Tag Archives: Plato

Are nudity and shame inseparably linked?

Some scientists believe that “it is archetypal aspect of human nature to obscure the sex organs – called “shame-parts” in many languages”. According to the biologist J. Illies “if one were to put children by themselves on a solitary island in order to allow them to grow up according to the nature of their species, free from all repressive influences of society, they would reinvent the loincloth at the age of five” [1].

Another point of view is that “shame is not congenital, but the reason why people are ashamed does have a universal, biological background. At its base lies the genetically indiced man-female relationship”. There are “naked women in the Amazon region who feel ashamed when they don’t wear any bands around their arms or ankles. Shame emerges when there is a deviation from the clothing standard, which is applied differently in every culture” [2].

I was reading about the attitude towards nudity in two cultures separated in time and space, both of which are important parts of our humanistic traditions. Some details seemed to be interesting to me.

1. In ancient Greece, it was nudity which separated the Greeks from barbarians, “from whom they wished to be distinguished”. In ancient athletics, bodies were “fully on display” and the “athlete’s naked body communicated important information about their culture and identity”. The nakedness “gave physical proof of discipline, strength, and endurance” [3].

One reads in Plato’s Republic that for most “barbarians”, it was “disgraceful and ridiculous” for a man to be seen naked. “And when the practice of athletics began, first with the Cretans and then with the Lacedaemonians, it was open to the wits of that time to make fun of these practices… But when … experience showed that it is better to strip than to veil all things of this sort, then the laughter of the eyes faded away before that which reason revealed to be best…” [4].

Herodotus confirms that “among the Lydians and most of the foreign peoples it is felt as a great shame that even a man be seen naked” [5].

But it appears that feelings of shame were not alien even to naked Greek athletes. “It was highly improper to allow glans of the penis to be seen; it had to be kept covered by the foreskin at all times. Men doing athletic exercises drew the foreskin over the glans and tied it with a string. To the Greeks, a short foreskin was a clear sign of a dissipated sexual life. Thus when Jews began to appear in the exercises, their circumcized penises became a source of deep embarrassment” [1].

2. In some sense, the period of the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) may serve as an opposite pole to the era of naked sportsmen and sportwomen. Even in ancient Greece, the nudity of the Spartan girls, who wore short chitons which “did not cover their thighs and both of their breasts” during the exercises, was considered as scandalous [1]. During the Victorian Era, women “were urged to cover their entire bodies. Any skin showing was seen as a women exhibiting herself”. Women “were not to advertise their bodies” to men, since a woman’s body was considered as the “property of her husband” [6].

There is a widespread myth that, at the height of the Victorian Era, it was “common to cover all “legs”, even those of pianos and tables, in order to prevent sexual arousal” [6,7].

Victorian attitudes to the body have provided “fertile territory for myth-making” [8]. On her first encounter with the cast of Michelangelo’s David  presented by a Duke of Tuscany, “Queen Victoria was so shocked by his nudity that a firm suggestion was made that something should be done. Consequently, the correctly proportioned fig leaf was created and stored in readiness for any visit Queen Victoria might make to the museum, for which occasions it was hung on the figure from two strategically implanted hooks” [8].

[1] Shame and the Origins of Self-esteem: A Jungian Approach. Psychology Press, 1996.
[2] Projet Nudité (Project Nudity)
[3] Anathea E. Portier-Young. Apocalypse Against Empire: Theologies of Resistance in Early Judaism. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2014.
[4] Plato, translated by Paul Shorey. Republic. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd., 1969. Book 5, sections 452c-452e
[5] Herodotus, with an English translation by A. D. Godley. Cambridge. Harvard University Press, 1920. Book 1, chapter 10
[6] Denman Collins. Anomalistic History., 2011.
[7] Myth #23: Prudish Victorians “dressed” their naked furniture legs with fabric.
[8] The naked truth about Victorians – Telegraph

The Ancient Greeks considered their custom of athletic nudity as a marker of their own civilization – one that distinguished them from their own ancestors and from the “barbarians” (Ruth Barcan). The Greeks came to understand the practice of athletic nudity as a “civilized” one:

For among the Lydians, and indeed among the barbarians generally, it is reckoned a deep disgrace, even to a man, to be seen naked. (The History of Herodotus, Book 1).

But it is wrong to idealize the Greek relation to nudity. Ruth Barcan (her Nudity : a cultural anatomy is my main source today) quotes Margaret Walters (The Male Nude: A New Perspective) who points out that “it is simply that their taboos [around nudity] differ from ours and are therefore harder for us to recognize.” Namely, the Greek ideal was not open to all bodies.

First of allfemale nakedness, in everyday life, but also in representation, was able to shock. In Greek art only Aphrodite appears naked and it was rare before the fourth century BC. The total nakedness of Praxiteles’ Aphrodite was considered a scandalous innovation (Marina Warner,  Monuments and Maidens: The Allegory of the Female Form):

The Cyprian said when she saw the Cyprian of Cnidus, “Alas where did Praxiteles see me naked?”
(Greek Anthology. Book I Chapter IV Part IV. On the Cnidian Venus of Praxiteles. From J. W. Mackail)

However, in Book Five of Plato’s Republic, in the section on the status of women, Socrates argues that women should be trained like men, and hence should exercise naked in the gymnasium:

Then let the wives of our guardians strip, for their virtue will be their robe, and let them share in the toils of war and the defence of their country; only in the distribution of labours the lighter are to be assigned to the women, who are the weaker natures, but in other respects their duties are to be the same. And as for the man who laughs at naked women exercising their bodies from the best of motives, in his laughter he is plucking

A fruit of unripe wisdom, and he himself is ignorant of what he is laughing at, or what he is about; –for that is, and ever will be, the best of sayings, That the useful is the noble and the hurtful is the base.

Very true.

Not long ago, as we shall remind them, the Hellenes were of the opinion, which is still generally received among the barbarians, that the sight of a naked man was ridiculous and improper; and when first the Cretans and then the Lacedaemonians introduced the custom, the wits of that day might equally have ridiculed the innovation.

No doubt.

But when experience showed that to let all things be uncovered was far better than to cover them up, and the ludicrous effect to the outward eye vanished before the better principle which reason asserted, then the man was perceived to be a fool who directs the shafts of his ridicule at any other sight but that of folly and vice, or seriously inclines to weigh the beautiful by any other standard but that of the good.
(The Republic By Plato. Book V)

And secondly, the Greeks were “acutely anxious about the aging bodies of either sex” (Margaret Walters). The expression of these ideas can be found in Plato’s Republic as well:

the most ridiculous thing of all will be the sight of women naked in the palaestra, exercising with the men, especially when they are no longer young; they certainly will not be a vision of beauty, any more than the enthusiastic old men who in spite of wrinkles and ugliness continue to frequent the gymnasia.

Nevertheless, the importance of Greek attitudes towards nakedness for modern culture can scarcely be overestimated.

Penthesilea by mypixbox on Flickr

Penthesilea by mypixbox on Flickr

No! a Spartan maid could not be chaste, e’en if she would, who leaves her home and bares her limbs and lets her robe float free, to share with youths their races and their sports,-customs I cannot away with. Is it any wonder then that ye fail to educate your women in virtue? (Andromache By Euripides, Translated by E. P. Coleridge)

In ancient Greece not only men took part in athletic competitions. If we consider women’s competitions, there can be no doubts in priority of Sparta. The famous painting Young Spartans exercising by Edgar Degas (see one of my previous posts) is a good illustration. Sarah B. Pomeroy writes in Spartan women that women competed at the Heraea games dedicated to the goddess Hera in Elis that likely became pan-Hellenic games, though on a smaller scale than the men’s events at Olympia.

The women’s race at the Heraea in Elis was the most prestigious, the equivalent for women of the Olympic competitions held for men.

The author mentions that if the Heraea were pan-Hellenic, only girls who lived fairly close by would have participated. The reason was Greek gender policy.

In view of the tendency at Athens, for example, to seclude and protect young girls and to keep their names out of the public eye, it is unlikely that Athenian maidens would have been brought to race at Elis. At Athens (and probably elsewhere in Greece), girls were devalued, and the expenses involved in traveling were considerable.

The Spartan girls dominated in Elis in the archaic period, and it is likely that the games were established along Spartan principles and that the majority of competitors and victors were Spartan. In fact, Spartan women scandalized other Greeks with how outspoken and free they were. Like their brothers, Spartan girls were expected or required to attend the public school. At school they were allowed and encouraged to engage in sports.

The author of Spartan women considers nudity as a costume for sports and writes that Spartan women regularly exercised completely nude. Mature women and pregnant women exercised. Even older women exercised nude. As male athletes had discovered, light clothing or none at all is best for racing.

Plato wrote in Republic:

Yes, and the most ridiculous thing of all will be the sight of women naked in the palaestra, exercising with the men, especially when they are no longer young

On the contrary, the Roman poet Sextus Propertius (The Elegies, Book III.14:1-34 The Spartan Girls) was impressed by the Spartan girls

I admire many of the rules of your training, Sparta, but most of all the great blessings derived from the girls’ gymnasia, where a girl can exercise her body, naked, without blame, among wrestling men, when the swift-thrown ball eludes the grasp, and the curved rod sounds against the ring, and the woman is left panting at the furthest goal, and suffers bruises in the hard wrestling.

Sparta was in many aspects unpleasant society (it is even compared with a communist state, but it is, of course, inappropriate to use modern terms to describe antiquity), but if some of Spartan attitude towards athletics survived to our times, the modern academic athletics might look different.

un.geniert 2010 - Juni - Academic Athletics by Wolf Brüning on Flickr

un.geniert 2010 - Juni - Academic Athletics by Wolf Brüning on Flickr

Ancient Greek athletics is often associated with nudity. My knowledge on this subject was always incomplete and fragmentary. Now I’m going to dedicate a few posts to the phenomenon of nudity in Greek athletics in order to arrange the information I found recently. My main source will be the article “The Origin of Nudity in Greek Athletics” by John Mouratidis published in Journal of Sport History, Vol. 12, No. 3 (1985).

Let’s start from the traditional view on the issue.

Thucydides wrote that the Spartans [the Lacedaemonians] “were the first to bare their bodies and, after stripping openly, to anoint themselves with oil when they engaged in athletic exercise.” (see also Realms Of Gold A Journey In Search Of The Mycenaeans by Leonard Cottrell). Dionysios of Halicarnassos (see Roman Antiquities by Dionysius of Halicarnassus) believed that “The first man who undertook to strip and ran naked at Olympia, at the fifteenth Olympiad, was Acanthus the Lacedaemonian. Before that time, it seems, all the Greeks had been ashamed to appear entirely naked in the games…”

Young Spartans exercising by Edgar Degas

Young Spartans exercising by Edgar Degas

The famous painting by Edgar Degas illustrates what is thought to be a typical scene of a coeducated Spartan gym class.

On the other hand, the Megarians were making a counterclaim to Sparta’s and wanted to show that a native of Megara was the first naked victor. Pausanias wrote that it was Orsippos of Megara, “who won a foot-race at Olympia running naked at a time when athletes used to wear loincloths in the old style” (see, for instance, The Archaeology of the Olympics: the Olympics and other festivals in antiquity, p. 158). But another story described Orsippos not as a winner in the race but as a loser because he became entangled in his shorts.

The Athenians also pretended to be the pioneers of nudity in athletics. They told the story about a runner who fell because his shorts floated freely down to his legs. It presumably brought the infamous archon Hippomenes (the fourth decennial archon in 723 BC – 713 BC, last dynastic prytanis of Athens) to enforce, by law, that all men in the future should exercise naked.

J. Mouratidis concludes that

while the majority of traditional sources assign nudity in athletics as early as the 8th century B.C., Plato and Thucydides believed that it happened not long before their own era.

Three citations from the Homeric epics allow to take in that nudity was not a practice in earlier epoch, among the Mycenaean Greeks. But the material evidence shows that nudity was not unknown in Mycenaean Greece. One might suggest that the Homeric references to loincloths in athletics was an anachronism and reflect a practice of the poet’s own time.

The next observation of J. Mouratidis seems intriguing to me, since it could explain why to be seen naked might be considered indecent in the Homeric times. He wrote that

it is possible that Ionia, Homer’s own birthplace, was influenced by the existing practice in the oriental world. In the time of Herodotos (5th century B .C.), the Lydians, and barbarians in general, believed that it was a disgrace for a man to be seen naked. This Anatolian attitude towards nudity was apparently shared, to some extent, by the Greeks who lived in areas under Anatolian influence.

Greek nudity also shocked the Romans. It might be interesting to consider the origin of this barbarian belief.

According to J. Mouratidis, the classical sources tell not the story of the introduction of nudity in athletics, but the much more complex tale of the rejection of loincloths after failed attempt to introduce them into athletic competitions which had been made at the close of the sixth century. In his article he shows that nudity in Greek athletics had its roots in prehistoric Greece.