Kindly excuse the ad for cialis. I have asked my hosting provider to resolve the issue. I’m frustrated that this has happened.
UPDATE: Better now, for now. If the US CENTCOM can’t even protect their Twitter feed, I guess I shouldn’t feel too bad, I guess–but I only feel better because the problem has been solved.
UPDATE 2: Apparently there are still problems. I am working with my hosting provider to resolve these, too, but am not optimistic. It may be time to shut the blog down, permanently. I am considering manually copying all of my Classics and Chinese Classics posts to another blogging platform, like Blogger. I will also likely begin the work of transitioning my email to a more mainstream option like Outlook or Gmail. I’ll post at least one final update here in the next few days.
UPDATE 3: FIXED! My hosting company has finally been able to help me; unfortunately, this was only after I twice threatened to shut down my site entirely, so I am not very happy about things. Still, for now, at least, I’ll be back to blogging here.
Socrates’ new topic is Love. This is interesting, because we are now close to the end of Xenophon’s Symposium, and it is only now that we turn at length to the topic of Love, recalling the very first chapter when everyone was smitten with the beauty of Autolycus; in Plato’s Symposium, of course, Love was the primary subject of the entire dialogue. In this case, what matters isn’t so much that the historical Socrates spoke at great length of Love in 416 BCE in Plato, and at lesser length in 422 BCE as recorded by Xenophon. If Xenophon really is dependent on Plato, then we don’t really have as much certainty of what the historical Socrates said as we would like. We have a world-class teacher, interpreted by several disciples, who died prematurely on the orders of the State as a result of his teaching–in other words, we have basically the same issues as with the historical Jesus in the New Testament, but with much less attestation. And both the figures have cast long shadows over human history–though I’d characterize Socrates more as a light in the darkness than a shadow on the road.
Xenophon’s Socrates’ version of Love here resembles very strongly the concerns of Plato’s characters in the latter’s Symposium. The focus is very strongly on the homo-erotic. Poor Autolycus; everyone has been staring at him all this time!
Like in Plato, though, this homo-erotic focus is very quickly pulled away from eros towards moral edification. Socrates praises the “love of the mind” above that of the body. Furthermore, Socrates in Xenophon goes out of his way to praise Callias (the would-be lover of Autolycus) for not just trying to get the beautiful Autolycus into bed. Hermogenes praises Socrates for preventing Callias from doing just that, by praising him for his care and concern for Autolycus. Lycon, Autolycus’ father, approves. (Curiously, a Lycon was among the principal accusers of Socrates. Autolycus was executed during the rule of the junta known as “The Thirty”–and its bloodthirsty leader, Crito, an uncle of Plato and an associate of Socrates.)
In short, what is elevated to the level of universal mysticism in Plato is reduced in Xenophon to a simple dictum: don’t try to get young and attractive boys into bed when you could be developing their moral education.
Things get more interesting when the Syracusan returns with the boy dancer and girl flute-player. They put on a romantic and erotic performance as follows:
…the Syracusan came in and said, “Gentlemen, Ariadne will enter her and Dionysus’ bedroom; and after that Dionysus will arrive after having had a few drinks with the gods, and will go in to her; and they will frolic with each other.
And now I must really quote at great length, because the passage is quite beautiful and moving (if one can somehow forget that the two performers were likely slaves):
Hereupon first Ariadne came dressed up as a bride, and sat down on the throne and, although there was still no sign of Dionysus, the Bacchic music was being played on the pipe. At this point the choreographer won admiration, because, as soon as Ariadne heard it, she acted in a way that showed unmistakably that she was delighted at it; she did not go to meet her bridegroom, but she could hardly keep still. When Dionysus caught sight of her, he came dancing across and sat down on her lap in the most affectionate way imaginable, flung his arms around her and kissed her. She conveyed the impression of shyness, but nevertheless returned his embraces lovingly.
When the guests saw this, they clapped and shouted “Encore!” Dionysus got up and helped Ariadne to stand up too, and then there was an opportunity to watch the figures they danced as they kissed [sic] and embraced each other. When the guests saw that Dionysus really was handsome, and Ariadne young and pretty, and that they were not pretending but actually kissing with their lips, they were all carried away with excitement as they watched. They heard Dionysus asking her if she loved him, and the girl vowing that she did, in such a way that not only Dionysus but the whole company would have sworn with one voice that the two young people really did love each other. They did not seem to have rehearsed their movements: it seemed as if they were free at last to do what they had long desired.
Xenophon then says that the bachelors all wanted to get married, and those with women in their lives rode their horses home to meet them.
It’s quite a powerful and lovely concluding passage–and unusual not least in that it is a real slave-owner (a pimp, of sorts) who produces such loveliness–along with Autolycus, who does so separately and innocently.
Socrates is not in this text the possessor of esoteric knowledge, as he is in the Diotima passages in Plato’s Symposium. Here, he is reduced to a good-natured old man who doesn’t want the young boys to get, ahem, plucked before they’re old enough and morally-educated enough. There’s nothing offensive about this Socrates. Rather, he is a peg on which to hang thoughts of love–thoughts that are portrayed as increasing domestic happiness in many houses in Athens.
In short, Xenophon has “recorded,” as he claimed to in his introduction, “the deeds of truly good men.” In a way, the Symosium functions as an Apologia of Socrates: a “truly good man” who wanted all men to wear goodness the way women wear perfume. Socrates turns the hearts of those in socially-acceptable relationships towards each other in love. He protects the young from being sexually taken advantage of while helping those in a position to do just that to focus on “loving” their boyfriends by “morally educating them.” He praises poverty and consorts with people who are poor, and proud citizens. He has a good sense of humour. There is nothing here that would warrant a cup of hemlock.
The question is: which Socrates did we get–the historical one, or the one Xenophon wishes us to know? The answer is surely that it is the latter we see depicted here in this Symposium. For my part, though, I could certainly see much of this Socrates as being actually more or less historically accurate, and I don’t think it ideal to rely solely on Plato for our impressions of Socrates. The Platonic portrait in Plato’s Symposium and the Xenophonic one here are sometimes at odds, but are complimentary rather than mutually exclusive. In any case, it is the literary Socrateses (plural!)–and not the singular actual historical one, that we have got–and these literary portraits are worthwhile and valuable…and, often, enjoyable–and quite often unexpectedly so. In reading Xenophon, we find that there are pleasant surprises.
After each participant in the symposium of Xenophon’s work of that name has indicated what he is most proud of, Socrates dialogues with each person about how this attribute or possession can help to make people better. There is banter, there is wit, there is intelligence: but of course no one can stand up to Socrates, and this is very much in line with Plato’s depiction of him.
Finally, it remains to ask only Socrates about what he is proud of. Callias does so:
Now then, Socrates, how do you justify your claim to pride yourself on the disreputable calling that you mentioned?
Socrates then starts by asking yes/no questions, along the lines of “Do you think it’s the duty of a pimp to represent his clients as pleasing persons?” Everyone replies in unison “Certainly!” to this and each of the next several questions Socrates asks them. They obviously think this is very funny, and the wine is starting to get the better of them. The Socrates asks:
“Which would be the better — the man who can make his clients agreeable to one person or the man who can make them agreeable to many?”
Here the company was divided, some saying “The man who can do it to most”, and others saying “Certainly”!
But now Socrates says that Antisthenes is a much better pimp than he is. Antisthenes gets angry, and then Socrates says what he really means is that Antisthenes puts people in touch with each other who can benefit each other. For instance, he introduced the famed sophist Prodicus to Callias. Antisthenes is pleased with the compliment, and we find ourselves wondering why Xenophon would have a man whom we know was executed for corrupting the young pride himself on his ability to put people in touch with other people. Perhaps it’s because he was the star of the show, the one who brought everyone together. Technically, though, our host tonight is Callias (and in Plato, it’s the husband-husband team of Pausanias and Agathon).
The chapter ended, Xenophon then begins the next chapter with a “beauty contest” between “the pimp” (as Socrates again refers to himself), and Critobulus, the one who said that he could make others better through his good looks.
Socrates says that his own eyes bulge out, and that gives him better vision (“like the eyes of a crab,” he says), which means his eyes are better than the handsome Critobulus’s. He then proceeds to justify all his ugly facial features in the same way. Once the arguments are done, the “judges” (the two performing slaves!) collect the votes of the participants in this 5th century BCE parody of a reality show. It’s unanimous: Critobulus wins! Socrates, trying to sound clever, playfully accuses Critobulus of corrupting the judges, and then says to Hermogenes, that he is annoying them “over the wine”–and how, by not talking when there’s silence! After a few more words, things cool down. The Syracusan leaves for a bit, and then Socrates introduces a new subject.
After enjoying the entertainment provided by the musicians and dancers, Callias (probably feeling self-conscious and worried that the young Autolycus might think he smelled bad) suggested they have perfume brought in. This was roundly rejected as unmasculine by the other participants of the symposium in Xenophon’s work of that name. The rejection of perfume as not worthy of masculine use here occupies the place of the rejection of the female flute-player in Plato, so from the perspective of the modern reader, Xenophon does not quite get away with a pass on the misogyny front.
But then, when Callias asks, “what are we to smell of?” Socrates has an answer (very much in the style of Jesus, who said his disciples would fish men and who said that a woman would find “living water”): “true goodness, of course!”
Callias asks where one can get “this lotion” of true goodness, and the reply comes that true goodness comes from the company one keeps. After some false starts at conversation, Socrates’ eye returns to the dancing girl, and says that from her incredible talent, he can see that women are no less than men in natural ability. They only lack, he says, judgment and physical strength. Socrates says that the men can teach their wives any skill they desire.
At this point, a very odd thing comes up:
“If that’s your view, Socrates,” said Antisthenes, “then why don’t you train Xanthippe instead of having a wife who is of all living women–and I believe of all that ever have been or ever will be–the most difficult to get on with?”
“Because,” Socrates says,
“I’m quite sure that, if I can put up with her, I shall find it easy to get on with any other human being.” This explanation was felt to be not far off the mark.
Someone should make a movie about Xanthippe, the tempestuous wife of Socrates. In today’s climate, though, she should be at least his intellectual equal. I’d make her be the source of Plato’s Socrates’ Diotima, as well as educated. She loves to debate philosophy with him, but suffers as a result of her gentle husband’s impractical tendency to let philosophy get in the way of real living. (“Drink that hemlock if you want to, you stubborn old fart, but think of me, and your children! We don’t want to lose you to a totally unnecessary death when we could simply relocate to Crete!”) Most of all, she hates Xenophon, but she dotes on Plato.
Socrates again returns his attention to the female and the male entertainers, and he praises their ability to dance. Philippus then tries to dance, but makes himself look ridiculous in comparison, and then someone claims that he saw Socrates, by this time an older man, dancing just “the other day!”
Socrates then says, though, that the present company should “at least” try to amuse or better each other” as they drink their wine. The company agrees, and it is further agreed that each person will tell the others about something he is particularly good at, or proud of.
Callias claims the standard sophistic schtick to the effect that he “believes” he “can make people better” by inculcating in them “true goodness”–the very thing Socrates had earlier said they were to smell of. Callias does not develop his thought, and Niceratus’ turn comes. He is most proud of his father, who taught him by heart both the Iliad and the Odyssey. Antisthenes then asks him if he realizes how silly the professional rhapsodes are who also memorize these works, and Niceratus modestly agrees. Socrates then helpfully and tactfully interjects that the rhapsodes have not understood the important points of these works, while Niceratus sure does. He then asks one Critobulus what he prides himself on most.
“On my good looks,” he replied.
“Will you really be able to claim that you are able to make us better by your good looks?”
“If I can’t, I obviously shan’t look very good!”
“What about you, Antisthenes?” asked Socrates. What are you proud of?”
“My wealth,” said he.
But Antisthenes admitted to poverty. Charmides readily volunteers his own poverty as something he is proud of. He never has to worry about having his non-existent property threatened.
And now it is Socrates’ turn. “What are you most proud of?” everybody asks, and the great man answers, in a word that aims to shock (and which will be developed later):
My skill as a pimp.
They then ask Autolycus what he is most proud of, and he says, blushing, “my father!” Everyone feels all warm and fuzzy inside.
Hermogenes rounds out this part of the discussion by saying that he is most proud of his friends.
Actually, there were many formalized dinner parties in Greece during the latter part of the 5th century. Some of the greatest luminaries of ancient Greece were reputed to have been to them. There was Socrates, of course, Athens’ preeminent philosopher and philosophical free-thinker; among the others, we can count Callias, an uber-wealthy patron of the Sophists, Niceratus, the son of Nicias, probably Athens’ best general during the Peloponnesian War; and Alcibiades, politician, general, and demagogue. Aristophanes and Agathon, both master playwrights, would have attended often–and there were many others, all the greatest minds of their age.
I have already detailed my thoughts on Plato’s Symposium in several recent posts; in this one, I turn my attention to Xenophon’s account version.
The first thing that needs to be said is that although the themes of the two works overlap, the characters present are different, and the dramatic dates are also different. Plato’s Symposium has a dramatic date connected with Dionysia festival in which Agathon won first prize for his drama productions; this would have been about 416 BCE; the frame conversation around it would have been about 15 years later. Xenophon, on the other hand, presents his Symposium as occurring after the horse races of the Panathenaea festival of 422 BCE.
Plato has as Socrates companions Alcibiades (the most dangerous and influential warmonger of his day), Agathon, Aristophanes, Pausanias, and Phaedrus, among others. His “source” for the speeches he “records” he gives as one Apollodorus. Xenophon has a different crowd, but by no means less distinguished: Socrates, of course, and Callias, Niceratus, and others, and his source for the speeches and banter he reports is himself (it was Hermogenes in his Apologia). Both Plato’s Apollodorus and Xenophon himself (and Hermogenes) are presented as being mostly silent in their respective discussions. (Note: Xenophon claimed to have been a witness to this dinner party, but he would have been only eight at the time, and so would not have been able to be present. In this case, his claim to have “witnessed” the evening was really a shorthand for saying that the reader should trust him.)
Xenophon’s reputation, it must be said, suffers. His Socratic dialogues lack the philosophical ingenuity and precise probing of Plato; his historical works lack the accurate methods of Thucydides. And yet Xenophon’s Hellenika, his Anabasis, and his Symposium have much to offer the modern reader. Besides philosophical and historical insights, there is the matter of enjoyment.
And Xenophon’s Symposium is one of the most enjoyable pieces of ancient literature we possess today. The Penguin edition I am reading calls it “sparkling,” and this is not merely the advertisement of a book publisher. The setting is set so deftly, the characterization is endearing, and the humour is still funny after 2,400 years–no mean feat–and all of this is in addition to the profundity of the discussion.
There is the question as to which was first: Plato’s work, or Xenophon’s. The scholarly consensus tends to be that Plato’s was the earlier, and that Xenophon was in part reacting to him. The view has also been put forward that Xenophon drafted his text before reading Plato’s, and then revised it based on his thoughts regarding the Platonic Symposium. At this point, I tend to agree with the consensus view: it seems more likely that Xenophon would dialogue with a well-known Plato, rather than the other way around: Xenophon did not have the stature of the Platonic Socrates’ interlocutors such as Gorgias or Protagoras.
Xenophon permits himself a concisely-worded storybook narration in which each phrase counts. Like Plato, he mentions that his guests of the party were oiled down and fresh and clean. He then assembles his characters in the house of the host, Callias, who was famous for hosting all the best and brightest minds of the day. As the guests take their positions on the couches, all eyes fall on the young teen boy, Autolycus, for whom Callias had very strong and deep feelings.
Having assembled his characters, Xenophon has them give way to silence and wonder in the face the beauty of the teenage boy Autolycus. It’s worth giving an extended quotation:
In due course [the guests] presented themselves, some rubbed down with oil after their exercise, others freshly bathed as well. Autolycus sat down beside his father and the others, as you would expect, and reclined. [Reclining on couches was standard posture for men at ancient Greek formal events.] An observer of the scene would at once have reflected that beauty has something naturally regal about it, especially if it is combined with modesty and self-discipline in the possessor, as it was then in Autolycus. In the first place, his good looks drew everyone’s attention to him, as surely as a light draws all eyes towards it in the dark; and secondly, there was not a man there whose feelings were not moved at the sight of him. Some became more silent, and the behavior of others underwent a sort of transformation. Possession by a god always seems to have a remarkable effect. Those who are influenced by other gods tend to become more intimidating in their appearance, more truculent in their speech and more aggressive in their conduct; but those who are inspired by discreet Love wear a kindlier expression, speak in a gentler tone and behave in a way more befitting a free man. Such was the effect that Love had on Callias on this occasion, as was duly noted by those who were initiates of this god. So they proceeded to dine in silence, as if they had been ordered by some superior to do so.
At this point Philippus the joker knocked at the front door.
Philippus here occupies in the beginning of the work the place that Alcibiades had at the end of Plato’s; he is a comically disruptive influence, a reminder of the fact that not everyone at the Socratic philosophical table partook of Socrates’ wisdom.
Philippus lived to tell jokes, but he was not the actual entertainment for the evening.
When the table had been removed and they had poured libations and sung a paean, a Syracusan came in to provide entertainment. He had with him a girl who was an expert pipe-player, another who was an acrobatic dancer, and a very attractive boy who both played the lyre and danced extremely well.
. . . . Socrates said, “You are indeed a perfect host, Callias. You have not only served us an irreproachable dinner; you are providing most delightful sights and sounds” (Xenophon: Conversations of Socrates, Penguin Classics).
There will be more to say about the evening’s entertainment in another post, but here it bears notice that it was not only a single female flute-girl, as in Plato. And unlike in Plato, where the males send away the flute-girl so they can have “real talk,” here in Xenophon this girl’s music was gratefully received by the guests present, receiving the imprimatur of no less than Socrates himself. Never again let it be said that Xenophon was the gross inferior of the sophisticated Plato: here, Plato seems a veritable bumbling caveman in comparison with the sensitive and cultured Xenophon!
The Globe and Mail has a particularly good article on the implications of the attack. I particularly like Salman Rushdie’s point that “respect for religion” is really a code-word for “fear of religion.” He went on to point out that we should not live in fear of religion, and I quote:
Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect.
As Rushdie said in another place, “actually, there is no right not to be offended.” There is no right not to be offended. Think about that.
Religionists desperately need to get this point, but this seems unlikely. I do wish, though, that Muslims (and other religionists, too), would take a page out of the wisdom of this fascinating, and fascinatingly tolerant, biblical passage:
28 When the townspeople rose early in the morning, the altar of Baal was broken down, and the sacred pole[a] beside it was cut down, and the second bull was offered on the altar that had been built. 29 So they said to one another, “Who has done this?” After searching and inquiring, they were told, “Gideon son of Joash did it.” 30 Then the townspeople said to Joash, “Bring out your son, so that he may die, for he has pulled down the altar of Baal and cut down the sacred pole[b] beside it.” 31 But Joash said to all who were arrayed against him, “Will you contend for Baal? Or will you defend his cause? Whoever contends for him shall be put to death by morning. If he is a god, let him contend for himself, because his altar has been pulled down.” 32 Therefore on that day Gideon[c] was called Jerubbaal, that is to say, “Let Baal contend against him,” because he pulled down his altar (emphasis mine).
And right there you have a paradigm for religious tolerance, and for not taking “God’s” law into human hands.
UPDATE: I just read a great article, and recommend it: Mockery Must Come to Mohammed. Unfortunately, I think it’s likely that the article is a bit too optimistic.
Ancient Greek theater often saw the stage performance of a trilogy of three “Tragedies” (plays with a serious focus, but by no means necessarily “tragic” in the modern sense) followed by a satyr-play or a comedy. These productions were often ribald, sexually-explicit, and funny. This is exactly what has happened following where we left off with Socrates-Diotima. Our contemplation of the sea of beauty and giving birth to knowledge and discourses is rudely interrupted by the drunk figure of Alcibiades, a young politician and general and philosopher-wannabe. He wants to join the party, but he is already drunk. He’s supported by two courtesans, and wears a garland of flowers. He persuades everyone to drink wine.
In what follows, we find out that Alcibiades has pursued Socrates like the reverse of a Lover-Boyfriend relationship: Alcibiades wanted his “moral edification” to come from Socrates, as the older man, and since Socrates never pursued him, Alcibiades decided to pursue the philosopher.
But he was disappointed, even after tricking Socrates into sleeping with him. He complains, even though we slept together, we hadn’t actually slept together! It’s not so much that Socrates was immune to the charms of the young man as it was that Socrates just wasn’t that interested in physical pleasure (with such an obviously physically-obsessed guy).
Remembering his “love” for Socrates, Alcibiades proceeds to eulogize him. This he does, in terms of Socrates’ tremendous concern for his fellow Athenians and soldiers, and his bravery and strength and endurance when fighting. And crucially, Alcibiades says that he could never practice enough what Socrates preached.
This is the kind of language that every good ancient Greek would readily “get.” In other words, Plato is saying, if you don’t get the whole gay lover-boyfriend thing, or the the whole mysticism sea of beauty and staircase thing, you’ll get the anecdotes that show that Socrates was not entirely successful in educating Alcibiades, and if you miss those, you’ll at least get the ones that show what a great soldier Socrates was for Athens during the war with Sparta. (Remember, many of Socrates’ circle were associated with the bloodthirsty Spartan-installed junta that governed Athens briefly after the war. Plato’s own uncle Critias was the leader of “the Thirty,” as it was known. Socrates was executed by the restored democracy.)
The Alcibiades interlude seeks to break Socrates free from the association of his most political and unfortunate disciple. Alcibiades had been responsible for the disastrous expedition to Sicily which had turned the tide of the Peloponnesian War. He had also been accused of desecrating statues sacred to the mystery religions. And Socrates was, it was to be remembered, accused of impiety and corrupting the young–and he was executed on that basis. In short, this final section of the speaking parts of The Symposium is nothing less than a full-throated apologia, or defense, of Socrates by his most famous pupil, Plato.
Plato appears to have had something approaching a sense of humour. We see this in some of the speeches and dialogues in The Symposium, but Plato chooses to end his work by having his party totally crashed by many revellers. Plato then has Socrates drink copious amounts of alcohol without getting drunk (a paradox just as good as Jesus’ turning water to wine at Cana), outlasting almost everyone while holding his own against Agathon and Aristophanes. Dawn (and Aristodemus, who wakes up from the sleeper-strewn house) finds Socrates pressing Agathon and Aristodemus to the accept the idea that a really good writer of tragedy must also necessarily be a really good writer of comedy. I am surely not alone in thinking that Plato’s account of the dinner party was not only good philosophy, but also not-too-shabby drama, too. As such, it holds up a mirror to our human condition, teaching us something about ourselves that many of the platonic arguments of philosophy have perhaps missed.
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.
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!