Celibacy Quotes

From A History of Celibacy by Elizabeth Abbott
Page 43, The Influence of Greek Philosophy

Pythagoras and Celibacy

The Greco-Roman world of antiquity demanded virginity of all unmarried women, and so did many of its deities. Most priestesses who served chaste goddesses such as Athena or Vesta, or jealous gods such as Apollo, were virgins. Those few who had formerly been married had to observe strict celibacy. But as the centuries passed, philosophies developed that, through the very different avenue of asceticism, would inspire a mini-movement toward an ideal that highlighted celibacy and inspired Pythagoras, Plato, and other philosophers and thinkers.


Pythagoras was a sixth-century B.C. philosopher who created a religious movement that melded Orphic doctrine with Indian and Persian beliefs. The Orphic religion was not widely practiced, but it appealed to intellectuals, who responded to its dogmatic absolutes, including the promise of eternal life to the ritually and physically pure. To further his goal of the moral regeneration of society, Pythagoras founded a celibate brotherhood that, stripped of its economic and political dimensions, survived for centuries as a religious cult.

Pythagoras' commune members, including women accepted on equal terms with men, had to surrender their possessions into the collective pot, for he taught that "friends have all things in common" and "friendship is equality." He divided lifetimes into four twenty-year seasons corresponding to spring, summer, fall, and winter: twenty years a boy, twenty years a youth, twenty years a young man, twenty years an old man. For the first segment of their studies, his disciples had to listen to Pythagoras speaking from behind a cover so they could never even glimpse him. After five years of this, he permitted them into his house where he conversed with them in person.

Pythagoras preached of a world divided into opposing principles: the inferior Unlimited Breath, which included darkness, even numbers, and femaleness, and the superior Limit, meaning light, odd numbers, and maleness. The superior soul was trapped inside the inferior body alongside the Furies of wicked passions. To release and thereby save their imprisoned souls, people had to observe taboos, in particular against the debasement of sexual intercourse.

However, Pythagoras counseled celibacy only during the hot and dry summer, and if possible the spring and fall. Wintertime sex was less desiccating, and therefore more acceptable, though like all the pleasures of love, still harmful to health. To a man eager to know when he should have sex with a woman, Pythagoras replied, "When you want to lose what strength you have."

Pythagoras also stressed that any sexual activity should not begin before a man's twentieth birthday, and he praised the stringency of Greek rules against making love in a temple with a woman who was either someone's sister, mother, or daughter—in other words, any woman at all. The only sex he tolerated was for the express purpose of procreating children, and then only between husband and wife.

Plato refined and transmitted many Pythagorean ideas into his own immeasurably influential philosophy. He, too, was a dualist and saw the soul as morally superior to the body, which impeded it in its execution of higher goals. Depending on its expression, he saw love as sacred and elevating or profane and degrading. Sexual intercourse was the lowest form of all, plunging humans into bestiality. What was required to surmount these lower forms of love was virtuous living, defined by austerities compatible with Pythagoreanism, in particular sexual continence.

In Plato's Republic, a jovial man asked Sophocles the poet a crude question about his sexuality: "How about your service of Aphrodite, Sophocles—is your natural force still unabated?" To which Sophocles replied, "Hush, man, most gladly have I escaped this thing you talk of, as if I had run away from a raging and savage beast of a master."


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