Must-Read Books on Greek Masculinity

On September 10, 2016 by Josh Vandiver

Greek Masculinity


It’s impossible to ignore how Plato develops key concepts and questions for better understanding men, the male sex, and masculinity in political dialogues like AlcibiadesLachesRepublic, and Laws. His concepts, if not always his questions, were adapted in many ways by his colleague Xenophon – a fellow student of Socrates whose work inspired Alexander the Great’s biographer – and by Romans like Cicero and Plutarch. Meanwhile, ancient Greek and Roman Stoicism may be the quintessential philosophy of Western manliness.


Homer – Iliad (c. 1200 BC)

Homer begins with the word menos, rage, Achilles’ anger at his king Agamemnon. Given the foundational place of the Iliad in Western political thought, philosopher Peter Sloterdijk has called menos ‘Europe’s first word.’ Plato’s Republic (listed above) is full of Homeric language and references – Plato’s titanic attempt to replace Homer’s work as the centerpiece of men’s education in Greece.

Plato – Symposium and Phaedrus (c. 385 BC)

Plato’s Symposium is a dialogue on erôs with many speakers – seven men, including Socrates, and an absent woman, Diotima – interweaving sex, gender, and sexuality in a stunning tour de forcePhaedrus, Plato’s other major dialogue devoted to erôs, explores linkages between our desires and our words – the rhetoric we use to persuade others to do our will – and proposes the image of the human mind as a war chariot pulled by the muscular black horse of desire.

Plato – Republic (c. 380 BC)

Inspired by Luce Irigaray’s masterful demonstration of the phallicism in Plato’s famous Myth of the Cave (in Speculum, below), I argue Plato’s magnum opus should be seen as the quintessential classical exploration of men and masculinity in politics. Of course, there are also the infamous reforms of marriage, sex, and reproduction in Book V and the argument in Book IX that erôs is a mad, cruel, and despotic tyrant.

Plato – Alcibiades, Laches, and Laws (c. 390-355 BC)

In addition to the RepublicSymposium, and Phaedrus (listed above), I  Plato’s Alcibiades, named for and featuring the noble and ambitious young man destined to lead Athens, Socrates ruthlessly tests the youth: does Alcibiades truly know what it takes to be the big man in politics? In Laches, Socrates questions a famous Athenian general and his friend about andreia – the Greek concept of manliness as a form of courage – in which they are supposed experts. In Laws, a Socrates-like old man named the Athenian Stranger travels to Crete to speak with Dorians – the same ethnic group as the Spartans – on the best laws to govern men.

Xenophon – The Education of Cyrus (c. 370 BC)

Xenophon, a student of Socrates and colleague of Plato, went on to become a famous general, historian, biographer, economist, and constitutional scholar. In this work he theorizes the ideal young prince, general, and king-emperor.

Aristotle – The Politics and Nicomachean Ethics (c. 350 BC)

Aristotle theorizes a masculine form citizenship in his Politics, a form of citizenship which will have enormous influence in later periods. His Nicomachean Ethics, named after his son Nichomachus, theorizes virtues like megalopsuchia, greatness of spirit, along with courage and magnificence, central to Greek masculinity.

The Reign of the Phallus: Sexual Politics in Ancient Athens (1985)

Eva C. Keuls takes establishment classicists to task for ignoring or downplaying the astonishing extent to which Athenian democracy was in fact a phallocracy, the “reign of the phallus.”

Plato and the Hero: Courage, Manliness, and the Impersonal Good (2006)

Angela Hobbs is one of the few classical scholars today to study Plato through the lens of gender, focusing on concepts like andreia, which simultaneously means both courage and manliness in Greek.

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Josh Vandiver, a graduate of Harvard College and Princeton University, is an American political scientist and intellectual historian. Based in Manhattan, he was the Lord Harlech Fellow at New College, Oxford, and has taught at the University of Chicago and Williams College.