Plato’s Symposium: Is it Just a Joke?
When talking about love in the classical age, we would be utterly remiss to not include Plato’s Symposium in our conversation. Symposium is Plato’s recounting of a, supposedly true, ancient cocktail party where various guests are invited to stand up and give their account of love, its function, and origin.
For those of you who don’t know, Symposium reads more like a particularly funny joke rather than a serious piece of philosophical literature.
A poet, an aristocrat, a philosopher, and a comedic playwright walk into a bar…
Aristophanes’ Take on Love
And of all the colorful characters that stand up and give their take on the lovey dovey subject, the undeniable favorite tends to be Aristophanes and his fanciful tale of double-sided humans who were separated by the gods.
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Aristophanes. (The Commons)
In case you didn’t know, Aristophanes was a very real comedic playwright in classical Athens. His speech in Symposium is characteristic of old comedy.
The story goes that human beings were originally creatures with four arms and legs (eight in total) with one head and two faces. These double-sided people came in three types. There were man-man combinations, which were born of the sun. There were woman-woman combinations, born from the earth. Then there were man-woman combinations; these were born from the moon, obviously.
A double-sided person detail on ancient Greek amphora. (La Audacia de Aquiles)
These double-sided people were considered by Zeus to be a threat, and so he split them in two, creating people as we see them today. This splitting up, however, created a longing in mankind. All people wandered the earth, hoping to be joined together again with their counterparts. And so, the story goes, we spend our days looking to be rejoined with our loved ones, literally, our other half.
Zeus took such pity on these people that he devised a new plan. Zeus moved the genitals of these people to their fronts (it’s not quite clear where they were before!) so that people might partake in lovemaking and have some relief from their overwhelming loneliness.
“So ancient is the desire of one another which is implanted in us, reuniting our original nature, seeking to make one of two, and to heal the state of man.” –Aristophanes (Plato’s Symposium)
Symposium, Fresco from the Tomb of the Diver. 475 BC. (Public Domain)
Interestingly, Aristophanes’ story also gives an account for the origin of homo and heterosexuality. Depending on what combination you were before you were split up (man-man, woman-woman, or man-woman) you will instinctively be drawn to whichever sex, in a sense, completes you.
So, Aristophanes, in a fanciful way, gives his account for the origin of love and even takes time to explain why we love whom we love.
He ends his story on a characteristically humorous note. Aristophanes tells us that we would do well to be pious and to worship the gods. If not, Zeus might see fit to split us up again, and then we would spend our lives hopping around with one leg, one arm, as well as half a nose and head!
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Interpreting the Speech
There are a few questions that come to mind when reading the speech of Aristophanes. How much of the speech is truly the thought of Aristophanes? Is it possible that Aristophanes is just a mouthpiece of Plato? More importantly, how seriously should we consider the speech? Is it a sober contribution to the dialogue? Or is it a humorous aside?
Portrait of Plato; bust. (Wellcome Images/CC BY 4.0)
Some have suggested that the entirety of Symposium is itself a humorous aside within the catalogue of Plato’s works. That would make the speech of Aristophanes a humorous aside in a dialogue that is already a humorous aside. A joke within a joke!
The philosophical merits of the speech are ultimately unimportant to us today. The message that we, literally, spend our lives looking for our other half has been embedded in many of our ideas concerning love. The speech of Aristophanes remains something of a crowd favorite. It has been told and retold on Valentines days and during best man speeches at weddings.
It is as touching as it is fantastical. Whether you are a philosopher or not, it is bound to raise a smile.
Top Image: The Banquet (after Plato). second version (1874) by Anselm Feuerbach. Source: Public Domain
By Van Bryan