One out of two and heal the wound of human nature.

February 14, 2009, 6:42 pm

What better way to commemorate Valentine’s Day (um…again) by reading Plato’s dialogue concerning erotic love, Symposium? As an undergraduate in my very first philosophy class, I read the Symposium and the professor explained that not only did “symposium” mean something like “drinking party”, but that he had discovered in graduate school that the progression of speeches in praise of Love made more sense if accompanied by a bottle of wine or several.

Socrates and his interlocutors are celebrating the poet Agathon’s first victorious production with plans to get very drunk.   Hindering these plans are the fact that half the crowd is quite hungover, and so they decide instead to give speeches in praise of love.

The brilliance of this dialogue, to me, is in the wonderful characterization of all of the party guests.  Phaedrus, young and with an affect I’d describe as ‘airheaded’, begins with a rather simplistic praise of Love, as it makes everyone noble and brave and self-sacrificing and kind and virtuous!   (Ponycorns!) Older Pausanius distinguishes between common vulgar love and Heavenly Love.  The first is about sex; the second is about responsible sex where a man cares for his youthful intelligent beloved, does not take advantage of him, acts honorably, and acceptance of this Love is the sign of an enlightened society.

It is surely notable that Pausanius is Agathon’s lover.   (Come on, baby, I’m not like those other men…)

The physician Eryximachus delivers a very dry lecture that treats Love medically.  Hot, and cold, wet and dry.    Agathon composes a beautiful prose peroration on the spot.  And Socrates tells of what he learned of the form of Beauty from a wiser older woman, Mrs. Robinson, Diotima.    Then Alcibiades stumbles in drunk and hits on Socrates.

But on Valentine’s Day, I present to you the jewel (as far as I’m concerned) of the dialogue, Aristophanes’ speech, part just-so story, part a story of bumbling gods.  (Quotes below drawn from what I affectionately call Boy’s Own Monster Book of Plato, e.g., the giant Cooper anthology suitable both for the study of Plato and as a 1800 paged bludgeoning weapon.)

How were things back in the day, Aristophanes?

There were three kinds of human beings, that’s my first point — not two as there are now, male and female.  In addition to these, there was a third, a combination of those two; its name survives, though the kind itself has vanished. [...] My second point is that the shape of each human being was completely round, with back and sides in a circle; they had four hands each, as many legs as hands, and two faces, exactly alike, on a rounded neck.  There were two sets of sexual organs, and everything else was the way you’d imagine it from what I’ve told you.  They walked upright, as we do now, whatever direction they wanted.  And whenever they set out to run fast, they thrust out all their eight limbs, the ones they had then, and spun rapidly, the way gymnasts do cartwheels, by bring their legs around straight. (Symposium 189d-190a)

Huh.  That’s not how we are shaped now:

In strength and power, therefore, they were terrible, and they had great ambitions. [...]  Then Zeus and the other gods met in council to discuss what to do, and they were sore perplexed.  They couldn’t wipe out the human race with thunderbolts and kill them all off, as they had the giants, because that would wipe out the worship they receive, along with the sacrifices we humans give them.  On the other hand, they couldn’t let them run riot. (190b-c)

Zeus has (oh, god) a cunning plan:

…he cut those human beings in two… as he cut each one, he commanded Apollo to turn its face and half its neck towards the wound, so that each person would see that he’d been cut and keep better order.  (190e)

There’s a bit of a problem:

…Now, since their natural form had been cut in two, each one longed for its own other half, and so they would throw their arms about each other, weaving themselves together, wanting to grow together.   In that condition, they would die from hunger and general idleness, becaues they would not do anything apart from each other. (191a-b)

Ladies and gentleman, the invention of the orgasm for the purposes of productivity:

…Then, however, Zeus took pity on them, and came up with another plan: he moved their genitals around to the front! [...] The purpose of this was so that when a man embraced a woman, he would cast his seed and they would have children; but when male embraced male, they would at least have the satisfaction of intercourse, after which they could stop embracing, return to their jobs, and look after their other needs in life. (191c-d)

No matter who you are!

…Each of us, then, is a “matching half” of a human whole, beacuse each was sliced like a flatfish, two out of one, and each of us is always seeking the half that matches him.  That’s why a man who is split from the double sort (which used to be called “androgynous”) runs after women. [...] Women who are split from a woman, however, pay no attention at all to men; they are oriented more towards women, and lesbians come from this class.   People who are split from a male are male-oriented. (191d-e)

I wish you all a happy Valentine’s Day.  And lots of productivity tomorrow.

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