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The Symposium

Plato

178a - 180b

172a - 177e

180c - 185c

Summary

Phaedrus asserts that both gods and humans regard Love as great and awesome, for many reasons. In particular, Love is widely considered older than almost all the other gods, and has no parents. According to Hesiod, a great poet from around the time of Homer, Chaos was the first thing in existence, followed by Earth and Love. Acusilaus, the collector of myths, and Parmenides, the philosopher, both concur that Love is among the oldest of the gods.

As Love is the oldest, Phaedrus suggests, he confers the greatest benefits. No young man could derive greater benefit than from a good lover, and no lover could derive greater benefit than from a young loved one. These relationships implant in men stronger guidance toward leading good lives than family, state, money, or anything else. Specifically, Love teaches us shame in acting disgracefully and pride in acting well. The shame we feel when caught acting disgracefully is far greater when we are caught by a partner than by a parent or a friend. Phaedrus suggests that an army that consisted solely of lovers and loved ones would be unmatchable, as they would rather die than show cowardice in front of their partner, and they would all strive constantly for greater honor.

Phaedrus provides several examples of brave and honorable actions performed by those in love. He recalls the story of Alcestis, who was willing to die for her husband Admetus. Apollo told Admetus that he was to die unless he could find someone to die in his place. Not even his parents would accept the responsibility, but Alcestis did, impressing the gods so much that they brought her back to life. The gods have only allowed a very few people to return from the underworld, which suggests that love is one of the few guides to action that they value supremely. By contrast, Phaedrus suggests, Orpheus did not have the courage to die for his love, Eurydice, but descended into Hades to find her while still alive. As a result he returned empty-handed and was later killed by the Maenads. Achilles, the great hero of the Iliad, was the loved one of the older Patroclus, who was killed by Hector. It was prophesied that Achilles would be killed if he killed Hector, but Achilles still hunted down and killed the man who had killed his lover. Achilles showed supreme courage in accepting death in order to avenge his lover so the gods sent him to the islands of the blessed when he died. Thus, Phaedrus concludes, Love is the most ancient and most honored of gods, and most capable of ensuring courage and happiness, in this life and the next.

Commentary

Before we delve deeper into the discussions of love in the Symposium, it might do well to clarify the nature of male-male and male-female relationships in Ancient Greece. Both Phaedrus' speech, and the others that follow, suggest that male-male love is preferable to male-female love. We should note, first, that the term "homosexual" is not appropriate in discussing the nature of these relationships. Homosexuality, as we understand it, is the product of a post- Freudian, industrialized world, where sexuality has been interpreted as a structural and constitutive feature of personality. The word suggests not just a sexual practice, but also the notion that one's sexual preference in some way defines one's character. In Greece, most men would marry women and produce children with them, but they would usually have male lovers as well, with whom there was often a closer emotional bond. But just as "homosexual" is an inappropriate category, so is "bisexual," as it suggests a middle ground between homosexuality and heterosexuality. All we can rightly say is that most men in Ancient Greece would engage in sexual relationships with both men and women, and that some had a stronger preference for men and some had a stronger preference for women. There is some evidence to suggest that male-male relationships were more prevalent and more valued in the intellectual circles that Plato writes of than amongst the common people of Athens.

Typically, a male-male relationship would exist between an older man (called the "lover") and a younger man (called the "loved one" or "boyfriend"). The older man takes the initiative in the relationship, and is usually the dominant partner in sexual intercourse. The younger man, usually in the age between puberty and that of growing a beard, would gain in return the help, favor, and mentorship of the older man. The lover is often married to a woman at the time, and life-long partnerships, such as the one that exists between Agathon and Pausanias, are rare. While many men preferred women, both as sexual partners and as wives, male-male relationships were idealized for a number of reasons. The activities the Greeks believed most powerfully displayed virtue and glory--athletics, philosophy, warfare, rhetoric, etc.--were exclusively the realm of men; two men could share in this virtue and glory in a way that a man and a woman could not. The male and female spheres in Ancient Greece were very rigidly separated, so there was not much common ground for romanticized courtship between men and women. Marriage was often a social necessity in order to ensure reproduction, while male-male love was considered purer because it was less practical.

Also worth noting is that not long after the publication of the Symposium (though probably not inspired by it), the city of Thebes created the famous Theban Sacred Band of 150 pairs of male partners. As Phaedrus predicts, these soldiers were a formidable force as they fought more bravely and defended one another more courageously than any other army.

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