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Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast Episode 204 – Early Modern Neo-Platonism and Same-Sex Relationships

Saturday, June 19, 2021 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 204 – Early Modern Neo-Platonism and Same-Sex Relationships - transcript

(Originally aired 2021/06/19 - listen here)

Today’s essay is going to tackle the intersection of several topics that can involve misunderstanding, reinterpretation, and shifts in how language is used. But those ambiguities lie at the heart of understanding how Western women of the 16th through 18th centuries talked about platonic love – and we’ll get to what they meant by that very shortly – how that love was experienced and expressed in same-sex contexts, and whether neo-platonic love was compatible with sexual desires and relationships.

There’s a popular meme that hangs out on the internet that takes an image of two women being physically affectionate, or a passage from a letter or diary expressing love between two women, and captions it with “Yeah suuuuure they’re ‘just good friends’ *cough* lesbians *cough*.” In my opinion, this meme fundamentally misunderstands two important and contrasting elements of queer history. One is the position that sexual activity provides a hard, bright line that separates friendship and romance. The other is that we can look at people in history and definitively assign them to the categories of queer and straight. The topic of platonic love – as understood in the early modern period – provides a rich framework for exploring those topics.


I’m going to start by noting that I am not a philosopher or a historian of philosophy. I’m going to over-simplify things and will probably get some of the details wrong. And the exploration of neo-Platonism reaches far beyond questions around the philosophy of love. Today’s essay is looking at a very small slice of neo-Platonic philosophy in the context of a fairly narrow span of history. But let’s start with some basic groundwork.

Plato was a Greek philosopher – specifically, Athenian – who lived around the 4th century BCE. Together with his teacher Socrates and his student Aristotle he’s among the most familiar of the classical philosophers. The topics of his teachings covered the entire scope of human experience and existence in addition to the world in general. Among the through-lines in his teachings was the idea of idealized essences or true natures that represented the purest form of a thing, a concept, or an experience. This becomes relevant later, so remember it.

Neoplatonism arose in the 2nd to 5th century CE in the context of a general interest in Greek scholarship within the Roman Empire. But wait, I hear you say! The 5th century is a long ways from the Early Modern period. Well, yes, let’s keep going with this capsule history. Because of its focus on unattainable idealized forms and on the concept of all reality deriving from a single unified origin, Neoplatonism was compatible with and attractive to early Christian philosophers. Plato was, in some ways, promoted to being an honorary proto-Christian.

As part of Christian philosophy, Plato’s ideas continued to experience waves of interest and revival throughout the medieval period and Renaissance. It was this Renaissance revival of Neoplatonism and the ability of Plato’s legacy to jump the gap to being embraced by Protestant philosophers as well, in England and elsewhere, that brings us to the subject of platonic love in the Early Modern period. And here we need to step back earlier again.

Platonic Love

Because Plato was concerned with relating messy complicated imperfect things in the real world to idealized, perfect philosophical concepts, his opinions on love encompass the whole spectrum from complicated, imperfect loves to pure idealized loves. Being Greek, he had multiple words to express certain parts of that spectrum, including eros from which we get “erotic”, which generally refers to love that involves the libido; philia which is a love of friends and companions, a love of virtue embodied in specific people; agape which is an abstract love for all humans, for nature, for God; and a number of other distinctions for a full seven types of love. These types of love were not considered exclusive of each other. And in the messy, complicated way of things, what one felt for another specific human being was generally a mixture of several of them.

Thus, if “platonic love” referred to any type of love included in Plato’s philosophy, then it would mean all types of love. But as the terminology developed, it had a more specific meaning, in large part because eros becomes treated as the default against which other types of love are contrasted.

But Plato’s view on eros was not a simple matter of “pants-feels” as the kids say these days, because he (in the voice of one of his characters in the Symposium) describes a sliding scale from “vulgar” eros which involves the desire for physical pleasure or reproduction, and “divine” eros which may be inspired by physical beauty but transcends physical responses to evolve into love of a person’s best qualities. This was the goal for the philosopher interested in achieving perfection and becoming one with the universe: to love with divine eros. And it is that form of love that the concept of “platonic love” was based on – a love that was expected to be inspired by sensory attraction, but to transcend the pursuit of pleasure. It isn’t a separate state from “vulgar eros” but rather a different pole along the sliding scale.

Platonic Love and Gender

When Neoplatonism was incorporated into early Christian philosophy, which was already thoroughly imbued with ascetic ideals, the idea that love was nobler the farther it got from bodily pleasure was seized upon eagerly. By the Renaissance, the concept of “platonic love” as defining an affection based on love of a person’s nobility, beauty, and spiritual qualities was firmly established, especially as contrasted with love based on the sex drive.

And now we need to step back again and talk about gender dynamics within the philosophy of love. Because, of course, the opinions voiced in Plato’s Symposium were not concerned with love between men and women. Oh, that could fall under the category of “vulgar eros” to be sure, and the love expected between husbands and wives could be categorized as a “family duty” sort of love. But the question of “divine eros” came into the question when considering the best way in which a mature man might experience and express his love for a youth. That topic is very complicated and I’m not going to get into the details in this show. If you want a deep dive into the topic, it’s one of the subjects that Foucault’s The History of Sexuality is very good about. (As long as you can cope with a discussion that functionally erases the existence of women.)

But the point is that same-sex love has always been a through-line in the concept of Platonic love. In the Renaissance, neoplatonic ideas about love provided a context for male philosophers talking about the idealized love of men for other men in ways that could skirt the third rail of sodomy and embrace a variety of intense friendships as being, not merely acceptable, but the pinnacle of human relations. Within this framework, the ideal love was only possible between equals, and that meant it was not possible between men and women – between whom there would always be a distinction of superior and inferior.

Women were not entirely left out of the discussion, however. In 16th century Italy, Agnolo Firenzuola in his discussion of Platonic love describes how women may “love each other’s beauty, some in purity and holiness, as the elegant Laudomia Forteguerra loves the most illustrious Margaret of Austria, some lasciviously, as in ancient times Sappho from Lesbos, and in our own times in Rome the great prostitute Cecilia Venetiana.” This is the scale between “divine eros” and “vulgar eros” recognized as being possible between women. Firenzuola treats both types as being related, though perhaps as two faces of the same coin rather than ends of a continuum of attraction.

But increasingly, references to “platonic love” become narrowed to what Plato considered “divine eros”, the type of admiration and affection that had transcended bodily pleasures. In English, we see this more specific sense of the word “platonic” established in common use in the title and content of the 1635 play by William Davenant “The Platonick Lovers,” which both flatters and satirizes the fashion for Platonic affections in the circle of Queen Henrietta Maria. The platonic lovers of the play – who are free to express physical affection publicly specifically because their love is not erotic – are brought around in the end to the joys of sexual desire.

Henrietta Maria’s patronage of neo-platonic approaches to love came out of her connection to the French précieuse movement – a female-led social and literary fashion for courtly love, witty and refined conversational games, and a push-back against the culture of seduction and misogynistic sexuality prominent at the French court. In England, the culture of platonic love found expression in poetry and literature that maintained the principle that men and women were capable of having egalitarian relationships with each other that derived from an affinity of minds rather than an attraction of bodies. Friendship required equal partners, but men and women could be friends because “The soul has no sex” as they proclaimed.

Perhaps predictably, this position was more common among women than among men. Men were happy to apply neo-platonic principles to extoling the joys and primacy of male-male friendships as the pinnacle of social bonds, but when writers such as poet Katherine Philips tried to solicit support from male philosophers for an extension of platonic principles to women, the answers could be less than satisfactory at times, often considering women incapable of true friendship to men, and not even entertaining the possibility of true friendship between women.

But neoplatonic philosophy underlay two long-term shifts in relations affecting women. It contributed to the growing concept of “companionate marriage” in England – the idea that heterosexual spouses could have a relationship based on spiritual and intellectual companionship as well as for the purpose of procreation or economic partnership. And neoplatonic philosophy created a context for women to form, discuss, and express same-sex bonds in a framework that allowed them to place such relationships on the same standing as marriage.

In various forms, from the 17th through the 19th century, women’s same-sex relationships had a series of accepted public models, derived from the principles of neoplatonic love, that gave them personal permission and public license to express that love using the forms and language used for heterosexual bonds. But were such relationships “lesbian” in any meaningful sense? That’s a multi-layered question.

The public discourse around neoplatonic love between men and women featured a lot of debate around the question of sexuality. Was it possible for a man and woman to love each other platonically and not have it inevitably veer into a sexual relationship? Keep in mind that we’re talking about eras when there was a certain level of assumption that if men and women were private together one could assume that sex occurred. In part, this was due to the lack of social power and protections for women to refuse, and the general lack of consequences for men who took advantage. So the notion that a man and a woman could have an intimate intellectual relationship that was completely non-sexual was almost as radical as some of the fringe religious movements that sprang up in the same era. Some mixed-sex platonic relationships succeeded in staying non-sexual, some eventually added a sexual component, some were from the start both platonic – in the sense of having an intellectual bond – and sexual. To some extent, this aligns with Plato’s original concept (whether you buy into it or not) that love was a sliding scale of mixtures of idealized and sexual desire.

So how do we interpret women’s publicly-expressed platonic relationships in the 17th through 19th centuries? When women are declaring their love for each other, proclaiming eternal devotion, expressing a desire to share their lives, and describing their admiration for the beauty, intellect, and personality of other women, do we assume they’re also having sex? Or do we assume that of course they aren’t having sex because – duh! – they told us it’s “platonic”?

We can look at this from two angles: the use of the actual word “platonic,” and the question of how pairs of women existing within the platonic friendship tradition approached sexuality. For that matter, we can take a third angle: is the question even relevant?

So did women use the term “platonic” in a way that actively excluded the possibility of sexual relations? The answers are varied. The 16th century Italian philosopher Tullia d’Aragona wrote a neo-Platonist treatise Dialogues on the Infinity of Love in which she argued that the only truly moral form of love was one that recognized both sexual and spiritual desires – and recognized that women were equal to men in both realms. While she focused on male-female relations, she presents a position that recognizing the spiritual aspect of platonic love does not mean excluding the sexual.

At the opposite end of the scale of meaning – and decidedly later in time – we have the example of Anne Lister contemplating the nature of the relationship between Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby and whether it was “purely platonic”. In the context of the diary entry (and knowing that Lister’s relationships with women were definitely sexual) it's clear that she is using “platonic” in a sense that excludes sex. But one might quibble that her choice of words “purely” platonic suggests the possibility of relationships that were, if you will, “impurely” platonic and included sex.

One difficulty in asking the question of how and when people used the term “platonic” in a sense that excluded sex (rather than simply not focusing on it) is the scarcity of women’s writing discussing same-sex sexual activity in open terms. Similarly difficult is interpreting satirical writings on women’s platonic relationships that allege or imply a sexual component (whether the relationship is with a man or another woman). But as I don’t have examples where the specific word “platonic” is used in these satires, I’ll leave that question aside for now.

Moving on to how women engaged in same-sex platonic friendships actually behaved with respect to a sexual component, we run into the complication of defining “sex”. The extensive writings of the précieuses and salon culture of the 17th and 18th centuries provide a lot of discourse on the question. Salon culture constructed an ideology that prioritized intellectual and spiritual bonds over physical passion and the bodily demands of reproduction. In the context of a Cartesian mind/body duality, salon ideology emphasized the mind as a gender-free zone.

But salon discourse defaulted to assuming carnality to be heterosexual. Although homoerotic possibilities between women eventually made their way into the salon dynamic, they were not part of the basis for the debates and conversations that form our evidence for their participants’ beliefs and ideas. So even as women expressed sentiments to each other in passionate and bodily terms, this was not necessarily treated as being in conflict with the emphasis on rationality. At least in the early stage of salon culture. Later we see criticism of platonic principles evolving to treat the focus on intellectual bonds as being asexual or prudish, rather than as anti-heterosexual. When interpreted in that way, the contrast with women’s observable passionate expressions of same-sex bonds could be re-categorized either as hypocrisy or as covert lesbianism. Which…ok, so is there a problem with that? But it does suggest that the prevailing understanding of platonic relationships wasn’t supposed to include sex. At least from the point of view of their male critics, who just might be a tad biased on that point.

If we have few direct glimpses into how female platonic friends were behaving in private, what can we glean from what they did write about their relationships? We know that platonic love encompassed admiration of physical beauty as well as intellect and personality. We know that essential qualities in a platonic lover included honesty and openness, empathy, the sharing of hearts and minds, faithfulness, and an equal return of love. We know that the word “love” was an essential component of discourse and that a falling off or betrayal of platonic bonds could break a heart. We know that women considered their platonic bonds with other women to be superior to relations with men, even when the practicalities of life might stand in the way, in part because it was free of the imperatives of economic or genealogical need. From women’s writings we know that same-sex platonic love could be expressed with vows, with embraces, with kisses, with sighs, with a hope for “raptured nights and tender days,” with a pledge to join “hearts, lips, and hands.” They compared their relationships to that of famous historical pairs, both male same-sex friendships and famous heterosexual couples.

If all those descriptions stop short of unambiguous descriptions of the sort of sexual relations their critics sometimes accused them of, let us note that women of the literary classes rarely wrote openly of sex with men either, and yet we know some of them were engaging in it! If neo-platonic literature focused on intellectual and spiritual bonds, it was a view of intellect and spirit that admitted sensual and physical expressions of love. And if the philosophy of platonic love sometimes openly rejected or derided sexual desire, we must keep in mind that “sex” was often defined solely within a heteronormative context.

So can we assume that women expressing platonic love to each other always shared what we would consider a sexual relationship? No, though it’s clear that sensual appreciation and expressions of love were considered an expected part of such relationships. But there are examples where the word “platonic” is definitely used in opposition – or at least contrast – to “erotic.”

Can we assume that platonic relationships were always considered incompatible with sexual activity? Equally no. If they were, the question wouldn’t have been up for debate in much of the philosophical literature. And some of those philosophers clearly considered erotics to be a parallel and independent dynamic from platonics. But it’s a reasonable interpretation that women who presented their love as platonic had a relationship that prioritized other attractions than erotic desire.

And this is where we come to question number three: does it matter? Is this the right question to ask? When we explore the question of how to understand or how to label female couples in history, why is the topic of sex given such primacy? Why is that the bright dividing line between how we classify relationships? Why should a description of two women in an intimate, loving partnership be met with derision if it describes them as “friends” as if that friendship doesn’t count unless we assume they were having sex? Conversely, why should the suggestion that they might be having sex be met with panic and horror?

The reflex to insist on one or the other position as a default is equally flawed. And relying on the proof (or the assumption) of sex as the requirement for finding queer reflections in the past is a fragile mirror, too easily shattered. If whole swathes of history are populated with platonic lovers, let us embrace them as part of the queer continuum, regardless of what they are or aren’t doing in bed. Because they are inherently queer. They have rejected the heteronormative paradigm in some degree, and they are part of our legacy.

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about Neo-Platonic philosophy, the evolution of the concept of “platonic love”, and the complications of interpreting the nature of women’s same-sex “platonic love” in historic contexts.

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

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