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Book Review: The Use of Pleasure

The Use of Pleasure is the second volume of Foucault's trilogy on the history of sexuality. I did not review the first volume, though I have incorporated some of its insights into my studies on Song of Songs. This volume is much more straight forward and, as it is a historical study of Greek thought on sex, is directly and obviously applicable to biblical studies.

Foucault's goal is to draw out the differences between Greek and Christian ethical thinking on the topic of sex. As Foucault demonstrates, it's not a question of degree of moral laxness or strictness. Greek sexual ethics were not so much a separate topic in ethics as they were a piece of a larger ethical question.

Foucault organizes the book primarily around four topics: the moral problematization of pleasure, dietetics, economics, and erotics (the love of boys). The first of these sections is the most important as it provides the framework that you need for the subsequent sections. Foucault's basic argument in this chapter is that the Greeks by and large viewed sex as a pleasure, alongside many others, to enjoy in moderation. The goal of Greek ethics wasn't to promote or prohibit certain behaviors but to encourage elite males to model the ideal life, a life where one was free from being controlled by one's desires, where one was one's own master. Only if you could master yourself and your household where you fit for being a leader among your people.

The second part looks at, what to us is a surprising context, for the discussion of sexual activity, dietetics. Here sex is looked alongside diet and exercise and other things related to the body. Specifically, attention is paid to the season of the year and age. In different seasons one should either reduce or increase sexual activity depending on the needs of the body. For example, some thought it better to largely abstain from sex during the hot and wet portion of the summer, since sex too made you hot and wet. The goal was to help your health be at its peak. And certainly moderation lead to health, because the Greeks believed that through sex one lost part of his virility. Moderation, then, led not only to one's own health but also to the health of one's progeny.

Foucault then turns his attention to economics, meaning sex within the sphere of household relations. Elite males had a lot of power within their household and also could have sex with anyone they wanted except a married woman who wasn't his wife (relations between two free men were also frowned upon). However, the key here, again is moderation and self-restraint. It was encouraged, that upon marriage, one not have sex with your slaves or with women outside of your household. It was best for the harmony of the household if the wife was honored that way. Self-restraint resulting in an orderly and happy home showed one's capacity for civic leadership.

The last major portion was erotics, here being the love of boys. This section shows the greatest amount of tension in Greek ethical thinking. The difficulty wasn't with having sex with someone of the same gender. Greeks loved beauty and found the immature male body to be the zenith. It was over questions of social status. Being the passive member in a relationship meant that one was inferior or slighted (thinking that lies beneath phrases like 'that sucks' or "I'm f..."). Thus, most of the discussion centered around what age it was permissible for boys to have older male lovers, how easily the boy could give, what benefits the boy could receive, and when did these relationships turn into prostitution. There was a narrow window where it was ok. The boy had to be old enough to demonstrate potential for future leadership. He couldn't be too developed, otherwise it would be degrading to him. It was a very complex dance.

What I hope this review shows is the very different attitude towards sex that the Greeks had. Foucault argues his case very persuasively, quoting heavily from primary sources. This is critical background to have in mind, especially when studying Paul's advice to his pagan comments. It enlightens us to their background and will give greater insight into why Paul approached issues the way he did. Additionally we see just how different early Christian ethics are in comparison to Greek ethics. It is much more purity oriented, individualistic, and rule driven. The Greeks were much less concerned with discussing what types of activity were permitted or prohibited.

Overall, I consider The Use of Pleasure to be mandatory reading for anyone studying New Testament sexual ethics or sexual ethics more broadly. It gives both good historical information and is a model of how to be sensitive to the actual concerns of ancient writers and cultures rather than imposing one's own agenda upon them.


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