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!