History

The myth of Aristophanes in the Symposium

We started reading Plato’s Symposium in class. After Phaedrus, Pausanias and Erissimaco, Aristophanes speaks: and his speech is one of Plato’s best known things.
Aristophanes tells a myth. He says men were not originally like they are now. There were men and women who had four hands, four arms, two faces, etcetera: in short, two men and two women attached by the head, which was one. Then there was a third genus, the hermaphrodite, which was formed by a male and a female also attached by the head.
These strange beings weren’t too bad. They moved very quickly on their eight limbs and “they were terrible in strength and vigor and had great pride, so much so that they tried to attack the gods” (190 B). Zeus then, who did not want to have a bad end, decided to saw them in two: zac! Those who had been separated longed to be reunited, and lived attached, and therefore died of hunger, because they did not even think about eating, just to be attached to the other part of themselves. Then Zeus, pitying, created the sexual organs, so that they could experience their union through sex, dedicating themselves to other things when they were full.

It, therefore, happens that in life those men who were part of an original man wish to join another man: it is male homosexual love. Those women who were part of the original woman, on the other hand, are looking for another woman: it is female homosexual love. Finally, those who were part of the hermaphrodite are looking for a person of the opposite sex: it is heterosexual love.
For Aristophanes heterosexual love, what we consider normal, is a form of love that is almost an exception. The best are those guys who love men, “because by nature they are more virile” (192A). They are the ones who take care of politics once they grow up.
In short, for Aristophanes, love is the desire for unity with the loved one, who is not a random person, but is the same person to whom we were originally linked. This means that in a certain sense there is a predestined person, and that it is not possible to love several people in the same way. Aristophanes concludes: “our race would be happy if each of us led love to its end and rediscovered his beloved, thus returning to ancient nature” (193 C).
Here we find, therefore: a. love as a desire for unity b. the superiority of homosexual love c. love as “destiny”.
Do you think that the Platonic Aristophanes can contribute in some way to your personal reflection on Eros?

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