"I was present at one time when someone asked the poet Sophocles: 'How are you in regard to sex, Sophocles? Can you still make love to a woman?'
'Hush, man,' the poet replied, 'I am very glad to have escaped from this, like a slave who has escaped from a mad and cruel master.'
I thought then that he was right, and I still think so, for a great peace and freedom from these things comes with old age: after the tension of one's desires relaxes and ceases, then Sophocles' words certainly apply, it is an escape from many mad masters."
We modern-day readers, when we encounter this passage, think that we understand straight off Sophocles' meaning, and think it basically akin to Socrates' interpretation. Back when he could get it up, Sophocles was ruled by a part of his soul against his own better judgment—could not rule himself. We attribute, in other words, the problem to a drive that Sophocles felt, placing the difficulty entirely within his own psychology. But we should be less hasty, and should ask why Plato has put precisely this anecdote in the Republic. Sure, it reads well, but Socrates could have made his point in any number of ways. When he wants to establish that the lover finds in the beloved something by which to be charmed, regardless of what features the beloved has, he simply asks Glaucon, is it not so that, etc, in his typical way, a strategy that would obviously work here, as well, if he were only after something as general as has been suggested. Instead he specifically brings in Sophocles; surely, since nature does nothing without cause, there must be a reason for this.
And the reason is as follows. Sophocles' living situation was a bit unusual; he didn't have a wife, but did have an arrangement of sorts with what you might call a courtesan, I guess. He was absolutely wild about her; she somewhat indifferent towards him, and exploited this imbalance by keeping him at her beck and call, having him do things for her that she didn't even really need or want done, just as an exercise of power. Only when he finally became impotent did she tire of him, and it's to this that he refers in the anecdote quoted in the Republic. The problem, then, has long been misunderstood, even by Socrates (though not, presumably, by Plato, who is probably twitting S here): it's not the lack of autonomy, it's the hetaeranomy.