Monday, December 5, 2011


Daniel Orrells, Classical Culture and Modern Masculinity. Classical Presences. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. ix, 301. ISBN 9780199236442. $125.00.

Reviewed by Rosemary Barrow, University of Roehampton (

Version at BMCR home site

A doe-eyed youth looks down at an inscribed tablet in Socrates's hand while the ageing philosopher gazes intently at the boy himself. José Aparicio's Neoclassical painting, the cover illustration of Daniel Orrells's Classical Culture and Modern Masculinity, neatly encapsulates the book's subject. If its title is too broad to explain its precise period and theme, it is this picture that embodies eighteenth- to early twentieth-century constructions of the pederastic-pedagogic relationship exemplified in the dialogues of Plato.

Orrells is not interested in interrogating Platonic philosophy but in examining how the intense and intimate nature of intellectual exchanges between an older and younger man had an impact upon understandings of masculine identity and same-sex male desire between 1750 and 1930. The book traces how Greek pederasty is explored in German and British thought, and at the forefront of its argument is both the history of sexualities and the development of Classics in university education. Classicists and classically-trained writers and thinkers considered ancient Greek pederasty as a pattern for their own pedagogical practices, desires and behaviours. Central to Orrells's argument is the complexity of their debate: Greek pederasty is not embraced as a straightforward model for modern homosexuality nor for the distribution of knowledge; instead, its characteristics and influence are endlessly negotiated and revised.

The book contains five chapters along with an introduction and conclusion. The introduction, while utilizing Foucault's History of Sexuality and Sedgwick's Epistemology of the Closet, sets out the intellectual parameters of the book, but also, more straightforwardly, clearly outlines the content and argument of each chapter. The first three chapters examine historicist responses to Socrates's teaching methods and other pederastic relationships in ancient Greece. Contextualizing the subject with reference to the inauguration of the modern university system in eighteenth-century Germany, chapter one introduces the first modern piece of scholarship on pederasty, by a Classics professor at Göttingen, Johann Matthias Gesner. Even in this early study, Gesner is concerned to explain not only ancient pederasty but also contemporary responses to it, and, like many eighteenth- century thinkers, he places his arguments within a Christian framework. Another Göttingen scholar from the next generation, Christoph Meiners, veers away from seeing Socrates as a proto-Christian. Meiners's thinking centres around racial stereotypes, something which was also to preoccupy Karl Otfried Müller, whose The History and Antiquities of the Doric Race (1824, translated into English in 1839) is cited by Martin Bernal as the first Aryan model of antiquity. Müller traces the origins of pederasty to a Doric civilization and forges racial links between modern Europeans and ancient Spartans. Chapter two moves on to the influence of German ideas on the Victorians and the British reception of German historicism in the form of Benjamin Jowett's reformation of Oxford Greats. Jowett placed the Platonic dialogues at the heart of the new curriculum and published his own translation of Plato's works. At the same time, his promotion of a tutorial system reflected a Platonic model of teaching. Here students learned Greek philosophy and the processes of learning itself. In the introductions to his translations Jowett, who had already produced philological work on the Bible, examines how the dialogues contend with Christian values. He uses Plato to negotiate a space in Victorian Oxford for non-sexual male friendships and pedagogical relationships. His pupil Walter Pater, in his 1867 essay 'Winckelmann' and 1893 book Plato and Platonism is more concerned with the homoerotic nature of Platonic erōs. Both men ponder what pederasty means and what place it should or should not have in modern male experience.

Another of Jowett's pupils, John Addington Symonds, forms the subject of chapter three. Symonds's A Problem in Greek Ethics (privately printed in 1883) was the first major publication on the topic in English. Subsequently included in Henry Havelock Ellis's Sexual Inversion(1897), Symonds's discussion poses problems for Ellis, who sees little point in looking to the past for understanding the present. Ellis's sexological theories champion the congenital nature of sexual orientation in an attempt to challenge criminalization of sexual relations between men. Symonds, by contrast, engages with Plato and questions whether the dialogues might impart information, foster desire, or both. Orrells quotes Symonds's opening lines – "For the student of sexual inversion, ancient Greece offers a wide field for observation and reflection" (p.174) – and ponders their ambiguity. Does the work educate the reader about "sexual inversion" or inform him how to become an "invert"?

In chapter four Orrells explores the way pederasty moved from the higher education sphere and entered the public arena in the form of the Wilde trial. Another of Jowett's pupils, Oscar Wilde, in an impassioned speech from the dock during his 1895 trial for homosexual acts, referred to "the Love that dare not speak its name" as "such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy" (p.193). Orrells focuses on the speech and interestingly demonstrates the difficulty of its interpretation. The language used echoes Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890-1) and W. H. Mallock's satirical novel The New Republic (1876), which parodied the aesthetic movement. Is Wilde using clichés to share a joke with a knowing audience? Is he merely offering a posturing gesture? Or are his words a genuine declaration of sexual identity? His biblical reference builds upon the synthesizing of Greek and Christian ethics found from Gesner onwards, something that he would explore further in De profundis(1905), which tries to make sense of his doomed relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas.

The chapter continues with a discussion of E. M. Forster's novel Maurice (written in 1913-14 and published posthumously in 1971). In post-Wilde-trial Cambridge two undergraduates, Clive and Maurice, encounter Plato. Each interprets the Symposium differently, and it is this difference in interpretation that, Orrells argues, leads to the impossibility of their relationship. Clive reads it in terms of the spiritual union advocated by Jowett but Maurice looks to the bodily attraction of Greek pederasty as well. Maurice eventually finds physical love with Alec, and this relationship is not validated by the homosocial space of university life nor by an erastes/eromenos dynamic. Orrells understands the novel as illustrating a twentieth-century break from the largely non-sexual and pedagogical interpretation of pederasty that originated in eighteenth-century Germany.

Chapter five returns to the German-speaking world with Sigmund Freud. While previous chapters have skilfully threaded together German and British educational thought, this chapter, at first, fails to forge the same links. Freud has little interest in Greek pederasty and his models for understanding modern sexuality are Greek myths. Orrells focuses on Freud's treatment of Oedipus and Narcissus. Denying the notion of the seduction of the child by an adult, Freud foregrounds childhood sexuality and emphasizes the male infant's relationship with his mother. The end of the chapter, however, returns to the book's main topic by pointing out that Freud's researches took place in a context of nineteenth-century philhellenism. But if his emphasis on the mother dismisses the homosocial and pederastic preoccupations that are evident there, Freud's understanding of adult homosexuality still looks back to a tradition that privileges relationships between men and boys.

The conclusion returns to Foucault, whom Orrells situates in the continuum that begins with Gesner. Like previous generations of writers and thinkers who explored Greek pederasty, Foucault too ignores women's desires. In a period that saw women entering higher education in increasing numbers, the question of what Plato meant to contemporary scholars remained an exclusively male preserve.

Although Orrells does not discuss his cover illustration, in Aparicio's painting Socrates Teaching the tablet held by the philosopher is inscribed in Italian with a motto warning that great thoughts will never emerge from a weak or impure heart. Yet Socrates's gaze eroticizes his young companion and invites the viewer to do the same. Does the picture thus contradict its inscription or does it problematize the very notion of same-sex male desire as "impure"? It is these questions that preoccupy the individuals discussed in Classical Culture and Modern Masculinity who engaged with the complexities of ancient pederasty and pedagogy in intellectual, literary and scientific spheres.

Orrells skilfully offers an overview of his period as well as close analysis of well-chosen examples. Drawing on a wide range of material, he makes it clear that (contrary to much received opinion) homosexual identity was not simplistically recognized in euphemistic references to Greek love. At the same time, the book is intelligently shaped by an understanding that in confronting what Platonic pederasty meant to its modern readers, we raise large issues concerning interactions between past and present.

Table of Contents

Chapter one. Paiderastia and the Contexts of German Historicism
Chapter two. Translating the Love of Philosophy: Jowett and Pater on Plato
Chapter three. The Bewildering Case of John Addington Symonds
Chapter four. Trying Greek Love: Oscar Wilde and E. M. Forster's Maurice
Chapter five. Freud and the History of Masculinity: Between Oedipus and Narcissus
Conclusion. The Truth of Eros and the Eros for Truth

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