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Malakia (μαλακία, "softness", "weakliness") is an ancient Greek word that, in relation to men, has sometimes been translated as "effeminacy".

The contrary characteristic in men was karteria (καρτερία, "patient endurance", "perseverance").[1]

Lexicon entries

The standard Greek-English Lexicon of Liddell and Scott gives as English equivalents of the Greek word μαλακία:[2]

I. 1. softness; hence, of persons, moral weakness;
2. = κιναιδεία (unnatural lust)
3. weakliness, sickness
II. calmness of the sea

Examples of use of the adjectival form μαλακός

The following are citations of the use by Greek writers of the adjective μαλακός ("soft").[3]

Of things, whether subject or not subject to touch

  • "Lay thee down on a soft couch".[4]
  • "Why then did you go out? To see a man clothed in soft raiment? Behold those who wear soft raiment are in kings' houses." (Matthew 11:8; similar passage at Luke 7:25.)
  • "Nay, bespeak thou him with gentle words; so shall the Olympian forthwith be gracious unto us."[5]
  • "Ah, in my utter wretchedness soft slumber enfolded me. Would that pure Artemis would even now give so soft a death."[6]
  • "And then he swore my glance was soft and sweet."[7]

Of persons

  • "Softer for the handling now than when he burned the ships with blazing fire."[8]
  • "Delicate men spring from delicate countries."[9]
  • "The disposition of the female is softer, and more tameable and submissive".[10]
  • "Even during the levying of the war he had gained credit for weakness".[11]
  • "He made little difficulty about the pay".[12]
  • "Not to let himself be shamed down, for fear of being thought a coward if he do not vote for war".[13]
  • "Self-restraint is the opposite of Unrestraint, Endurance of Softness.[14]
  • "Too soft to stand up against pleasure and pain".[15]
  • "Periander, reflecting on this, and resolving not to show any indulgence ..."[16]
  • "The words of the cunning knaves are soft." Septuagint, Prov. 26.22.
  • "Kings were no longer chosen from the house of Codrus, because they were thought to be luxurious and to have become soft." From the Athenian Constitution.[17]
  • "Some of the kings proved cowardly in warfare".[18]

Use by philosophers

The Socrates character in Plato's Republic observed that "exclusive devotion to gymnastic" produces "a temper of hardness and ferocity" and that "exclusive devotion to music" produces a temper "of softness and effeminacy"[19] The word that Jowett here translates as "effeminacy" is not μαλακία (malakia), which he renders as "softness", but ἡμερότης (hemerotes). Paul Shorey's translation of the latter word in the Loeb Classical Library is "gentleness".[20] Some contributors to blogs and Internet forums paraphrase this passage as "too much music effeminizes the man" and present it as if the word malakia were used in the original text.[21]

In other passages in Plato's Republic too, the words malakia or malakos are not translated as "effeminacy" or effeminate. Thus the reason given for not familiarizing the guardians with poetry that pictured an afterlife of terrors was "lest the habit for such thrills make them more sensitive and soft than we would have them."[22] The word translated as "soft" is malakoteroi, an image of softened metal[22] that Plato used also of the effect of certain kinds of music: "when a man abandons himself to music to play upon him and pour into his soul as it were through the funnel of his ears those sweet, soft, and dirge-like airs of which we were just now speaking ... the first result is that the principle of high spirit, if he had it, is softened like iron and is made useful instead of useless and brittle. But when he continues the practice without remission and is spellbound, the effect begins to be that he melts and liquefies till he completely dissolves away his spirit, cuts out as it were the very sinews of his soul and makes of himself a 'feeble warrior'."[23]

Aristotle writes that, "of the dispositions described above, the deliberate avoidance of pain is rather a kind of softness (malakia); the deliberate pursuit of pleasure is profligacy in the strict sense.";[24] "One who is deficient in resistance to pains that most men withstand with success, is soft (malakos) or luxurious, for luxury is a kind of softness (malakia); such a man lets his cloak trail on the ground to escape the fatigue and trouble of lifting it, or feigns sickness, not seeing that to counterfeit misery is to be miserable."[24] and "People too fond of amusement are thought to be profligate, but really they are soft (malakos); for amusement is rest, and therefore a slackening of effort, and addiction to amusement is a form of excessive slackness."[25]

A writer of the Peripatetic school (c. 1st century BC or AD) elaborated a little more on Aristotle by labeling softness as a vice. He writes that "Cowardice is accompanied by softness (malakia), unmanliness, faint-heartedness."[26] It was also a concomitant of uncontrol: "The concomitants of uncontrol are softness (malakia) and negligence."[27]

Translations of μαλακία as "effeminacy"

Early editions of the Liddell and Scott A Greek-English Lexicon gave "delicacy, effeminacy" as a translation of μαλακία in passages such as Herodotus 6,11 and Thucydides 1,122.[28] Since the 20th-century revision by Jones, the same work now gives "moral weakness" as the meaning of the word in the same passages.[2]

In a passage of the famous Funeral Oration that Thucydides placed in his mouth, Pericles is translated by Crawley as saying that the Athenians "cultivate refinement without extravagance and knowledge without effeminacy (malakia)".[29]

Older Bible translations used "effeminate" to translate malakoi in I Corinthians.

Bible translations

In the gospels, the only instance of the word (in the adjectival form) is in Matthew and Luke, who use malakos to refer to luxurious clothing, in contrast to the attire of John the Baptist: "What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft (malakos) clothing?"[30][31] In this context, the word is translated as "soft", "fine", "delicate", "expensive", "fancy".[32][33]

Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians uses malakos in the plural to refer to persons. This is commonly translated as "effeminate", as in the King James Version, which has: "Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor sodomites, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God."[34] Another common translation is "male prostitutes". Other versions have: "passive homosexual partners", "men who are prostitutes", "effeminate call boys", "men who let other men use them for sex", "those who make women of themselves".[35]

St Thomas Aquinas in translation

In Question 138 of the Second Part of the Second Part of his Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas delves more deeply into the connotations of the Latin word mollities, used to translate the word malakia used by Aristotle (whom Aquinas calls "the Philosopher") in his Nicomachean Ethics (Book VII, 7), and which is this English translation is rendered by "effeminacy".

Whether effeminacy [mollities, literally "softness"] is opposed to perseverance?

Objection 1. It seems that effeminacy is not opposed to perseverance. For a gloss on 1 Cor. 6:9,10, "Nor adulterers, nor the effeminate, nor liers with mankind," expounds the text thus: "Effeminate—i.e. obscene, given to unnatural vice." But this is opposed to chastity. Therefore effeminacy is not a vice opposed to perseverance.

Objection 2. Further, the Philosopher says (Ethic. vii, 7) that "delicacy is a kind of effeminacy." But to be delicate seems akin to intemperance. Therefore effeminacy is not opposed to perseverance but to temperance.

Objection 3. Further, the Philosopher says (Ethic. vii, 7) that "the man who is fond of amusement is effeminate." Now immoderate fondness of amusement is opposed to eutrapelia, which is the virtue about pleasures of play, as stated in Ethic. iv, 8. Therefore effeminacy is not opposed to perseverance.

On the contrary, The Philosopher says (Ethic. vii, 7) that "the persevering man is opposed to the effeminate."

I answer that, As stated above (137, 1 and 2), perseverance is deserving of praise because thereby a man does not forsake a good on account of long endurance of difficulties and toils: and it is directly opposed to this, seemingly, for a man to be ready to forsake a good on account of difficulties which he cannot endure. This is what we understand by effeminacy, because a thing is said to be "soft" if it readily yields to the touch. Now a thing is not declared to be soft through yielding to a heavy blow, for walls yield to the battering-ram. Wherefore a man is not said to be effeminate if he yields to heavy blows. Hence the Philosopher says (Ethic. vii, 7) that "it is no wonder, if a person is overcome by strong and overwhelming pleasures or sorrows; but he is to be pardoned if he struggles against them." Now it is evident that fear of danger is more impelling than the desire of pleasure: wherefore Tully says (De Offic. i) under the heading "True magnanimity consists of two things: It is inconsistent for one who is not cast down by fear, to be defeated by lust, or who has proved himself unbeaten by toil, to yield to pleasure." Moreover, pleasure itself is a stronger motive of attraction than sorrow, for the lack of pleasure is a motive of withdrawal, since lack of pleasure is a pure privation. Wherefore, according to the Philosopher (Ethic. vii, 7), properly speaking an effeminate man is one who withdraws from good on account of sorrow caused by lack of pleasure, yielding as it were to a weak motion.

Reply to Objection 1. This effeminacy is caused in two ways. On one way, by custom: for where a man is accustomed to enjoy pleasures, it is more difficult for him to endure the lack of them. On another way, by natural disposition, because, to wit, his mind is less persevering through the frailty of his temperament. This is how women are compared to men, as the Philosopher says (Ethic. vii, 7): wherefore those who are passively sodomitical are said to be effeminate, being womanish themselves, as it were.

Reply to Objection 2. Toil is opposed to bodily pleasure: wherefore it is only toilsome things that are a hindrance to pleasures. Now the delicate are those who cannot endure toils, nor anything that diminishes pleasure. Hence it is written (Dt. 28:56): "The tender and delicate woman, that could not go upon the ground, nor set down her foot for… softness [Douay: 'niceness']." Thus delicacy is a kind of effeminacy. But properly speaking effeminacy regards lack of pleasures, while delicacy regards the cause that hinders pleasure, for instance toil or the like.

Reply to Objection 3. In play two things may be considered. On the first place there is the pleasure, and thus inordinate fondness of play is opposed to eutrapelia. Secondly, we may consider the relaxation or rest which is opposed to toil. Accordingly just as it belongs to effeminacy to be unable to endure toilsome things, so too it belongs thereto to desire play or any other relaxation inordinately.[36]

Malacia in Latin writers

Latin writers adopted the Greek word, Latinized as malacia, to mean, literally or figuratively, "a calm at sea", "dead calm", or to mean "a total want of appetite", "nausea".[37]

"Malacia" in English

In English, the word "malacia" is used in medicine to mean an abnormal craving for certain kinds of food, and in pathology to mean an abnormal softening of organs or tissues of the human body.[38]

Malakia and malakas in modern Greek

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In modern Greek, the word μαλακία – malakia has come to mean "masturbation", and its derivative μαλάκας – malakas means "one who masturbates". Depending on the tone of voice, this term can be used colloquially as a friendly greeting or in a derogatory sense when angry. This word is very common in modern Greece.

Greek attitude toward effeminacy

Herodotus recounted that, when the Persian king Cyrus the Great asked Croesus, a defeated king who was now his counsellor, what he should do in view of a revolt of the Lydians, Croesus advised him to punish the leader, "but let the Lydians be pardoned; and lay on them this command, that they may not revolt or be dangerous to you; then, I say, and forbid them to possess weapons of war, and command them to wear tunics under their cloaks and buskins on their feet, and to teach their sons lyre-playing and song and dance and huckstering. Then, O King, you will soon see them turned to women instead of men; and thus you need not fear lest they revolt."[39] Note that the word malakia is not used in the Greek original of this text.

The Greek idea that those engaged in mechanical trades incurred effeminacy was expressed by Xenophon (the word translated here as "effeminate" is unrelated to malakia):

Men do indeed speak ill of those occupations which are called handicrafts, and they are rightly held of little repute in communities, because they weaken the bodies of those who make their living at them by compelling them to sit and pass their days indoors. Some indeed work all the time by a fire. But when the body becomes effeminate (thelunomenos) the mind too is debilitated. Besides, these mechanical occupations (banausos) leave a man no leisure to attend to his friends' interests, or the public interest. This class therefore cannot be of much use to his friends or defend his country. Indeed, some states, especially the most warlike, do not allow a citizen to engage in these handicraft occupations.[40]

See also


  1. Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek-English Lexicon: καρτερία
  2. 2.0 2.1 Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek-English Lexicon: μαλακία
  3. Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek-English Lexicon: μαλακός
  4. The Iliad, Homer, Loeb, Bk IX, 616–7; p. 427
  5. The Iliad, Homer, Loeb, Bk I, 580–585; pp. 46–7.
  6. The Odyssey, Homer, Loeb, Bk XVIII, 201-2; p. 211
  7. Plutus, Aristophanes, Loeb, line 1022; p. 451
  8. The Iliad, Homer, Loeb, Bk XXII, 373–4; p. 493
  9. Histories, Herodotus, trans. H.F. Cary. Bohn's Libraries, Bk IX, 122; p. 592
  10. Aristotle, History of Animals, trans. Johann Gottlob Schneider. Bohn's Libraries, Bk IX, chapter 1; p. 230
  11. Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, 2.18; trans. in Robert B. Strassler (editor), The Landmark Thucydides (Simon and Schuster 2008 ISBN 978-1-41659087-3), p. 101
  12. Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, 8.29; trans. in Robert B. Strassler (editor), The Landmark Thucydides (Simon and Schuster 2008 ISBN 978-1-41659087-3), p. 498
  13. Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, 6.13; trans. in M.I. Finley, The Portable Greek Historians (Penguin 1977 ISBN 978-1-10112764-3)
  14. Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle, Loeb, VII.vii.4; p. 415
  15. Republic, Plato, Loeb, VIII, 556c; pp. 283-285
  16. Histories, Herodotus, trans. H.F. Cary. Bohn's Libraries, Bk III, 51; p. 192
  17. The Athenian Constitution, Aristotle, Loeb Classical Library vol 285, Fr 7; p. 13.
  18. The Athenian Constitution, Aristotle, Loeb vol 285, III 2; p. 15.
  19. Plato, Republic, Bk III, 410D in the translation by B. Jowett (Vintage Books, p. 118 and The Internet Classics Archive).
  20. Plato, The Republic, vol. I, p. 289
  21. For instance, Scouter Forum: On Effeminancy
  22. 22.0 22.1 Republic, Plato, Loeb vol 237, Bk III ii; 387 c; p. 207.
  23. Republic, Plato, Loeb vol 237, Bk III xviii; 411a; p. 291.
  24. 24.0 24.1 Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle, Loeb vol 73, VII vii 3; pg 415.
  25. Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle, Loeb vol 73, VII vii 7; pg 417.
  26. On Virtues and Vices, Loeb vol 285, p. 497.
  27. On Virtues and Vices, Loeb vol 285, p. 499
  28. Μαλακία in A Greek-English Lexicon, Harper & Brothers, 1883
  29. The Peloponnesian War, Thucydides, trans. Crawley, The Modern Library, NY, 1951. Book II, 40; p. 105.
  30. Matthew 11:8
  31. Luke 7:25
  32. Matthew 11:8 in 43 English translations
  33. Luke 7:25 in 43 English translations
  34. 1 Cor 6:9–10
  35. 1 Corinthians 6:9 in 43 English translations
  36. St. Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologica, Second and Revised Edition, 1920. Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province.
  37. Lewis and Short: malacia
  38. Wiktionary: Malacia
  39. The Histories, Herodotus, trans. Robin Waterfield, Oxford University Press, NY, 1998. Book I, 155–157; pg 69.
  40. Xenophon, Oeconomicus, chapter IV, cited in H. Kitto, The Greeks (Transaction Publishers 1968 ISBN 978-0-20236972-3), p. 240