Notes on Freedom

Category: Ancient Greece

How #MeToo undermines sexual morality

imagesOne of the defining aspects of the #MeToo movement has been the refusal to make a distinction between acts of different nature, intent, or gravity.

Everything is placed in the same category of ‘harassment’, including come-ons, chat-ups, even acts of tenderness, and acts of violation or violence.

When Matt Damon said that ‘there’s a difference between patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation’, he sparked a twitter storm:

‘It’s the micro that makes the macro.’

‘How about: it’s all f****** wrong and it’s all bad, and until you start seeing it under one umbrella it’s not your job to compartmentalise or judge what is worse and what is not’

The attempt to distinguish between degrees of severity, or differences of intent, is considered to be offensive. There is an ethical imperative to think of varied events as being substantially ‘the same’, requiring the same words, the same response, the same punishment.

Yet there cannot be a sexual morality, or a legal judgement, unless we make distinctions. Relations cannot be guided, checked, punished, approved or disapproved, unless we weigh the gravity of acts, and judge the intent of those who carried them out.

After all, precise distinctions are at the very basis of legal codes, and the means by which offenses can be defined and prosecuted. Primitive law had only very vague notions of crime, and punishment was ‘fitful, governed by chance and personal passion’ (1).

The first criminal codes (at the time of the city states in ancient Mesopotamia) laid out for the first time what, precisely, should be considered a criminal act, and what should be the punishment.

Ancient legal codes calibrated degree, the grades of severity of an offence. If someone had been hit on the head, for example, ancient Germanic codes gave different punishments according to whether there was no blood, blood ‘falls to the floor’, or if the brain appears (2).

There is a difference between a strike that produces no blood and blood that falls to the floor. The wound is different, and so is the crime, the degree of violation committed. Criminal law is built on this objectivity – this standing aside from the act, and asking does the blood fall to the floor or does the brain appear.

Later criminal codes established the grades of intent, making distinctions between: a pure accident, an intentional violent act, an act done in self-defence, and an accident that should have been foreseeable and was therefore negligent.

The first developed sexual moralities were equally concerned to make distinctions between different kinds of acts.

(A sexual morality guides how free people pursue the game of love: it is concerned only with free relations, and not with arranged marriage, customary sexual obligations, etc.)

Arguably the first sexual morality developed in ancient Greece, governing love relations between adult men and youths. People subjected their conduct to scrutiny and discussion, and developed a finely tuned framework through which acts could be weighed and judged.

How should the lover pursue the boy? Which gifts and inducements were acceptable, and which were not? For the boy, at what point should he yield, and how often, and in what manner? What should be the relation between lover and beloved?

Another sexual morality developed in the Middle Ages, in the times of chivalrous love. ‘Courts of Love’ passed judgements on cases, pronouncing on what love was, how one should go about it, and the rights and wrongs of conduct.

Should a knight, having been rejected by his lady, be free to go off and attach himself to another; or should the lady have powers to bind him, though she did not love him?

The court of ladies issued its judgements with gravitas:

‘May this judgement, which we have delivered with extreme caution, and after consulting with a great number of other ladies, be for you a constant and unassailable truth.’

Why, then, is there such a current aversion to distinctions? Why is it unacceptable to say that one thing is worse than something else; or to apportion blame and fault as they appear due, on two sides? Why cannot we distinguish the good and the bad, or the criminal from the rude?

The reason appears to be that #MeToo is based on a single model of human conduct: that of the abuser-victim. In our times, this has become the archetype for all human relations: between men and women, but also between adults and children, or even children and other children.

It is the uniformity of our model of human relations which means that no distinctions can be made between acts. Acts are seen as important, and meaningful, only inasmuch as they represent the abuser-victim archetype.

There is a deliberate attempt to eclipse different points of view, or different narratives of human conduct. ‘You men are all the same’, said the woman who accused Aziz Ansari of sexual misconduct (though she was the one who pursued him, and she didn’t at any point say no to sexual acts). ‘How about we NOT celebrate men who are simply decent human beings’, said one of Matt Damon’s critics: she doesn’t want to hear about the good men. Here is the pursuit of sameness, of uniformity of narrative.

It is because #MeToo represents an archetype, that you join it simply by saying the words ‘Me too’ (as Ellen did). You need give no details, no proof – merely the two words, which enact a subsumption of one’s own experience under the universal umbrella.

(The claiming of exception – for example, saying that you have not experienced something you would consider harassment or abuse – is met with incredulity: they do not believe you.)

#MeToo cannot make distinctions, because to make distinctions you need polarity – notions of good and bad, innocent and guilty.

In ancient Greece, there was the polarity of noble and ignoble, and this was the question they asked of their conduct: was it noble or ignoble? A lover should not lose control or self-possession, and he should not degrade the boy or make the boy his object (3). They should meet each other freely, equally: the goal was to unite reciprocally but to remain self-possessed.

In the Middle Ages, the judgements of the Courts of Love were guided by an ideal of love, and wrong behaviour was marked out precisely as a violation of this ideal.

For us, there is no ideal to hold against the bad, in contrast and in measurement. There is no notion of what we are seeking to realise in our relations with one another.

One result of this is that an act such as violent rape loses its shock as an extreme and unusual act – as the extreme violation of how we should be relating. The rape becomes merely an example of a general model, and so loses its status as an exception, an inversion of mores, as something outside the normal course of conduct.

#MeToo may breed nervousness and anxiety among men, or it may breed antipathy and resentment. But these consequences will be lawless, amoral. The movement will not lead to a guiding and civilising of sexual relations – which requires judgement, and it requires distinctions.


(1) Crime and custom in Savage Society, Bronislaw Malinowski, 1932

(2) Sources of Ancient and Primitive Law, Albert Kocourek, 1915

(3) The Use of Pleasure, Michel Foucault, 1985

In defence of borders

blake-god-creating-the-universeEveryone is breaking down borders now. They are crossing lines, breaking down distinctions between academic disciplines or categories. Everything is trans this, inter- or multi- that. They are opening up things that had been closed, celebrating the virtues of visibility or transparency: buildings must have glass walls and open doors, offices must be open-plan. The virtues of the day are mixing, fusing, crossing.

Any kind of line draws objections: anything that says, ‘this is A, that is B, they are different’. There is no difference between men and women, art is not distinct from life, or life from art. Any category or line is an invitation for it to be challenged, questioned, overcome.

Many of the distinctions that were fundamental to the modern nation state are being broken down. In the eleventh century, church canon lawyers developed the distinctions between church law, state law, and personal morality. They drew lines. They said: this is a matter for the individual and their conscience; this is a religious offence and a matter for the church; this is a crime and a matter for the state (1). Thus the domains were established; the different arenas with their different actors were marked out. (This contrasts with primitive or tribal law, where everything is mixed up and crimes are listed alongside moral or religious offences or violations of etiquette.)

Now the state is deliberately crossing the line between law and morality, violating domains. Officials make laws about matters of etiquette: in several councils, it is now a crime to shout or swear or to be rude. The state is breaking down the distinction between law and life, between crime and rudeness, such that there is a general difusion of coercive instruments into the interstices of everyday life. When two categories blur in this way, both are lost.

The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard observed that social phenomena of many kinds are escaping their bounds, diffusing from their own domain into every other sphere. ‘Every individual category is subject to contamination, substitution is possible between any sphere and any other: there is a total confusion of types. Sex is no longer located in sex itself, but elsewhere – everywhere else, in fact’ (2). The same goes for sport, for art, for politics: everything else is aestheticised, politicised, sexualised, or sportified (turned into a sort of performance or contest). The spread of politics or art into every sphere was pursued as a progressive and heady act. People had jobs taking art practice into science or science into art. They had jobs putting cyber cafes in libraries or museums in cafes.

Yet how could we be so against the border per se? The first law, said Aristotle, is the law of non-contradiction: A is not-B. A man cannot be a man and not a man at the same time. Thought starts with the question of distinction, of drawing lines: of saying this is A, that is B, they are different. The Chinese categories of Yin and Yang separated the phenomena of the world into two polarised categories: male and female, hot and cold, wet and dry, active and passive, and so on, with elements of human character mixed up with physical forms in this drawing of an essential line. The Pythagoreans of ancient Greece traced all things to 10 oppositions, including finite and infinite, odd and even, good and evil, square and parallelogram.

An excellent book by the French philosopher Régis Debray, In Praise of Borders (3), stands against today’s blurring of categories. As he points out, the frontier was the basis of a community: Romulus’ act in the founding of Rome was to draw a line on the ground with a plough. A city is marked by its walls; a home by its threshold. Debray notes how the shapes of communities and the domains of social life have been marked out physically on the ground, with gates, walls, bridges, doors. A space such as a tomb is separated from the everyday; it is isolated and concentrated, made sacred and not profane.

It is the line that makes something itself and not something else: something has an essence, and an autonomy from other things. Many creation myths conceive of the moment of creation as one of separation: of separating day from night, the earth from the sky. In Greek myth, Kronos forced his father sky away from embrace with his mother earth: the sky fled upwards into the heavens. In Genesis, God divides the light from the darkness, the heavens from the waters, the waters from the land.

This can be seen even at the level of the molecular cell, says Debray. The cell exists because it has a membrane, which makes the distinction between inside and outside. Indeed, the progress of evolution draws a line more and more between inside and outside: to have a skin, to maintain one’s own body temperature, to bear one’s young inside one’s body, to feed them one’s own milk. The characteristic of a more developed organism is that they are more distinct from their environment: they are more autonomous, more self-regulating; they maintain themselves apart to a greater degree. The higher the level at which they exist, the sharper becomes the line between an organism and its environment.

Debray also makes the point that a distinction or a frontier is also a relation – it is not an absolute separation but a means of passage. The cell membrane, just as the city wall or river, are lines that provide a means of transport from one side to another. Indeed, it is because of the separation that there can be a relation: it is because of the division between states, or households, or cities, that these cities can have a hostile or friendly relation.

Having said all this: it is also the case that many of the best thinkers in the past sought to show the provisional nature of categories. This is the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, with his statements that ‘hot and cold are the same’ and ‘wet and dry are the same’. But this meant not that these things are actually the same, but that they exist in a relation of opposition (hot is only hot in relation to cold); and also that they exist in a state of transition (things that are hot are becoming cold).

Hegel, who loved Heraclitus, sees every social form as existing as part of a totality: so morality, or law, or art, exist as elements of a social body, as interrelated, just as the leaves of a tree are related to the trunk and cannot be detached from it. Hegel also sees every form as existing as a moment in a process of transition, as a stage in a series. And yet he has not abolished categories or distinctions: the categories of the individual and state, morality and law remain cut out in sharp distinction from one another. He is showing the relations and transformations of distinct things.

Today, categories are being overcome not by universalism or revolutionary change: instead, lines are being crossed for the sake of it. Just as Isis is driving its bulldozers over the Syrian/Iraqi border, people are breaking down disciplinary boundary stones or crossing social spheres as an end in itself. They make a project out of the crossing of lines,  declaring lines null and void. We are left with formlessness and confusion. At base, this is making the process of intellectual and social corrosion into a virtue and a project.

(1) Law and Revolution, Harold J Berman, Volume 1, Harvard University Press, 1990

(2) The Transparency of Evil, Jean Baudrillard, 1990, p8

(3) Éloge des frontières, Régis Debray, Gallimard, 2010

In defence of choice – lessons from ancient Athens

Today there is a large literature on the notion of ‘choice’, which discusses the concept in peculiar detachment from philosophical or historical context. It is as if we are the first generation to have discovered the idea, and discovered it only to slight it.

From a variety of different perspectives, books on choice suggest: that we have ‘too many’ choices; that choice is experienced as a ‘tyranny’; choices are difficult, leaving us anxious and unfulfilled; we make ‘flawed choices’, leading to sub-optimal outcomes for both us and society, and should be ‘nudged’ to make ‘better decisions’. At the same time, these books often argue that we don’t actually have that many choices, because we are in the grip of biology or our physical environment, influenced by other people or driven by temptation.

Yet the emergence of an early notion of choice, in fifth century BC Athens, was not in circumstances where individuals had perfect control over their lives. Nor did they uncomplicatedly make the ‘right choices’ or experience these choices as leading to optimal outcomes. From the beginning, the making of choices was accompanied with a great deal of suffering and uncertainty.

The ‘choice’ that we see in Greek tragedy is the small space opening up for the exercise of individual volition in a world they did not control. This appearance of individual volition was a moment of drama and nobility, and staged as intrinsically interesting and valuable, irrespective of its consequences.

We see this in Aeschylus’ play ‘The Suppliants’, which is framed around the making of a choice. A king is asked to shelter a group of women against their cousins, who are approaching with an army to carry the women off. The king must decide whether to protect the women or not; he stands for a moment sunk in thought, reflecting ‘downward into the depth’. This is the exercise of volition in circumstances he did not choose, and either course of action spells doom: if he gives the women up, he will violate the law of hospitality; if he protects them, he violates the claims of the brothers and will bring war upon the city.

In this, as in other tragic plays, there are different sets of tension going on: between individual volition and some larger force, whether fate, gods or the city; and between different principles and sets of loyalties, whether ancient law, city law or the individual’s own independent morality.

Choice therefore emerges when the individual separates out from the community, and becomes conscious of having a volition that gives rise to his actions, as well as the fact that he is faced with several possible courses of action. Actions are no longer predetermined, but within limited boundaries could take this course or that: A or B.

One of the earliest forms of choice is the rebellious choice – the simple rejection of a given authority. Hesiod’s Prometheus in late eighth century BC is nothing more than a ‘crooked-schemer’, a trickster and underminer of Zeus’ authority, yet by the fifth century Prometheus’ rebellious decision to help mankind takes on the nobility of a conscious and principled act. Prometheus’ defiance of Zeus is the source of great suffering personal suffering, and yet he feels his claim is right and will not submit. ‘Never would I exchange my evil fortunes for thy servitude’, he tells the minion Hermes in Aeschylus’ play.

Another early form of choice is the simple affirmation of destiny, which appears in tragedy in the chosen sacrificial death. The character is told: you must die. They reply: no, I choose to die. To bring about by one’s own hands and will the event that must occur means that the individual is no longer a mere object of events and fate; destiny is made to bear the impress of their will.

Therefore, the first space for individual volition is simply whether to reject or affirm destiny or other greater forces. Yet in this small space the individual is nonetheless faced with a genuine dilemma between different principles and loyalties. Should they follow ancient codes of honour or obey the city law? Should one trust the oracles, the king, or look only within oneself for the guide to action? The chorus sways this way and that with the swaying sympathies of the audience.

In the context of this, the contemporary literature on ‘choice’ appears myopic to say the least. Today’s authors make great play of the fact that choices are difficult, that sometimes we make the wrong choices, or that we make choices in a world we do not control…. welcome to the human condition! Choice is declared futile now on the flimsiest of grounds. It is striking how many of the books about the ‘tyranny’ or ‘myth’ of choice recount the author’s experience of not knowing which biscuits or jeans to buy, which they then take as indicating the futile nature of volition as a whole.

We would have to go back further to Homer for the innocence of a world without choices. Occasionally Homer stages a moment where the character has a dilemma, and they stand there debating with themselves, but they generally realise that there is actually no choice in the matter: ‘why do I stand here debating the point?’ Actually, the course of conduct is laid out for the individual: honour dictates that he stand and fight, or ill omens dictate that he retreat. The individual exists in a certain form (Achilles is persuaded by goddess Athena to still his hand, not forced), but this individual is not aware of his separation from or opposition to larger forces of fate, the gods or custom. Therefore, there is a clarity and ease to the Homeric world, a lack of tension which comes essentially from there being no choice.

So yes, in certain ways it is easier to not have choices, and they are often the source of suffering. And yet should we wish them away? The value of volition is not – and has never been – because of its beneficial results, or because it leads to increases in subjective happiness. The grandeur of a choice is simply in the fact that it is not ordained, not following by rote, but decided for oneself, and this gives these actions a sort of glow or special quality which makes them distinct from other actions.

The exercise of volition necessarily involves tensions and conflicts, between the individual and society, and within the individual. These tensions and conflicts should not be avoided but sought out as some of the most fertile points of existence, the means by which we can learn about ourselves and the world.

I will be giving a talk ‘In defence of choice’ at the London Philosophy Club on 18 February.

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