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October 5: John Addington Symonds

John Addington Symonds (1840)

John Addington Symonds

It was on this date, October 5, 1840, that British writer John Addington Symonds was born in Bristol. He was educated at Oxford and married Janet Catherine North (sister of botanical artist Marianne North), on 10 November 1864, producing four daughters. Having health problems throughout his life, Symonds gave up the intensity of the study of law and turned to letters. He achieved great distinction with his classic Short History of the Renaissance in Italy, which appeared in seven volumes from 1875 to 1886. In this work, Symonds scoffed at the idea that the Renaissance artists owed their excellence to religious inspiration. However, Symonds held a sentimental view of God:

Gods fade; but God abides and in man's heart
Speaks with the clear unconquerable cry
Of energies and hopes that can not die.
—Sonnet, On the Sacro Monte.

While living in Davos, Switzerland, Symonds wrote biographies of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1878), Ben Johnson (1886), Michelangelo (1893) and others, translated the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini (1887), and wrote his accomplished Studies of the Greek Poets (1873-1876). Implicit in his references to Christianity is Symonds’ rejection of it. As one of the first advocates of male-male love (later to be called homosexuality), it is no wonder Symonds rejected at least that part of Judeo-Christian teaching and tradition. To this day, there are at least 81 countries where homosexuality is still illegal—mostly in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, according to a 2013 report—while no country in Europe has a law against homosexuality.

Why is this? If we took a tour of world religions, we would find that Judaism condemns homosexuality: Genesis 19:4, 5; Leviticus 18:22, 20:13. Christianity condemns homosexuality: Matthew 15:19, Mark 7:21, Acts 15:20, 29; Romans 1:26-27. Islam condemns homosexuality: Qur’an 7:80-81, 26:165-166 (it is punishable by death in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Yemen). Mormonism (LDS) condemns homosexuality in the “law of chastity” Moroni 9:9. Bahá'í does not condone homosexuality, but does not condemn it in those who have not accepted the Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh. Homosexuality is not considered a religious matter by many Buddhists, but same-sex relations are considered “sexual misconduct.” Sikh scripture (the Guru Granth Sahib) does not oppose homosexuality, but many Sikhs do. Hinduism does not view homosexuality as a religious sin, but many Hindus do.

However, in Confucianism, which is not technically a religion, “biting the bitter peel,” is considered a euphemism for homosexual relations, and generally taken to mean anal sex, but is not specifically condemned and is not mentioned in the Analects. Unitarian Universalism, Wicca, Satanism, other pagan religions, along with Secular Humanism (which is not a religion), decline to condemn homosexuality. So it would seem that there is no condemnation of homosexuality and same-sex relations that does not stem from religion.

Still illegal and severely punishable in England in his time—Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for the “gross indecency” of homosexuality from 1895-1897 and it would be another hundred years before protections against discrimination were passed into law—Symonds variously called his sexual orientation “Greek love,” “that unmentionable custom,” “male love” and “l’amour de l’impossible” (i.e., love of the impossible).

Although the Oxford English Dictionary credits the medical writer C.G. Chaddock for introducing the word “homosexual” into the English language in 1892, Symonds had used the word nine years earlier in A Problem in Greek Ethics (1883). The book was inspired by the poetry of Walt Whitman, with whom he corresponded and about whom he wrote a Study(1893). Symonds co-authored a book called Sexual Inversion (1897) with sexologist Havelock Ellis. Although published after Symonds’ death, this book is credited with first making the distinction between homosexual behavior and homosexual orientation.

As to his religion, Symonds was equivocal. His biographer quotes this letter…*

When the cholera was raging in the year 1848, I heard so much about it that I fell into a chronic state of hysterical fear. Some one had told me of the blessings which attend ejaculatory prayers. So I kept perpetually mumbling, “O God, save me from the cholera.” This superstitious habit clung to me for years. I believe that it obstructed the growth of sound ideas upon religion ; but I cannot say that I was ever sincerely pious, or ever realised the language about God I heard and parroted.

…but in the same work quotes this 1861 letter to his sister…

The Bishop preached a magnificent sermon yesterday on “doubting.” … It was an impassioned warning to young men, bidding them not let in the thin end of the wedge of scepticism. He told them that the admission of doubts on subjects of pure criticism and history would lead to metaphysical doubts, and end in doubt of God. … I think he is right here. Many a man begins by doubting the eternity of punishment ; and then, believing in his right to exercise private judgment, can find the doctrine of the Trinity nowhere in the Bible. The habit of appealing to Reason once gained, and strengthened and supplied with food by philosophical studies, he comes to apply the test of Reason to higher mysteries that of the Incarnation ; that, finally, of the existence of a God. Each step has been destructive as it must be, if men try to understand dogmas which their powers pronounced unintelligible. For a time such a man lives without God in the world.

Symonds wrote his Memoirs (1889-1893), but this remained unpublished for 90 years, until they were edited by Phyllis Grosskurth as an Autobiography and printed in 1984. Symonds died at Rome on 19 April 1893, age 54, and was buried close to Percy Bysshe Shelley. Scottish historian Horatio F. Brown, a personal friend to whom the writer entrusted his papers, shows in his 1895 biography of the writer that John Addington Symonds did not believe in a future life.†

* Horatio F. Brown, Life of John Addington Symonds, 1895, pp. 319 and 421.
† Ibid.

Originally published October 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

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