Literary Commentary of Aristophanes’ Speech in Plato’s “Symposium”

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Plato’s Symposium

This was a philosophical text written in the years 300s B.C. The main theme of the text is love. There were speeches given by individuals who were meditating on the concept of love. The participants in the symposium were seven individuals, Socrates, Aristophanes, Agathon, Phaedrus, Alcibiades, Eryximachus and Pausanias. The speeches took place in Athens, in the home of Agathon. They go ahead and praise Love or Eros the god. Phaedrus says that Eros is the oldest god in the world and he has no parents. Great men have sacrificed their lives for the ones that they fell in love with. He concludes that this god helps one obtain honor and blessings. Pausanias, the second man to give the speech gives quite a lot of personal views on homosexuality. There were regions at that time that supported the practice while others did not. He says that the boy who agrees to the advances of an older man to be wise and not out of a desire of money or political favors is a better person. He is guided by virtue.

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Eryximachus praises love by informing the other individuals that love controls medicine, astronomy and music. These were the major loves of the Romans at that time and if Love controlled these then it was the greatest god. The fourth speech is given by Aristophanes on Love and he uses a mythical story to illustrate what love is.

Aristophanes’ speech

He speaks of the concept of love by giving a story on how each human being was twice what he is now. Each human being had double the body organs: two genitals, four legs

and four hands. There were three genders, the male, female and the androgynous. These creatures were powerful and threatened to overpower the gods. The gods had a meeting to decide the course of action to take. They debated whether to destroy the humans the way they had destroyed the giants however they decided against that course of action. The gods felt they would miss the sacrifices that the humans made to them. However, they had to restrain the humans who were so powerful and terrible. Zeus came up with an idea to cut the human beings into two which was accepted by the other gods. The being’s skin was extended to cover the wound after the gods cut them into two. Now in the world, what constantly happens is that each person constantly looks for his or her other half in the world.

Initially the gods had made the beings face towards where their other parts were cut off and there was a wound. The people become ill and despaired due to lack of activity. The gods become merciful and turned the heads and necks so that the people could embrace each other and have sexual intercourse (Plato, 1998, 191c, pg 27). The story also explains the heterosexual and homosexual lifestyles. Those that love people of the same sex were the androgynous. The heterosexual individuals are the female and male beings. People therefore feel strong affection for their other half, they find it hard to articulate the love they feel for the other person. It is beyond a desire to simply have sex. It is a desire and drives to unite and return to the original state of affairs (Rokem,

2008). Aristophanes of the view that if humans make the gods angry the gods may further spill the human beings to have one leg and one hand. The people should therefore concentrate on Love and connecting to themselves.

Literary Commentary

Aristophanes begins by saying that he aims to give a different kind of speech from the ones who have spoken before him. He declares that he aims to show how people have not recognized the power of Love in their life. He sets out to show the audience the power of love so that they may teach it to others. The speech begins on a serious note then it tends to be mythical and comical to some extent. He speaks of the origin of love and sexual desire both heterosexual and homosexual desire. He tells of beings that are out of this world, beings that are round and can move in all directions. Humans had eight legs, eight hands, one head with two faces. There were even beings who were fully female while others were fully male known as androgynous, having double male or female organs.

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The male and female beings had sexual organs that were both male and female. Their defiance to the gods causes them to be split into two. And this is the origin of love and sexual desire. Each person was trying to find their other half. The separation is akin to a curse and a situation or condition that must be cured. The wise individual therefore listens to the god of Love and what he commands. If he does not listen, the gods will get angry. If Love directs an individual he will be able to achieve reunion with his other half.

If an individual does not become or maintain a relationship with Love, he becomes frustrated as he is doomed to promiscuity where he keeps seeking his other half and never finds him or her (Warner, 1979).

Love is the god that gives true happiness and satisfaction. Aristophanes mentions that very few people have attained this state of happiness or fulfillment. However, he puts forward that though the people who have found their other half are experiencing love their experience is to some extent limited. The purest form of joy and happiness will occur when man is restored to the original condition. He should be joined to the other half completely.

The speech supports the young people’s view or desire of getting a soul mate. Each person in the world has a specific person that is just for them (Lesher, 2004)

Aristophanes explains that people are attracted to each other not because of the qualities they possess but because they are the “other half.” There is deep affection and love expressed between a couple that at times cannot be described. It is intense. His speech also tends to favor long-term unions. An individual needs to connect only to their other half as this is where love is expressed and people are content. The speech takes the form of the fall from the original state and the return to the original self. He states that if people appreciated the vital role of love in their life they would build shrines for it. Love loves human beings greatly and seeks to heal the wound they have through uniting them with their halves. Love therefore has a deep psychological and spiritual dimension.

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Aristophanes expounds on the issue of adultery. The people who are androgynous are meant to connect with people of the same gender. However where androgynous men seek after women and the androgynous women seek after the men, it causes adultery. He also puts forward there is nothing shameless about being a homosexual. The boys who embrace other men are more manly and valiant (Rowe, 1998, pg 156). They join the government. Love works to reconcile the souls or the essence of human beings. It is not about sex or having children. The homosexual men therefore have no great desire for children or marry. It is about connection.

The men in the Roman culture practiced homosexuality and Aristophanes seeks to show that the practise started in the beginning and is not a recent practice. At that point of time, Athens was a city that was governed by a few men who practiced ritualized homosexuality that was perceived to assist them maintains their power and authority. Aristophanes explains that if Hephaestus was to ask the human beings whether they want to be fused back together they would agree readily as they are in love with each other. In the Roman world, Hephaestus was a god known as the divine blacksmith. He could bind the human beings together and fasten them to each other for humanity. They do not want to be away from each other.

Sexual intercourse therefore acts as a temporary sort of union. It is a substitute and love is what every man should focus on as it tends to lead to a union of the human beings and their halves. The true healing of the wound of separation is made only possible when the two beings are joined together to become one. Hephaestus with his tools can restore man to the original state.

Some questions arise from Aristophanes’ view of love. Why is it then that people fall in love fall out of love? The love that he speaks of is an idealized kind of love that continues forever that tends to be unrealistic.

At the end of the speech, Aristophanes says that he does not want to be mocked or for the audience to treat his story as comical.

Conclusion

Aristophanes speech is different from the other men as it seeks to illustrate the origin of love. Phaedrus acknowledges that Love is one of the ancient loves. Aristophanes explains how love came about, its role and what it is. On homosexuality, he does not dwell on the reasons why men enter into homosexual relationships. He says that it is a must they exist. There was a third type of being called the androgynous who are truly homosexual due to the way they were created. It is not shameless. At the end of his speech he tells the others not to make fun of his speech. The other three men, Alcibiades, Socrates and Agathon also give their views on what they believe love to be. Agathon maintains that Love is the youngest of the gods. He loves youth and hates old age. Socrates tells the rest that he sought Diotima who explains to him the origin of Love and his parents, Resource and Poverty. Alcibiades tells the others of his love for Socrates in his speech. The symposium then comes to an end.

Works Cited

Lesher. J.H. “A Course on the Afterlife of Plato’s “Symposium”” The Classical Journal, 100. 1. (2004): 75-85. Print.

Plato. Symposium, Trans. Robin Waterfield. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1998. Print.

Rokem, Freddie. “The Philosopher And The Two Playwrights: Socrates, Agathon, And Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium”. Theatre Survey, 49:2 (2008): 239-252. Print.

Rowe, Christopher. Plato – Symposium. Warminster: Aristotle & Phillips Ltd. 1998. Print.

Warner, Martin. “Love, Self and Plato’s Symposium” The Philosophical Quarterly, 29.117(1979): 329-339. Print.

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