Wednesday 1/16

Love in Ancient Philosophy I




Today we took up our first work on the nature of love.

Unsurpassed except perhaps by The Republic, Plato's Symposium is one of the great works of philosophy. Today was the first of a two or three-day exploration of some of the themes and arguments presented in the Symposium. To be sure, a couple days is not enough time to fully grasp the Symposium: It is a work that richly rewards every reading.

To say that the Symposium is a series of speeches about Eros--or romantic love personified as a god--at a drinking party is to bleach the work of all its color and interest. Nevertheless, it is important to see how the Symposium is structured so as to know where all the ideas fit.

The Symposium opens with Apollodorus recounting to an unnamed friend his recent conversation with Glaucon who also wanted to know about the speeches given years before at the by-now famous Symposium. How did Apollodorus first learn of the Symposium? From Aristodemus, a friend of Socrates who had invited himself to the Symposium hosted by Agathon.

So we're listening to a conversation about a conversation about a report about the speeches given at the Symposium. Reflect: Why these layers of complexity? Why would Plato not simply put us in the room at the Symposium?

This, I submit, is the first of several deliberate peculiarities Plato ingeniously wove into the fabric of The Symposium.

The second--which is often missing when The Symposium is anthologized and thus why I like to have students read the full text--happens early in the text. Aristodemus gets to the party only to realize that Socrates has drifted back and gone off somewhere. Later a slave boy is sent to find him; he reports back to the party goers that he has found Socrates on the porch of another house staring into the evening sky.

I submit that Socrates' odd behavior is very, very important to the eventual story Socrates will tell about love. So fix this image in your mind, of an ugly, stocky man with piercing eyes staring off into the sky. Ask yourself, what was he doing?

Now, to better appreciate the Socrates we meet in the Symposium, we spent some time discussing Socrates' ill-fated search for the wisest man in Athens, a search which eventually led to his execution at the hands of the Athenians. In the strongest terms possible, I recommend you read Plato's Apology if you haven't already for the full story as Plato casts it.

Getting back to the Symposium, however, eventually Socrates does show up at the party, a somewhat subdued and reflective party given all the excesses of the previous night. The suggestion, eagerly endorsed by all, is to forego heavy drinking in favor of speeches on Eros, the god of Love (and thus, in the Greek mind, to give speeches on the concept of love itself.)

The order of speeches is as follows:

  • Phaedrus (the poet)
  • Pausanius (the lawyer)
  • Eryximachus (the physician)
  • Aristophanes (the comic playwright)
  • Agathon (the host and a dramatic playwright)
  • Socrates (the philosopher)
  • Alcibiades (the besotted lover)

The speeches come in pairs, with Alcibiades' speech forming a coda to the entire work: Phaedrus and Pausanius (both anxious to impress Agathon); Eryximachus and Aristophanes; and Agathon and Socrates. Socrates' speech, as we will see next time, is a report of his instruction by Diotima. Thus in Socrates' speech we find ourselves listening to a conversation about a conversation about a report about a report about a conversation about Eros!

Having set the structure of the Symposium and pointed out two important puzzles, we discussed Eros as Phaedrus conceives it. Some of the highlights of our discussion included

  1. Phaedrus' reasons for holding that love is “the oldest and most glorious of the gods” and his reasons for thinking that love brings all that is good and, indeed, happiness.
  2. Phaedrus' assertion that love inspires us to greatness.

As we saw, however, there are plenty of reasons to think that romantic love can and often does degrade us and bring out smallness in us, quite in contrast to Phaedrus' claim. To be sure, love can ennoble us, yet it also sometimes seems to debase us. Pausanius will latch onto this criticism by drawing a crucial--one might almost say, momentous--distinction between kinds of love.

We continued our reading of Plato's Symposium by considering Pausanius' speech. I realize that we are going through this in some more detail than perhaps is usual. I think it is important to be very clear on the text, since it foreshadows almost all of our subsequent discussions. Indeed, I submit that this is the most important text, by a long measure, of the semester in terms of grasping different philosophical conceptions of love and sex.

In any case, like Phaedrus', Pausanius' speech raises several important issues:

  1. Pausanius (a lawyer, remember) postulates that there is a higher love, the “heavenly Aphrodite”, and a lower love, “the earthly Aphrodite”, and describes the characteristics of those loves.
  2. Pausanius observes that social control usually focuses on the control of sexual behavior and explains the reasons why this would be so. To be sure, there is some evidence that Pausanius' observation is as true today as it was in Ancient Greece.

We'll start with this second point next time and consider parallels to today's sexual politics.

Now, bearing in mind that we really have a series of paired speeches in the Symposium,

Phaedrus <-> Pausanius,

Eryximachus <-> Aristophanes, and

Agathon <-> Socrates,

we've covered less than a third of The Symposium. Moreover, we seem to have more questions than answers. Thus,

  1. Why does Plato submerge the symposium (that is, the event itself) beneath so many layers of narrative complexity?
  2. What on earth was Socrates doing on the porch?

Hopefully by the end of our investigations we will have some answers to these and other questions.

Next time we will conclude our discussion of Pausanius' marvelous speech and move on to Eryximachus and Aristophanes.