Plutarch: Dialogue on Love

Debates over the relative merits of homosexual and heterosexual love were commonplace. Plutarch, the author of this one, lived in the first century CE (c. 46-120). He was an avid propagandist for Hellenic values, and his works are thought to reflect the attitudes of an age long past. Here Protogenes, who believes that women are incapable of true feeling or intellect, argues that love is almost by definition homosexual. His friend Daphnaeus, who seems to represent Plutarch, vehemently disagrees.

"Do you call marriage and the union of man and wife shameful?" interposed Daphnaeus, "there can be no bond more sacred."

"Such unions are necessary for the propagation of the race," said Protogenes, "and so our lawgivers have been careful to endow them with sanctity and exalt them before the populace. But of true Love the women’s apartment has no shred. For my part I deny that the word "love" can be applied to the sentiment you feel for women and girls, no more than flies can be said to ‘love’ milk, or bees honey, or victualers and cooks can be said to have amorous feelings for the beeves and fowl they fatten in the dark...." A noble love which attaches to a youthful [male] spirit issues in excellence upon the path of friendship. From these desires for women, even if they turn out well, one may enjoy only physical pleasure and the satisfaction of a ripe body."

[After much argument, Daphnaeus responds:] "If we examine the truth of the matter, Protogenes, the passion for boys and for women derives from one and the same Love, but if you insist on distinguishing between them for argument's sake, you will find that the Love of boys does not comport himself decently; he is like a late issue, born unseasonably, illegitimate, and shady, who drives out the elder and legitimate love. It was only yesterday, my friend, or the day before, after lads began to strip and bare themselves for exercise that it crept surreptitiously into the gymnasia with its allurements and embraces, and then, little by little, when it had fledged its wings full in the palaestras, it could no longer be held in check; now it abuses and befouls that noble conjugal Love which assures immortality to our mortal kind, for by procreation it rekindles our nature when it is extinguished.

"Protogenes denies there is pleasure in the Love of boys he does so out of shame and fear. He must have some decent pretext for attachment to his young beauties, and so he speaks of friendship and excellence. He covers himself with athletes dust, takes cold baths, raises his eyebrows, and declares he is chastely philosophizing–to outward view and because of the law. But when night falls and all is quiet then 'sweet is the fruit when the keeper is gone."'

Plutarch. "Dialogue on Love," trans Moses Hadas. In Moses Hadas, ed, On Love, the Family and the Good Life: Selected Essays of Plutarch, pp. 307-308 Mentor books, 1957.