Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Cyrenaics do it with the lights off

I've found a curious report about Cyrenaic attitudes to sex and desire in Plutarch's Non posse:
ὅρα δ’ ὅσῳ μετριώτερον οἱ Κυρηναϊκοί, καίπερ ἐκ μιᾶς οἰνοχόης Ἐπικούρῳ πεπωκότες, οὐδ’ ὁμιλεῖν ἀφροδισίοις οἴονται δεῖν μετὰ φωτὸς ἀλλὰ σκότος προθεμένους, ὅπως μὴ τὰ εἴδωλα τῆς πράξεως ἀναλαμβάνουσα διὰ τῆς ὄψεως ἐναργῶς ἡ διάνοια πολλάκις ἀνακαίῃ τὴν ὄρεξιν.

Consider how much more measured are the Cyrenaics although they have drunk from the same wine-jug as Epicurus: they think that one ought not to have sex in the light, but rather prefer darkness so that the mind, taking in the images of the act vividly through the eyes, should not time and again rekindle the desire.

Plutarch Non posse 1089A (= SSR IV.A.207)

The Loeb points also to:

(1) Plut. QC 654D (= Us. 61) where, although the text is perhaps corrupt, we are apparently told that Epicurus rather wantonly encouraged lights-on sex (σκοπῶμεν οὖν, εἰ δοκεῖ, πότερον ἐμμελῶς καὶ προσηκόντως ὁ Ἐπίκουρος <ἢ> παρὰ πᾶν δίκαιον ἀφαιρεῖ τὴν Ἀφροδίτην τῆς νυκτός·) This is part of a longer discussion of Epicurus' Symposium in which Epicurus advised that the best time for sex is before dinner so that digestion should be disturbed as little as possible.

(2) Plut. QC 705A–B (not in SSR): ὅθεν οὐδεμία τῶν τοιούτων ἡδονῶν ἀπόκρυφός ἐστιν οὐδὲ σκότους δεομένη καὶ τῶν τοίχων ‘περιθεόντων’, ὡς οἱ Κυρηναϊκοὶ λέγουσιν, ἀλλὰ καὶ στάδια ταύταις καὶ θέατρα ποιεῖται, καὶ τὸ μετὰ πολλῶν θεάσασθαί τι καὶ ἀκοῦσαι ἐπιτερπέστερόν ἐστι καὶ σεμνότερον, οὐκ ἀκρασίας δήπου καὶ ἡδυπαθείας ἀλλ’ ἐλευθερίου διατριβῆς καὶ ἀστείας μάρτυρας ἡμῶν ὅτι πλείστους λαμβανόντων.

The kind of pleasures being discussed here under the topic 'That the pleasures of kakomousia should particularly be guarded against, and how', are the pleasures from watching and listening to musical performances.

The message in the first two passages seems to be that the Cyrenaics had some idea that sex in the dark was preferable while Epicurus took a more visual approach in order, Plutarch wants to insists, to ensure that there were some useful memories of the event stored away for repeat enjoyment at a later time.

Clearly, however, the Non posse 1089A passage is a little odd – or, at best, very compressed – since it is surely not at all plausible that the Cyrenaics' view was based on the very Epicurean-sounding eidōla theory of perception which is invoked there. So I am a little confused.

There is something rhetorical about the passage, no doubt, and Plutarch is enjoying making the Cyrenaics into the more sober hedonists in comparison with the Epicureans. But I am finding it a little hard to imagine why the Cyrenaics would have been so keen on turning the lights out.

Robert Brown comments: 'Presumably, the Cyrenaic recommendation was based on the hedonistic reasoning that sex in the dark affords more pleasure (cf. Eur. fr. 524 N).' [1]. Maybe. That's an empirical matter, of course, and may vary from person to person. And there is no sign of that sort of justification in the Non posse passage which refers only to the apparently unwanted re-kindling of desire. It is also not clear why the Cyrenaics would have been particularly averse to rekindling desire unless the implication is that remembering the act via the visual memories might at a later time (perhaps time and time again, if that is the sense of πολλάκις) set off a desire which might be hard to satisfy and therefore painful. On the other hand, that would be a sort of prudential rationale on the Cyrenaics' part for which in general they seem not to have had much time .

Any ideas?

[1] R. D. Brown, Lucretius on love and sex (Leiden, 1987), 109 n.23.

1 comment:

JIW said...

Dear James,

polla/kis in such contexts is often like polla/kis in the protasis of a conditional, and means something like "as could well happen". So why not translate "so that the mind...should not, as well it might, rekindle the desire"?

Yours ever,

Nick