A Problem in Modern Ethics/Chapter VI



No one has yet attempted a complete history of inverted sexuality in all ages and in all races. This would be well worth doing. Materials, though not extremely plentiful, lie to hand in the religious books and codes of ancient nations, in mythology and poetry and literature, in narratives of travel, and the reports of observant explorers.

Gibbon once suggested that: "A curious dissertation might be formed on the introduction of pæderasty after the time of Homer, its progress among the Greeks of Asia and Europe, the vehemence of their passions, and the thin device of virtue and friendship which amused the philosophers of Athens. But," adds the prurient prude, "Scelera ostendi oportet dum puniunter, abscondi flagitia."

Two scholars responded to this call. The result is that the chapter on Greek love has been very fairly written by equally impartial, equally learned, and independent authors, who approached the subject from somewhat different points of view, but who arrived in the main at similar conclusions.

The first of these histories is M. H. E. Meier's article on Pæderastie in Ersch and Gruber's "Allgemeine Encyklopädie:" Leipzig, Brockhaus, 1837.

The second is a treatise entitled "A Problem in Greek Ethics," composed by an Englishman in English. The anonymous author was not acquainted with Meier's article before he wrote, and only came across it long after he had printed his own essay. This work is extremely rare, ten copies only having been impressed for private use.

Enquirers into the psychology and morality of sexual inversion should not fail to study one or other of these treatises. It will surprise many a well-read scholar, when he sees the whole list of Greek authorities and passages collected and co-ordinated, to find how thoroughly the manners and the literature of that great people were penetrated with pæderastia. The myths and heroic legends of prehistoric Hellas, the educational institutions of the Dorian state, the dialogues of Plato, the history of the Theban army, the biographies of innumerable eminent citizens—lawgivers and thinkers, governors and generals, founders of colonies and philosophers, poets and sculptors—render it impossible to maintain that this passion was either a degraded vice or a form of inherited neuropathy in the race to whom we owe so much of our intellectual heritage. Having surveyed the picture, we may turn aside to wonder whether modern European nations, imbued with the opinions I have described above in the section on Vulgar Errors, are wise in making Greek literature a staple of the higher education. Their motto is Érasez l'infâme! Here the infamous thing clothes itself like an angel of light, and raises its forehead unabashed to heaven among the marble peristyles and olive-groves of an unrivalled civilization.

Another book, written from a medical point of view, is valuable upon the pathology of sexual inversion and cognate aberrations among the nations of antiquity. It bears the title "Geschichte der Lustseuche im Alterthume," and is composed by Dr. Julius Rosenbaum.[1] Rosenbaum attempts to solve the problem of the existence of syphilis and other venereal diseases in the remote past. This enquiry leads him to investigate the whole of Greek and Latin literature in its bearing upon sexual vice. Students will therefore expect from his pages no profound psychological speculations and no idealistic presentation of an eminently repulsive subject. One of the most interesting chapters of his work is devoted to what Herodotus called Νοὑσος φἡλεια among the Scythians, a wide-spread effemination prevailing in a wild warlike and nomadic race. We have already alluded to Krafft-Ebing's remarks on this disease, which has curious points of resemblance with some of the facts of male prostitution in modern cities.[2]

Professed anthropologists have dealt with the subject, collecting evidence from many quarters, and in some cases attempting to draw general conclusions. Bastian's "Der Mensch der Geschichte"[3] and Herbert Spencer's Tables deserve special mention for their encyclopædic fulness of information regarding the distribution of abnormal sexuality and the customs of savage tribes.

In England an Essay appended to the last volume of Sir Richard Burton's "Arabian Nights" made a considerable stir upon its first appearance.[4] The author endeavoured to co-ordinate a large amount of miscellaneous matter, and to frame a general theory regarding the origin and prevalence of homosexual passions. His erudition, however, is incomplete; and though he possesses a copious store of anthropological details, he is not at the proper point of view for discussing the topic philosophically.[5] For example, he takes for granted that "Pederasty," as he calls it, is everywhere and always what the vulgar think it. He seems to have no notion of the complicated psychology of Urnings, revealed to us by their recently published confessions in French and German medical and legal works. Still his views deserve consideration.

Burton regards the phenomenon as "geographical and climatic, not racial." He summarises the result of his investigations in the following five conclusions.[6]

"(1) There exists what I shall call a 'Sotadic Zone,' bounded westwards by the northern shores of the Mediterranean (N. lat. 43°) and by the southern (N. lat. 30°). Thus the depth would be 780 to 800 miles, including meridional France, the Iberian Peninsula, Italy and Greece, with the coast-regions of Africa from Morocco to Egypt.

"(2) Running eastward the Sotadic Zone narrows, embracing Asia Minor, Mesopotamia and Chaldæa, Afghanistan, Sind, the Punjab, and Kashmir.

"(3) In Indo-China the belt begins to broaden, enfolding China, Japan, and Turkistan.

"(4) It then embraces the South Sea Islands and the New World, where, at the time of its discovery, Sotadic love was, with some exceptions, an established racial institution.

"(5) Within the Sotadic Zone the vice is popular and endemic, held at the worst to be a mere peccadillo, whilst the races to the North and South of the limits here defined practise it only sporadically, amid the opprobrium of their fellows, who, as a rule, are physically incapable of performing the operation, and look upon it with the liveliest disgust."

This is a curious and interesting generalisation, though it does not account for what history has transmitted regarding the customs of the Kelts, Scythians, Bulgars, Tartars, Normans, and for the acknowledged leniency of modern Slavs to this form of vice.

Burton advances an explanation of its origin. "The only physical cause for the practice which suggests itself to me, and that must be owned to be purely conjectural, is that within the Sotadic Zone there is a blending of the masculine and feminine temperament, a crasis which elsewhere occurs only sporadically."[7] So far as it goes, this suggestion rests upon ground admitted to be empirically sound by the medical writers we have already examined, and vehemently declared to be indisputable as a fact of physiology by Ulrichs, whom I shall presently introduce to my readers. But Burton makes no effort to account for the occurrence of this crasis of masculine and feminine temperaments in the Sotadic Zone at large, and for its sporadic appearance in other regions. Would it not be more philosophical to conjecture that the crasis, if that exists at all, takes place universally; but that the consequences are only tolerated in certain parts of the globe, which he defines as the Sotadic Zone? Ancient Greece and Rome permitted them. Modern Greece and Italy have excluded them to the same extent as Northern European nations. North and South America, before the Conquest, saw no harm in them. Since its colonisation by Europeans they have been discountenanced. The phenomenon cannot therefore be regarded as specifically geographical and climatic. Besides, there is one fact mentioned by Burton which ought to make him doubt his geographical theory. He says that, after the conquest of Algiers, the French troops were infected to an enormous extent by the habits they had acquired there, and from them it spread so far and wide into civilian society that "the vice may be said to have been democratised in cities and large towns."[8] This surely proves that north of the Sotadic Zone males are neither physically incapable of the acts involved in abnormal passion, nor gifted with an insuperable disgust for them. Law, and the public opinion generated by law and religious teaching, have been deterrent causes in those regions. The problem is therefore not geographical and climatic, but social. Again, may it not be suggested that the absence of "the Vice" among the negroes and negroid races of South Africa, noticed by Burton,[9] is due to their excellent customs of sexual initiation and education at the age of puberty—customs which it is the shame of modern civilisation to have left unimitated?

However this may be, Burton regards the instinct as natural, not contre nature, and says that its patients "deserve, not prosecution but the pitiful care of the physician and the study of the psychologist."[10]

Another distinguished anthropologist, Paolo Mantegazza, has devoted special attention to the physiology and psychology of what he calls "I pervertimenti dell'amore."[11] Starting with the vulgar error that all sexual inversion implies the unmentionable act of coition (for which, by the way, he is severely rebuked by Krafft-Ebing, Psy. Sex., p. 92), he explains anomalous passions by supposing that the nerves of pleasurable sensation, which ought to be carried to the genital organs, are in some cases carried to the rectum.[12] This malformation makes its subject desire coitum per anum. That an intimate connection exists between the nerves of the reproductive organs and the nerves of the rectum is known to anatomists and is felt by everybody. Probably some cinædi are excited voluptuously in the mode suggested. Seneca, in his Epistles, records such cases; and it is difficult in any other way to account for the transports felt by male prostitutes of the Weibling type. Finally, writers upon female prostitution mention women who are incapable of deriving pleasure from any sexual act except aversa venus.

Mantegazza's observation deserves to be remembered, and ought to be tested by investigation. But, it is obvious, he pushes the corollary he draws from it, as to the prevalence of sexual inversion, too far.

He distinguishes three classes of sodomy: (1) Perpheric or anatomical, caused by an unusual distribution of the nerves passing from the spine to the reproductive organs and the rectum; (2) psychical, which he describes as "specific to intelligent men, cultivated, and frequently neurotic," but which he does not attempt to elucidate, though he calls it "not a vice, but a passion"; (3) luxurious or lustful, when the aversa venus is deliberately chosen on account of what Mantegazza terms "la desolante larghezza" of the female.[13]

Mantegazza winds up, like Burton, by observing that "sodomy, studied with the pitying and indulgent eye of the physician and the physiologist, is consequently a disease which claims to be cured, and can in many cases be cured."[14]

After perusing what physicians, historians, and anthropologists have to say about sexual inversion, there is good reason for us to feel uneasy as to the present condition of our laws. And yet it might be argued that anomalous desires are not always maladies, not always congenital, not always psychical passions. In some cases they must surely be vices deliberately adopted out of lustfulness, wanton curiosity, and seeking after sensual refinements. The difficult question still remains then—how to repress vice, without acting unjustly toward the naturally abnormal, the unfortunate, and the irresponsible.

I pass now to the polemical writings of a man who maintains that homosexual passions, even in their vicious aspects, ought not to be punished except in the same degree and under the same conditions as the normal passions of the majority.

  1. Third edition. Halle a. S., 1882.
  2. Psych. Sex., p. 82.
  3. Leipzig, Wigand, 1860.
  4. Arabian Nights, 1885, vol. x., pp. 205-254
  5. Burton's acquaintance with what he called "le Vice" was principally confined to Oriental nations. He started on his enquiries, imbued with vulgar errors; and he never weighed the psychical theories examined by me in the foregoing section of this Essay. Nevertheless, he was led to surmise a crasis of the two sexes in persons subject to sexual inversion. Thus he came to speak of "the third sex." During conversations I had with him less than three months before his death, he told me that he had begun a general history of "le Vice"; and at my suggestion he studied Ulrichs and Krafft-Ebing. It is to be lamented that life failed before he could apply his virile and candid criticism to those theories, and compare them with the facts and observations he had independently collected.
  6. I give the author's own text, p. 206.
  7. P. 208.
  8. P. 251.
  9. P. 222.
  10. Pp. 204, 209.
  11. Gli amori degli Uomini, Milano, 1886, vol. i. cap. 5.
  12. Ibid., p. 149.
  13. Pp. 148-154.
  14. P. 154.