Plato, Adultery and Christians

Monogamy is so last decade. Or so you would think looking at the growing trend in American marriages to go outside of the marriage to find “fulfillment.” I have started thinking this is partly because our center for morality has moved from being an interior standard that is exercised by us to an external law that is imposed on us. What do I mean? Perhaps we have lost the ability to control ourselves because we have so many outside sources, like the government, society and even the church, doing it for us.

When I was a teenager and in college, I had an unusual amount of self-discipline when it came to time management. I had my entire life on sticky notes with lists and calendars that would make a non-OCD person’s head spin. I even kept a decently strict regimen during the summers to make sure I got the proper doses of piano practice and reading. Did I have to? No. Were there any deadlines or jobs forcing me to be so organized? No. My structure came from my own desires and goals.

I graduated from college several years ago. This past summer my wife and son went out of town for three weeks. I was very excited thinking through all of the things I could accomplish while they were away. Instead, once they walked out the door I was like every stereotyped male in ’90s television, unable to move from the couch and my endless supply of television, frozen burritos and movies. I could not bring myself to do anything. What had happened between my college days and this past summer?

Once I got married and had children, my structure and time management came from without and my ability to be self-controlled from within became atrophied and weak. I did not have to think about where my time went, as anyone with toddlers will know. So when I was given the freedom to choose what I did with my time once again, I was like a person who had been bedridden for years and was told to get up and run. I fell flat on my face. Just like exercising your physical body, we must exercise other aspects of who we are so that when the time comes, we can step up to the plate and do the right thing.

How does this relate to marriage? The reason men do not commit adultery in many cases is because of the consequences rather than because of the values. This is what I mean when I speak of structure coming from within us rather than from others dictating it to us (or spoon feeding it to us). They do not commit adultery because of the outward rather than the inward. So when the outward is perceived to no longer be a threat (for example, the person thinks they can get away with it), the chances of adultery are greatly increased. Many times the perpetrator is not convinced inwardly that adultery is wrong. Rather, they are lazy and let laws and social norms tell them what is right and wrong.

And where does Plato come in? Well, while the ancient Greeks could never be accused of having the same sexual ethics that we do, there is another reason many of the ancient Greeks would have had a very different take on what is going on in our marriages today. Instead of viewing sexual promiscuity as freedom from the shackles of commitment, they would have declared it slavery to the passions. Ah, we do not see it that way, do we? That is the sly way our minds work in our culture. When we are too weak to control ourselves we blame it on fate, destiny, our search for freedom or our animal instincts. In a word, if the act of adultery shows us that we are weak; our justification of adultery betrays the fact that we are even weaker. We are even too weak to call it what it is, too weak to take responsibility for our inability to control ourselves.

In many philosophies in ancient Greece, authority came from the inside out. When a man was able to be an authority over himself and practice moderation and self-control, he was then able to be an authority over a household and be a truly free man. But the opposite is usually the case in many American homes. Because a man is unable to control himself, he grabs authority and domination from the outside, in the form of manipulating and overpowering his wife and children or neglecting them altogether. And he calls this freedom!

Are Christians exempt? As Derek Webb so aptly portrays many Christians in his song "New Law":

See Also

don’t teach me how to live like a free man 
just give me a new law

don’t teach me how to listen to the Spirit 
just give me a new law

Jared Byas is a pastor in the suburbs of Philadelphia. He blogs for his church community at encounteronline.blogspot.com.

This understanding of the Greeks comes from Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, Vol. 2: The Use of Pleasure, trans. Roberty Hurley (New York: Vintage, 1990).

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