In 416 comedic playwright and charming protégé
of Socrates, Agathon, won the palm for the best new comedy at the Dionysian
Festival. On the second night of his
celebration, a drinking party (symposium) was held at his house for the leading
intellects of Athens including Socrates and his friend Aristodemus. The revelers agreed, having drunk heartily
the night before, to drink slowly, requiring each eminent guests to give an
economium on the god Love (Eros). The
results were reported by Aristodemus to Apollodorus (who presumably informed
Phaedrus said Eros was the oldest of the
gods and gave poetic reference. Yet he
said Love of all the gods had no poetic patron which seemed wrong. He thought it notable that lovers, whether
men on the battlefield or heterosexual couples in domestic life, will do brave
and meritorious things rather than be shamed in front of their lover. He noted that Alcestis who gave her life for
her husband was allowed to return from Hades but Orpheus who would not lay down
his life did not succeed in getting his wife back.
Pausanius, the legalist, complained that
Phaedrus did not distinguish between the common love of Aphrodite (homosexual
and heterosexual and common) and the exalted love of Aetheria (essentially
homosexual and virtuous) indicating a disinterest in heterosexual relations and
praising male-male unions because males were thought more intelligent. Aetherian love encourages a meeting of the
minds. Pausanius notes different Greek
regions have different tolerances for homosexual love. Finally, he observes that even a young man
who submits himself to the advances of an older in hopes of money or for lust is
disgraceful; rather such unions should be based on a desire to obtain wisdom
and maturity from the elder lover.
Eryximachus took the turn of Aristophanes beset
with hiccups, and argued that the God of love controls not only humans but
animals and plants and even other Gods.
He claimed that the two loves of Pausanius existed in all of these and
that one was healthy and the other unhealthy and it was the physician’s duty to
balance the two to promote health (He is not referring to gender orientation
but to the virtuousness or commonness of love).
Aristophanes, the great comedic playwright
of classical Greece told a yarn about how people had once been joined in pairs
(facing away from each other) with double the number of limbs. There were male-male pairs, female-female
pairs and female-male pairs. For some
transgression (in the era of Prometheus) Zeus punished them by splitting them
into their component halves with each half reborn into the world thereafter
seeking his or her former counterpart.
This supposedly explained why there were different gender preferences in
love. It appears Aristophanes thought
the topic a a great joke.
Agathon provided a stirring economium in
which he uncritically ascribed every virtue and strength to love insisting he
was the greatest of the Gods.
Socrates, taking the opportunity to teach Agathon
questioned him as to whether that which desires (Love) already has what it
desires. Agathon agreed it did not, and
Socrates asked whether anyone ever loved what was not good and Agathon admitted
they did not. Then Socrates said that
love could not therefore be as Agathon had said because if it had such good
things those in its possession, it would not be in want of them.
Socrates then recounted his experience with
the great Athenian seer Diotama of Mantinea, his instructress in the art of
love and perhaps much else. Diotama told
Socrates love was not indeed a god but a great spirit (daemon – from whence
demon) the child of Poros (plenty) and Penia (Poverty) fathered at the birthday
feast of Aphrodite while Poros lay drunk.
Love is always poor but resourceful and determined. Men only love that which they perceive as
good and can love what they already possess only when they want it to last eternally. This is a sublimated desire for
immortality. Diotama described the
lesser mysteries of love as the need to be immortal through offspring – love of
the body (essentially heterosexual and procreational in character). She
spoke of a higher more exalted love that did not require procreation or even a physical
component – a love of the spirit. Spirits
thus joined create something new and wonderful in seeking that which is good
and thereby achieving an immortality of the soul of the lover. This sort of love she said could flourish between any two people (ie between men and men and women and women as well as between men and women)
Alcibiades arrived drunken and playfully,
jealously complained of Socrates closeness to Agathon. He recounted his own experiences with
Socrates, a great mentor to him and whom he had loved devotedly but who, in
accordance with Diotama’s higher mysteries, though risking his life for
Alcibiades in battle, would not consummate that love physically. The Platonic love elucidated by Diotama was demonstrated by Alcibiades (albeit disappointedly) and Socrates.
Socrates, unaffected by drink conversed
with Agathon and Aristophanes about theater until dawn and went his way.
It is notable that Socrates agreed to speak
saying he could not refuse to talk about the only subject he knew anything
about. Xenophon later lampooned Socrates
in his own derivative but decidedly less reverential “Symposium” saying
Socrates delighted the others with his detailed knowledge if the art of
pimping. It is also extraordinary that
Diotama, the one person acknowledged wise by Socrates, was a woman.
Jowett remarked the Symmposium “is the most perfect in form” of all Plato’s
works and “More than any other Platonic work is Greek both in style and
subject, having a beauty ‘as of a statue’ "