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The Sleep of ReasonReview - The Sleep of Reason
Erotic Experience and Sexual Ethics in Ancient Greece and Rome
by Martha Nussbaum and Juha Sihvola (editors)
University of Chicago Press, 2002
Review by Petar Jevremovic
Jan 16th 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 3)

From Foucault, we know clearly enough that human sexuality cannot be reduced to the field of just natural phenomena. Sexuality has its history.  It is, after all, something socially constructed and there is a lot of symbolism and narrative in its roots.  Eroticisation of some peculiar body is always done in somebody’s particular social context. 

Thanks to Martha C. Nussbaum and Juha Sihvola today we have one excellent volume dedicated to the problems of the erotic and sexual in Ancient Greece and Rome. This volume derives from a conference held at the Finnish Institute at Rome (Institutium Romanum Finlandiae) and it consists of fifteen really provocative and enriching chapters.  The common line of this work is a heighten attention the ethical, culturological and political, philosophical and medical dimensions of ancient erotic theories and practices. All of the texts are well written and documented. All of the classical (Greek or Latin) citations are translated.

As it is stated in the introduction of this volume: To do good scholarship on ancient Greek and Roman philosophy it is necessary to link the writings of the philosophers to their historical and social context. This need is less acute when the topic is logic, mathematics, cosmology, or the philosophy of language, for these are all, in a way, specialized philosophical topics, and philosophers were not so greatly in conversation with other cultural practitioners when they addressed them. But when the topic is ethics or politics, the need to do interdisciplinary scholarship becomes very great. It is extremely difficult to understand the force of meaning of Plato’s and Aristotle’s proposals, or even their terminology, without an extensive study of popular morality, difficult though that is to study well. When the topic is sex, the need is perhaps greatest of all, for it is really next to impossible to understand what the philosophers are saying without extensive study of cultural paradigms, of a sort that requires familiarity with history, literature and visual art. Greek and Roman philosophers talking about sex are likely to be indirect, discrete, and elliptical, so if we look only at what they say, we are likely to miss many insights that a study of the Greek orators, of Atistophanes, and of vase painting will reveal to us, insights that ultimately prove essential to the full decoding of what philosophers say.

As we can see, the erotic domain is no longer a silent space, or terra incognita, for classical scholars. Erotic life has become their scholarly preoccupation par excellence. Sex acts, sexual desires and fantasies, ethics of sexual conduct are today very important subjects of the great number of studies, dissertations, books and the other academic contributions. This volume, The Sleep of Reason: Erotic Experience and Sexual Ethics in Ancient Greece and Rome, could be seen as an excellent example of these modern trends in classical studies today.  The works of Foucault, Kenneth Dover, John Winkler, Froma Zeitlin, David Halperin, CraigWilliams, Miriam Griffin and this book could serve as fruitful provocation for even some further considerations about human sexuality.

Even the list of authors and their contributions could be illustrative.  David M. Halperin has contributed two chapters “Forgetting Foucault: Acts, Identities, and the History of Sexuality” and “The First Homosexuality?”; Martha C. Nussbaum had also two chapters: “Erôs and Ethical Norms: Philosophers Respond to a Cultural Dilemma”, and “The Incomplete Feminism of Musonius Rufus, Platonist, Stoic and Roman”; Maarit Kamio has written “Erotic Experience in the Conjugal Bed: Good Wives in Greek Tragedy”; Stephen Halliwell has text “Aristophanic Sex: The Erotics of Shamelessness”; David Letio: “The Legend of the Sacred Band”; Price A. W. has “ Plato, Zeno, and the Object of Love”; Juha Sihvola “ Aristotle on Sex and Love”; Kenneth Dover “ The Women of Samos”; Eva Cantarella: “ Marriage and Sexuality in Republic Rome: A Roman Conjugal Love Story”; Samuel J. Hauser: “Eros and Aphrodisia in the works of Dio Chrysostom”; David Konstan: “Enacting Erôs”; Simon Godhill: “The Erotic Experience of Looking: Cultural Conflict and the Gaze in Empire Culture”, and Christopher A Faraone has his “ Agents and Victims: Constructions of Gender and Desire in Ancient Greek Love Magic”.

This book could be of interest for all those concerned with the topics of gender and sexuality.  Several chapters discuss the ancient conceptions of male homosexuality, lesbian love and conjugal love.  Many chapters provide material relevant to the ancient conceptions of normality and pathology. In the light of that thinking we could think and rethink our own conceptions of the sex and gender, normality and pathology.  Every time and culture has its own ways of rationalization and control for sexual drives.  Most ancient Greeks and Romans would have agreed with with Socrates and Glaucon: the appetites are very difficult to manage by reason, and the sexual appetite perhaps most difficult of all.  There could be no culture (primitive or modern) that could escape this basic (ontologically fundamental) confrontation with passionate and corporeal in human condition.

For ancients, sexuality was a matter of appetite. Its function was appetitive.  The question of controlling and organizing sexuality was for them a question of socially structured appetite. In our days sexuality is a mater of medicine.  There is a predominantly medical regulation of sexual in the age of modernity.  Just as Plato’s Socrates proposes an elaborate program of philosophical discipline to control the erotic content of dreams, so in countless ways the Greeks and Romans reasoned ethically about sex calling philosophy or medicine for help.  From the time of Socrates onward, philosophy and science of one sort or another was ubiquitous in discussions of sexual ethics and its various practices.

In the same manner, today we are thinking about medicine, psychoanalysis, psychology, or biology as referent points for our understanding of our own sexual ideas, fantasies, theories and practices.   Having all this in mind, it could be for us really enriching experience to see and to understand some Other (in this case ancient Greek and Roman) order of sexual functioning. The Sleep of Reason could be a helpful guide in this specific adventure of insight.


© 2003 Petar Jevremovic


Petar Jevremovic: Clinical psychologist and practicing psychotherapist, author of two books (Psychoanalysis and Ontology, Lacan and Psychoanalysis), translator of Aristotle and Maximus the Confessor, editor of the Serbian editions of selected works of Heintz Kohut, Jacques Lacan and Melane Klein, author of various texts that are concerned with psychoanalysis, philosophy, literature and theology. He lives in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.


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