Wednesday 1/23

Love in Ancient Philosophy II

Readings

Texts

Links

Quiz Questions

  • According to Phaedrus, why is love (Eros) important to us?
  • Why do tyrannies tend to have draconian sexual laws, according to Pausanius?
  • What is Aristophanes' account of love?

Synopsis

We began today where we left off last time: Pausanius' momentous speech. To summarize,

  1. Pausanius postulates that there is a higher love, the “heavenly Aphrodite”, and a lower love, “the earthly Aphrodite”, and describes the characteristics of those loves. This distinction proves monumental. It has consequences far outstripping its original motivation as a distinction drawn in response to Phaedrus' speech.
  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.
  3. Pausanius argues that "it is base to indulge the vicious lover viciously, but noble to gratify the virtuous lover virtuously". Setting aside whether the worst that can happen is the lover indulging the vicious lover viciously, Pausanius' idea of there being a kind of nobility to the expression of the higher romantic love (Heavenly Aphrodite) is strikingly at odds with how popular culture today tends to denigrate sex--even in the language we use to describe it.
  4. Pausanius explains the great value of the Heavenly Aphrodite in terms of inspiring lovers to teach and learn virtues.

Now, before pressing ahead with the synopsis, I should like to pause the sometimes puzzled looks I see in class. Judging by the bewildered looks and the first reading quiz, not a few are distressed at the difficulty of the readings. It is true that we are not reading a textbook this semester. Textbook authors try the best they can to present material as clearly as possible. In this sense, reading a textbook is relatively easy. Content is endlessly summarized, bulleted, re-phrased, re-framed, and exemplified. Textbooks are safe and comforting. They can be memorized and regurgitated. The answers are always there.

We are striking out into territory that may be both unfamiliar and daunting for those only used to textbooks. We are reading original philosophy, or at least as close to the original philosophy as we can get via translation. The point of our discussions, these synopses, and any notes and handouts I provide is to do the best we can to understand the arguments, theories, and positions being articulated by these philosophers. This is no small chore.

Here, then, are some strategies I've seen students use successfully:

  • Read each text once before and once again after class; additional readings may be necessary as we move on through the various subjects. Reading philosophy is not like reading history, say. Philosophy must be read slowly, carefully, and thoughtfully. You cannot think of yourself as a passive observer as when you galloped through Harry Potter. You must be actively engaged with the text. It's an altogether different mindset.
  • Always recognize, no matter how closely you've read, that there is more you've not grasped or understood. For example, perhaps I am unfairly uncharitable in my reading of Eryximachus, as he does indeed recommend heavenly Aphrodite, it seems, as a curative. There is, in short, depths to this material which may take a lifetime to sound.
  • Take notes on your readings, and keep the reading questions in front of you as you read; as you come to relevant material in the texts, sketch out answers to the questions.
  • Get a small group of students (say 4 or 5 at most) together to meet for an hour or two each week to discuss the readings and the class meetings.
  • Attend class (!) and take careful notes during class of our discussions; don't be afraid during class to ask for clarification or raise puzzles you don't feel have been adequately answered.
  • Ask me, either by email, or visit during my office (FC-280) hours (TR 12:00 - 2:00, and by email appointment).

Whatever you do, please don't feel that you are alone in struggling. Make no mistake: Philosophy is hard. Everyone struggles with it. Recognize that the questions we are asking are by no means nor in any sense trivial. They bear careful thought and close scrutiny.

Okay, back to the Symposium. Last time we discussed the speech by Phaedrus and and started to consider Pausanius' speech. Today we reviewed our discussion and took our time working through some of the highlights of Pausanius' speech. We then moved on to Eryximachus' speech and, finally, got started on Aristophanes'.

We should always ask, as we have been, whether the views on love being put forward are all that plausible.

For example, Phaedrus argues that love is the oldest and greatest god in part because love ennobles us. It makes us greater than we otherwise would be in virtue and deed. He even has a story to tell about how the lover on the battlefield is spurred to greatness in seeking to impress his beloved.

It may be that love sometimes ennobles us, yet doesn't it also at times debase us? Don't we sometimes become vicious, mean, and jealous out of love? What distinguishes the ardent lover from the stalker, after all?

For another example, consider Pausanius' declaration that,

It is base to indulge the vicious lover viciously, but noble to gratify the virtuous lover virtuously.

Or, alternatively, consider Jay's neat translation:

It is base to take from the taker; noble to give to the giver.

If what we mean by indulging the vicious lover viciously is for one person only interested in their own self-gratification to be used by another person also only interested in their own self-gratification, then perhaps we can say that it would be better to gratify the virtuous lover virtuously. Presumably, the virtuous lover sets the desires of his beloved above his own. Yet it should also be clear that worst of all would be the virtuous lover gratifying the vicious lover. That is, where expectations differ, we can expect disaster. Is it so bad, then, for the vicious lovers to indulge each other viciously? It seems that what matters is that everyone play by the same rules, whatever those rules may be.

Consider also Aristophanes' proposal that love is our striving to find reunion with the one from whom we were split by the gods. This is of course the modern notion of having a soul-mate: it is altogether commonplace in the thought that we are meant to be with those we love and who love us. Whether there are one, several, or many such people is beside the point. Rather, we come close to echoing the aristophanean point in ascribing a kind of deliberateness or intentionality to love in the sense that we tend to see it as a force in our lives that acts to some degree without our consent or even knowledge. Consider these common expressions:

  • I fell in love.
  • She was love-struck.
  • They were meant to be together.
  • It was love at first sight.
  • He was unmanned by her beauty.

My point is that these are all things that happen to us, not things that we do.

On reflection, perhaps the point to be made about all this is that our desire for romantic love is so deep and so profound in our lives that we cannot help but see it as outside of us, as a force that move us without our compliance, complicity, or even cognizance--something divine, as it were.

We are, in short, puppets to our deepest desires.

On the flip side, it can be argued that we are indeed active participants in choosing with whom we, paradoxically, fall in love. Arranged marriage might be an example of this.

Maybe what we should say, then, is that soul mates are not found but made, only it is not we who make them. We'll begin next time by unpacking this point.