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President Clinton’s push to lift the ban on homosexuals in the military has been called many things: a waste of political capital, a declaration of war against biblical morality, a declaration of war against the warrior class. I call it calling a bluff.

For decades, conservatives have celebrated Greece and Rome as foundational pillars of Western civilization. The late Allan Bloom, hailed by many conservatives for his assault on the modern university, claimed that Plato’s Republic was for him the great book on education. While honoring Christianity as a major contributor to Western civilization, conservatives have attempted to defend a cultural synthesis of Jerusalem and Athens that currently goes by the name of “traditional values.”

This synthesis is not, of course, an invention of twentieth-century conservatism. On the contrary, from the earliest centuries the West has been built upon its foundation. Despite its endurance, however, the cracks in this inherently unstable synthesis are becoming more evident as the twentieth century slouches toward a close. Particularly on abortion, homosexual rights, and other sexually related issues, the historic pretense of amiability between Athens and Jerusalem is eroding. Contemporary Athenians now think they can get along well enough without meddling from Jerusalem. And inhabitants of Jerusalem are shocked at what appears to be the sudden hostility of Athenians who once seemed content to help construct the walls and towers of the city of God.

From this perspective, Clinton’s proposal emerges as a simple demand that the defenders of the Greco-Christian synthesis put up or shut up. It was in Plato’s Symposium , after all, that Phaedrus made the suggestion that an army “made up of lovers and their loves” would “overcome the world,” since each soldier would rather die than act the coward in the presence of his lover. As Paul Kahn has recently explained in The New Republic , Plato himself saw this proposal as a dangerous confusion of public and private love. Still, Socrates agreed with the suggestion made in the Republic that heroes of battle should be rewarded by a kiss from each of their fellows; in this way, “if there be a lover in the army, whether his love be youth or maiden, he may be more eager to win the prize of valor.” Clinton’s action throws down the gauntlet: If a gay army is a “traditional” notion, why don’t the defenders of “traditional values” support it?

It would be an evasion to say that these hints of ancient support for homosexuals in the military are unrepresentative. In fact, homosexuality, or pederasty, was an important part of Greek civilization. Greek pederasty was not, to be sure, what we call pederasty (sodomy with an immature boy); it was normally a homosexual relationship between a mature man and a post-adolescent young man. Moreover, it was in all probability limited to certain elites; all evidence suggests that the majority of Greeks maintained heterosexual monogamy. Scholarly admirers of Greek civilization have in the past argued strenuously that pederasty was a purely spiritual ideal, but archeological evidence, not least from many a Grecian urn, unequivocally proves the contrary. It cannot be denied that sodomy (pederastic and otherwise) was not only practiced, but was also held up as an ideal.

As Henri Marrou says in his history of ancient education, “Pederasty, like the athletic nudity with which it was once closely connected, was one of the distinguishing marks of Hellenism—one of the practices in which it contrasted most sharply with the ‘barbarians,’ and hence in its own eyes one of the privileges establishing the nobility of the civilized man.” This general assessment is supported by H.D.F. Kitto, who, in commenting on the relations of men and women in Greece, notes that “the romantic attachments that we do hear of are with boys and young men, and of these we hear very frequently: homosexual love was regarded as a normal thing and treated as frankly as heterosexual love.”

Classicist Oswyn Murray has emphasized that the institution of the “ symposium provided the focus for liaisons of both ‘earthly’ and ‘spiritual’ types, whether in relation to fellow drinkers or the slave boys.” Murray relates the symposium to another distinctively Greek institution, the gymnasion : “Young men spent much of their day at the gymnasion where they exercised naked, pursued their loved ones, or passed time in conversation. It is no accident that two famous gymnasia, the Academy and the Lyceum, gave their names to two famous schools of philosophy, those of Plato and Aristotle; for these philosophers had established their activities deliberately in proximity to the exercise grounds.”

In Plato’s Symposium , Phaedrus provided a “theological” argument for the superiority of pederastic love. He noted that Eros is the offspring of the goddess Aphrodite, but added that there are two Aphrodites, the common and the heavenly. The Eros that comes from the common Aphrodite “has no discrimination, being such as the meaner sort of men feel, and is apt to be of women as well as of youths, and is of the body rather than of the soul.” Love that springs from the heavenly Aphrodite, by contrast, “is derived from a mother in whose birth the female has no part—she is from the male only; this is that love which is of youths, and the goddess being older, there is nothing of wantonness in her. Those who are inspired by this love turn to the male, and delight in him who is the more valiant and intelligent nature; any one may recognize the pure enthusiasts in the very character of their attachments. For they love not [little] boys, but intelligent beings whose reason is beginning to be developed, much about the time at which their beards begin to grow.” In short, pederastic love is superior because it combines the love of a beautiful body and the love of a beautiful soul”a combination, so Phaedrus seemed to think, rarely, if ever, to be found in a woman.

The point is that what Clinton’s opponents are really defending is not “traditional morality” but an ordering of sexuality that derives from the Bible. Failure to distinguish the two will, in the long run, prove counterproductive. The fault lines that separate Jerusalem and Athens are becoming too pronounced to accommodate fence-sitters, and those who combat Clinton in the name of undefined “traditional values” are wielding blunted weapons. Clinton has called the conservative bluff; he has, probably unconsciously, exposed the scam of “traditional values.” His opponents had best seize the opportunity to oppose his program on forthrightly biblical grounds.

Peter J. Leithart, a regular contributor to First Things , is Pastor of Reformed Heritage Presbyterian Church in Alabaster, Alabama.

Image by Steve Swayne licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.