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Living Well With Nature and Convention

Earlier this year, Gallup released survey data showing that 5.6% of American adults identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. One in six adults whom Gallup defines as “Gen Z”—those who were between 18 and 23 years old in 2020—claimed the “LGBT” label, which would have been either taboo or simply inconceivable to their great-grandparents. Why?

Those who approve of divergent sexual and gender identities tend to think kids only refrain from claiming them out of fear or forced ignorance. According to this view, the terms “trans” and “gay” denote something you just are, immutably, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s the stigma that’s wrong: “I think the findings prove that visibility and acceptance, when combined, will bust out closet doors,” said Sarah Kate Ellis, president of the LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD.

Others attribute the rising number of LGBT kids to indoctrination, recruitment, or grooming. “If you think this is a natural or organic development you’re deluded,” wrote the Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh. Some rather tiresome howling issued in response from the usual places. But Walsh is certainly right that kids have quite suddenly been put under enormous social and cultural pressure to identify as something more “interesting” than plain old straight.

Nature and the Good

What gets elided in these culture war debates, when they flare up, is usually this: two issues are actually at stake, not one. The question is not just what is natural but also what is good. Our governing cultural assumption is that if you can show a trait to be inborn, spontaneous, or genetic, you can shield people who bear that trait from blame. This is why the search for a “gay gene” is presented in our press as a matter of more than scientific interest: we have a knee-jerk instinct that “genetic” means “immutable” and “immutable” means “natural,” which in turn means “good” or at least “fine.”

If you examine this assumption for more than a moment you will realize it is far from self-evident. Half the time, it’s not even something we actively believe: just something we vaguely feel. Imagine that tomorrow we discovered a gene predisposing its bearer to kill people in cold blood. Most thinking men and women would not immediately revise their moral position on murder: we would still think, “it’s bad.”

That’s because if we think about it, we know that our genes are not the last word on our choices. Our genes may dispose us in certain directions, but we are also shaped by our environment, our upbringing, and our history. The whole thing about moral responsibility is that at some point, your surroundings and your predispositions interlock with your individuality and your capacity for reason. The ultimate product is a person who can do things to which we assign either praise or blame.

All this speaks to the delicate interrelationship between what we now call “nature” and “nurture.” Ancient Greek philosophers, somewhat more accurately, identified it as a question of physis and nomos—“nature” and “convention” or “law.” These two things are intertwined in a kind of Gordian Knot: our schooling, our culture, and the rules according to which we live all help form the kind of person we turn out to be. This produces in us ideas about what is good, and so helps predispose us to want certain kinds of things and not others. When we grow up, those wants and that moral vision inform the way we live together—in other words, they determine what kind of society we build as adults. That society in turn shapes the children born into it. And so on forever.

The Athenian philosopher Plato brings all these issues masterfully to a head in the 8th book of his Laws, which concerns—among other things—male homosexuality. The premise is this: three travelers meet together on a religious pilgrimage. One is from Athens, one from Sparta, and one from Crete, where the dialogue is set. The Cretan, Kleinias, has been tasked with making laws for a new colony called Magnesia.

The Athenian leads Kleinias and the Spartan, Megillos, in planning out laws for Magnesia. The setup is perfectly contrived to furnish an exhaustive array of political possibilities: if mercenary, money-loving Crete is the baseline from which Kleinias will be inclined to build, he can now consider alternative practices from both democratic Athens (occupied by Greeks of the Ionian tribe) and its more oligarchic, militaristic foil, Sparta (whose residents are Dorian by blood). It is an invitation for all three conversationalists to think beyond what comes “naturally,” to consider possibilities both racial and attitudinal that might otherwise be foreclosed to an unreflecting native of any one regime.

By the time we get to Book 8, the question at issue is which customs, festivals, and cultural activities will produce the best regime and the best citizens—in other words, what kind of social nomos will shape the physis of Magnesians in such a way as to leave them on good footing to choose what is just and right.

The Athenian thinks that both Sparta and Crete encourage sexual relationships between men and boys. But he says that he wants to prohibit male homosexuality. This would mean convincing both his interlocutors—and harder still, convincing the Cretans—to give up the practice. It is a practice they rather seem to enjoy, besides which homosexual activity between soldiers was thought by some in the ancient world to actually be good for military discipline (see for example Plato’s Symposium, 178b-9b).

What the Athenian Stranger recognizes is what we seldom do: it will not be enough to convince the Cretans that homosexuality is unnatural. This argument, he says, “might not strike a chord in your cities.” Instead he needs to show that relationships between men are bad: “the question we keep asking ourselves is, which of our proposals makes some contribution to moral goodness, and which does not?” (836c-d). The Athenian sets about to show that encouraging or even permitting gay sex between men is not just contrary to nature, but actually bad for civic health.

Getting Beneath the Surface

Does he succeed? Does he actually want to? These are the questions raised by Eli Friedland’s subtle new analysis, The Spartan Drama of Plato’s Laws. Friedland is an independent scholar, but it is clear from his book that one of his major influences is the classicist and political philosopher Leo Strauss. Without parsing here the taxonomical differences between “East-” and “West-Coast” Straussians, I will note that Friedland has inherited Strauss’s interest in getting beneath the skin of Platonic dialogues, in looking for the hidden meanings that emerge after multiple careful readings of a rich text.

The ungenerous reader might equate this “esoteric” mode of interpretation with a kind of crack psychoanalysis, an effort to discern the hidden motives of characters who don’t even really exist and make them say what you want instead of what the author wants. But that criticism would be unfair in Friedland’s case. For him, esoteric reading just means recalling that a work like the Laws is a dialogue, with characters that are expertly portrayed as complex human beings. Like real people, they don’t always say exactly what they mean. Their personalities and motivations reveal themselves over time.

This doesn’t mean discounting or disbelieving what they say out of hand—to the contrary, Friedland repeatedly quotes Strauss’s reminder in Thoughts on Machiavelli that “there is no surer protection against the understanding of anything than taking for granted or otherwise despising the obvious or the surface.” But as Friedland shows, there are plenty of things on the surface, right there in the open, to make us wonder what kind of game the Athenian Stranger is really playing.

The first two chapters of The Spartan Drama may be taken as a kind of object lesson in methodology: Friedland wants to make the general point that it is essential to know who a character is, as a person and as a citizen, before you can know how to understand and interpret what he says in a Platonic dialogue. So he starts out with character sketches of Megillos (Chapter 1) and Kleinias (Chapter 2).

He wants to rehabilitate Megillos, who has often been viewed as a bit of a blockhead, and to knock Kleinias, who does more of the talking, down a peg. Megillos is quiet, says Friedland, because he thinks before opening his mouth. He is, in other words, as laconic as befits a Spartan: in Book 1, “Megillos speaks in such a careful way as to give one general impression, while another specific one is available only to a listener who is as careful as he is (such as the [Athenian] Stranger).”

There thus emerges a pattern of interaction between the three speakers which informs Friedland’s reading of the whole text: Kleinias charges proudly and reflexively into every conversation, whereupon the Athenian Stranger gently redirects him while also giving the taciturn Megillos food for deeper thought. As a master class in a certain kind of reading, this is worth the price of the book. It shows the value in asking a crucially important and frequently forgotten question: who is speaking, and what are they like?

Then Friedland shows how Kleinias’ internal turmoil and confusion gets put on display in Book 3 (Chapter 3: “What is Political Philosophy?”) and discusses what it means when he or any other Platonic character loses his temper (Chapter 4: “Responsibility, Indignation, and the Instinct of the ‘Secondary Role’”). The reason that’s important is because the whole thing builds to Chapter 5 (“Nature”), where Friedland zeroes in to argue that the Athenian Stranger’s reason for attacking male homosexuality as strongly as he does is not to persuade Kleinias, but to get a rise out of him.

The whole thing, in Friedland’s view, is a complicated gambit. “By the time of the action and arguments of Book 8, [the Athenian] has seen that for this city [i.e., Magnesia], homosexuality offers natural benefits that would be foolish to refuse.” A small and moderate amount of homosexual practice in Magnesia will invite men to develop attachments outside of their insular heterosexual families, and this will help devote them to Magnesia and its culture as a whole.

Orienting the Regime

That is certainly not the way I or most conservatives would want to frame the issue today. But it is a well-attested way that many in the ancient Greek world did think about things, and Friedland is sure it’s what the Stranger wants for Magnesia, too. In order to confirm that this is the right course of action, though, “[the Stranger] must be sure that this custom is deeply ingrained and ‘most secure’ in the natures and dispositions of Cretan souls.” So he has to go on the attack and see how Kleinias responds: “if the Stranger makes a half-hearted attempt at persuading Kleinias in this respect, he cannot possibly know more than half of Kleinias’s heart in return. He must argue in earnest.”

Kleinias, unbeknownst to himself, is being tested. His confusion, and his uncharacteristic hesitancy to assent to the Stranger’s proposal, demonstrates for Friedland that some amount of homosexual practice is indeed hardwired into Kleinias’s personal, and Crete’s political, vision of the good life. Whatever admixture of social conditioning with innate proclivity has brought them to that point, they are by now naturally inclined toward a kind of homosexual love that has demonstrable utility for their social cohesion.

And so, the Stranger slyly backs off in the end: he proposes a “second law,” according to which homosexuality is not banned outright but moderated and kept within limits. “If people were less barefaced about sexuality,” and “if they had a sense of shame which made this kind of behavior less frequent, they would find their desire a less demanding mistress” (841a-b).

All this will hardly furnish a blueprint for managing sexuality in the very different regime of 21st-century America. But it actually will give us some sophisticated ways to start drafting such a blueprint. “The lesson is in many ways the lesson that Plato would have thoughtful conservatives learn,” Friedland writes: “the capacity for self-reflection and moderation is severely limited by nature, and given this, the moderation of the city as a whole… depends on the natural immoderations of its citizens being balanced against each other in an artful way.”

If we are to rescue our regime from its careening slide into decadence and excess, we will have to arrive at laws and customs which make room for some diversity while encouraging the monogamous, heterosexual partnerships that will leave most Americans feeling sane and healthy in their sex lives. The messiness and variety that life presents us with is a natural feature of being human, and we will have to reckon with it rather than wish it away. But our yearning to live good, just, and ordered lives—that yearning, too, is natural for humans. We will be miserable until we orient our regime toward it. Someday, we will get about that project again. When that day comes, enduring masterworks like the Laws will help guide us. And skillful interpreters like Eli Friedland will have done us a great service by showing us how to read them.

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