Sexual Habits

In writing of sensual pleasures, Thomas Hobbes observed that "the greatest" is "that by which we are invited to give continuance to our species, and the next by which a man is invited to meat, for the preservation of his individual person." From more than one perspective, Hobbes had his priorities straight. Parents, on more than one occasion, have given their last bite of food to their offspring, and laboratory rats have been known to starve to death while stimulating their erotic "pleasure centers." Sex trumps eating every time.

For many pagans—modern as well as ancient—sexual desire is a straightforward affair summed up by Wilde's maxim that the only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it. The Greeks were candidly pragmatic in their approaches to sex. Solon, the austere Athenian lawgiver and moralist, was only one among many who alluded to the delights of pederasty. Erotic passion was, for most of the ancients, a temporary insanity to indulge and then be rid of. Sophocles, a terrible rake even by modern standards, confessed that old age had freed him from a terrible master.

The most compelling image of sexuality was the Roman poet Lucretius' description of dogs locked in an unbreakable coitus. Ancient philosophers, however badly they might have behaved, generally agreed that sex was a distraction from a career of serious study and virtuous living. Since many philosophical...

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