This paper was written as a take home exam, I’m guessing to answer the question “compare and contrast how the different characters of Plato’s Symposium define ‘love’”. I must admit it is not my best work, as it reads more like a summary than a critically formulated essay. Nevertheless, reading a summary that was supposed to be a creative answer to the aforementioned question made me remember how difficult it was to complete summary assignments. You could never know what to include or what to leave out, where to use or omit your own voice, or decide whether or not you wrote too much or too little. In an interesting way, this piece of writing manages that balance well, I think.
Humanity has always concerned itself with the idea of love. We think it to be the foundation of our society, the thing we are designed to strive for. Our lives are bound to be incomplete unless and until we find it. Considered to be written c. 385-370 BC, Plato’s Symposium is one of the most extensive and detailed conversations on the topic of love.
Plato’s Symposium is structured in a similar way to the events in which the intellectuals of the time would gather together and lead discussions; Phaedrus, Pausanias, Eryximachus, Aristophanes, Agathon, Socrates and Alcibiades all deliver their speeches about love (eros). In this dramatic dialogue Plato almost acts like a playwright; each speech is compatible with the character of the speaker and the arguments gradually get more sophisticated.
It is almost as if each participant delivers an imperfect and incomplete fragment of what will become Socrates’ doctrine in the end. Among those speeches, one stands out more than the others: Aristophanes’ account of love will become reformulated in Socrates’ final monologue, albeit with a few differences.
Aristophanes, after Eryximachus’deeply abstract explanations about love, tells a beautiful mythological story. In this story it is believed that people originally had twice as many limbs, faces and organs and they possessed three different genders; male, female and androgynous. In an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the Gods, they were split in half and were condemned to spend the rest of their lives trying to find their other part. The story also creates an etiology for sexual orientation (females/lesbians, males/homosexuality and androgyny/heterosexuality) and, as David Naugle says in his article The Platonic Concept of Love: The Symposium, “brings the discussion back down to earth by placing love once again in the category of human relations (23).”
Socrates, on the other hand, takes a slightly different approach. He formulates his discussion on love with a re-telling of an account told to him by a priestess named Diotima. One may note how the roles are reversed in Socrates’s situation (for once he is not the one illuminating the other party with a unique style of dialogue). Diotima persuades Socrates that love is neither good or beautiful (or bad or ugly), nor is it a God, “love is merely being a lover (32),” she claims.
Aristophanes’ argument however, is reconstructed when she asserts that we would not seek completion in another, unless we believed that the other person or object were good (37). This is later becomes the first step of Socrates’ principle of love: love is the force that makes us seek the good. Only after which we can seek ultimate beauty, and even more importantly: wisdom.
Both Aristophanes’ and Socrates’ arguments have something striking in common: relationality. Aristophanes’ theory explains that innate “lack” of something within us and how men’s desire to be whole is the driving force beneath his every action. Similar to some contemporary theories of psychology, Aristophanes explains how our lives our shaped by our instinctual search for completeness. The only way of ever finding eternal salvation is defining our love in relation to our better half.
Although Socrates’ speech is different from Aristophanes’ in style and philosophical conclusions, I believe that his theory about love also can be explained by relationality. Socrates also believes that love is the ultimate force that causes us to seek for the good, the beautiful and the wise; all of which can only be defined with their relation to the one who perceives them.
In conclusion, one can say that even though Aristophanes and Socrates tell different accounts of love with different styles, the basis on which they meet can perfectly summarized as this:
“Love is the desire for the perpetual possession of the good for the sake of happiness (38).”
Written for my “Ancient Literature” class in 20.01.2015.