The Symposium

by: Plato

189c - 193e

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.