“I have to tell you that I’m really in a pretty bad state from yesterday’s drinking, and I could do with a break. I think the same goes for most of the rest of you as well, since you were there yesterday. So what do you think? How can we best make our drinking easy on ourselves,” says Pausanias at near the beginning of Plato’s Symposium… ‘at this, everyone agreed not to make the party a drunken one, but to drink only for pleasure.’
And from there, this group of homoerotic philosophers take turns in sharing their respective eulogies to the personified god Love.
While the eulogies appear to me as if they are largely motivated by the old philosopher’s need to justify their lust and sexual relations for young males (to them, a fair exchange of beauty for wisdom), this night of drunken philosophy shines a light on many of the forms that love can take and reminds us of the power this force has on our lives.
While Plato admits that ‘Aristodemus couldn’t quite remember every detail of everyone’s speeches, and I don’t remember everything he told me either,’ he promises to give us ‘a pretty accurate report of what he remembered of each speech, at least to the aspects which have stuck in [his] mind.’
The text is the furthest thing from one would expect considering our use of the term ‘Platonic love.’ The words Plato puts in the mouths of his friends presents an incredibly passionate, lustful, and sexual love, with philosophically universal implications. Plato relates love to the desire for happiness and hence goodness, immortality and hence procreation – namely through beautiful mediums. Plato takes love and one’s desire for immortality beyond physical procreation, to the offspring of ‘mental’ pregnancy including ‘above all virtuous deeds, educational discussions, works of art, and legislation.’ (208c-209c)
I like this idea – the idea of creativity as a source of immortality – I suppose if you’ve read my stuff on “creativism” you already know that…
One of my favourite perspectives of love comes from the comic poet Aristophanes. If you are too lazy to read this quote, then skip it and watch the clip from Hedwig and the Angry Inch (a very funny movie my friends showed me in Berlin a long while back) which will sing you through the story:
Aristophanes tells us about the origins of Love:
‘the starting-point is for you to understand human nature and what happened to it… Firstly, there used to be three human genders… a distinct type of androgynous person…
‘secondly, each person’s shape was complete: they were round, with their backs and sides forming a circle. They had four hands and the same number of legs, and two absolutely identical faces on a cylindrical neck. They had a single head for their two faces (which were on opposite dies), four ears, two sets of genitals, and every other part of their bodies was how you’d imagine it on the basis of what I’ve said…
‘[The reason] is that the original parent of the male gender was the sun, while that of the female gender was the earth and that of the combined gender was the moon, because the moon too is a combination, of the sun and the earth. The circularity of their shape and their means of locomotion was due to the fact that they took after their parents…
‘Now, their strength and power were terrifying, and they were also highly ambitious. They even had a go at the gods… So Zeus and the rest of the gods met in a council to try to decide what to do with them…
‘After thinking long and hard about it, Zeus said, “… What I’m going to do is split every single wone of them into two halves; then they’ll be weaker, and at the same time there’ll be more in it for us because there’ll be more of them. They’ll walk about upright on two legs. If in our opinion they continue to behave outrageously,” Zeus added, “and they refuse to settle down, I’ll cut them in half again, and then they’ll go hopping around on one leg.”
‘It was their essence that had been spit in two, so each half missed its other half and tried to be with it; they threw their arms around each other in embrace and longed to be grafted together.’
When we were beginning to die of starvation and apathy Zeus took pity: ‘he changed the position of their genitals round to their fronts. Up until then, their genitals too had been on the far side of hteir bodies and procreation and birth hadn’t involved intercourse with one another, but with the ground, like cicadas…
‘Love draws our nature back together; he tries to reintegrate us and heal the split in our nature. Turbot-like, each of us has been cut in half, and so we are human tallies, constantly searching for ou counterparts. Any men who are offcuts from the combined gender – the androgynous one, to use its former name – are attracted to women, and therefore most adulterers come form this group; the equivalent women are attracted to men and tend to become adulteresses. Any women who are offcuts form the female gender aren’t particularly interested in men; they incline more towards women, and therefore female homosexuals come from this group. And any men who are offcuts from the male gender go for males. While they’re boys, because they were sliced form the male gender, they enjoy sex with men and they like to be embraced by men… I know they sometimes get called immoral, but that’s wrong; their actions aren’t prompted by immorality, but by courage, manliness, and masculinity… There’s good evidence for their quality: as adults, they’re the only men who end up in government.’ 189d-193a.
Don’t know how much Tony Abbot would like that little remark.
In sum, says Aristophanes, “Love” is ‘just the name we give to the desire and pursuit of wholeness… We human beings will never attain happiness unless we find perfect love, unless we come across the love of our lives and thereby recover our original nature.’ 193c.
So far, in reading homoerotic Symposium’s thoughts on love, I most like the way that Robin Waterfield sums up parts of Socrates’ speech in her Introduction: ‘if I am in love, many things about the world, not just the immediate object of my love, seem lovable. To say “I love X” is somehow really to say “X inspires love in me”, and that love then attaches itself to object other than X as well.’
I guess this Symposium reiterates what we probably already know: there are lots and lots of different forms of love, love changes forms, it knows know boundaries, and it inspires all the good things life has to offer. So, cheer’s to Love!