Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Savage Monogamy

Anti-Climacus reminded FLG that he meant to post about the Mark Oppenheimer article explaining how Dan Savage believes...
monogamy is right for many couples. But he believes that our discourse about it, and about sexuality more generally, is dishonest. Some people need more than one partner, he writes, just as some people need flirting, others need to be whipped, others need lovers of both sexes. We can’t help our urges, and we should not lie to our partners about them. In some marriages, talking honestly about our needs will forestall or obviate affairs; in other marriages, the conversation may lead to an affair, but with permission. In both cases, honesty is the best policy.

When FLG first read this it seemed to be saying, let's be reasonable, people cheat. In our current age, FLG thinks many people find that reasonable. However, FLG immediately thought of Plato's Phaedrus. That dialogue, like many Platonic dialogues, covers multiple seemingly unrelated topics, in this case love and rhetoric.

Socrates argues that we are drawn toward beautiful people because we see a partial manifestation of the Form of Beauty. That Form is what actually draws us toward them. Now, to be clear, Socrates is talking about a man being draw to a beautiful boy, but leaving the pederasty aside, FLG thinks there's something to this. Basically, our appetites, in this case lust that becomes love as a form of madness, draw us toward the Good, in this case Beauty.

The key moment for Socrates / Plato is the point when both lovers have surrendered themselves to each other:
After this their happiness depends upon their self-control; if the better elements of the mind which lead to order and philosophy prevail, then they pass their life here in happiness and harmony-masters of themselves and orderly-enslaving the vicious and emancipating the virtuous elements of the soul; and when the end comes, they are light and winged for flight, having conquered in one of the three heavenly or truly Olympian victories; nor can human discipline or divine inspiration confer any greater blessing on man than this. If, on the other hand, they leave philosophy and lead the lower life of ambition, then probably, after wine or in some other careless hour, the two wanton animals take the two souls when off their guard and bring them together, and they accomplish that desire of their hearts which to the many is bliss; and this having once enjoyed they continue to enjoy, yet rarely because they have not the approval of the whole soul.

So, given all this, FLG sees Savage as arguing, "Hey, we all have appetites and oftentimes our partners might not be willing or able to satisfy those appetites. Let's be reasonable about this. Maybe we need something other than monogamy."

But, at least in FLG's reading of Plato, this doesn't make any sense. Or perhaps more accurately it's disordered. It's saying let's be reasonable but instead of relying upon our reason and will to apply self-control, as being reasonable would imply, we become a slave to our appetites and passions and thus have a tyrannical soul:
Then you must further imagine the same thing to happen to the son which has already happened to the father: --he is drawn into a perfectly lawless life, which by his seducers is termed perfect liberty; and his father and friends take part with his moderate desires, and the opposite party assist the opposite ones. As soon as these dire magicians and tyrant-makers find that they are losing their hold on him, they contrive to implant in him a master passion, to be lord over his idle and spendthrift lusts --a sort of monstrous winged drone --that is the only image which will adequately describe him.


And when his other lusts, amid clouds of incense and perfumes and garlands and wines, and all the pleasures of a dissolute life, now let loose, come buzzing around him, nourishing to the utmost the sting of desire which they implant in his drone-like nature, then at last this lord of the soul, having Madness for the captain of his guard, breaks out into a frenzy: and if he finds in himself any good opinions or appetites in process of formation, and there is in him any sense of shame remaining, to these better principles he puts an end, and casts them forth until he has purged away temperance and brought in madness to the full.

Yes, he said, that is the way in which the tyrannical man is generated.

So, this supposed realistic and reasonable approach to the realities of marriage is, at least, in FLG's reading of Plato, far from virtuous and is a form of tyranny.


Andrew Stevens said...

"When I was a youngster, all the progressive people were saying, 'Why all this prudery? Let us treat sex just as we treat all our other impulses.' I was simple-minded enough to believe they meant what they said. I have since discovered that they meant exactly the opposite. They meant that sex was to be treated as no other impulse in our nature has ever been treated by civilized people. All the others, we admit, have to be bridled. Absolute obedience to your instinct for self-preservation is what we call cowardice; to your acquisitive impulse, avarice. Even sleep must be resisted if you're a sentry. But every unkindness and breach of faith seems to be condoned provided that the object aimed at is 'four bare legs in a bed.'"

- C.S. Lewis

Kate Marie said...

Great post, FLG. Thanks!

Andrew, I *love* the Lewis quotation. Where is it from?

Hilarius Bookbinder said...

I might be prepared to pull the ideal/non-ideal distinction on this one. It doesn't seem obvious to me that there's a contradiction in saying that Plato is right and it'd be better if everyone rationally controlled their appetites, and given that we live in a world in which people do not, it is better overall to be honest about the contours of those appetites, rather than attempting to surpress them, bc the consequences when they re-emerge are worse than just dealing with them in the first place (this seems to be to be almost trivially true when placed in the context of other failure-of-appetite shortcomings, like, eg, consumer debt: I'd much rather know and make my decision with knowledge than discover it partway through bc the person I was with thought it was shameful and needed to be hidden).

Hilarius Bookbinder said...

Which is not to say that I think genuine moral transformation is impossible: quite the opposite. But I also wouldn't place any bets on the quality of a marriage that would require moral transformation to work.

Andrew Stevens said...

Kate Marie: from "We Have No 'Right to Happiness,'" the last thing Lewis ever wrote for publication (written in 1963) and, in my opinion, his best essay. I believe you can find it in God in the Dock.

Hilarius: I'm with you and Savage in that, if two consenting people want to have a monogamish relationship, I don't think it's anybody's business but their own and I certainly don't believe it's immoral. However, there is a tendency in Savage and others to believe that monogamy is pretty much impossible or that adultery is justified in all sorts of circumstances where it absolutely isn't. E.g. he advised a man whose wife had become disabled and unable to have sex any longer to "do what you have to do." Obviously my control over my sexual desire is far greater than Dan Savage's, so it's easy for me to say, but I regard going without sex as a fairly trivial sacrifice to make for one's disabled wife whom the man claimed to still love very much.

FLG said...


I, like Andrew, agree that it's better to be honest and if monogamish is what two people decide, then fine.

What I object to, like Andrew, I think, is the implicit idea this is to be lauded in some way. Savage seems beyond just cynical, hey, we have appetites we can't control so let's be honest about it, to elevating the appetites as superior to our reason and will.

The Ancient said...

I regard going without sex as a fairly trivial sacrifice to make for one's disabled wife whom the man claimed to still love very much.

Every now and then, Andrew, you sound passably human.


Andrew Stevens said...

An odd response. Most people question my humanity because of my bloodlessness and lack of passion, but surely that quote demonstrates those qualities, rather than the reverse.

Galatea-Come-Lately said...

Dan Savage is also deluged every day with approx. six metric shit-tons of mail asking him, in essence, "Why am I miserable? Is it because I'm not getting enough sex?"

The man disproportionately advises folks who're at the end of their ropes, whose sex lives are awful, who are deprived and controlled not by themselves but by their partners. Of course his most oft-repeated and oft-quoted views are going to be skewed.

That said, I don't see where it's written that a single person has to be drawn to only one other in their search for Beauty. There is a space in between lifelong monogamy and hedonism.

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