pederasty. The laws of Zoroaster, with which he is unacquainted, incontrovertibly prove that this vice was never recommended to the Persians. It might as well be said that it is recommended to the Turks. They boldly practise it, but their laws condemn it.

How many persons have mistaken shameful practices, which are only tolerated in a country, for its laws. Sextus Empiricus, who doubted everything, should have doubted this piece of jurisprudence. If he had lived in our days, and witnessed the proceedings of two or three young Jesuits with their pupils, would he have been justified in the assertion that such practices were permitted by the institutes of Ignatius Loyola?

It will be permitted to me here to allude to the Socratic love of the reverend father Polycarp, a Carmelite, who was driven away from the small town of Gex in 1771, in which place he taught religion and Latin to about a dozen scholars. He was at once their confessor, tutor, and something more. Few have had more occupations, spiritual and temporal. All was discovered; and he retired into Switzerland, a country very distant from Greece.

The monks charged with the education of youth have always exhibited a little of this tendency, which is a necessary consequence of the celibacy to which the poor men are condemned.

This vice was so common at Rome that it was impossible to punish a crime which almost every one committed. Octavius Augustus, that murderer, debauchee, and coward, who exiled Ovid, thought it right in Virgil to sing the charms of Alexis. Horace, his other poetical favorite, constructed small odes on Ligurinus; and this same Horace, who praised Augustus for reforming manners, speak in his satires in much the same way of both boys and girls. Yet the ancient law “Scantinia,” which forbade pederasty, always existed, and was put in force by the emperor Philip, who drove away from Rome the boys who made a profession of it. If, however, Rome had witty and licentious students, like Petronius, it had also such preceptors as Quintilian; and attend to the precautions he lays down in his chapter of “The Preceptor,” in order to preserve the purity of early youth. “Cavendum non solum crimine turpitudinis, sed etiam suspicione.” We must not only beware of a shameful crime but even of the suspicion of it. To conclude, I firmly believe that no civilized nation ever existed which made formal laws against morals.

Observations by Another Hand.

We may be permitted to make a few additional reflections on an odious and disgusting subject, which however, unfortunately, forms a part of the history of opinions and manners.

This offence may be traced to the remotest periods of civilization. Greek and Roman history in particular allows us not to doubt it. It was common before people formed regular societies, and were governed by written laws.

The latter fact is the reason that the laws have treated it with so much indulgence. Severe laws cannot be proposed to a free people against a vice, whatever it may be, which is common and habitual. For a long time many of the German nations had written laws which admitted of composition and murder. Solon contented himself with forbidding these odious practices between the citizens and slaves. The Athenians might perceive the policy of this interdiction, and submit to it; especially as it operated against the slaves only, and was enacted to prevent them from corrupting the young free men. Fathers of families, however lax their morals, had no motive to oppose it.

The severity of the manners of women in Greece, the use of public baths, and the passion for games in which men appeared altogether naked, fostered this turpitude, notwithstanding the progress of society and morals. Lycurgus, by allowing more liberty to the women, and by certain other institutions, succeeded in rendering this vice less common in Sparta than in the other towns of Greece.

When the manners of a people become less rustic, as they improve in arts, luxury, and riches, if they retain their former vices, they at least endeavor to veil them. Christian morality, by attaching shame to connections between unmarried people, by rendering marriage indissoluble, and proscribing concubinage by ecclesiastical censures, has rendered adultery common. Every sort of voluptuousness having been equally made sinful, that species is naturally preferred which is necessarily the most secret; and thus, by a singular contradiction, absolute crimes are often made more frequent, more tolerated, and less shameful in public opinion, than simple weaknesses. When the western nations began a course of refinement, they sought to conceal adultery under the veil of what is called gallantry. Then men loudly avowed a passion in which it was presumed the women did not share. The lovers dared demand nothing; and it was only after more than ten years of pure love, of combats and victories at tournaments that a cavalier might hope to discover a moment of weakness in the object of his adoration. There remains a sufficient number of records of these times to convince us that the state of manners fostered this species of hypocrisy. It was similar among the Greeks, when they had become polished. Connections between males were not shameful; young people united themselves to each other by oaths, but it was to live and die for their country. It was usual for a person of ripe age to attach himself to a young man in a state of adolescence, ostensibly to form, instruct, and guide him; and the passion which mingled in these friendships was a sort of love — but still innocent love. Such was the veil with which public decency concealed vices which general opinion tolerated.

In short, in the same manner as chivalric gallantry is often made a theme for eulogy in modern society, as proper to elevate the soul and inspire courage, was it common among the Greeks to eulogize that love which attached citizens to each other.

Plato said that the Thebans acted laudably in adopting it, because it was necessary to polish their manners, supply greater energy to their souls and to their spirits, which were benumbed by the nature of their climate. We perceive by this, that a virtuous friendship alone was treated of by Plato. Thus, when a Christian prince proclaimed a tournament, at which every one appeared in the colors of his mistress, it was with the laudable intention of exciting emulation among its knights, and to soften manners; it was not adultery, but gallantry, that he would encourage within his dominions. In Athens, according to Plato, they set bounds to their toleration. In monarchical states, it was politic to prevent these attachments between men, but in republics they materially tended to prevent the double establishment of tyranny. In the sacrifice of a citizen, a tyrant knew not whose vengeance he might arm against himself, and was liable, without ceasing, to witness conspiracies grow out of the resolutions which this ambiguous affection produced among men.

In the meantime, in spite of ideas so remote from our sentiments and manners, this practice was regarded as very shameful among the Greeks, every time it was exhibited without the excuse of friendship or political ties. When Philip of Macedon saw extended on the field of battle of Chæronea, the soldiers who composed the sacred battalion or band of friends at Thebes, all killed in the ranks in which they had combated: “I will never believe,” he exclaimed, “that such brave men have committed or suffered anything shameful.” This expression from a man himself soiled with this infamy furnishes an indisputable proof of the general opinion of Greece.

At Rome, this opinion was still stronger. Many Greek heroes, regarded as virtuous men, have been supposed addicted to the vice; but among the Romans it was never attributed to any of those characters in whom great virtue was acknowledged. It only seems, that with these two nations no idea of crime or even dishonor was attached to it unless carried to excess, which renders even a passion for women disgraceful. Pederasty is rare among us, and would be unknown, but for the defects of public education.

Montesquieu pretends that it prevails in certain Mahometan nations, in consequence of the facility of possessing women. In our opinion, for “facility” we should read “difficulty.”

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25