On Plato's Symposium

O Felix Culpa: Falling in Love with Form in Plato's Symposium

It is not enough to raise consciousness. One must lower the spirit into the earth...”

-William Irwin Thompson The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light

 

“ 'Love' is the name for our pursuit of wholeness, for our desire to be complete.”

Aristophanes, in Plato, Symposium 193a

 

 

      As though itself cleaved by some vengeful demiurge, life is composed of dualities. Inhale exhale, being becoming, male female, one many; the emptiness that separates the basic pairs of worldly existence substantiates them as well, luring a dynamic Third to fill the space thus allowing for creation and meaning. Sometimes referred to as 'the Fall', this inherent division is often discussed- its origins mythologized, its reason philosophized, its reconciliation prayed for- but despite centuries of dialogue amongst the great minds of history no consensus has been reached. It is as though in seeking to understand, and accept, the deeply disconnected experience of individual identity, humanity has also sought its greatest philosophical heights, its truest spiritual sublimities. Exploring one crevice, as it were, of this great existential chasm, I hope to uncover some wisdom about the nature of humanity as it might be shown in the speech of Aristophanes in Plato's literary wonder Symposium. A parable which holds the potential to bring the reader from exuberant laughter to genuine tears, Aristophanes' speech entertains the idea of humanity's 'fallen' nature and provides, perhaps, some insight regarding Plato's stance on the matter.

     Though the extent to which Plato may have been influenced by or aware of the already extant beliefs of a 'fallen' humanity is a topic much too broad for this brief essay, it will be presumed from here that the split between humans and the divine was a common and generally pervasive idea in the axial world, and that Plato would not have been, nor thought himself to be, the first to philosophize with or against this current of thought. Incidentally, intimations of ascending and descending myths are gratuitously littered throughout Plato's authorship and it is safe to say that whether or not a single interpretation can sum up his deepest, most personal beliefs, the topic intrigued him profoundly.1

     Within the broader context of the Symposium, Aristophanes' speech is an enigma; a mythopoetic moment that stands in the middle of the seven speeches and, like Aristophanes himself, seems out of place and unfamiliar. Even within the greater historical context of creation myths, Aristophanes' spinning sphere people are unique to Plato and their satirical portrayal leaves a lasting impression on the imaginations of the Symposium's readers. But perhaps the most surprising and endearing aspect of this speech is just how deeply humanity has held steadfast to its myth of soul mates; to find within the works of a heady philosopher a gem that will go on to inform the affairs of the human heart for millennia is indeed a treasured gift for which Plato is under-recognized.

     A purely textual analysis of Aristophanes speech within the Symposium reveals it as characteristically disruptive. As a result of Aristophanes acquiring a bad case of the hiccups, the speech itself must be moved from the third place to the fourth- a move which places it squarely in the middle. These literary choices suggest an effort on Plato's part to ensure that Aristophanes is recognized and given due attention, though any further speculation on his motivations for such choices would be just that. But, careful scholarship of the Platonic dialogues as a whole suggests that Plato sought not to proclaim or determine, but rather to elicit response and demand reflection, and thus it is not necessary to know why Plato wants us to gather round a little closer when the comedian takes the stage- what matters is that we do so.

     Through Aristophanes, Plato brings eros into being. No longer the vague and sentimental god who inspires the speeches of Phaedrus and Pausanias, and taking on far more character and identity than that of Eryximachus, the eros described in Aristophanes' speech is fully incarnate- existing on earth-between humans- a Form fallen. A form not only fallen but also singularly human, the result of an irreconcilable difference in the very nature of our being. According to Aristophanes, Love exists to serve humanity: “This then is the source of our desire to love each other. Love is born into every human being; it calls back the halves of our original nature together; it tries to make one out of two and heal the wound of human nature.”2 Contrasting Phaedrus' proclamation that 'Love is the oldest god'3, but not venturing so far as Agathon to insist that love is young, Aristophanes places love's origins where all humans can experientially attest to discovering it- in the very center of the human. However, according to Aristophanes' myth, this center is not to be found in the innermost being of one individual, but rather it is the boundary that defines and separates one person from another. It is only in the coming together of two people that love, and a true center, can be found. This radical shift, from Love as an ideal Form external from and independent of humanity, to a sort of counterpart necessary for and arising out of our very existence, presents an interesting re-visioning of the origins of humanity as well as brings into question the supremacy of the gods themselves.

     The proto-humans in Aristophanes' myth are described as super-human children of the Sun, Moon, and Earth. They are spherical in shape, have double the appendages of the human form we know now, and they were in essence a single body composed of two human identities. “They were spherical, and so was their motion, because they were like their parents in the sky.”4 So powerful were these first humans that they even sought to take over Mount Olympus, a fatal mistake which leads to their fatal flaw. Rather than kill off the new race of rebellious beings, Zeus determines to cut them in half: “So saying, he cut those human beings in two, the way people cut sorb apples before they dry them or the way they cut eggs with hairs. As he cut each one he commanded Apollo to turn its face and half its neck towards the wound, so that each person would see that he'd been cut and keep better order.”5 Thus far into Aristophanes' story there is no mention of Love; eros is introduced after the split as the inner compulsion each now broken individual has to find its mate.6 It is as though before Love was introduced, humans sought not only power and control, but a god-like divinity that was never intended to be our destiny. Love then, that deeply motivating and absolutely intrinsic emotion which, for better or worse, makes us who we are, is a reminder of both of our loss as well as of our place. We are in essence, fallen forms ourselves and eros, a gift of sorts, might indeed be our compensation, our reason to rejoice in the realm of becoming and relinquish our desire for power, for the sublime, for the eternal.

     The 'fall' as depicted in Aristophanes' speech invites the reader to a host of interpretations. Likely an influential motif for the neo-Platonic tradition and sharing some of the key tenets of the whole of Hermeticism, a dual-natured human can be understood as both sensible and formal, as both base and divine. Though Plato, through Aristophanes, adheres to the metaphor that humanity is broken because it was broken in half from a third, human whole, the impulse to see that third whole as divine is stoked like a fire and allowed to ignite and burn slowly. Imaging the proto-humans in the spherical shape of the gods could not be merely coincidental: the care and creativity with which they are described, generated, and set in motion reveals profound intentionality on the part of the author. Whatever Plato himself believes, he wants the reader to ponder this Formal state of humanity and inevitably to see it as a reflection of the divine. If then the nature of our fallen selves is not just a lonely division of two people, but rather the deepest separation of humans from the realm of the Forms, the realm of the divine, Love is not only a creature comfort for our time on Earth, but it is also a means of connecting our Selves with the eternal.

     Plato is known for emphasizing important themes and ideas by placing them in the beginning of his dialogues. Aristophanes' speech begins with a theory that offers interesting perspective: “There were three kinds of human beings, that is my first point- not two as there are now, male and female.” The idea of a missing third raises interesting points about love, incarnation, and even Plato himself. Plato's authorship is characterized by the style of the dialogue- a conversation between two people (though certainly there are many discourses that involve a whole cast of characters)- and Plato himself, as the omnipresent and yet silent author, never enters into the discussion.s Furthermore, the extent to which Plato's own voice is present within and through the voices of his subjects is notoriously debated and ultimately mysterious. The author, just as the androgyne, is present in both sides of a duality, but partakes fully in neither, and in fact, it is the two opposing sides that are both fully represented (and reconciled!) in the dynamic third. Applied to the divine-human divide, the key to humanity's reconciliation is in the action of bridging the gap, in following the erotic impulse to merge wholly with the divine unknown and to be recreated in a combination of our two divergent identities as in the image of the effortless androgyne.

     Aristophanes reconciles this shift from the triphasic nature of the complete proto-humans to the dual nature of fallen humans by introducing a mythic rationale for the lived complexities of human sexuality. In his retelling of human creation Aristophanes displays how easily myth can be woven into the human psyche to provide context and meaning for the breadth and depth of human experience. Could it be that within the larger framework of Plato's writings, through the deliberate and pronounced absence of the author's own identity, is the suggestion, remembrance, warning, of the power of myth and mythmaking? Is it through the rite of storytelling that humanity can generate new identities and new worlds just as through the rite of sexuality we bring new life into our own world? Is it more than coincidence that the spherical dual bodied humans who are reminded of their wounded separation by the presence of a naval are an exact mythic replica of the very real process of pregnancy and birth- the first and most profound union and separation that each human will ever know? Aristophanes, the comic poet who carries the blame of Socrates' own 'fall' in the Platonic dialogue Apology, perhaps redeems his own culpa by imprinting humanity with an image of our own loss- and with a hopeful longing to reunite.

 

Bibliography

Plato. Theaetetus. Plato: Complete Works. Edited by John M. Cooper. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997

 

1See Plato. Phaedrus, Republic, Timeaus, for specific examples.

2Plato. Symposium. 191d.

3Ibid. 178b.

4Ibid. 190a.

5Ibid. 190e

6Ibid. 193.