REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Sex and Sensuality in the Ancient World” by Giulia Sissa (translated by George Staunton)

In some ways I’m still wondering why (or how) I read this book.  I can perhaps account for why I picked it up off the “New Non-Fiction” shelf at the library (it had the words “sex” and “ancient” in the title).  But as to how I stuck with it — when from the start it was clearly a dense and scholarly book more than a bit above my level of scholarship on the ancient Greeks and Romans — will have to remain a mystery.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m very glad that I read it, as this book turned out to be a window for me into our earliest philosophical conclusions about ourselves as sexual, emotional and social beings.  But it was a challenging read.

For those of you familiar with Greek, Roman and early Christian philosophy, much of this may be familiar territory (though the fact that the author’s central aim is to refute some long-established notions of what this group of thinkers actually said about sex may be of value even to you).  I can only tell you what I gained from this book.

For a start, I feel like I now have a workable familiarity with the different schools of Greek thought that started the ball rolling, as it were, on our views of sex, marriage, romance, learning and society.  And this is hugely important stuff, as the book clearly shows.  For this was the bedrock upon which later Roman and Christian thought was built.

Just as the stories of the Bible are echoes and re-tellings of previous myths of the fertile crescent, the answers that the (Greek-speaking) Apostle Paul gave to the Ephesians were informed by the Greek thought that permeated his own consciousness.

Seen in that way, this book is in some ways vital to an understanding of the way that I view sex, romance and marriage today.  For I (we) have grown up immersed in the unsettled stew of all of this thought that has come before.

And there is another angle that applies very much to our own time (and our current political climate) and that, perhaps oddly, gives me insight into the stubborn resistance to modern civilization exhibited by the Libertarian and TEA Party types:  and that is the view of these ancient philosophers that the process of civilization makes the hard, dry bodies of men turn soft — that the evolution of society is an essentially feminine (soft and moist) process, and that the challenge then becomes how to maintain a distinction between the sexes within civilized society.  (I think the TEA Party is rife with this “men are men and we don’t need your stinking help” sort of attitude).

“When humans were still living in the forest, Venus set about joining their bodies together through mutual attraction, male violence, or rudimentary forms of gifts.  It was therefore sexual pleasure that started to weaken humans, particularly men; this process of enfeeblement culminated in a taste for good food and for visiting spas, and resulted in the triumph of luxury.”  (P. 154)

I think these questions (and concerns) about how “civilization” changes us are valid.  And what this book tells me is that these questions have been on our minds for as long as we have been in a position to observe ourselves as a civilized species.

It’s a dense book (it took me almost a month to read it — not my usual single week).  But even knowing that I was reading a translation, I could feel the rather delightfully clear mind of the author, and came to love the way she viewed the world and that she chose to share her views with someone so far from her field of study as me.

The book cogently covers Greek, Roman and early Christian thought on sexuality, and it’s worth reading if only to discover just how influential the words of these thinkers of the past have been on the way we still see ourselves and society.

t.n.s.r. bob

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