Erotic Politics

Erotic Politics March 22, 2016

Paul Ludwig (Eros and Polis) observes that “A recurrent feature of ancient Greek political discourse was the assertion that erotic passion was a causal factor in the emergence and maintenance, as well as the decline, of the Greek polis.” But this didn’t make the Greek proto-Foucauldians: “the term eros included the ordinary meanings of love and sexuality but went beyond these to embrace a wide array of inclinations comprising ambition, patriotism, and other aspirations that were properly political in nature.” Thus, “Thucydides’ hard-headed and purely political account of the Peloponnesian War makes use of erotic terminology to describe ambition, including, for example, a citizen’s ambition to serve the state, a community’s ambition to liberate itself from bondage, and an imperial power’s ambition to attempt a foreign conquest.”

This expansion of eros was based “on purely formal resemblances among sexual desire, love, and ambition as well as higher aspirations such as patriotism and cosmopolitanism. Common features in the psychological responses to each of these passions led orators, poets, and philosophers to conclude that said passions were differing manifestations of a single, underlying eros.”

Specifically, human beings are driven by passion both toward greater autonomy and choice, and toward deeper communion with other human beings. These desires need to be balanced in order to form a stable polis: “At the core of every republican regime lies a particular political psychology in which a carefully negotiated balance between personal liberty and civic dedication remains satisfying and fulfilling to most citizens. . . . the desire for perfect freedom as well as the need to belong to a greater whole, were diagnosed as erotic wishes by classical authors. Plato and Aristophanes, for example, were particularly interested in the aspiration to transform the polity into one great household, binding the citizens together through ties of mutual affection.”

Eros could fragment a polis, or reunite it. Or, alternatively, it could drive a polis toward expansive policies: “Thucydides, Aristophanes, and Plato all understood the transformation from republic to empire to be motivated, in part, by a cosmopolitan yearning, the desire to partake of foreign experiences, products, and customs; in their view, many Athenians wished to transcend the confining limitations of the local and the particular.”

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