Sunday, 4 January 2009

Plato's Symposium

You know how it is. You bump into someone in town, they invite you round for dinner, and after you've finished eating and are about to start on the booze, someone says, guys, maybe we should lay off the alcohol tonight – remember how pissed we got last night? You all agree – let's be honest, most of you are still looking a bit green - and then someone says, I know, enough of the music, let's make our own fun and have a speaking competition to see who can praise love most effectively. Get your rhetoric ready.

We've all been there, and Plato was good enough to record what happened when Socrates found himself in just that situation. Phaedrus kicks off.

Phaedrus' speech
The good thing about love is that it sharpens our sense of honour and dishonour. No one wants to be shamed in front of their lover, and so everyone behaves better when their lover is around. If our armies were made up entirely of loved-up couples, we'd be all the better for it (take that, opponents of women/gay people in the army).

Pausanius' speech
Phaedrus should've defined his terms better. Actually, there are two sorts of love, corresponding to two different Aphrodites (I get the impression that this is because there are two different accounts of Aphrodite's birth, one that she was Uranus' daughter (hur hur) – the heavenly Aphrodite, one that she was the child of Zeus and Dione – the common Aphrodite), only one of which is praiseworthy. The love that comes from the common Aphrodite is basically just horniness – people who love like this will even sink so low as to love women instead of young boys, and will do pretty much anything to get their end away (Reading the Symposium, I was surprised by the contempt it showed for women throught. I think this is because, for Plato, love is meant to be love of someone else's mind and character, and as women were uneducated they probably couldn't be considered worthy real love, only lust). Men who love with the love of the heavenly Aphrodite, though, love young boys exclusively, not just because they're pretty but because of their intelligence and personality. In this sort of love, the man loves the boy for his potential to become a wise and good man, and the young boy loves the older man as someone who can teach him wisdom and understanding.

At this point, it should have been Aristophanes' turn to speak, but he'd given himself hiccups, so Erixymachus (and you thought I had a funny name) went next.

Erixymachus' speech
Pausanius is right about there being two different sorts of love, and my experience as a doctor tells me that one sort of love is healthy and should be encouraged, and the other unhealthy. Blah blah blah (this speech was the boringest)

Aristophanes started sneezing, which stopped his hiccups, so he could go next.

Aristophanes' speech
Humans ain't what they used to be. Way back when, there weren't two sexes but three – male, female, and androgynous, and people were basically spherical – imagine two people stuck together back to back with four arms, four legs, two faces and two “privy parts.” People could walk around like we do now, but if they wanted to travel really quickly they could roll instead. But they started causing trouble to the gods, who decided, as a punishment, to cut them in half. This made them terribly lonely, and they wandered the earth seeking their lost half, and when they found them, they hugged them tightly. Zeus took pity on them, and turned their “privy parts” round so they were on the front instead of the back, which enabled them to get it on and reproduce. We're all looking for our other half. People who used to be androgynes are horny – adulterers mostly fall into this class. Women who used to be paired with other women aren't interested in men, and vice versa for men who were paired with men. They're the best, because they've got the most manly nature, and they become our statesmen. And that's why things are the way we are, and we should be careful, because if we annoy the gods again they'll cut us in half once more, and we'll have to go round with only half a nose like the figures you see sculpted on columns.

Agathon's speech
Love is great (he goes on a bit, but that's the gist)

Socrates' speech
Love is desire, and if it is desire that means that it doesn't possess what it desires. Love desires beauty, so how can it be beautiful? The beautiful is the good, so love must also desire the good – how then can it be good? Does that mean it's evil? No – that which is not wise is not necessarily ignorant – there's a mean between the two, and that's where love is, in the mean between fair and foul. Love is neither a god nor mortal, but the mean between the two, mediating between God and man. Love is the child of Poverty and Plenty, always seeking after something he never quite possesses. There is nothing which men love but the good – love is love of the everlasting possession of the good. How do we love? We start by loving beauty in another person, the beloved, but this leads us to appreciate inner beauty above outer beauty, which in turn leads us on to the appreciation of beauty in abstract things like laws, institutions and sciences, and then eventually we grasp the notion of absolute beauty, and finally know what the essence of beauty is. This is the point of everything: to finally attain the contemplation of pure beauty, and to enter into communion with it. Love is the best helper we have to attain this goal.

At this point, drunken noises are heard outside – it's Alcibades, young, fiesty and, by all accounts, a bit of a looker. He comes in and starts talking – turns out he's got a bit of a crush on Socrates, but Socrates ain't reciprocated. Alcibades tells the story of his attempt to woo Socrates – he managed to get alone with him, but he kept talking about philosophy instead of love. He wrestled with Socrates, thinking that this might get him somewhere (these were, after all, the days of naked wrestling) – no joy. He persuaded Socrates to come round for dinner, and then to stay over and slept all night with Socrates in his arms, but still, nothing.

I think this is meant to indicate Socrates' noble character – his restraint, his temperance, his wisdom, but I can't help feeling that Socrates was a bit of a git. Cultural norms, huh?

This dialogue is theologically important for lots of reasons, but crucially it becomes a central theme in later discussions of our relationship with God, who is equated with the pure Beauty of Plato's dialogue. Keep an eye out for this idea of God as Beauty, and of the Christian life as ascending to ever more abstract understandings of who God is.

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