A Study in Social Evolution
The Edward Carpenter Archive
by Simon Dawson


Forward to Chapter 7 - It's Relation to Civil Life and Religion

ALTHOUGH, as has been already indicated, there are instances of manly and military institutions of somewhat similar quality among other early peoples, it is doubtful whether in the history of the world there has ever been another case of such complete acceptance of comrade-love as a valued and recognised cult; and certainly this cult has never been associated with such priceless contributions to art, literature and civilisation generally, as in the case of the Greeks. It is consequently all the more strange to find with what neglect the whole subject - both of the love itself and of its relation to political and social life - has been treated in modern times. It is difficult to understand the attitude of mind which - as in some professorial and literary circles - is never tired of pointing out the excellencies of the Greek civilisation, the public spirit and bravery of its peoples, their instinct for beauty, their supremacy (especially at Athens) in literature and art; and yet absolutely ignores a matter which was obviously a foundation element of that civilisation.

The only feasible explanation, to my mind, of this strange phenomenon is that people - taking (it must be said) a very easy-going and superficial view of the whole subject - have assumed that the love-customs and institutions which have been described above were merely adopted as a blind or a cloak for sensuality, and were of no particular importance in themselves. Everyone knows, of course, that homosexual habits of a more or less frivolous and ephemeral kind are to be found fairly widely spread among most peoples; and as it has been generally assumed among Western moralists that nothing good can proceed from the homosexual instinct, it has been possible for a certain class of minds either to pass over the said institutions as being frivolous and unimportant too, or else, if forced to acknowledge their value and importance, to separate this aspect of them entirely from the homosexual aspect, and to say that while the former was glorious the latter was negligible. But as I say, this kind of view is of the most superficial sort. It is impossible, with any seriousness, or deliberate consideration, to maintain on the one hand that the institution of military comradeship among the Dorians - branching out as it did later in the various Greek states into an inspiration of political freedom, or of art, or of philosophy - was frivolous or unimportant; and it is equally impossible on the other hand, to weigh the evidence and not see that a most intimate and, to some degree,. physical relation lay at the root of the institution and could not possibly be separated from it - not to see, in fact, that what we call homosexuality was of the essence of the thing. All the historical evidence, and all the literature of this period - whether serious or fanciful, whether in prose or in verse - point to this intimate unity; and what the people themselves, who knew all the circumstances, associated so closely together, it is hard for us to separate and disunite.

We must conclude, then, that the Dorian Greeks and those who were influenced by them regarded a very close and personal love between men as part and parcel of their civic life. Though homosexual, as we should say, in its quality, this love did not interfere with the institution of normal or ordinary marriage, which existing alongside of it had its own sphere of civic value and service - while the comrade-love occupied another sphere, equally necessary.

This being so, it would obviously be as absurd to try to explain away the Greek comradeship, and all the life that flowed from it, by its connection with sensual pleasure of a certain kind, as it would be to explain away the joys and activities of marriage, and the life of the family, by the phenomena of concubinage and hetairism.

There is, however, another explanation which has from time to time been put forward - namely, that the predominance of the Uranian affection in the Greek States was due to the contempt or neglect of women which prevailed there; and this may demand a brief consideration.

Supposing such contempt and neglect to have been proved, the argument even then is not very satisfactory, for it would still remain uncertain which might be the horse and which the cart in the sequence - which the cause and which the effect. But as a matter of fact, to prove anything like general disregard or neglect of women by the Greek peoples would be difficult. Lowes Dickinson, in his Greek View of Life, insists on the prevalent conception among them of the inferiority of the female sex, but he finds himself obliged (p. 164) to qualify this by large exceptions, and he points out (what most authorities agree in) that great fluctuations occurred, and that while in Homer there ruled

"a conception of woman and of her relation to man finer and nobler in some respects than that of modern times,"

in the 5th and 4th centuries, B.C., a comparatively low estimate had become dominant. Benecke, in his Women in Greek Poetry, (Sonnenschein, 1896,) goes with much care into this subject, and makes some remarks which are very helpful for our purpose. He says (p. 7):-

"It is generally agreed that in prehistoric times the position of women among the Greeks was a much higher one than was the case subsequently. There seems every reason to believe that the social conditions of the Lesbians and the Dorians, and the other nations which did not come under the influence of the history-writing Ionians, were but the survivals of what was originally a more or less general state."

This is especially interesting to us because it points to the fact that the institution of military comradeship which came into Greece with the Dorians from prehistoric sources must have been in its inception associated with just such a high standard in the position of women, and not by any means with their neglect or contempt. This association is also very noticeable in Homer. For the main motive of the Iliad is, as Benecke observes, undoubtedly the dramatic and passionate comradeship between Achilles and Patroclus; yet no one could say that Andromache or Penelope or Nausicaa are negligible or servile characters.

There is ample evidence indeed to show that the status of women among the early Dorians was one of freedom and honour - a survival, perhaps, of a matriarchal period. Addington Symonds, in his Key of Blue (p. 64), says:-

"This masculine love did not exclude marriage, nor had it the effect of lowering the position of women in society, since it is notorious that in those Dorian States where the love of comrades became an institution, women received more public honour and enjoyed fuller liberty and power over property than elsewhere."

[Published by John Lane (London, 1893).]

C. 0. Muller, in his already quoted book (vol. ii., p. 395), says:-

"The Dorians, as well at Sparta as in the South of Italy, were almost the only nation who esteemed the higher attributes of the female mind as capable of cultivation."

In Sparta the women had great sway and influence. The wife was called ****** (mistress) by the husband. As girls they were

"trained by physical exercise for the healthy performance of the duties of motherhood; they were taught to run and wrestle naked, like the youths, to dance and sing in public, and to associate freely with men. Marriage was permitted only in the prime of life; and a free intercourse, outside the limits of marriage, between healthy men and women. was encouraged and approved by public opinion."

[Lowes Dickinson, The Greek View of Life, p. 97.]
Editor's note - the convention (*******) will be used by me to indicate where Carpenter has used greek text which I cannot (yet) reproduce in this website.

It may be worth while to quote entire the passage in which Plutarch (Lycurgus, c. 14) describes this state of affairs. He first of all cites Aristotle as saying (Polit, Book ii.) that

"in the absence of their husbands, the wives made themselves absolute mistresses at home, and would be treated with as much respect as if they had been so many queens;"

and then he goes on to say that Lycurgus

"took for that sex all the care that was possible. As an instance of it, he ordered the maidens to exercise themselves with wrestling, running, throwing the bar, and casting the dart, to the end that the fruit they conceived might take deeper root, and grow strong, and spread itself in strong and healthy bodies; and withal that they themselves, by such robust exercises, might be the more able to undergo the pains of child-bearing with ease and safety. And to the end he might take away their overgreat tenderness and that acquired womanishness which vain custom hath added to the natural, he ordered that they should go naked as well as the young men, and dance, too, in that condition at their solemn feasts and sacrifices, singing certain songs, whilst the young men stood in a ring about them, seeing and hearing them. In these songs they now and then gave a satirical glance, to very good purpose, on those who had misbehaved themselves (in the wars), and sometimes sang enconiums upon such as had done any gallant action; and by these means enflamed the younger sort with an emulation of their glory. Those that were thus praised for their bravery, and in high credit among the virgins, went away hugely satisfied with such commendation; and those who were rallied were as sensibly touched with it as if they had been formally and severely reprimanded; and so much the more because the Kings and the whole Senate, as well as the rest of the rest of the city, went to see and hear all that passed."

[Dacier’s translation, vol. i.]

This passage is particularly interesting here for two reasons:- (1) because it shows the respect of the men for the opinion of the women - their praise or their blame; and (2) because of the extraordinarily public and open life of the latter, here represented, and the equality of their physical training with that of the men. With regard to this last, we have in the Epithalamium of Theocritus (Idyll xviii.) a charming picture of a chorus of Spartan maidens singing before the bridal chamber of Helen, and reminding her of how they used to exercise by the banks of the Eurotas

"Thrice eighty virgins we pursued the race,
Like men, anointed with the glistering oil."

[Translation by M. J. Chapman (London, 1836).]

No wonder it has been said of the Spartans that they were

"the most healthy of the Greeks, and that the most beautiful men as well as women were found amongst them."

[Muller, op. cit., vol. ii., p. 327.]

Nor can we be surprised to read further in Plutarch the anecdote of Gorgo, wife of King Leonidas,-

"who being told, in discourse with some foreign ladies, ‘You women of Lacedaemon are they only of the world who have an empire over the men,’ she briskly reparteed: ‘A good reason, for we are the only women who bring forth Men.’"

[Dacier’s Plutarch, vol. i., p. 215.]

All this goes to show clearly enough that - however it may have been in other Greek States, or at other times - contempt and neglect of women did not prevail in Sparta in the period which we are considering; and it proves conclusively that the institution of military love among the Dorians did not rest upon inferiority in the character of the women, or on any insufficiency of access to them. (Footnote 1) The love was an independent and authentic phenomenon, self-produced out of the heart and temperament of the people, and not to be explained away by adventitious and subsidiary circumstances.

And it suggests a further speculation, namely, whether the Uranian temperament in the Dorian men - or such amount of it as existed among them - did not naturally favour rather than discourage this freedom and self-dependence and political activity of the women. In present-day life it pretty clearly is so. It is the Uranian classes of men, or those at least who are touched with the Uranian temperament, who chiefly support the modern woman’s movement. They, among the men, are those who sympathise with the aspirations of women towards liberty. The downright normal man with whom the passion for the other sex is the dominant note of life may love and care for his women-kind; but it is generally with a proprietary sort of love. He does not exactly want to see them independent and self-determining of their fates. It is the man in whom sex-polarity is not too pronounced and dominant who looks for comradeship in woman, and is glad to give her an equal footing with himself in social life. And so also was it, perhaps, among some of these early and prehistoric peoples of whom the Dorian traditions and the Homeric poems give us a glimpse.

Certainly it is curious that the gradual fall of the status of women in Greece from those early days down to the 5th, 4th, and 3rd centuries, b.c., when the position of the wife became that of a domestic drudge, and her ideal was

"to stay at home and mind the house"

[See The Greek View of Life, p. 161.]

- that this fall was simultaneous with the gradual decline of the honour in which manly love was held, and its gradual deterioration from a great civic institution into a mere personal pastime and indulgence. The growth of civilisation (as has elsewhere been remarked) (Footnote 2) had from the first the effect of accentuating the sex-passion. The luxurious selfishness of men was stimulated in a way that led to the ultimate enslavement of women; and it is possible that the simultaneous decay of the Uranian love removed the one force which might have acted in the opposite direction - namely, towards heroism, endurance, military and civic efficiency, and a generous sense of comradeship towards the other sex. Curious, I say, that these two changes should have gone on simultaneously, and suggestive of the question whether there may not be a necessary connection between them. Curious, too, to find that in our present-day civilisations where (till quite recently) the position of women had reached its lowest ebb, the Uranian attachment has similarly been disowned and its healing influences utterly ignored.

With regard to the general suggestion just made that in very early times - bordering on the prehistoric and matriarchal - love of a homosexual or Uranian kind had a far wider scope and acknowledged place in social life than in later days, I may, of course, refer to the earlier chapters in this volume - which must anyhow convince us of the immense ramifications and importance of the impulse in primitive societies. And, with regard to the special peoples we are dealing with in this paper, it may be desirable here to point out that this impulse among the early Greek peoples was by no means confined to the men, but was active and salient among the women also. Plutarch, in his Lycurgus (c. 18), speaking of paiderastia among the Spartans, says:-

This sort of love was so much in fashion among them that the most staid and virtuous matrons would own publicly their passion to a modest and beautiful virgin."

[Dacier’s translation of Plutarch.]

The loves of the Lesbian women and of Sappho (B.C. 600) have been celebrated in all literature, and have in modern times been treated with more respect, perhaps, and understanding, than their counterpart among Greek men. Bethe, in his treatise cited above, says, speaking first of the attachment among the Greek men:-

"It is clear that the Aeolian warriors in Lesbos about 600, B.C., favored the same in their general admiration for the Spartan ways, although in their poetry this does not show itself very strongly. But the very close alliances of women there - well-known in connection with Sappho - presuppose equally close bonds among the men; just as these latter in Sparta had their counterpart in feminine associations."

[Bethe, op. cit., p. 442.]

And in another passage, rebutting the contention that these homosexual relations sprang from the seclusion of the sexes from each other, he says:-

The attempt breaks down utterly in face of the fact that just in Sparta and Lesbos, where we know most about this boy-love and girl-love, the sexes to the best of our knowledge, mixed with each other more freely than in the other Greek States."

[Bethe, op. cit., p. 440.]

There appears to have been a curious custom in Sparta, connected with the ordinary marriage by capture, which may be mentioned here as suggesting some wavering, so to speak, at that time, of the line between male and female.

"The bridegroom,"

says Muller,

"brought the young virgin, having carried her off from the chorus of maidens or elsewhere, to the bride’s maid - who cut short her hair, and left her lying in a man’s dress and shoes, without a light, on a bed of rushes; until the bridegroom returning from the public supper, carried the bride to the nuptial couch, and unloosed her girdle."

[Op. cit., ii., 229. See also Plutarch’s Lycurgus, ch. xv.]

Whatever may have been the exact meaning of this custom, it almost suggests that marriage by capture of women was preceded by marriage by capture of youths.

At any rate, it becomes quite clear, I think, from all this that no extraneous explanation - about the relative position of women, or the fortuitous confusion of abstract friendship with mere sensual passion - is needed in order to account for the genesis of boy-love or comrade-love among the Dorians, and the growth of this love into a positive institution. It sprang quite naturally from the temperament of the people - just as any one nowadays may see it springing spontaneously, though obscurely, in all classes of modern society, and as it has sprung also at various times in the past in Persia or Arabia or Japan, or among the other peoples mentioned in the first essay in this volume. In each of these cases it may have had a different complexion and expression according to the genius of the people concerned, in some it may have been established as a civic or a military institution, in others it may have fallen short of this kind of recognition; but in all, I think, we may say it has been a natural and not an artificial racial outgrowth. In no case may it have been a perfectly ideal thing, but almost always it has been a positive, serious and deep-rooted impulse; and the problem before each people has been not to extinguish the impulse, but to turn it into a great, publicly-recognised and honorable force making for the welfare of the community. We have seen in what way the Dorians solved this problem.


  1. Though as regards the latter, Symonds suggests (A Problem in Greek Ethics, p. 2) that in camp-life this may have been one contributing cause. - Return
  2. Civilisation: Its Cause and Cure, by E. Carpenter, p.26 - Return

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