Aristophanes’ Theory Of Love In The Symposium2. Aristophanes’ Theory of love: from Plato’s Symposium
The love as discussed by the characters in the Symposium is homosexual
love. Some assumed that homosexuality alone is capable of satisfying ?a
man’s highest and noblest aspirations?. Whereas heterosexual love is placed
at an inferior level, being described as only existing for carnal reasons; its
ultimate purpose being procreation. There are differing views in these
dialogues, Aristophanes contradicts his peers by treating heterosexuality at
the same level as homosexuality, arguing that both are predestined.
Aristophanes considered himself as the comic poet and he began his
discourse as such. Yet as the speech continued, he professed to open
another vein of discourse; he had a mind to praise Love in another way,
unlike that of either Pausanias or Eryximachus. ?Mankind?, he said, ?judging
by their neglect of him, have never at all understood the power of Love?. He
argued that if they had understood him they would have built noble temples
and altars, and offered solemn sacrifices in his honor. He sought to describe
his power and wanted to teach the rest of the world what he was teaching at
Aristophanes spoke first of the nature of man and what had become of it.
He said that human nature had changed: The sexes were originally three in
number; there was man, woman, and the union of the two. At one time there
was a distinct kind, with a bodily shape and a name of its own, constituted by
the union of the male and the female: but now only the word ‘androgynous’
remains, and that as a term of reproach.
Aristophanes proceeded by telling an anecdote about the terrible might
and strength of mankind and how ?the thoughts of their hearts were so great
that they made an attack upon the gods?, leaving the celestial councils to
decide whether or not to kill them. Zeus found a solution, and decided to cut
them in two so as to divide their strength. As he cut them one after another,
he bade Apollo give the face and the half of the neck a turn in order that man
might contemplate the section of himself: he would thus learn a lesson of
humility. He made all the forms complete except in the region of the belly and
navel, as a memorial of the primeval state.
Aristophanes continued his discourse in a vein of seriousness and
brought forth an important truth. He related the division the two parts of man,
each desiring his other half and dying from hunger and self-neglect because
they did not do anything apart, to love as a need. Since when one of the
halves died and the other survived, the survivor sought another mate, man or
The anecdote continued with Zeus, in pity, inventing a new plan: having
males generating in the females so that by the mutual embraces of man and
woman they might breed, and the race might continue. Or, equally so, if man
came to man they might be satisfied and go about their ways to the business
of life. Aristophanes was trying to demonstrate that our original nature was to
search for our other half, to make one of two and to heal the state of man.
Aristophanes thus demonstrated that man was always looking for his
other half and this need was perhaps more than purely physical. There was
also a longing to regain some lost happiness. ?Such a nature is prone to love
and ready to return love, always embracing that which is akin to him.?
Aristophanes described that when one half met with his other half the pair
became lost in an amazement of love, friendship and intimacy, and spent their
whole lives together. Yet they could not explain what they desired of one
another. He added that the intense yearning which each of them had towards
the other was not that of the lover’s intercourse, but of something else which
the soul of either evidently desired and could not explain.
The reason Aristophanes gave to this need was that human nature was
originally one and we were all a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the
whole is called love. It was because of the wickedness of mankind that God
had dispersed us.
Aristophanes eventually adopted a sober tone in his speech and asks to
be taken seriously. He applied his anecdote to include men and women
everywhere, and proposed that if mankind’s love were perfectly
accomplished, and each being found his original true love, that our race
would be happy. If this were to be the most favorable, the next best thing
would be the nearest approach to such a union; the attainment of a congenial
Aristophanes’ speech finds itself in contrast with that of Socrates. While
Aristophanes used a vivid and elaborate story to illustrate his point, Socrates
dismisses rhetoric and claimed to be indifferent to the formal expression of
the truth as its discovery is more important.
Socrates questions Agathon’s definition of Love, asking whether or not
Love is a desire for something we lack. He adds that a person could not
desire the things he already possesses, but could only desire to preserve
them. He defines Love as existing only in relation to an object, an object it
lacks, and that since Love’s object is beauty, Love thus cannot be beautiful.
After much deduction, he comes to the conclusion that ?Love is the
consciousness of a need for a good not yet acquired or possessed.? This has
already been exposed by Aristophanes’ speech, but it is more rationally
Love, as Socrates demonstrated it through his dialogue with Diotima, is
one of the links between the sensible and the eternal world. Meaning that
Love finds itself between man and the Gods. Love is the search for spiritual
procreation. Aristophanes had described Love as the manner in which
mankind coped with the separation from the Gods. To Diotima physical
procreation was the lowest form Eros could take, she definesd three types of
lovers: the purely sensual (physical), the lovers of honor and the lovers of
wisdom. Socrates was himself the ideal ?lover of wisdom?, never allowing
himself to divert from the real pursuit of beauty: Since beauty is the ultimate
objective of Love.
Aristophanes and his comical tale of the way mankind came about
needing a partner greatly opposed that of Socrates. Aristophanes put
homosexuality and heterosexuality at the same level, believing that both were
predestined. He recognized that love was a need; a longing to regain a lost
happiness. Socrates, on the other hand, concluded that heterosexual and
homosexual Love were not at all at the same level. Arguing that physical desire
was inferior to the ?love of wisdom? which is more widespread in homosexuality,
adding that women are ?incapable of creative activity above the physical level.?
Ultimately what transpires from his speech is that he has a meaning of Love
quite different from that which the common man would attach to it.