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Ideals and Abstractions, Particulars and the Concrete: Understanding Sexual Orientation in Greek Philosophy and in Romans 1.26-28


The idea that marriage can be defined in terms of a ‘loving, committed relationship’ instead of as the union of a male and a female is part of a larger, philosophical disagreement.  This essay makes this point with respect to the different philosophical approaches of Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics.  The agreement of Jewish and Christian philosophy is closest to the Stoics: a theology of creation compares favourably to the Stoic notion of living according to nature (natural law, not one’s personal inclinations).  The attempt by some to redefine marriage so that it can include homosexual relationships is consistent with philosophical alternatives in Paul's day—which Paul did not accept.  It is a shift away from the doctrine of creation and from concrete theologizing in general that is fundamental to Christian theology.

Plato’s Universals and Particulars

For Plato, particulars represented—in whatever inadequate form—the ideal or universal.  So, for example, we might say that some particular thing or person is beautiful because it represents or partakes of the ideal, Beauty in itself.  In the Republic, Plato sought to define ‘Justice’ and then apply the ideal to the particular by describing a particular republic that would express this virtue.  He also understood the various ideals to be expressions of one, particular ideal: the Good.  Furthermore, humans desire to know the universals; their souls desire to rise up on wings to perceive these absolute universals in themselves.  Yet the involvement in the material world of particulars pulls them down, and they fail to do this until, in death, their souls are finally released.  In his famous cave allegory (Republic Bk. 7), Plato compared life in the realm of particulars to chained persons in a cave looking at shadows from the world outside on their cave wall: distorted figures, colourless, difficult to define, and so on.  This is the life we are said to live in this world, and we continuously struggle to grasp the ideals themselves in our chained existence of the material world.

Universals found in the Particulars: Aristotle’s Alteration to Plato

Plato’s argument about universals and particulars is an important philosophical underpinning for Western culture as a whole.  We have never shed this perspective in Western culture, even if alternatives present themselves.  One alternative came quickly in the philosophy of Plato’s pupil, Aristotle.  Aristotle accepts that one may speak of ideals and their particular expressions, but he distinguishes himself from Plato in saying that we essentially need to be more practical in our enquiry on these matters.  We end up disputing what is ‘Beauty’ or ‘Happiness’, for example (cf. Nichomachean Ethics 1.4), and so we should discuss the particular ends of certain things.  This leads Aristotle to talk of three different kinds of life, dependent on which end one pursues: the life of pleasure, the life of politics (meaning a good arrangement for community, not ‘politics’ as we typically use the word today), or the life of contemplation (Nichomachean Ethics 1.5).  (Note that these options relate to the three cardinal virtues of temperance (which holds back vices that arise in the pursuit of pleasure), courage (discussed in terms of honour in politics), and wisdom.) The pursuit of ideals within particulars rather than abstracted from them is an important philosophical shift from Plato.  So, for example, one finds that particular things have particular forms of beauty.  One cannot abstract ‘Beauty’ from a beautiful girl and a beautiful sunset—they are beautiful in relation to the different objects themselves.

Plato vs. Aristotle on Sexuality

Practically, this philosophical distinction could lead to different approaches to sexuality.  In Phaedrus (251a), Plato distinguishes the love of young men by older men (pederasty) along these lines: it is good if the older man sees the young man’s beauty and pursues the relationship as a pursuit of the ideal, Beauty; it is bad if the older man merely pursues sexual pleasure and gratification.

When proponents of same-sex unions or marriage today argue on the grounds that intimate unions are good if pursued in ‘loving and committed’ relationships, they are arguing along the lines of Plato.  They are distinguishing the particular good of marriage or of sex from the ideals of Love and Commitment.  This abstraction of ideals from particulars is precisely what Aristotle questioned in his tutor’s philosophy. 

If we were to follow a more Aristotelian approach, we would need to look more carefully at the intended ‘ends’ (goals) of particular things (sex, marriage).  Aristotle’s tendency to examine particulars in terms of their ends rather than by trying to define an ideal in itself could lead to an understanding of different genders than simply the male and female.  He says, e.g.,

Physiognomonica 6: Shrill, soft, broken tones mark the speech of the pathic, for such a voice is found in women and is congruous with the pathic’s [the passive partner in a homosexual relationship] nature.[1]

However, Aristotle also could understand homosexuality in terms of habits, not just a person’s natural tendencies (Aristotle, Nichomachian Ethics 7.5), and his ethics did not simply affirm a person’s inclinations without also defining what is Just (i.e., the right balance of the virtues in a person and society) and Noble.  Nevertheless, finding ideals related to particulars inclines one to a possible different assessment of sexuality and marriage.

Natural and Unnatural

The Stoics, in particular, spoke of living in accordance with nature (kata physin), not against nature (para physin).  They were not alone in this conviction: a dictum of Aristotle in Politics is, ‘Nothing contrary to nature [para physin] is noble’ (7.1325b.10).  By this, he did not mean, as one might be inclined to believe from the above discussion, a person’s own nature but nature in a wider sense—what is true of the natural world.  Yet Stoics built their philosophy more closely on living according to nature.  If Plato’s philosophy could allow some element of a person constructing alternative relationships to heterosexual marriage when the goal was the pursuit of universals (such as Beauty in homosexual or heterosexual relationships), Stoic philosophy opposed whatever was contrary to nature.

Epictetus, a Stoic, says, ‘… convince me of this that you acted naturally, and I will convince you that everything which takes place according to nature takes place rightly’ (Discourses 1.11).[2]  In this, he was following a fundamental dogma of Stoicism.  Applied to homosexuality, he could therefore condemn the act and lifestyle of both the active and the passive man:

What is lost by the victim of unnatural lust? His manhood. And by the agent? Beside a good many other things he also loses his manhood no less than the other (Discourses 2.10).

For Jews and Christians, with their doctrine of creation rather than pursuit of abstract ideals, Stoic philosophy came closer than other philosophies of the day.  Both recognised the created order as a basis for determining what is right and wrong, just and unjust, good and bad, etc.  Indeed, Paul does not condemn only the passive partner in a homosexual relationship but both active and passive partners because both are acting against nature—as Epictetus says, each ‘loses his manhood’.  This is not the way God created the world, and homosexuality is ‘against nature’—the same phrase used by both Aristotle and Epictetus (Romans 1.26).


A definitive feature of liberal theology is its abstraction from particulars.  The more one abstracts concepts in theology, the more theologians can reapply ideals in a variety of ways.  Abstracted ideals of Justice, Freedom, and Love allow theologians to shape them any which way they choose, and that without being bound to the meaning of sacred texts.  The move away from the concrete and particular is fundamental to liberalism.  The cross, for example, comes to stand for certain ideals rather than being an actual substitutionary sacrifice.  The resurrection, one regularly hears, did not really take place, but the notion of renewed life can be preached to help people negotiate the facts of their life struggles (an existential interpretation).  And so, too, marriage, now defined not specifically as the union of a male and a female but as something more abstract and expressing ideals of Love and Commitment, is being touted as Christian.  It is not.

Christianity is in essence concrete, as concrete as the belief in the incarnation.  Jesus was God made man.  Meaning is bound by authoritative Scripture, not vague principles derived from the text and then applied in some new way—even against what the Biblical text specifically says.  And just so, a truly Christian view of sex is Biblically grounded and is concretely defined as appropriate only within the marital relationship of a male and a female using their body parts in the way they were intended by the God of creation.  Note the language of ‘natural use’ (physikēn chrēsin) in what Paul says in Romans 1.26-27—not ‘natural intercourse’ (NRSV) or ‘natural relations’ (ESV, NIV)—over against what is para physin (against nature) in Romans 1.26 in description of lesbianism and male homosexuality:

Romans 1:26 For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse [physikēn chrēsin] for unnatural [para physin]....

The construction of ethics around ideals rather than the concreteness of nature, the historical realities of redemptive history, and, for that matter, God’s revealed Word, is a non-Christian philosophizing.  Docetists (denying Jesus’ incarnation) and Gnostics both attempted to take Christianity in this direction in the early years of the Church, just as much as liberals try to do so in our day.  But all such efforts are fatally flawed as fundamentally unchristian.  Next time you say the Apostle’s Creed, think about how concrete the confession of the Christian faith is; it is not a list of abstract values and Platonic ideals.  Just so, Christians affirm a very specific definition of marriage between a man and a woman, not some set of ideals in relationships that can be applied to several different kinds of unions.

[1] The Works of Aristotle, trans. T. Loveday and E. S. Forster, ed. W. D. Ross, Vol. VI (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913).
[2] Arrian’s Discourses of Epictetus in Four Books, trans. W. A. Oldfather (Loeb Classical Library 131; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1925).