Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Development of Love in the Symposium, and the Theory of Its Ultimate Fruition

Geraldine, if you have found this through some online plagiarism-finder, I myself am Rachel Knight, your beloved student, who I am sure you trust anyway.

Now here is the first final paper of the semester to be completed and turned in!

The Development of Love in the Symposium, and the Theory of Its Ultimate Fruition

In the Republic, Plato expresses disapproval of the methods of Homer and other popular poets of the time, particularly their tendency to “imitate.” Yet Plato himself employs imitation, much to the advantage of his dialogues. The Symposium takes place at a small party attended by men of thoughtful natures. The men, who are actual people from ancient Greek times and not fabrications of Plato’s, expound upon their personalities in their speeches. This is the work of Plato, who uses the public personas of well-known men to express ideas about love from different perspectives over the course of the Symposium. There are few historians who believe that the Platonic dialogues actually happened, and even less who propose that Plato wrote down the conversations word for word. Plato is imitating, though not necessarily in the fashion of Homer, who employs special diction and speech patterns to make his characters true-to-life. Plato has his characters speak in the way that they might in reality. Aristophanes the comic playwright, for example, says funny things in his speech.

Dialogue is a staple of Plato’s. Sometimes translators publish his work as a treatise sans dialogue. This is a shame. In Plato’s works, the opinions of different speakers borrow from and branch off of the speeches prior to theirs, a process which ultimately results in the formation of a philosophy that most of those present agree with. This dynamic is the reason why discussions started with the aim of using the contributions of everyone present to arrive at a collective conclusion are referred to as “Socratic seminars.”*

*I have come across this term infrequently, but did spend some time attending a high school in which Socratic seminars were a typical classroom activity referred to as such. I recall them working very well when all parties involved had equally balanced contributions, which may refute the theory that the men who discuss matters in Platonic dialogues only arrive at the same conclusion because Socrates gets them on his side.

These dialogues allow for not only the formation of an opinion acceptable to everyone present, but also, in Plato, the development of the original subject into something of greater magnitude than what it began as. In the Republic, the subject goes from justness in a single man to justness in a city to the theory of Forms. In The Symposium, the philosophy of love as it is shared between two people develops into a theory of universal love shared between all people.

Phaedrus makes the first speech, beginning the dialogue on the importance of love between two people. This will be referred to as “couple love” henceforth.

Because of [Love’s] antiquity, he is the source of our greatest benefits. I would claim that there is no greater benefit for a young man than a good lover and none greater for a lover than a good boyfriend. Neither family bonds nor public status nor wealth nor anything else is as effective as love in implanting something which gives lifelong guidance to those who are to lead good lives. What is this? A sense of shame at acting disgracefuly and pride in acting well. Without these no individual or city can achieve anything great or fine.

Having started his treatise for the beauty of couple love, Phaedrus proposes that if there was more love in the world humans would be stronger. This theme of humans achieving great power as a result of love and togetherness starts here and will be carried on throughout the dialogue, being used on a greater scale with each speech.

Take the case of a man in love who is caught acting disgracefully or undergoing something disgraceful because he fails to defend himself out of cowardice. I think it would cause him more pain to be seen in this situation by his boyfriend than by his father, his friends or anyone else. We see the same thing in the case of the boyfriend: he feels most ashamed in front of his lovers when he is caught in some disgraceful situation. If there was any mechanism for producing a city made entirely of lovers and boyfriends, there could be no better form of social organization than this; they would hold back from anything disgraceful and compete for honour in each other’s eyes. If even small numbers of such men fought side by side, they could virtually defeat the whole human race. The last person a lover could bear to be seen by, when leaving his place in the battle-line or abandoning his weapons, is his boyfriend; instead, he’d prefer to die many times. As for abandoning his boyfriend or failing to help him in danger—no one is such a coward that he could not be inspired into courage by love and made the equal of someone who’s naturally very brave. When Homer speaks about a god “breathing might” into some of his heroes, this is just the effect that love has on lovers.

He goes on to say that only those in love choose death over harm to another. After this Phaedrus cites the honorable Achilles as a good boyfriend to Patroclus because Achilles chose death over shame (apparently, in Plato’s eyes, so that he would make his lover proud.) Phaedrus furthermore suggests that lovers are divinely inspired, and therefore are even more cherished by the gods than boyfriends are. (Boyfriends are the younger man in the pairing.)

After Phaedrus’s speech comes that of Pausanias, who says “I don’t think our project has been specified properly, Phaedrus, in that we’ve been told simply to praise love. If Love was a single thing, this would be fine, but in fact it isn’t; and since it isn’t, it’s better to define in advance which type we should praise.”

This is the beginning of the transformation of the topic of discussion from something relatively simple, the bond shared between two people, to something that is on a higher scale. The topic of universal love is not mentioned until later in the dialogue, but the evaluation of love, and the idea that love can be roughly qualitative and better or worse in relation to another type of love, is presented. Thus the Platonic dialogue feeds off of previous speeches to arrive at a natural conclusion.

Pausanias posits that there are two types of love, just as there are two Aphrodites. This sets the stage for the theory that there are two levels of love, that which is shared between two people and that which is shared throughout the world. The idea that one type of love is better than the other is also foreshadowed by the claim that one Aphrodite is better than the other. The Heavenly Aphrodite might be compared to the ultimate conclusion of love, love shared throughout the world, while Common Aphrodite (which is “genuinely ‘common’” ) can be compared to love between two people. “Of course, all gods should receive praise” Pausanias says, “but we must try to distinguish between the functions of these two gods” or forms of love, as they come to symbolize. Heavenly Love is to Common Love as universal love is to couples love. Pausanias has not yet begun the discussion of universal love; that will not come until later. However, he is asserting ideas that, once the party has reached general agreement on them, will assist them in understanding what universal love is and why it is possible.

There is one distinct difference between the concepts of Common/Heavenly love and the concepts of couples/universal love. Pausanias says that “not every type of loving and Love is right and deserves to be praised, but only the type that motivates us to love rightly.” Pausanias is still talking about couple love, which can be flawed. Universal love, being an archetype of perfection, cannot be. However, his speech is a useful literary tool which, although the concepts expressed do no perfectly coincide with the concepts of universal love which will be brought up later, help prepare the reader for a theory of a sort of love that is better than another kind of love. Couple love is not intrinsically flawed as Common Love is, but it is definitely below universal love.

Pausanias continues to add to the treatise of love’s goodness, saying that love causes human beings to “have big ideas [and] develop strong friendships and personal bonds.” He says that tyrannical regimes limit love amongst their subjects, because the strength that love creates would give their subjects enough power to conquer their oppressors. This adds on to what Phaedrus said about the army of lovers and boyfriends being undefeatable, and it will be added to by Aristophanes’s tale of how the original humans nearly defeated the gods.

Eryximachus uses his expertise in medicine to form his speech on love. The medical nature of his treatise exemplifies Plato’s literary use of actual men as characters in his dialogue. Because Eryximachus was known to be a doctor, he could be trusted to have legitimate medical insight on love.*

*Plato also uses Eryximachus’s profession as an opportunity for comedy, when Aristophanes comes down with a case of hiccups and Eryximachus prescribes several ways to cure the silly ailment.

The magnitude of love is again expanded upon when Eryximachus says

Love is not only expressed in the emotional responses of human beings to beautiful people, but in many other types of response as well: in the bodily responses of every kind of animal, in plants growing in the earth, in virtually everything that exists.

In the above quotation, love takes on a weight greater than that which can be held by two people, and spreads its influence over the entire world. One might even say that Eryximachus is the first to present the idea of universal love in the Symposium, though his idea of it is scientific rather than philosophical.

So Love as a whole has great and mighty—or rather total—power... it is the Love whose nature is expressed in good actions, marked by self-control and justice, at the human and divine level that has the greatest power and is the source of all our happiness.

Since Eryximachus is the first to suggest the possibility of universal love, he must also be the first to explain how it works. An explanation is particularly necessary from Eryximachus, since his theory is of a universal love that is already present in the world rather than a universal love that is possible. He explains love through harmony. To illustrate harmony, he makes use of the examples of bodily health and music. “So in music, medicine, and in every other sphere, both human and divine, we must pay attention to these two kinds of love [Heavenly and common], because both kinds are there.”

“Here the same principle again holds good: you should gratify and promote the love of well-ordered people, or people who are not well-ordered but may in this way improve.” Eryximachus continues the theme of valuing a better type of love over that of a worse kind. This is Plato’s device for ensuring that the reader understands what good love is. The reader must understand the right way to love on the level of couple love before universal love can be achieved.

Aristophanes’s speech follows that of Eryximachus. He continues on with one of the popular themes of the night: love causing the strength people need to conquer mighty opposition. This theme was, as we have seen, touched on by Phaedrus and Pausanias, and Aristophanes takes it a step further by suggesting that humans nearly rival the gods when love is at its strongest.
The original human beings, Aristophanes says, were made of up two faces and bodies, so that two personalities were completely attached to one another. Togetherness was at its most fulfilling state for the original human beings. “They were terrible in their strength and vigour; they had great ambitions and made an attack on the gods.”

Agathon begins his speech by saying that Love is the youngest of the gods, and that he knows this because the gods would not have done such horrible things to each other if Love had existed. Love would have caused “friendship and peace between them, as there is now and has been ever since Love began to rule amongst the gods.” This implies that love can do the same thing for human beings as it did for gods: cause peace and friendship in humans instead of hatred and destruction. Of course, this requires love to move beyond that of couples love and into the realm of universal love.

The main point of Agathon’s speech, he says, is to describe Love as a god and not love as it benefits humans. This movement from the mortal to the divine broadens the scope of what love is, and so the stage is further set for the proposition of universal love.

Agathon is an actor and a playwright, as Socrates makes clear when he says that he performed his own work for a large audience not long before the night of the symposium. In fact, the party is in honor of Agathon’s recent on-stage success. It is very fitting, then, that Agathon’s speech is dramatic, uses verse, and is met by “shouts of admiration from everyone present.” Including a speech from a playwright (and not a comedic playwright like Aristophanes, who of course presents a very different speech from that of the tragedian) is a useful literary technique. Because the playwright is Agathon, the “shouts of admiration” are appropriate for developing the scene of the symposium, which is thrown in honor of his success. Even separate from this context, including a speech presented in the voice of Agathon is a useful way to keep the reader engaged late into in the treatise on love, for he is naturally an exciting speaker.

The last speech, and by far the longest, is that of Socrates. He praises the phrasing of Agathon, but hints that he has not told the whole truth about Love, opting instead to “claim that [Love] has the finest and greatest qualities, whether it really does or not.” Because Socrates essentially implies that all of the eulogies that came before his speech were untruthful, it can be suggested that part of the role of the speeches is to be refuted by Socrates.

Socrates goes on to assert, through asking questions of Agathon, that love desires something. This assertion allows for the theoretical formation of love’s ultimate realization. Couples love exists already, but love as we experience it is lacking something. It needs to be shared by everyone, throughout the world, and felt not just for one object but for everything.
“Our human race can only achieve happiness if Love reaches its conclusion.” This quotation is the perfect expression of the need for love’s ultimate fruition. If human beings can love each other as couples, and move on to loving each other as fellow human beings, displaying Eryximachus’s model of harmony, there will be global happiness. Nothing but love can bring about a world that is entirely kind and peaceful. Each speech leading up to Socrates’s claim that universal love is ideal love readies the symposium guests and the reader for the attachment of great magnitude to the importance of love.

1 comment:

runnerfrog said...

Oh, excuse the delay, but I see you heard my suggestion! Thrilled! Great stuff.
Now your blog is even better, see?
Didn't meant to give you trouble with Geraldine, but in her place I shouldn't trust you anyway. ;-)