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The Symposium

Plato

189c - 193e

185c - 189b

193e - 197e

Summary

Aristophanes' speech comes in the form of a myth. Long ago, he explains, there were three genders: male, female, and androgynous, and each person was twice what they are now. That is, they had four hands, four legs, two heads, two sets of genitals, and so on. They could move both forward and backward and would run by spinning themselves around cartwheel-like on all eight limbs. Males were descended from the sun, females from the earth, and those who were androgynous were descended from the moon. They were very powerful and vigorous and made threatening attacks on the gods. The gods did not want to destroy them because they would then forfeit the sacrifices humans made to them, so Zeus decided to cut each person in two. He also suggested that if this didn't settle humans down, he would cut them in two once again and they would have to hop about on one leg.

As each person was cut in two, Apollo turned their heads and necks around so that they would be facing toward the gash that had been made, so as to remind them constantly of the punishment they had been dealt. He also pulled their skin tight to cover up this gash, tying it together at the navel.

Because they longed for their original nature, people kept trying to find their other half and reunite with it. When they found their other half, they would embrace and stay together, not wanting anything else. Eventually, people started dying of hunger or general inactivity. Zeus took pity on them, and moved their genitals around so that they would be facing frontward. This way, when they embraced, they could have sexual intercourse, and those who were formerly androgynous could reproduce, and even two men who came together could at least have sexual satisfaction and then move on to other things. This is the origin of our instinctive desire for other human beings. Those who are interested in members of the opposite sex are halves of formerly androgynous people, while men who like men and women who like women are halves of what were formerly whole males and females. Aristophanes applauds male-male relationships between men and boys since such couples value boldness, braveness, and masculinity, both in themselves and in others.

When we find our other half, we are overwhelmed with affection, concern, and love for that person. This great amount of care cannot result simply from a desire for sex, but we have difficulty articulating precisely what it is that makes us care so much. If Hephaestus, the blacksmith god, were to offer to weld a couple together so that they would become one and never be parted, even in death, they would leap at this opportunity. "Love" is the name that we give to our desire for wholeness, to be restored to our original nature.

Aristophanes observes that if we are disobedient or disorderly toward the gods, Zeus might split us in two once more, so we must strive ourselves, and encourage others, to behave well toward the gods. In this respect, Love is our leader, and if we work against Love we will find ourselves on the wrong side of the gods. Aristophanes urges Eryximachus and the others not to take his speech as a simple comedy, or a joke directed at such life-partners as Pausanias and Agathon. Given that we are all separate, Love does what he can for us given the circumstances: he guides us toward those who are close in nature to us and who best fit our character. Perhaps if we continue to show reverence to the gods, he may one day restore us to our formerly whole selves.

Commentary

While Aristophanes tells Eryximachus twice that his speech is not intended as a joke, it is not hard to tell that it comes from the imagination of a comic playwright, particularly if we understand "comic" as meaning far more than just "funny." Rather than present a speech of carefully crafted rhetoric, Aristophanes gives us a myth that is wildly imaginative and very entertaining. The story is pleasant enough and has an uplifting conclusion, with the suggestion that Love helps us to find our "other half" and that one day we might be fully reunited.

Considering that Aristophanes' myth is so overtly delightful, we might ask why he insists that he be taken seriously. Surely, Aristophanes does not mean his myth to be taken as the literal truth. Perhaps in taking his myth seriously, he does not so much want us to take it literally as he wants us to take the comic perspective seriously. That is, we should not laugh off his myth as nonsense, but rather ask what it can teach us. Like all good comedy, Aristophanes' myth is not entertainment purely for the sake of entertainment. In producing an uplifting response in his listeners, Aristophanes also hopes to lead them to a certain perspective on love.

One interesting point to note is that Aristophanes' myth suggests that we are attracted not to certain qualities in a person so much as we are attracted to the person him or herself. A certain person is right for us not because that person has certain qualities we find appealing, but because that person's character is similar to ours and resembles our "other half." We find that person's particular qualities attractive because they belong to someone whose nature we find sympathetic, and not the other way around. When we have found someone with a similar nature to ours, we want to bond with them and live a shared life with them. The idea of sharing one's life with another is a common Greek theme regarding interpersonal relationships. A similar thought is expressed by Aristotle in his writings on friendship, for instance. As drawn out by Aristophanes' myth, this attraction to our "other half" is one of the noblest pursuits of all. It makes us whole again, and can ease any feelings of incompleteness we may experience in our everyday life.

Aristophanes seems to suggest, like Pausanias, that life-long partnerships are ideal. For Aristophanes, this is because it involves a perfect matching of two halves. This suggestion would go against what we know about Greek sexual practice, where romanticized life-long relationships were rare. Even Aristophanes identifies the most desirous halves of former androgynes to be adulterers, as it was generally only in adultery that male-female relationships would take on a level of romanticism.

Aristophanes could also be read as suggesting that there are distinct sexual categories in Greek life, contrary to the suggestion made in the commentary on section 2 that "homosexuality" and "heterosexuality" were not categories that existed back then. The critic David Halperin points out, however, that Aristophanes does not distinguish simply between homosexuality and heterosexuality, but between male-male, male-female, and female-female love with no suggestion that male-male and female-female love are similar in nature and opposed to male-female love. Further, within the realm of male-male love, Aristophanes sets up an asymmetrical relationship where boys are attracted to men and vice versa, and gives different names to the love of a man for a boy and the love of a boy for a man. Both of these facts contradict the suggestion that Aristophanes is trying to demark a distinction between homosexuality and heterosexuality.

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