Plato's Symposium.

Depiction of Plato's Symposium by Anselm Feuerbach (1871-74). 

Plato and Aristotle are by far my most dreaded authors. I find them both devilishly hard and they are the reason why I've stalled on my Ancient Greek and Roman Challenge. But, as I want to move forward, I'm returning to the hardest section so far of the challenge: the 4th Century B.C. (Aristotle, Plato, and Xenophon) with the hope that I'll finish that section before the year is out. In returning to it I decided to begin with, not an easy option, but a marginally less difficult one: The Symposium (Συμπόσιον) by Plato, written around 385 - 370 B.C. It is on the subject of love.

Cupid [Eros] complaining to Venus
by Lucas Cranach the Elder (c. 1525).
The setting is a dinner party attended by Socrates, Aristophanes, Phaedrus, Alcibiades, Pausanias, Agathon, and Eryximachus, and it's decided that the group will give praise to the god of love: Eros. It is a competition, and each speech will be judged by Dionysus.

Phaedrus, an aristocrat and close associate of Socrates, begins, speaking very highly of Eros and saying,
"We should look to Love's origins to see one of the chief reasons why both men and gods find him a great and awesome god. The point us that he is venerated as a primordial god, as is proved by the fact that no layman, and no poet either, assigns Love parents. Hesiod says that Chaos came first, 'and then broad-breasted Earth, to be a safe seat for all, and Love'. Acusilaus agrees with Hesiod, and Parmenides says about Love's origins, 'The very first of all the gods she devised was Love'. So there's wide assent that Love is a primordial god."
He continues, saying that Love inspires great and noble deeds, making people virtuous, and people are willing to die, to sacrifice themselves for Love. This is why, he concludes, 
"Love is one of the most ancient and venerated gods, and one of the most effective in helping a person, during his lifetime or after it, attain goodness and happiness".

Following Phaedrus is Pausanias, known as the lover of the poet Agathon who speaks later. Pausanias distinguishes two types of love, one noble and directed towards young men establishing a close and lifelong relationship, and one base, concerning merely sexual gratification, directed at boys and women. 
"As we all know, Love and Aphrodite are inseparable. Now, if Aphrodite were uniform, so would Love be; but she is twofold and so, inevitably, Love is twofold too. The duality of Aphrodite is undeniable: one Aphrodite - the one we call Celestial - is older and has no mother, though her father is Uranus; the other, the younger one, is the daughter of Zeus and Dione, and is called Common. It follows, therefore, that the same distinction of title - Common and Celestial - should be applied to the different Loves who are the associates of one or the other Aphrodite."
He goes on to discuss different attitudes to homosexuality throughout various cities in the Greek empire, some sympathetic like Sparta, some unsympathetic like Persia. Athens, he notes, encourages the Celestial love and discourages the Common.

Aristophanes should now follow, however "he happened to be having an attack of hiccups - perhaps because of overeating, but there could have been some other cause", so Eryximachus takes his turn. Eryximachus, a physician, speaks on how far-reaching love is:
"The body of every creature on earth is pervaded by Love, as every plant is too; it's hardly going too far to say that Love is present in everything that exists. You could say that one of the things I've noticed as a result of practising medicine professionally is that Love is a great and awesome god who pervades every aspect of the lives of men and gods."
Continuing from Pausanias he argues that there is a healthy and unhealthy love that effects everything accordingly, in a healthy or unhealthy way. Everything is governed by Love.

Cupid’s Target, from ‘Les Amours des Dieux’
by François Boucher (1758).
Now Aristophanes' hiccups are over, he follows Eryximachus with what may well be the most famous section in Symposium. Aristophanes claims that, in the dawn of time, we were in fact two people joined together but, out of fear, Zeus severed us into two separate beings and now we search for love in order to return to our primordial self. Love literally completes us. It is an amusing passage, and also a very powerful one in which, I feel, Aristophanes, or Plato rather, accurately describes the feelings of love.

Next, Agathon, a poet also known for being a character in Aristophanes' Thesmophoriazusae (411 B.C.), who argues that love isn't the oldest or primordial god but in fact is the youngest. Rather than praise love, he despairs over it in old age, claiming it favours the young. He agrees that encourages virtue, as well as grace, wisdom, and a sense of justice.

Socrates is the penultimate speaker, first entering into a dialogue with Agathon. Citing a wise woman, Diotima, he explains that Love is not a god but a spirit half-way between the gods and men, and is not wisdom and beauty as such, more a desire for wisdom and beauty. It was born of two parents, Contrivance and Poverty and embodies both of their attributes. To love someone is the first step in attaining absolute and divine Beauty, which is not merely physical but also moral.

Finally, Alcibiades arrive. He drunkenly compares Socrates to Eros, and the two discuss inner beauty as well as the nature of their relationship.

The Symposium is not an easy read, but it is an entertaining and interesting one, well worth the effort. From it we are encouraged to think not only on love, but also sexuality, morality, and the definition and manifestations of beauty. I did very much enjoy it, and I only wish I found Plato's other works to be as engaging!


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