Plato (c. 427– c. 347 B.C.)
Apollodorus relates to an unnamed companion a story he heard from Aristodemus about a symposium, or dinner party, held in honor of the playwright Agathon. Besides Aristodemus and Agathon, the guests include Agathon’s lover Pausanias, the doctor Eryximachus, the great comic poet Aristophanes, and the young Phaedrus. Socrates arrives late, having been lost in thought on a neighboring porch. Once they have finished eating, Eryximachus proposes that, instead of the usual entertainments, the guests should take turns giving speeches in praise of the god of Love.
Phaedrus speaks first, praising Love as the oldest of all the gods and the one that does the most to promote virtue in people. Pausanias speaks next, distinguishing the base desires involved in Common Love from the purity of Heavenly Love, which only ever exists between a man and a boy. In exchange for sexual gratification from the boy, the man acts as a mentor, teaching him wisdom and virtue. Eryximachus, the third speaker, argues that Love promotes order and moderation, not only in people but also in all things. Thus, Love can exist in such fields as music and medicine.
Aristophanes is the next to speak, and he presents his conception of Love in the form of a myth. Humans once had four legs, four arms, two heads, and so on, he says. Some were male, with two sets of male sexual organs; some were females; and some were hermaphrodites, with one set each of male and female sexual organs. We were twice the people we are now, and the gods were jealous, afraid we would overthrow them. Zeus decided to cut us in half to reduce our power, and ever since we have been running all over the earth trying to rejoin with our other half. When we do, we cling to that other half with all our might, and we call this Love.
Agathon speaks next, giving an elaborate and flowery speech about Love, which he describes as young, sensitive, beautiful, and wise. All our virtues are gifts that we receive from this god. Socrates questions Agathon, doubting his speech and suggesting that Agathon has described the object of Love, not Love itself.
To correct him, Socrates explains he once held the same beliefs until he met Diotima of Mantinea, a wise woman who taught him everything he knows about Love. According to Diotima, Love is neither a god nor a mortal but rather a spirit born of a coupling between Resource and Poverty. Love itself is not wise or beautiful and does not have any of the other attributes Agathon ascribed to it. Rather, it is the desire for all these things. As such, Love wishes to give birth to Beauty, and so Diotima associates Love with pregnancy and reproduction. Some seek to reproduce sexually, while other seek to give birth to ideas, the children of their minds. We first learn about Beauty by seeing and desiring beautiful people or objects, but our desire for Beauty can be gradually refined until ultimately we love Beauty itself, which is the highest love there is.
As Socrates concludes his speech, the famous politician Alcibiades bursts in completely drunk. He complains that he has consistently tried to seduce Socrates in order to glean wisdom from him but that Socrates resists any kind of sexual advances. Shortly thereafter, more revelers arrive and the party descends into drunken chaos. When Aristodemus wakes up the next morning, he sees Socrates, Agathon, and Aristophanes still engaged in sober conversation. Eventually, Agathon and Aristophanes fall asleep, and Socrates leaves and goes about his daily business.
In the Symposium, Plato presents the love of wisdom as the highest form of love and philosophy as a refinement of our sexual urges that leads us to desire wisdom over sex. That is, we do not seek wisdom by first suppressing sexual desire and other distractions but rather by refining that desire and training it on a higher purpose. Plato sets his dialogue at a symposium, which was one of the highlights of Athenian social life, and amidst a discussion about Love to show us that philosophy is not removed from the business of everyday life. On the contrary, philosophy is the highest expression of the loves and desires that motivate us in everyday activities. If we could see things clearly, Plato suggests, we would see that our attraction to beautiful people or good music or exciting movies is really an attraction to Beauty itself and that philosophy is the most direct route to getting at what we most desire.
Diotima describes love as the pursuit of beauty in a gradual ascent from the particular to the general, culminating in an understanding of the Form of Beauty. Even the most ignorant soul is drawn to beauty on some level. What most of us don’t realize, she suggests, is that what attracts us to a beautiful person, for instance, is that we perceive in that person an idea of the greater Form of Beauty. That is, we are attracted not to the person but to the beauty in the person. If our love is keen enough, we will not be satisfied by beautiful people but will seek out beauty in more generalized forms: in minds, in the structure of a well-ordered state, and ultimately in the Form of Beauty itself, the most generalized form that beauty takes. Once we have come to grasp the Form of Beauty, we will have grasped the fundamental truth that the reality of our experience is just a shadow world compared with the ideal, eternal, and unchanging world of Forms. This Theory of Forms is presented in greater detail in the Phaedo and the Republic. Here, we get the hint that the way to an understanding of Forms is through a love of beauty.
The dialogue’s structure mirrors the progression Diotima describes of pursuing beauty in increasingly refined and generalized forms. Each speech in the dialogue takes us a step closer to understanding the true nature of love. Phaedrus gives us a simple enthusiasm for the value of love; Pausanias distinguishes between good and bad forms of love; Eryximachus expands the definition to cover other fields of inquiry; Aristophanes gives us a delightful account of the urgency of love; and Agathon applies the refined art of rhetoric to understanding love. Only by first considering and seeing the limitations in these earlier speeches can we then appreciate the importance of Socrates’ speech. We should also note that, in Eryximachus, Aristophanes, and Agathon, we have representatives of medicine, comedy, and tragedy, all three of which are important components of a healthy life. By having Socrates trump these other three, Plato is suggesting that philosophy is more important to our well-being than these other disciplines.
The original Greek text contains a number of untranslatable puns that enhance our understanding of the relationship between love, desire, and philosophy. The Greek word eros, translated as “love,” is also the root of our word erotic and can be used in Greek to describe sexual desire. Socrates is thus being coy when he explains that Diotima taught him everything he knows about eros, a coyness that is enhanced when we discover that Diotima of Mantinea was the name of a well-known temple prostitute in ancient Greece. The implication is that Socrates came to Diotima seeking sex, but she instead taught him about beauty and wisdom. This implication further reinforces the suggestion that the desire for wisdom is a refinement, and not a denial, of our desire for sex. In the dialogue, Diotima becomes the model of Beauty, which every lover seeks, while Socrates becomes the model of Love, being himself neither beautiful nor satisfied but constantly seeking more. This picture of Socrates the lover further plays on the word philosopher, which literally means “lover of wisdom.”
While the Symposium contains a great deal of explicit homoerotic content, it would be a distortion to label characters in the dialogue as homosexual or bisexual. These sorts of categories are modern inventions that do not just denote a person’s sexual preference but also define a person according to his or her sexual preference. Greek society, for the most part, didn’t consider sexual preference as a defining personality trait, so labeling Greeks as homosexual or heterosexual would be as odd to them as defining modern students as “white sock wearers” or “colored sock wearers.” Almost all Greek men married women and had children (Plato is a rare exception), while many Greek men also pursued less permanent sexual relations with other men. The activities thought most to display virtue and glory, such as athletics, warfare, and politics, were exclusively the realm of men, so two men could share in this virtue and glory in a way that a man and a woman could not. Consequently, male–male relationships were often romanticized, whereas male–female relationships were viewed as purely practical affairs, which united families and produced children. These two different kinds of relationships existed alongside one another, and both were considered healthy and natural.
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