John Corvino opens Bible, reads what it says — why would ‘conservatives’ disagree?

John Corvino opens Bible, reads what it says — why would ‘conservatives’ disagree? May 7, 2013

“The Sodom and Gomorrah story may be the biblical passage most frequently cited against homosexuality,” John Corvino says in the video below. “It may also be the least relevant, because it’s not clear it has much to do with homosexuality at all.”

“Don’t take my word for it,” Corvino says. “Let’s look at the relevant text.”

“The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah” by John Martin (1852)

And that’s what he does. He opens the Bible and reads the relevant text, sticking to what it actually says.

I appreciate that conservative defenders of the authority of the literal reading of an inerrant Bible won’t like John Corvino’s playful tone in this lecture. He’s needling them lightheartedly — aiming perhaps to goad more than to persuade.

But set aside Corvino’s tone and just consider the substance of his exegesis here. I don’t see anything “liberal” in what he’s doing with this passage. He reads the text and accurately, without spin or interpretation, conveys what it says. It’s a straightforward, face-value reading of the text without any radical criticism or deconstruction or appeals to any esoteric scholarly theories. It’s just the kind of “common-sense” Bible study that conservative evangelicals profess to practice.

So I’m curious as to what the “conservative” Christians who cite the story of Sodom as a clobber-text against homosexuality make of this. They’re accustomed to approaching this story through the lens of preconceptions and expectations of what it supposedly teaches. Corvino dismisses those expectations, but he does not dismiss the story itself. He’s not dismissing the Bible, just reading what it actually says.

My guess is that Corvino’s reading will still be rejected as “liberal” — not because he takes any liberties with the text, but because he refuses to do so. His determination not to impose outside ideas onto the story, to stick with the text itself, means that he is unable to come to the officially sanctioned conclusions about what this story supposedly teaches.

That’s interesting. A conservative approach to the text doesn’t produce the expected “conservative” conclusion. Maybe that conclusion isn’t really all that “conservative” after all.

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  • P J Evans

    There’s no lettuce, which is one of the vegetables they’d recognize *as a vegetable*, because it’s naturally green.

    (I’ll take a Double-Double, with grilled onions, over one of those. It isn’t actually good for you, but it’s much less likely to kill you. And it normally comes with lettuce.)

  • Nick

    It makes sense, I think. As societies evolve, the acceptable social roles change based on people’s psychology- women start working outside the home, men can be stay at home dads and learn to cook, etc.

    In this case, gay people are moving from the role of marginalized underground culture to accepted part of the landscape of gender and marriage options.

  • That might actually be why I use it. I have a background in psychology, so, yeah…

    I do have to wonder at the lack of casual terminology specifically referring to bisexual orientation. The unique only word or phrase I can think of is “swings both ways”, which I’ve never actually heard said disparagingly. I have been told I’m “just confused” or “just going through a phase” though, as if I’ll eventually just snap into my proper orientation. (Still waiting on that!)

    “Gays” is one of those words I’ve just never heard not said disparagingly, kind of like “homo”… maybe that’s also part of why I don’t like it. Shorthand references always seem slightly insulting. I tend to be inclined toward a full term and to use any form of abbreviation sparingly, if not cautiously. (This might actually be a good argument for me falling somewhere on the autistic spectrum instead of having APD…)

  • Alix

    That, but also that there’s human psychology underlying social roles/narratives from the dawn of prehistory. I sometimes think people swing too hard towards “it’s all sociocultural” – I have to keep myself from doing that sometimes, too.

    And, y’know, like you’ve been pointing out, a lot is socialization and culture. And an awful lot of supposedly “immutable” things really aren’t. But there are also things that crop up again over and over in human societies, and that strongly suggests there’s something more than just socialization and cultural narratives going on there.

    I also find it somewhat problematic that we argue on the one hand that sexual orientation is innate when discussing modern gay rights, but that it’s a new thing when discussing ancient people.

  • Touché! Maybe I’m just pedantic, but I prefer specificity. I feel like bisexual people fall between the cracks in the equal marriage debate — there are times it feels like everyone (both advocates for and opponents against) just assumes, hey, it’ll work out either way because bisexuals can just marry the “right” sex person!

    (Never mind that in my mind, this is arbitrarily marking off a large portion of the population that my body and mind insist are perfectly valid options…)

  • One of the reasons I don’t often bother correcting people when they describe me as gay is that I’ve been in a monogamous relationship for 20+ years with my now-husband. Which is, no question, pretty gay. But people then get confused when I mention being attracted to women, so it sometimes requires explanation.

    That said, even monosexuals “arbitrarily mark off” the vast majority of the population when they enter into monogamous relationships. I am attracted to men and women, but married a man. I am attracted to blonds and brunettes and redheads, but married a brunette. Etc.

    That said, I support marriage equality for polyamorous relationships as well. It’s not the kind of family I want to be in, but I endorse treating families with equal support and respect even when they aren’t the kind of family I want to be in.

  • Well, there’s a self-made line between “acknowledge as attractive” and “want to pursue some form of relationship with” that can slide into place the moment one enters a monogamous relationship, but I would assume that line is voluntary in most cases. You wouldn’t just stop finding people attractive altogether because you were in a relationship, would you?

    Sincere question, that. I’m discovering that I have somewhat polyamorous tendencies, although they conflict with my desire to have a committed relationship. I suppose my ideal situation could be described as “We’re free to explore relationships with other people as long as we come home to each other with no unpleasant surprises,” but actually living that situation has left something to be desired (namely, my SO and I appear to be in a situation of no longer being together while still living together, and I have no idea how this is going to end, but “poorly” feels like a good guess).

  • *Pauses* That was probably TMI. I suspect I’m a little on edge. Lest it be misconstrued, I’m glad you’ve had success in your relationship, especially given the adversarial nature of our culture toward same-sex relationships. Seriously, seeing numbers like “20+” make me feel good. Envious, yes, but as happy for a person as I can naturally manage.

  • Nick

    I guess what I was leaning toward is the position that there have always been people who were gay or straight to whatever extent biologically, but in the case of the ancient world, they would not have recognized or identified as such beyond “I prefer women” “or I prefer the stable boy.”

    Where culture comes into it (and where the chicken-egg thing *really* comes into it) is the modern cultural concept that a good 10% of the population is strongly wired to, not only like people of the same sex, but to identify with others of like minds in what has become a robust subculture.

    The biological urges would always have been there but the way in which they are expressed and conceptualized and even perhaps *amplified* changes with culture. Makes me wonder if some 1st Century Christians could witness today’s climate, they might not be as inclined to see homosexuality as an aberration that some people incline to like any other sin, but as something which is capable of resulting in stable, God-fearing families.

  • Is “bi” not casual? While I’m more inclined to describe myself as “queer” than as “bi,” I use both terms, and “bi” is more commonly used in my social circle.

    I’ve also heard “gays” used nondisparagingly, though usually as part of a construction like “gays and lesbians” (which of course raises all kinds of issues around unmarked gender).

  • I’ve never actually heard anyone call themselves or be referred to as “bi” outside of Hollywood. It always struck me as like referring to marijuana as “Mary Jane”… ubiquitous, but nonexistent.

  • Interesting. My social circle is centered around the Boston and Bay Area tech communities, if that helps to know.

  • You wouldn’t just stop finding people attractive altogether because you were in a relationship, would you?

    I’m not sure. I mean, I don’t, but as for whether I would want to… perhaps it’s more correct to say I would probably prefer to stop finding people attractive when I decide I don’t want to find them attractive. This is not unrelated to being in a monogamous relationship, but not coextant with it either.

    And I’m sorry things are going poorly with your SO.

  • Now I’m curious… it’d make sense that some of these terms are more common in one region than another, but I don’t know if anyone’s ever studied it. It would be interesting to see what terms and assumptions are common to which branches of culture.

  • Alix

    Yeah, queer’s about the best word I can find for me, too – the joys of not really fitting into any boxes, sexuality- or gender-wise. Also, as an asexual who does form romantic bonds, “queer” saves me a hell of a lot of potentially-insulting interactions with well-meaning people who have no effing clue that there’s a difference between sexual and romantic attraction.

    Besides, queer is … freeing, in a way no other word that I know of is. I don’t have to meet a particular standard to be queer, I can just be me, with my fluid self-perception and fascination with guises. And I’m sure there’s a regional (and possibly age-group) thing here too, in that while I have heard people use queer as an insult, I’ve heard it very rarely, and it’s usually a “weak” one – one that someone throws out ’cause they can’t think of an appropriately snappy comeback/insult.

    (I suspect a generational thing because to my mother, queer is either a heinous insult or a quaint archaism, depending on context. But that could be regional too – Mom grew up clear across the country.)

  • Alix

    I’m now curious, too.

    As a data point: “bi” is used as a casual identifier in Northern Virginia.

  • The Guest Who Posts

    New life goal: I’m going to go to Vegas and eat one of those mofos.

  • Anton_Mates

    “Male temple prostitute” seems a bit unlikely, given that there’s pretty much no evidence for such prostitution in the Greek-speaking world of Paul’s day. Even for female prostitutes who might be employed by temples, the closest thing we have is Strabo asserting that Corinth had a bunch of them several hundred years earlier.

    Personally, it seems to me that a literal “lying with men” translation is consistent with all the surviving appearances of arsenokoitai, at least for the next four hundred years or so after Paul. And if (as often suggested) it was coined based on the Greek translations of Leviticus, that would explain why it doesn’t show up in pagan writing at all; it would have had no particular resonance for them. But yeah, more documents with more context would be very helpful.

  • Alix

    “Male temple prostitute” seems to be extrapolating from other Mediterranean cultures, and it’s important to remember that Paul was writing letters to specific places and people, not just writing things for broad dissemination. In theory it’s possible that the idea, or some practitioners of such a cult, spread to Corinth, but that requires more evidence than just a new word in a letter.

    IOW, I agree. I suspect people are trying just a bit too hard to explain away all the anti-homosexuality in the Bible, just as some witches I know try to explain away all the anti-witchcraft stuff.

  • arcseconds

    What makes you think that it’s Aristophanes, reported second hand by Plato, rather than Plato’s story, put in the mouth of Aristophanes?

  • arcseconds

    I’m going to demand a reference for this one :]

    (not the Republic, the idea that Socrates made Plato burn all his plays)

  • Alix

    For the purpose to which I was quoting it, it doesn’t really matter. Either way, it’s evidence the idea of innate sexual orientation was at least thought of.

    Honestly? I tend to suspect the latter with most everything Plato wrote, or at least that he heavily editorialized. (I am not a fan of the Dialogues.) But they’re framed as Plato recording dialogues that happened, and so unless there’s a reason to bring it up, I usually just roll with that.

    Sort of like how I usually go with the idea that Herodotus was actually recording stories he heard and not completely making shit up.

  • Unfortunately, the professor who kept shouting it every class died about twelve years ago, so I’m going to have to defer to an actual expert.

  • I’m inclined to suppose that almost every time you hear the ancients speak disparagingly of men identified by some term we translate as “homosexual”, a more useful translation would be “Men who treat other men as if they were as lowly and subhuman as we are totally okay with men treating women”

  • I don’t think “trying too hard” conveys the right sense. They’re trying and failing to explain something based on a radically different understanding of human sexuality in terms of our understanding of human sexuality.

    Whatever Paul meant and whatever he would think of modern relationships, the people he is talking about had an entirely different understanding of their own sexuality from people who would identify as homosexual today, and pointing at the two guys who live down the road that the newspaper used to describe as “confirmed bachelors” and saying “Yeah, that’s the sort Paul and Leviticus were saying are abominations,” is a profound misreading, even if we can’t exactly find a good way to describe who he was talking about because the thing he’s talking about is utterly alien to the way we think of sexuality.

    (Though, as I said in my previous post, it probably boils down to the idea that for Paul, sex, all sex, was about demoting someone from “person” to “hole I stick my dick in for sexual release”. And that was maybe just acceptable if the other person was a woman — who he reckoned only just barely counted as human anyway* — but demoting a man like that was contrary to his understanding of the “Don’t treat other people as less than human” bit of Christianity.

    * And even then, you should really only do that to a woman if it’s the only way to keep your pent-up lust from becoming a distraction)

  • Alix

    Fair enough. But it still strikes me that there’s a difference between trying to figure out what Paul meant by homosexuality and how that fits with changing understandings of sexuality, and trying to reinterpret the text on little or no evidence to push it as far from homosexuality as one can.

    Arguing that Paul meant something a bit different by “laying with men” – that, say, in the context of his time it was seen as demeaning, or perverted, or as a kind of exploitation – is a bit different than trying to argue that the word that literally translates as “laying with men” means something radically different (that conveniently no longer exists), when we have no evidence for it ever meaning that.

    …I’m probably not explaining this well. :/

  • Anton_Mates

    “Male temple prostitute” seems to be extrapolating from other Mediterranean cultures, and it’s important to remember that Paul was writing letters to specific places and people, not just writing things for broad dissemination.

    And it’s, at best, unclear that there were any other cultures to extrapolate from. I’m not an expert, but so far as I can see from the literature, there are no clear attestations to male temple prostitution anywhere in the Mediterranean. Classical writers never mention it. The Old Testament contains two or three instances of a word, qadesh, which might mean “male temple prostitute” because it’s the masculine version of another word qedeshah which might mean “female temple prostitute” because it occurs next to another word zonah which more clearly means “female prostitute.” But these words might also mean “male/female temple functionary” without any sexual connotation, or the female version might have a sexual connotation that the male lacks. In addition, these terms are being used by hostile writers, some of whom commonly use prostitution as a metaphor for apostasy and impiety. So figuring out what a real-life qadesh actually was is even harder than figuring out arsenokoitai.

    For that matter, AFAIK there are no first-hand attestations to female temple prostitution either*, except maybe a commissioned drinking song by Pindar, and it’s a bit hard to distinguish truth, metaphor and bullshit in that poem. Nobody claims to have been such a prostitute, to have patronized them or even to have seen them. We only have stories about how distant, barbaric societies and/or the people of ancient times had this weird custom.

    All that makes me doubt that Paul even believed in the existence of male temple prostitution, let alone considered it worth lecturing his audiences about.

    *by which I mean “prostitution which had ritual significance, or was conducted by temple functionaries with official sanction.” There were certainly prostitutes going to temples, making sacrifices and financial offerings, and participating in certain religious festivals, just as farmers and artisans and merchants and aristocrats did.

  • arcseconds

    Are they so framed? Ross has just pointed out the similarity with plays — you presumably don’t think Aristophanes is reporting actual events about Socrates in The Clouds.

    There’s plenty of other reasons to suppose that the dialogues aren’t mean to be (and weren’t) understood as recordings, and the editor of the Hackett critical edition of the complete works (John Cooper) warns against such a reading.

    (All the stuff I’ve encountered about Plato from scholars always just assumes they’re literary/philosophical work, too — not that I’ve read heaps, but it certainly doesn’t seem to be a common reading, and I’d be a bit surprised (and irritated) if there turned out to be a debate about this which all my sources just failed to even mention)

    It’s irrelevant to your point, yes, but you seem to have considerable interest in, and knowledge of, classical studies, and it’s important to understand what genre the primary sources belong in.

    Our opinions of the dialogues aren’t relevant to the discussion about homosexuality either, but seeing as you’ve offered yours, I may as well say I’m a great fan of them :-)

    They’re extremely clever, and often quite hilarious.

  • arcseconds

    … and of course, it’s well known that Homer didn’t write the poems that are attributed to him, but rather another poet by the same name :-)

  • arcseconds

    see now Alix, this is why it’s important whether Plato is an author or a biographer/documentary maker. You’ve got ShifterCat believing Aristophanes rocked, when it should be Plato!

    (*stomps feet*)

  • Alix

    Um. I’m not sure anyone thinks any work of ancient literature is a complete and accurate recording, even the stuff that’s trying to be.

    I’d sort of separate philosophical from literary. The Dialogues were certainly philosophical works. They’re also literary for certain in a broad sense.

    Them being framed as something recorded is interior to the dialogues – Plato is at least pretending they’re actual conversations between real people, kind of like how the Iliad, according to itself, is recounting a real historical event. It’s implicit to the way they’re written.

    None of that means they really are recordings, in the sense we’d think of them. That doesn’t necessarily mean these were works of fiction like we’d understand the term – the same thing is true of all Greek and Roman histories, for example, and Thucydides at least is candid about how he made up all the speeches but “captured the sense.” So.

    That said, Plato does take a number of sly potshots, intentionally or not, that sort of undermine them as real accounts – a few of them we know can’t be records of things he witnessed, because he expressly says he wasn’t there. From what I recall, and with the caveat that Socrates is really not my favorite topic, the Dialogues were seen to contain historical information but not be historical themselves, and there was a big debate over which ideas presented were really Socrates’ and which were Plato’s own.

    I guess, genre-wise, I’d say they were philosophical texts, but not presented as fiction. But with the caveat that they weren’t exactly what we’d call nonfiction, either.

    On the irrelevancy – I don’t mind tangents. :) I just wasn’t sure if your comment was meant as one or not.

    Most people I know hold that opinion about the Dialogues. :P I had to read all of them for school over a semester, coupled with lots of intensely crazy philosophical discussion “in the Socratic method”. I hated everything almost by default, because that was really not a well-run class. :/ I keep intending to go back and reread Plato on my own, without the weird pressures of that class, but I can’t say it’s exactly high on my priority list.

  • Alix

    There are some similarly vague mentions in some Babylonian records, but they’re similar to the qedeshah-zonah thing; we know one word means “prostitute” and infer via context the other means “ritual prostitute.” I know people have interpreted some things – especially ones that sound like divine marriage celebratory poems – as sexual rites, but that’s an inference from mythology and thus makes me deeply uncomfortable. It seems like many scholars just sort of assume it happened and roll on.

    It’s possible they existed. Just because it’s your enemies recording something doesn’t mean it’s not at heart true – the Romans happily recorded the human sacrifices of the Celts and Germans, and while the issue’s still contentious, there’s some support for both cultures having practiced some form of it. So people might not have been completely blowing smoke about the ritualized prostitution, but there needs to be more evidence we don’t seem to have.

    The other thing that bugs me is that people seem to often jump from “this culture had a [somewhat] positive view of sex/sexuality” to “and therefore temple prostitutes,” like with the possible divine marriage stuff. Like, y’know, there’s some innate reason that couldn’t have been reenacted, if it ever was, with one’s own wife. And a lot of the people I run into today seem to really want temple prostitution to have existed, because they can point to that as some sort of way societies supposedly honored women and sex.

    I … tend to be pretty conservative when it comes to extrapolation, and some of this stuff sets my teeth on edge. You can’t argue from mythology, or from ritual purity codes, or anything like that without either a lot of other documentation or serious archaeological proof to back it up.

  • Anton_Mates

    I’m inclined to suppose that almost every time you hear the ancients speak disparagingly of men identified by some term we translate as “homosexual”, a more useful translation would be “Men who treat other men as if they were as lowly and subhuman as we are totally okay with men treating women”

    I have a bit of trouble with the latter translation, because “treating others as lowly and subhuman” doesn’t have a very consistent or precise definition across cultures and subcultures. We define degrading/dehumanizing sexual treatment mostly in terms of consent and the balance of social power, but ancient writers defined it mostly in terms of penetration and essentialist notions of adulthood and gender, and it may be helpful to use a translation that makes more of this definition explicit.

    *Or some of us do, anyway. Needless to say, there are also a lot of modern social conservatives who are strongly concerned with gender/age essentialism and the politics of penetration. “Men who treat other men as if they were as lowly and subhuman as we are totally okay with men treating women” is probably a good summary of how they see male homosexuality.

  • Alix

    Or even a few poets – it seems that attaching a famous name to a text to give it the ring of authority/authenticity was pretty common. See also: Paul’s letters, most (if not all) of the Bible, the Gnostic gospels, etc.

    As an aside: it fascinates me how scholars can look at texts and figure out who wrote them, or who didn’t. If there’s one scholarly superpower I wish I had, it’s being able to look at a given text and see all those tiny details about the authorial voice these people pick up on.

    (Actually, I lie. My favorite scholarly superpower would be an ability to read any language. The authorial-voice-sight would be #2.)

  • Anton_Mates

    There are some similarly vague mentions in some Babylonian records, but they’re similar to the qedeshah-zonah thing; we know one word means “prostitute” and infer via context the other means “ritual prostitute.”

    And in the Babylonian/Akkadian/Assyrian stuff, the case for prostitution is (I would say) even weaker, because more facts about qadistus have survived than in the Hebrew literature (with the caveat that these sources span hundreds of miles and thousands of years). They served as wet-nurses and hosted midwives, could legally marry, have children and owned their own property, and apparently (like widows) had no legal male “master” and belonged to no household but their own, unless they married. It seems pretty clear that they were involved in mundane, magical and religious activities associated with motherhood, but nothing is said about their being prostitutes. The closest connection is that they were socially located “on the street,” as prostitutes were–but so would be any other person unaffiliated with a larger household.

    Like, y’know, there’s some innate reason that couldn’t have been reenacted, if it ever was, with one’s own wife.

    Or–if it’s an official ritual with community significance–perhaps reenacted by a chosen priest and priestess, or by the local king and queen. As opposed to a bunch of priestesses and random laymen with sufficient cash, which doesn’t necessarily seem like a great formula for performing an important ritual correctly.

    And a lot of the people I run into today seem to really want temple prostitution to have existed, because they can point to that as some sort of way societies supposedly honored women and sex.

    Right, because there’s nothing more feminist and sex-positive than a religious organization commanding its female employees or slaves to sleep with strange men and pocketing the money they make…

  • Ooh ooh. I know this one.

    I got in a fight over it once with someone who claimed to be famous on the internet for always being right about everything.

    Apparently, the only reason we can say that Aristophanes is not reporting actual events about Socrates in ‘The Clouds’ is because in Plato’s ‘Apology’, Socrates says so. Otherwise, we would be legally required to assume Arisophanes was giving an accurate report of actual history, since fiction was not invented until the 19th century.

  • EllieMurasaki

    fiction was not invented until the 19th century.

    How now, spirit, whither wander you?

    Over hill, over dale,
    Thorough bush, thorough brier,
    Over park, over pale,
    Through flood, through fire,
    I do wander everywhere,
    Swifter than the moon’s sphere;
    And I serve the fairy queen,
    To dew her orbs upon the green.
    The cowslips tall her pensioners be:
    In their gold coats spots you see;
    Those be rubies, fairy favours,
    In those freckles live their savours:
    I must go seek some dewdrops here
    And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear.
    Farewell, thou lob of spirits; I’ll be gone:
    Our queen and all our elves come here anon.

  • Alix

    The Babylonian stuff was about a different term, but I can’t remember it at the moment, and it was, anyway, just as tenuous as the other stuff.

    I think another problem comes from the modern understanding of religion as something where all rites, or almost all, are open to all believers. I mean, that’s not a totally new idea – it was a large part of the appeal of the Romanized Isis movement – but a lot of Mediterranean religions were either mystery religions requiring initiation, or were state religions which were tied up in the structure of society itself, including all the class issues. And priests were often a separate class, even if there was some mobility into that class, as was the nobility/king. So what applies to an official ritual, as you say, can’t just be assumed to apply broadly to any believer with appropriate equipment.

    Right, because there’s nothing more feminist and sex-positive than a religious organization commanding its female employees or slaves to sleep with strange men and pocketing the money they make…

    No kidding. :/ But the idea, as earnestly explained to me many a time, is that this was before prostitution was seen as wrong or dirty (uh, no), before the demonization of sexuality which totally only happened with the medieval Church and not, say, the ancient Greeks, and before the Church/monotheism made women inferior. And it was totally natural and sex-positive and not exploitive at all!

    And, well, that’s not impossible. Not by a long shot. Not all cultures see sex as evil or even prostitution as wrong. But I’m skeptical of such a system in the Near East, and I don’t see any evidence for it.

  • My inclination, and this is largely the fault of the afforementioned professor whose special interest was the intersection of philosophy and theatre, is that the philosophical content of Plato’s dialogues was drawn from his lessons with Socrates, but the actual narratives that he used to convey them were largely his own invention, something akin to a parable, only one trying to convey a philosophical rather than moral lesson.

  • Alix

    I’m inclined to agree, though I suspect at least a few of his stories might have been based on real life incidents, but heavily altered.

    It’s not like Plato ever claimed to be writing history anyway.

  • arcseconds

    I’m pretty sure the standard view is (or was for some time in the 20th century at any rate, which probably means it’s still being taught as the standard view) that the ‘early’ dialogues show us a figure that’s pretty close to the historical Socrates, and were inspired by actual conversations that Socrates had, whereas the ‘middle’ and ‘late’ dialogues show more and more Plato producing his own ideas.

    This idea is in part based on the observation that the ‘early’ dialogues show Socrates engaging in the famous socratic question-and-answer format (which we have independent testimony for, e.g. Xenophon) , whereas the ‘late’ dialogues tend to be monologues and often the main figure isn’t even Socrates, and the ‘middle’ dialogues are transitional between the two (including for example Republic, where there is some kind of a conversation in parts but it’s largely just Socrates laying it all down).

    We do have somewhat good reasons for thinking the late dialogues were actually written late (e.g. the Laws was apparently still unfinished at the time of his death), but other than that, this is all just speculation, and my impression is that contemporary scholars tend to not put much truck in it (e.g. Cooper). However, I really don’t think anyone thinks that the late dialogues represent anything other than Plato’s own work and ideas, and many think basically all the dialogues do that.

    You can read a discussion about this here:

    It strikes me as a very strange position to take to think that Plato is mostly acting as a record-keeper, even if a biased one who’s inclined to ‘tweak’ things. How did he get a (contemporary) reputation for being a great philosopher, for a start?

  • arcseconds

    Well, they’re framed internally as being discussions, yes, but that may well be in rather the same way as Frankenstein is framed as being a letter from a sea-captain to his wife, who heard most of the story from Dr. Frankenstein.

    They can still contain historical information, even if the discussions themselves are largely fictional. If somehow only literary works survived from the 20th century, you could probably learn a lot of historical information from Tom Stoppard’s Travesties, but you’d be well advised to keep in mind that while the characters portray real people, they never actually met nor had the conversations portrayed therein.

    One question to ask is how the contemporary readers of the dialogues would have understood them. As far as I can make out, ancient Greeks (the devout ones at least) did take the Iliad seriously as a kind of history, but I’d be very surprised if Plato’s original readers thought the same about the dialogues (and I’m pretty sure Aristotle at least refers to stuff that we find in the dialogues as Plato, not Socrates).

    It’s also worth pointing out that Ross’s old teacher isn’t the only person to have thought that the dialogues (or at least some of them) are designed to be read out.

    However, the framing of many of them doesn’t really allow for this. Symposium is a good example: it’s framed as being a discussion between Apollodorus and his unnamed friend, during which Apollodorus recounts a discussion he had with Aristodemus, who was there at the party, and totally remembers what went on even though it was decades ago and he got drunk and passed out.

    So it’s a flashback within a flashback, basically. Perhaps they’d play some appeggios on a lyre, and wave some gauze in front of the audience, and dim the lamps and introduce new actors every time a new layer of narrative is introduced?

    This kind of framing really seems like a literary device to me, something that if anything draws attention to the recounted conversation between Socrates, Aristophanes, etc. as something kind of legendary or mythic, rather than something that has been faithfully recounted as it actually happened.

  • Alix

    I agree with all of this.

    To clarify, when I mentioned in my comment way upthread that the story was “Aristophanes as reported secondhand by Plato” – it’s a general policy of mine to accept the framing of a story, if they’re any stripe of nonfiction*, so long as the proper attribution doesn’t actually matter to my point. I have a similar policy with reported authorship – we know a bunch of Paul’s epistles weren’t written by whoever wrote the other bunch (heck, for all we know, neither was really Paul), but unless that’s an important point I usually just call the author of any Pauline epistle Paul.

    *I don’t think the Dialogues really fit into our modern categories of fiction or nonfiction.

    On a completely random side note, it’s perfectly possible to do flashbacks, even layered ones, in theater or in dramatic readings. Probably especially if the audience is used to the style. I have some vague memory of flashbacks showing up in Greek drama somewhere, but it is going on 3 am and my brain is shot, and Greek drama’s not my specialty anyway.

    There’s also a pretty good case to be made that myth was never seen as literally true in quite the way we mean that term – it was probably Campbell (who annoys me, but sometimes has good ideas) who said there aren’t two modes of truth (true/false), but three: myth, fact, and falsehood. But it is really hard to figure out what people thought about the veracity of their own myths; about the best we can do is compare it to contemporary believers of polytheistic or traditional religions, and the concept of myth-time as opposed to historical time does often (but not always) show up. But with contemporary stuff there’s always the possibility of contamination, if you will, from more rationalist philosophies, and people can be really gullible or ignorant or incurious or otherwise accepting of “crazy” stories, and religious thought varies wildly even across members of the same population in the same place at the same time, let alone across centuries in a changing culture.

  • arcseconds

    …and Plato! There’s at least half-a-dozen dialogues attributed to him that aren’t now thought to be his works, and a few more which are disputed.

    My favourite name that’s come out of this kind of thing is Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, just because it’s so damned weird as a name. I’d have taken that as my nom-de-internet, except it’s a pain to type, and I’d probably actually have to read the works…

    A slightly more sympathetic motive I’ve often seen given for this kind of thing is that it was seen as presumptuous to write under your own name.

    Someone else already has dibs on your superpower:

  • Alix

    The question of authorship always fascinates me. I mean, in a few thousand years, people are probably going to have the same problem with the stuff we’re writing today, at least as far as “was there really a Homer/Paul/whoever” thing goes. (“Thomas Jefferson was totally a mythic figure!”)

    Well, except we (apparently) have some stuff people wrote under their own names. Although I do wonder if there was some kind of a class/status issue at play, or if it was something akin to, say, an artist farming out some of the work to apprentices but still taking credit for the overall work – except that the artist is, well, dead. (…Vampire Plato, or Zombie Paul. Hee. In retrospect, probably not the best attempt at analogy ever.) But I could easily imagine a school expanding on the works of their masters, with all respect. If that makes sense.

  • Alix

    Replying again just because.

    rather than something that has been faithfully recounted as it actually happened

    You can’t take anything as a faithful recounting of what actually happened, though, at least not pre-recording devices, and, well, not even always then. And the further back in time the text is, the less you can trust it, because context is increasingly lost.

    I’m primarily focused on military history at the moment*, and I’ve done a little stuff on reconstructing ancient battles, and even with some of the best-documented ones, there comes a point where you throw up your hands and go “That makes no sense – it’s either propaganda, hearsay, or poor memory.”

    I mean, we know from criminal trials and such that humans are ridiculously unreliable witnesses. It kind of boggles me that we then tend to assume that if the witness was ancient, or the text is sufficiently venerable, that the recounting must be accurate.

    *Closest I could get at my uni to the focus I’m really interested in – you guessed it, ancient Mediterranean history. :P

  • arcseconds


    oh, well, if they’re famous for always being right, that’s different…

  • arcseconds

    I think we have to be very careful in applying our categories of truth and fiction to works from other cultures, yes. In fact, even within Western culture we can be led astray, I think.

    Some people, I reckon, just don’t really believe in truth like the rest of us do. There’s just a bunch of stuff people say, and if by saying something different from what other people are saying, you can get them to react in the way you want, that’s a good outcome. David Irving has struck me a bit like that.

    (of course, it’s really difficult to tell. you can’t just ask them ‘do you believe in literal truth?’, because even if you can get them to be ‘honest’ (and what does that even mean to them?) they could say ‘yes!’ but mean something different. I couldn’t even really tell you what i mean by ‘literal truth’ anyway… )

    While I don’t want to anachronistically imbue ancient peoples or other cultures with sophisticated postmodern attitudes towards narratives and truth, I do think these categories are often more flexible for them than they are for most westerners. ‘Conflicting’ narratives don’t seem to be much of a problem, for example. And sometimes they may be quite sophisticated — the midrashic literature has struck many people this way, just as one example.

  • arcseconds

    by the bit you quoted, i didn’t mean what our attitude should be, but rather what the text presents itself as, with its original readership particularly in mind. As I said, i don’t think Plato thought of himself (in most cases, anyway) as doing anything remotely resembling history (well, no more than a ‘based on fact’ Hollywood movie does, anyway), and I don’t think his immediate readers took him to be doing this either, and in some cases the dialogues themselves strongly discourage such a reading through their structure.

    Are there any particular howlers you’d care to discuss from military history? I don’t have much of an interested in military matters, but I do rather like stories that make no sense whatsoever :]

  • arcseconds

    Sure. Pythagoras seems like an example of this.

    I can remember reading someone saying once that they thought that ‘Bertrand Russell’ would one day be understood to be the name of a committee, the composition of which changed over time, because there was so much written, over such a long period of time, and over such a wide variety of topics, with the focus and even opinions changing reasonably frequently.

    As an interesting example of almost the exact opposite, there is (or was — I think they’re still publishing, but their heyday has past) a collective of constructivist mathematicians that published under the name Nicolas Bourbaki. You should check them out :-)