Plato’s Symposium, Part 4: Socrates’ Speech on Love

Before Socrates gives his speech in Plato’s work, The Symposium, his host Agathon gives a speech of his own, extolling love in terms that imply Love is like the boyfriend (the beloved). His older partner, Pausanias, had given a definition of Love in terms of the actions of the Lover. Agathon’s speech was for me the most disappointing of the whole work, and I shall pass over it. There is one point that deserves mentioning, though: Socrates, after Agathon is finished, seeks his permission to engage him in dialogue, which Agathon readily accepts. Then follows the typical Socratic argument, which seeks to show the other speaker that he does not really know what he thinks he knows. Socrates begins by asking basic questions that Agathon can fully assent to, which he does, good-naturedly, by saying “certainly” on several occasions. I mention this only because of something in Xenophon which I will come to in a post on that writer’s Symposium.

When Socrates finally gives his speech, he decides not to extol Love as a god, or to define Love’s attributes and effects, as most of the others had done. Rather, he examines what love is, but he comes to a startlingly different conclusion from that reached by Aristophanes.

Socrates’ starting point is not only his own considerable experience and wisdom. He claims to have higher knowledge, which in this case comes from a woman, a priestess of love, as it were. Her name was Diotima of Mantinaea. Socrates presents her as interviewing him with the same “Socratic” method with which he had reduced Agathon. Through this method, Socrates is brought by Diotima to a higher knowledge of what Love is.

Before beginning, though, I found it fascinating that Diotima is female. She is idolized, to be sure, and perhaps even as mythical and allegorical as Boethius’ Dame Philosophy, but she is still female in a discourse dominated by men and homo-erotic relationships. Aristophanes had first broken the mold, but Diotima-Socrates cracks it wide open.

Plato’s narrator, our Apollodorus, has Aristodemus reporting Socrates had been told by Diotima–but that’s a mouthful. Apparently, many of the sentences in The Symposium begin by saying “he said that he said.” Anyway, Socrates had been told by Diotima that Love was the son of Resource and Poverty, and as such, is a minor deity somewhat below the Olympians.

Because Love was born on Aphrodite’s birthday, he worships beauty. Because he is the son of his mother Poverty, he is hardened and rough–very much like the physical depiction of the partly-ascetic Socrates himself. Because Love is born of Poverty, he always seeks what he wants. And what does Love want?

For Diotima, “Love is the desire to have the good forever.” This is obviously a very different definition from that provided by Aristophanes in his speech. For Socrates-Diotima, Love’s function is to “give birth in beauty both in body and in mind.” Diotima says that all humans are pregnant both in body and in mind (there’s that theme of androgyny again). Here’s what follows:

When we reach a degree of adulthood, we naturally desire to give birth. We cannot give birth in what is ugly, only in what is beautiful. Yes, sexual intercourse between men and women is a kind of birth. There is something divine in this process; this is how mortal creatures achieve immortality, in pregnancy and giving birth. This cannot occur in a condition of disharmony.

For Socrates-Diotima, then, Love is all about going through beauty to achieving immortality–and this holds true not only for people, but for animals, too.

All this applies to what is physical: physical beauty and physical offspring. But Diotima, in the famous “staircase” passage, then says that the journey to Love begins with a young man being in love with a woman or a boy because she or he is beautiful. But then (a step up) he realizes that there are many beautiful bodies. Later, he realizes (a step up again) that it isn’t beautiful bodies that interest him, but beautiful minds. He will give birth to “beautiful discourses.” And then, he realizes that it’s not beautiful bodies and minds only that interest him so, but beautiful ideas and the beauty of knowledge.

Looking now and beauty in general and not just at specific instances, he will no longer be slavishly attached to the beauty of a boy, or of any particular person at all, or of a specific practice. Instead of this low and small-minded slavery, he will be turned towards the great sea of beauty and gazing on it, he’ll give birth, through a boundless love of knowledge, to many beautiful and magnificent discourses and ideas.

There then remains only one more step: all that remains is for one to see “beauty itself, absolute, pure, unmixed.”

Quite clearly, we are on the territory of capital “M” mysticism here. We are also very far from the romantic monogamy advocated by Aristophanes. We are no longer even in the realm of the physical at all, and in some respects I am very much reminded of the transition, in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, of Dave from being an ordinary astronaut to being something else entirely: an idea that is symbolized as a giant cosmic baby begotten of the stars. I would not be at all surprised if Stanley Kubrick had read his Symposium, but in any case, Socrates-Diotima has given the listeners at the dinner party something to think about.

Before ending this piece, I have one other interesting point worth noticing: just as Diotima began by defining love as a minor deity, like the nymphs and the river-gods, but led Socrates up, up, up to a wider understanding of what Love is, so Plato has led us as readers from the apparently trivial concerns of specific lovers and boyfriends (like Phaedrus, Pausanias, and Agathon), to the more full and reciprocal relationships of adults in the speech of Aristophanes, and finally to the beauty of ideas and discourses impregnated by the sea of beauty itself.

But I prefer the earthiness of The Symposium’s Aristophanes.

Plato’s Symposium, Part 3: Aristophanes’ Speech on Why We Love the Ones We Love

After Pausanias’ speech in Plato’s work The Symposium, it was to be Aristophanes’ turn. Unfortunately, he had an attack of the hiccups, and was admonished by Eryximachus to “hold your breath for a long time.” If that didn’t work, then he was to “gargle with some water,” or “tickle your nose to make you sneeze.” Eryximachus kindly consented to speak while Aristophanes tried to get rid of the hiccups, but his speech left me completely cold. Aristophanes, one the other hand!

Aristophanes, now cured of his coughing, begins by telling an impromptu aetiological myth. Long ago, he says, human bodies were not like they are now; each human had two heads, four hands, and four legs. They had two sets of genitals. They moved along either by walking on their four legs, or by rolling on the ground like cartwheeling tumblers if they wanted to go fast. Now some of these humans had two sets of male genitals, while others had two sets of female genitals, while still others had male genitals and female genitals. Now it so happened that these humans got too uppity, and Zeus decided to punish them. He split them all into two parts, and had Apollo fix things so that their heads turned towards the gash which marked their separation from their other half.

Since their original nature had been cut in two, each one longed for their other half and stayed with it. They threw their arms round each other, weaving themselves together, wanting to form a single living thing.

Aristophanes goes on to say that these early humans began quickly dying, until Zeus had Apollo move their genitals to their fronts. That way, he says, males could reproduce in the females, and the human race could continue.

Also, if two males came together, they would at least have the satisfaction of sexual intercourse, and then relax, turn to their work, and think about the other things in their life.

That’s how, long ago, the innate desire of human beings for each other started. It draws the two halves of our original nature and tries to make one out of two and to heal the wound in human nature. Each of us is a matching half of a human being . . . and each of us is looking for his own matching half. Those men who are cut from the combined gender (the androgynous, as it was called then) are attracted to women, and many adulterers are from this group. Similarly, the women who are attracted to men and become adulteresses come from this group. Those women who are cut from the female gender are not at all interested in men, but are drawn much more towards women; female homosexuals come from this group.

Those who are cut from the male gender go for males. . . .

Whenever a lover of boys, or any other type of person, meets that very person who is his other half, he is overwhelmed, to an amazing extent, with affection, concern, and love. The two don’t want to spend any time apart from each other. I mean, no one can think that it’s just sexual intercourse that they want, and that this is the reason they find such joy in each other’s company and attach such importance to this. . . .

Aristophanes then says that if Zeus were to offer a matching pair the chance to become one body again, they would surely accept:

The reason is that this is our original natural state and we used to be whole creatures: “love” is the name for the desire and pursuit of wholeness.

The speech of Aristophanes in The Symposium is probably my favourite ancient text. It is a humane, celebratory, tolerant, and (no pun intended) loving approach to human love. In a world of arranged marriages, adulterers and adulteresses are not doing anything shameful; rather, Paul and Pauline are seeking the solace of their other half. Rose and Suzy are together so much because they were from the same female-gendered body. Mark and Matthew like each other because they are from a single male-gendered body.

Aristophanes’ description of love is deeply touching, and also a welcome respite from the male-only focus of Phaedrus and Pausanias. It is equally accepting of LGBT and more typical heterosexual relationships. It is not judgmental, but celebratory. It is also not focused solely on sexual activity because it encompasses feelings of affection, concern, and comfort.

Love is the name for the desire and the pursuit of wholeness. What a beautiful thought, what a wonderful definition! I don’t think Plato’s Aristophanes can be beat for providing such a workable and pleasing definition of what love is.

Meanwhile, as Aristophanes warned, humans had better show more respect to the gods–otherwise Zeus will have us all hopping around on one leg instead of two! I do very much wish that the world’s religions had more philosophical comic playwrights and fewer thundering prophets and apostles.

Addendum: I had forgotten to add one other fascinating tidbit. Plato has Aristophanes give the following advice: if you can’t find your other half, find the person who comes closest!

Plato’s Symposium, Part 2: The Speeches of Phaedrus and Pausanias

Phaedrus gives the first “eulogy” of Love in Plato’s work The Symposium. In his speech, Phaedrus praises Love as a god, and claims that he is the oldest of all the gods, and to support this he quotes Hesiod’s Theogony. Phaedrus continues:

Because of his antiquity, he [i.e. Love] is the source of our greatest benefits. I would claim that there is no greater benefit for a young man than a good lover and none greater for a lover than a good boyfriend. Neither family bonds nor public status nor wealth nor anything else is as effective as love in implanting something which gives lifelong guidance to those who are to lead good lives. What is this? A sense of shame at acting disgracefully and pride in acting well. Without these no individual or city can achieve anything great or fine.

Curiously, Phaedrus says that:

If there was any mechanism for producing a city or army consisting of lovers and boyfriends, there could be no better form of social organization than this: they would hold back from anything disgraceful and compete for honour in each other’s sides. If even small numbers of such men fought side by side, they could defeat virtually the whole human race.

Again, note the misogyny: it’s the sexual love of a man for his “boy” (and vice versa) that is the best for motivating men to be good and allowing cities to be powerful and prosperous. We haven’t yet arrived at the idea of heterosexual love as a romance–as occurs in Menander, the foremost example of “New Comedy.” But the reference to an army of monogamous homosexual partners seems to me–though not to the editor of the older Penguin volume I am using–to be a transparently obvious reference to the Battle of Leuctra (371 BCE), or at least to the creation of the unit known as the “Sacred Band” that fought on the side of the Thebans against the Spartans there. If I as a non-scholar were dating The Symposium, then, I’d be very tempted to place its writing to somewhere between 370 BCE and the death of Plato in 347 BCE. This is admittedly not the scholarly consensus. (On the other hand, it would certainly be interesting if the Theban general Epaminondas had been influenced by The Symposium–but I think that’s most unlikely!)

Phaedrus supports his idea by saying, offhandedly, “besides, it’s only lovers who are willing to die for someone else.” I couldn’t help thinking of Paul: “Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person–though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while were still sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:7-8, NRSV). Take note, you sinners: you can have your Bubba die for you or you can have Christ die for you! Take your pick.

Phaedrus concludes:

A lover is more god-like than a boyfriend because he is divinely inspired….”

It is obvious that the ideal of “Love” championed by Phaedrus involves a “man” and a “boy”–with the former being relatively “active” and the latter being relatively “passive.” Again, I thought of Paul, especially I Corinthians 6:9-10, but I think this passage likely warrants its own post as the terms translated too commonly as “active homosexuals” and “passive homosexuals” are not really what the evangelical tradition has them out to be.

The next speech is given by Pausanias, the older and lifelong partner of Agathon. Pausanias praises not Eros, but Aphrodite, though he notes her various roles as “Common Aphrodite” and “Celestial Aphrodite.”

Common Love, he says,

is genuinely “common” and undiscriminating in its effects; this is the love that inferior people feel. People like this are attracted to women as much as boys, and to bodies rather than minds.

Again, note the misogyny. Celestial Love is for the real men: the male philosophers and statesmen who enjoy each other sexually as well as intellectually. The ordinary people who are attracted to members of the opposite gender are boring because women are involved.

Pausanias waxes poetic about the virtues of the Lover-boyfriend dynamic. For Pausanias, like Phaedrus, this dynamic is for the “moral education” of the boyfriend, who would be anywhere between puberty and about eighteen. Since the Lover was substantially older, more connected, wiser, and presumably wealthier, this inherent power differential between man and boy seems to be particularly problematic. “Moral education”–WTF? to use the vernacular.

Plato’s Symposium, Part 1: Beginning “The Symposium”

Last year, I re-read Plato’s Symposium, a delightful piece of literary philosophy that takes its title from an ancient formalized type of dinner-party. And of course, this being Plato, I had hoped I’d have some particularly ground-breaking, thought-provoking, and especially deep insights into this sublime, short work. Then again, there’s been nearly 2,500 years of continuous analysis, and since I lack enough Greek to read the Symposium in the original, that seems unlikely. But even to accurately summarize such an important work seems daunting!

Part of the problem is that my several re-readings of the Symposium occurred many months ago; for this post, I’ll be working from my scratchy notes on blank, unlined printer paper. Like Apollodorus (see below), I’ll basically be hitting the highlights that particularly struck me, for whatever reason.

The dramatic date of the Symposium is thought to be very roughly around 400 BCE–though there is a framing device which supposedly took place around fifteen years later. The scene begins with one Apollodorus being asked about a particularly famous dinner-party that had taken place some years earlier. Apollodorus hadn’t actually been present; he had relied for his account on one Aristodemus, who had been. Aristodemus had been walking with Socrates, who was invited to a party at the home of the famous homosexual and playwright Agathon (a pun on the Greek word ἀγαθός, meaning “good”).

At the dinner party itself, Socrates presents himself an odd figure–waiting on the neighbour’s porch until he felt like arriving, and he was already late. Once he arrives, the characters sing a hymn, and then Agathon’s partner, Pausanias, says, “I’m tired of drinking how about y’all?”–for the characters had all been drunk the previous night, when Agathon won first prize at a festival of tragic plays. Aristophanes, who is well-known to this blog’s few readers for his works of Old Comedy, agrees. And then comes a bit of humour.

The field of medicine was in its early stages, at this time, and it so happens that we have an up-and-coming doctor at the party, one Eryximachus, who proceeds to caution against too much alcohol, saying that he wants to share “the real facts about getting drunk.” He comes off as a pompous nerd–unintentionally funny.

But Eryximachus then proposes that they dismiss the flute-girl, who was part of the evening’s entertainment. Let her play for herself, or for the women in the house (the party was males-only), he says. This agreed, Eryximachus goes on show off his learning by quoting a single half-line from a now-lost play of my personal favourite Euripides, the Melannippe: “not mine the story.” The point is that what he is going to say is not original to him, but to a friend of his, who had often remarked how “terrible” it was “that the poets have often composed hymns and paeans to other gods, but none of them has ever composed a eulogy of Love, though he such an ancient and important god.”

Now right away, I noticed a few things. Just like in Obi-Wan Kenobi’s cave in the first Star Wars movie, when the droid C3PO shuts himself off prior to Obi-Wan’s revealing of the secrets of the Force to Luke, we are meant to prick up our ears at this point–the dismissal of the female servant-girl. Get rid of the women, and then we men-folk can talk seriously. It’s obviously misogynistic. (Not unlike the US Republican Steve Southerland, but that’s beside the point! Curiously, Socrates remembers the flute-girl later in the piece–as does Xenophon in his account of the same dinner-party.)

The second thing I noticed is that the playing-down of women’s roles continues in the very next utterance: the part that names “Love” (Eros) as male. Aphrodite would have been the obvious personification of Love.

At this point, the various members of the symposium give speeches to eulogize Love (sometimes associated with friendship, sometimes with goodness, sometimes with erotic love), and they all have their own take.

At this point, our narrator, Apollodorus, says “Of course, Aristodemus didn’t remember all that each speaker said and I don’t remember all that he said. But I’ll tell you the speeches of the people he remembered best and that I thought most important.”

Incidentally, this would seem to indicate that this particular dinner-party was actually really quite famous (and indeed, Plato’s is not the only account of it–Xenophon has given us one, too, though it is generally dated after Plato’s).

The Symposium features, of course, a significant focus on homosexual relationships and ideals. More of that in the next posts.

America as Athens, America as Sparta

Back when I read Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, I wrote the following paragraph, in which I briefly compared the situation of America and China to that of Athens and Sparta:

As I read Thucydides’ work, I couldn’t help thinking about the geopolitical situation in the South China Sea. I actually tend to see China in terms similar to Sparta. China, like Sparta, has been in the last few decades very slow to war–unlike the quick Americans (paralleling the Athenians). It is also a great land power–again, like Sparta. It has a tendency to be inward looking, unlike America, where foreigners are welcome to study and do business, something that perhaps contributes to America’s own happy “addiction to innovation.” Finally, American naval and air power also back up an empire of sorts, the chief difference being that Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Alaska, and Guam are not itching for independence. But China, like Sparta, is moving slowly, if decisively and methodically, to reduce American influence on her south and eastern fronts while America, like Athens before her–wearies herself in conflicts all around the globe (the morality of which is beside the question for the moment, since the question is how America can sustain its economy like this). Furthermore, China, like Sparta, has been slowly building up her navy. And of course, China is an oligarchy while America is a democracy. It would not be prudent to stretch the similarities too far, but I believe, like Niall Ferguson, that the twenty-first century belongs to a determined China. Better start learning your Mandarin!

After the many shootings of unarmed Black men by White police–who were never charged–and after the three-ring circus involving the scandalous betrayal of their principles by certain members of the NYPD when they turned their back on their chief at a funeral, I have thought of another political entity from Thucydides to compare America with: Sparta.

Reading Charles M. Blow of the New York Times, and other writers, including Paul Krugman, has taught me much about how America (and especially its South) treats its Black people. State after State–all of them controlled by Republicans–has passed unnecessary Voter ID laws that make it harder for African-Americans to vote. States have gerrymandered the votes of African Americans into districts that are then underfunded so that voting lineups can last for many hours on Election Day. State after State has done nothing to prosecute police departments that engage in racial profiling, prosecuting young Black men for minor things like drug possession when statistics indicate that drugs are abused equally by Whites. America has more prisoners behind jail walls than any other nation on earth–and many of those prisons are owned by for-profit companies. America has elected a Black President, but in the years after that election, so many of the attacks on Obama appear motivated by an almost religiously racist hatred. Take Rush Limbaugh, for instance. He can’t even stand the idea of a Black James Bond. And then there are the constant shootings of unarmed Black men by White police officers who are never held accountable for their actions. And that’s to say nothing of how the White Walton family underpays their many workers, many of whom are Black. Walmart pays its employees so little that many require food stamps from federal and state governments to make ends meet. Of course, Republican governments all over America have been busy getting rid of those very food stamp programs! Finally, to make matters worse, the mostly-White Republican leadership in so many places does nothing to make good secondary and post-secondary education available to the poor, ensuring that the poor will remain poor. Perhaps worst of all, earned income is taxes highly while the wealthy find ways to keep their inherited and invested income largely untaxed. And these White Republicans then have the gall to lecture the poor about industry, hard work, and morality!

In other words, seen from this perspective, America is a race-based oligarchy in which powerful Whites use cheap labour from Blacks (and Whites, on occasion) to become obscenely rich. Regardless of whether the Whites are the owners of powerful corporations relying on cheaply-paid slave labour (like Walmart), or the owners and operators of prisons receiving government contracts to imprison young men for what most civilized countries would consider health issues, rather than criminal ones; or whether the Whites are the owners of companies who foul the air and the water and the land when their executives can afford air and water filters while the poor cannot–it would seem that the legacy of the cotton plantation system is not only alive, it is thriving.

But back to Sparta. We would do well to remember that Sparta, too, had a hereditary system of power. The Spartiates were the hereditary nobles and warriors. Helots were the remnants of the pre-Spartan populace who were enslaved in perpetuity. One of the “coming of age” rituals in Sparta involved the training of young Spartiates to kill helots at will in the secrecy of night. Of course, not too many helots were killed in this way: just enough to keep their numbers from becoming more than the Spartiates could handle while allowing the Spartiates to indulge their sadistic penchant for violence.

Sparta didn’t last. Because of its penchant for wars, the number of the Spartiates continually decreased to the point where Sparta was unable to field the armies it needed. In one of the more humorous ironies of history, the macho Sparta collapsed under the burden of its own corrupt, immoral policies: it was decisively defeated first in the Battle of Leuctra by enlightened Theban forces (which included a homosexual army unit known as the “Sacred Band”–it comprised couples whose partners were unusually willing to fight bravely for and with each other), then later by Macedonian forces, and finally by Roman forces under Lucius Mummius, who actually annexed Sparta itself.

The widening gap between the rich and poor in developed countries, including my native Canada, worries me, but it is especially bad in a country that calls itself “the indispensable nation” and that holds up its “American Dream” as an example for the world. The most recent edition of the American Dream can in some ways be seen as an interlude between the reforms of the New Deal and the beginning of Reaganism. It’s dead. But the cotton fields and their owners are very much alive. On that note, Happy New Year!

Autumn Colours 2014: Cell Phone Pics from a Vancouver Street

Autumn Colours 2014 in Vancouver, BC from cell phone camera 4

It’s been a long time since I posted any photographs here. Unfortunately, because I took these with my cell phone camera, the clarity and other features leave much to be desired. Still, hopefully you can get the sense of this very pretty Vancouver street.

Autumn Colours 2014 in Vancouver, BC from cell phone camera 5

Stately - Autumn Tree and Brick building in Vancouver, BC

The last picture, below, was taken by accident, but I thought it looked quite interesting:


Two Links, or Slowly Coming into the Twenty-First Century

On climate change, many on the political Right in the USA (and to a lesser extent here in Canada) don’t get it, but the Pentagon does. “Immanent security threat” no less. On the modern family, many on the theological Right don’t get it, but Pope Francis does. “Living in sin” now becomes “positive aspects of civil unions and cohabitation” and, in regards to gays, that they have “‘gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community,’ and that some gay couples provide one another ‘mutual aid to the point of sacrifice’ and ‘precious support in the life of the partners.'” Pope Francis and others may say that he’s not changing the theological underpinnings of Catholic teaching on human sexuality and family life, but I very much disagree: the practical outcome of the new papal teaching is very much a new thing. Francis is being as revolutionary as he realistically can be. He just can’t admit it.

Lucy: A Critique

For whatever reason, I just watched the film Lucy, directed by Luc Besson. My most basic problem with Lucy is film’s underlying and oft-repeated premise: namely, that humans use only ten percent of their brains. This ten percent figure, unfortunately, is a myth. Not a single scientist today holds to such a belief, but Luc Besson takes it as gospel truth somehow. This is a great shame, and it ruins the movie even before it gets started.

Lucy tries to get nearly as gut-wrenching as The Butterfly Effect, but lacks that movie’s far stronger premise. (For the record, while I appreciated the philosophical nature of that movie, I found it so revolting that I would not watch it again.) Lucy pays homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey, but lacks 2001‘s ingenuity and insight. Lucy gives us a strong female character, like Besson’s Columbiana also did, but Lucy the character has even less compassion that the serial tag killer trying to avenge her dead parents did in that film. (For the record, with some reservations, I loved Columbiana.)

What Lucy did remind me of, above anything else, was actually Christopher Marlowe’s play Faustus. Marlowe’s Faustus, of course, has made a pact with the devil for unlimited power for a time. He begins by dreaming big, but in the end, after playing a bunch of silly tricks on various people, he departs the scene for the final judgment on his soul. With her brain supposedly so much better and more advanced than any other humans, Lucy’s first action after escaping her evil captors is to to shoot an innocent man merely because he cannot speak English. Later, all she can do when she is in a hurry is to resort to a ridiculous high speed car chase that causes numerous fatalities. At the height of her power, she fails to save dozens of good men from death at the hands of the dastardly Korean gangsters. Essentially, Lucy becomes God, and with that, the theological issue known as “the problem of evil” really began to bother me in a way it never did in the far more successful and intelligent 2001.

But back to that taxi driver who couldn’t speak English, and so was murdered for it. It turns out that that is something, unfortunately, shared with Columbiana and many other films and works of fiction: a kind of demonization and reduction of “the Other”–in this case, the East Asian Other. (I have seen Korean films in which Caucasian Americans are evil incarnate, so this phenomenon even in the twenty-first century really does work both ways, but I wish that it would stop.) Furthermore, unless a story-teller has empathy and wisdom, I basically think he or she should forego the authorial tradition in literature and film-making of placing characters in far-away places around the world in order to make use of the setting for one’s own ends. Besson places Lucy and her other expat friends in a Taiwan dominated by Korean gangsters just as Lost in Translation places its central characters in Tokyo. The danger of this is that the setting because an extension of “our” (supposedly Caucasian) prejudices, which then reinforce those same prejudices in those who may be watching. I disliked it when Albert Camus put his characters in his short story The Guest into an Algeria that never really felt like Algeria; Graham Greene put his own characters into Mexico in Across the Bridge rather more successfully, but still I didn’t really warm to the story. Some might say that Shakespeare put his characters into Italy successfully enough in Romeo and Juliet and other plays, and if the device was good enough for Shakespeare, it ought to be good enough for Besson. Unfortunately, it isn’t.

What Shakespeare got so right about the human condition is what Besson forgot: the necessity and the wonder of empathy. Even Shakespeare’s evil villain in The Merchant of Venice–a villain who happens to be Jewish–gets his chance to ask us:

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?

If you’re an anti-Semite watching that play, the next line about wanting revenge comes as no surprise, but if you are using your brain fully you might start to ask yourself why Shylock wants his revenge so badly, and the answers are quite plain: he has been taken advantage of, scorned, and abused by Christians all his life. When a Christian steals his property and runs off with his daughter, of course he’s angry. An astute student of The Merchant of Venice realizes that without empathy, he or she is nothing more than a clanging cymbal, nothing more than a revenge-driven Shylock–or perhaps worse. When you realize that, and you recognized the Other that you have loathed as just as fully human and worthy of rights and dignity as yourself, that’s when you unlock the supposed secret of the human brain.

There is a movie that unlocks empathy as the secret of human potential, and it’s not the action-flick Lucy or the epic science fiction 2001–though it does allude to the latter: it’s the 1979 classic Being There. But I fear an audience addicted to car chases and exploding pistols may have little use for its subtle and deft use of humour, or its wry Taoist and Zen-like wisdom.

Addendum: I couldn’t quite work this in above, but Lucy–and I hate to use the moralistic phrase, but it’s true–needlessly glorifies violence and drugs. It almost reads as a Hollywood ode to its favourite pastime.

Addendum II: The Atlantic has a great and very harsh review on its site. The title: “Lucy: The Dumbest Movie Ever Made About Brain Capacity.” I concur.