three pairs of lovers with space

A review of Greek Love by J. Z. Eglinton, (originally USA 1964; British edition here reviewed, London, 1971)


Impressive, but too theoretical  ****

First published in 1964, Greek Love claimed justifiably to be the first thorough study of a phenomenon the author defined as "love between adult (or older adolescent) and adolescent boy without prejudice to the other relationships either party might then or later be involved in."  It is called Greek because it corresponds to the love the ancient Greeks most extolled and themselves called paiderasteia.  The words "love" and "adolescent" are critical here; though he does not condemn them per se, casual sex and pedophilia are excluded as different phenomena much harder to defend.  Thus strictly defined, one might add that it remains the only such study and herein lies both its greatness and its failure to resonate today. 

The beginning and end of the book are devoted to debate on the merits of Greek love, both between Eglinton and an imaginary "critic" who presents all the negative arguments the author has come across, and with the distinguished sexologist Albert Ellis.  These debates very much underline how far controversy has shifted since 1964.  Deploying reason to defend Greek love has long been like trying to slay the hydra. Perhaps the most fiercely fought point then was whether there was a danger Greek love might cause boys not to "attain heterosexual maturity." I would say there is a little truth to Ellis's argument that the danger is real because "human sex drives are ... fetichistically oriented", but this will fall on deaf areas now that fixed sexual orientation is accepted dogma and society anyway claims to see homosexuality as equal.  Ellis's other objections boil down to boys not needing more love, which will spoil them, and especially when coming from men too immature to find women more sexually and intellectually satisfying.  For someone with (presumably) no experience, he is amusingly confident that “boys are almost invariably lousy lovers.”  Remarkably absent from either his or "critic" 's many objections are those raised today that purport to justify unnuanced condemnation of Greek love: that adolescents cannot give meaningful consent and are liable to being manipulated because the relationships are unequal.  A happy ignorance of change to come is also poignantly evident in the spirit of optimism pervading the book: "quite possibly" it might take even more than a decade for there to be "public acceptance as a fact that discreet Greek love affairs go on with benefit to the various participants" [!]

                   British edition

That the hydra of social antagonism to pederasty has grown new heads may not be the main reason why Greek Love has lost its resonance so much as the unintentional alliance in the 1970s between the advocates and enemies of the emancipation of child/adult sex in promoting for opposite purposes the concept of pedophilia.  Correctly meaning attraction to pre-pubescent children of either gender and thus having nothing to do with Greek love as defined by Eglinton, pedophilia has nevertheless neutered and eclipsed it in virtually all discourse, rendering invisible its essential qualities.  As Thomas Waugh puts it in Montreal Man (2010) “the pedophile, the central figure of the abuse narrative, is a conceptual black hole devouring everything [most obviously Greek love] in its vicinity … so that no alternative concept can operate to produce alternative meanings.”

Consequently, many of the conclusions Eglinton draws as a result of studying Greek love as a phenomenon in its own right (distinct from pedophilia, gay homosexuality or the more commonplace attraction to adolescent girls), will startle most readers today (including some sympathetic to the subject) as much as they would have seemed obvious to an ancient Greek.  For example, he sees Greek love as a possibility for most men and boys rather than for a minority: adolescents have emotions and needs best met by someone older they love and trust, and in early adolescence are more responsive to their own gender.  In both character and physique boys this age have a special capacity to attract most men sexually uninhibited by social pressures.  Similarly, there is no conflict between Greek love and heterosexuality: the man involved not only easily can be attracted to both boys and women, but he should be, else he cannot provide suitable mentorship.  No effeminacy is involved for either.  The boy’s future sexuality will be unaffected, though Greek love will best suit boys who “are confident about their masculinity.”  Two common criticisms of Greek love affairs are turned on their heads: it is not simply unproblematic that the sexual relationship is not permanent, but it is essential for the boy’s good that it is not expected to be; and the benefits to the boy derive from the affair being asymmetrical and complementary rather than equal.

The "History and Literature" half of the book is purely European and modern American, and even then is patchy, jumping six centuries at one point. Unsurprising attention is paid to classical Greece for its articulation and realization of the ideals inspired by the love that bears its name. The emphasis is very much on the literature, and it remains much the most substantial anthology of pederastic poetry down the ages, perhaps the book's most enduring value.  The history is mostly just theory based on the poetry.  Given the subject matter, far too much space is devoted to modern writers whom Eglinton says were purely androphile and are therefore almost irrelevant to his theme. Bizarrely, André Gide is simultaneously dismissed on these grounds, though he was nothing of the sort, but rather the most eminent writer to be open about his pederasty.  He omits any mention of John Henry Mackay or Edward Perry Warren, the last important writers before him to plead specifically for Greek love.  Implicitly he has not even heard of Rocco's Alcibiades the Schoolboy, much the most remarkable polemic for pederasty in the preceding two millenia.

For a general history of Greek love down to 1700,  Louis Crompton's Homosexuality and Civilization, is far better; though coy about admitting it, the first thirteen of his sixteen chapters are as predominantly about pederasty as any honest history of pre-modern homosexuality is bound to be.  Since Eglinton wrote, a considerable number of more specialist studies have been published too.  In fairness though, these have built on the work of pioneers, of which Eglinton was the greatest.  His book was an extraordinary accomplishment at a time when the history of Greek love had been so little explored and much of what he postulated has since been born out.  He would have been far from surprised by, for example, the implications of Rocke’s massively informative statistical study of Renaissance Florence, Forbidden Friendships, that, under favourable conditions, most men and boys have been drawn to Greek love.

I wish I could recommend Greek Love as very strongly as it once deserved, but sadly, for a work of non-fiction, too much of it is no longer useful.  It was always anyway too theoretical.  The reader will learn more about psychological etc. theories of the meaning of love than about Greek love itself.  The most illuminating section of the book are the two chapters devoted to often heart-breaking case studies of “Greek Love Affairs.”   However, for information on every aspect of the subject, the encyclopaedic though not entirely reliable two-volume Loving Boys (1986) by the Dutch senator Edward Brongersma, based on an incomparably greater number of case studies, is far better.  The enduring and considerable value of Eglinton’s great tome lies in its exposition of the beauty and value of a particular form of ethically-practiced love that he was far from alone in having written about down the centuries, but which seems to have been forgotten as much as misunderstood in the last generation.


Reviewed by Edmund Marlowe on, 27 April 2017