Plato’s Symposium 189a-193e: Aristophanes on the Nature of Love

Ancient Greek sexuality is a fascinating topic. In the Symposium the great philosopher Plato explores the nature of love, and one form of love he particularly admires is that between two males.

The scene is the Greek Symposium; a drinking party where the Athenian male elite would discuss philosophy and perform poetry. The distinguished guests decide that at this Symposium they will discuss the topic of ‘Love’, and so in turn each man gives a speech about what he considers love to be.

Painting of a Symposium found at the Tomb of the Leopards in Etrusca, 480-450 BC.

Painting of a Symposium found at the Tomb of the Leopards in Etrusca, 480-450 BC.

The speech I have focussed on here is that of Aristophanes, the famous Athenian comic playwright. True to his profession it is a very funny speech, at least in an Ancient Athenian sort of way, but it is also incredibly charming, and very interesting in its portrayal of homosexual relationships.

Aristophanes starts his speech praising the power of Love. He tells a bizarre parody of a folk-story, going back to mythical times to describe the original form of mankind:

“In the first place, let me treat of the nature of man and what has happened to it; for the original human nature was not like the present, but different. The sexes were not two as they are now, but originally three in number; there was man, woman, and the union of the two, having a name corresponding to this double nature, which had once a real existence, but is now lost, and the word “Androgynous” is only preserved as a term of reproach.”

So there are 3 sexes: male, female, and androgynous (male and female). But it is their form that provides the joke:

“In the second place, the primeval man was round, his back and sides forming a circle; and he had four hands and four feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways, set on a round neck and precisely alike; also four ears, two sets of genitals, and the remainder as one would imagine. He could walk upright as men now do, backwards or forwards as he pleased, and he could also roll over and over at a great pace, turning on his four hands and four feet, eight in all, like acrobats going over and over with their legs in the air; this was when he wanted to run fast.”

So these humans were essentially doubles of the modern man, rolling around in somersaults when they needed to get anywhere quickly.

Representations of Aristophanes' Primeval Man.

Aristophanes’ Primeval Man.

Aristophanes then goes on to describe the great strength and arrogance of these men. So great that they dare to climb mount Olympus and challenge the gods themselves. Furious, the gods discuss what is to be done with these troublesome humans, and Zeus comes up with an ingenious solution: he will simply divide the humans in two, thus halving their strength.

“At last, after a good deal of reflection, Zeus discovered a way. He said: “Methinks I have a plan which will humble their pride and improve their manners; men shall continue to exist, but I will cut them in two and then they will be diminished in strength and increased in numbers; this will have the advantage of making them more profitable to us. They shall walk upright on two legs, and if they continue insolent and will not be quiet, I will split them again and they shall hop about on a single leg.””

And so the modern man is born! But alas a poor shadow of his former self.

Humans do not respond well to being split in two and desperately try to reunite with their other half. They hurl themselves at each other in an attempt to become one again, or else they huddle closely in the hopes that they will fuse together. As a result they waste away with no thought for food or rest.

Eventually pitying this sorry sight Zeus comes up with another ingenious plan. He turns humans’ heads around so that they now look to the front (the anatomy here is a bit convoluted). And so humans are able to embrace properly and, even better, sex is now possible. They no longer have to, in Aristophanes’ words, ‘sew their seed in the ground like grasshoppers’, but can rather sew it in one another. Thus for a short moment they are one again, and in this moment their former strength and glory is returned to them.

The next passage is interesting because it describes the different kinds of human relationships. On the one hand there are heterosexual couples of the original ‘androgynous’ people that were both male and female. Then there are couples of two woman, created from the original female humans. Finally there are male couples, and these are the ones that receive the most attention.

“But they who are a section of the male follow the male, and while they are young, being slices of the original male gender, they enjoy sleeping with and embracing men, and they are themselves the best of boys and youths, because they have the most manly nature. Some indeed assert that they are shameless, but this is not true; for they do not act thus from any want of shame, but because they are valiant and manly, and have a manly countenance, and they embrace that which is like them. And these when they grow up become our statesmen, and these only, which is a great proof of the truth of what I am saying. When they reach manhood they are loves of youth, and are not naturally inclined to marry or beget children,-if at all, they do so only in obedience to the law; but they are satisfied if they may be allowed to live with one another unwedded; and such a nature is prone to love and ready to return love, always embracing that which is akin to him.”

As is consistent with the rest of the Symposium, Aristophanes spends more time on male homosexual love and portrays it as the most positive kind (Heterosexual couples are described as the most adulterous, and female homosexual love receives little comment, although it is acknowledged). This is not exclusive to Plato but rather seems to be a reflection of Athenian society, as far as we can gather from 6th century literature and art. Young men turned to their elders for an education, forming a tutor-pupil relationship which was also a sexual one. It was a relationship that had no place for women, and was regarded as important to society in preparing young men for their adult careers. Sexuality in Ancient Greece was a completely different construct to what it is today and it is a strange thing to observe with a modern gaze.

However it is important not to take all of Aristophanes’ praise here at face value. Aristophanes wrote plays, and it the accusation that these men are shameless is a standard joke in Athenian comedies, including his own. Plato would of course have been aware of this and therefore this passage should be read as tongue-in cheek.

The next quote is maybe a bit sappy, but its a great sentiment and I just had to include it. Hephaestus, blacksmith of the gods, offers to meld lovers together again, thus fulfilling the unknown desire of their hearts.

“Suppose Hephaestus, with his tools, was to come to the couple who are lying together and to say to them, “What do you people want of one another?” they would be unable to explain. And suppose further, that when he saw their perplexity he said: “Do you desire to be wholly one; always day and night to be in one another’s company? for if this is what you desire, I am ready to melt you into one and let you grow together, so that being two you shall become one, and while you live a common life as if you were a single man, and after your death in the world below still be one departed soul instead of two-I ask whether this is what you lovingly desire, and whether you are satisfied to attain this?”-there is not a man of them who when he heard the proposal would deny or would not acknowledge that this meeting and melting into one another, this becoming one instead of two, was the very expression of his ancient need. And the reason is that human nature was originally one and we were a whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love.”

The speech ends with a warning to respect the gods, for fear that Zeus will decide to split us in half again and humankind will be reduced to hopping around on one foot.

This speech is certainly the easiest in the Symposium and the most appealing to a modern audience. Today the idea that your partner is your ‘other half’ is very popular. Also popular is the concept of a ‘soulmate’, which is also suggested here in that there is one specific person out there for you. It is the only speech in Plato’s Symposium that talks about preference. You love a certain person for reasons beyond their physical or internal perfection; the two of you are simply ‘meant to be’. It is a romantic and attractive portrayal of love.

From Shakespeare to the Spice Girls, ideas about love in Aristophanes' speech have always been a part of popular culture.

From Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to the Spice Girls’ Two Become One, ideas about love explored by Plato in Aristophanes’ speech have always been a part of popular culture.

Plato perhaps did not think much of this populist philosophy. In the final speech Socrates, Plato’s revered teacher, explicitly denies the theory that love is finding your ‘other half’. However the brilliance of this speech lies in its expression of ideas that have appealed to mankind through history.

If you haven’t come across the Symposium before then I would highly recommend it! Some of the speeches are a bit difficult to follow but it provides a fascinating and lively insight into the lives of the Athenian elite, of the great men who shaped our history, art and philosophy.

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6 thoughts on “Plato’s Symposium 189a-193e: Aristophanes on the Nature of Love

  1. Hiya Sarah! You give a helpful and insightful summary account of Aristophanes’ speech. I used to teach philosophy and The Symposium and this speech in particular were favorites of mine, partly because the students so readily got involved. I wonder about a couple of things. One is the suggestion that sexuality weakens us: we are so preoccupied by the search for love and/or sex that we find it hard to concentrate on or achieve anything else. Does this imply that celibacy or asexuality would be better, help us become more powerful? There are elements of this in Roman Catholicism and Christianity in general. I also wonder about the comment that ‘androgynous’ was used as a term of abuse. Have you found any evidence of such usage, or the appearance in that time of people who were androgynous, and how they were treated? Finally, I wonder if after all the portrayal of melting together is sentimental or even appealing. There are practical matters, like having to use the loo together. Tee hee! But also the loss of privacy, the loss of the rhythm of parting and rejoining, the ability of each person to have their own friends, pursuits, etc., in addition to their common ones. There certainly is an impulse in human sexuality in this direction; we say for example, “I could just eat you up.” It’s literally consuming. Perhaps most importantly, there’s the loss of difference: the idea that learning to love is learning about and coming to embrace and support someone who is different from you. Levinas has made much of this in his concepts of the same and the other. His ideal relationship is one in which the one recognizes the infinity of the other: the fact that the other always will exceed her or his grasp and power of comprehension.
    Well I guess I’ve whinged on long enough. Thanks for following and liking my posts. I fully intend to continue reading yours. The graphics on your site are so lovely…and so, if I may dare say so, is your profile picture!

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  2. Hi, thank you very much! Glad you like the post! Well Aristophanes in the Symposium certainly seems to think it is worth it, because only when you are in love are you completely whole and in this way it strengthens us. Perhaps a bit sappy but I am sure there are those who would agree. And haha yes the idea of being perfectly fused to your partner doesn’t completely appeal! Even when taken as a metaphor for being together it certainly asks for a lot from each other. He portrays love as a very intense experience and for me I think it all comes back to this being a populist philosophy. Its an intensely romantic portrayal of love, a sort of fairytale version, and in this way it is appealing even if not necessarily realistic in every day life. Thanks for the Levinas reference, I must confess (I hope its not too obvious!) that I’m not really a philosopher, but that’s a very interesting theory and I would certainly like to look into it more. The loss of difference is a very interesting idea, and is certainly similar to Aristophanes, although he is more saying that there was never any difference int the first place, you always were two parts of one whole. I must say I’m struggling at the moment to come up with specific references to the word ‘androgynous’ in Greek. I can’t think of any off the top of my head, but I’m sure there must be some in old comedy, in Aristophanes himself which is probably part of the joke. But then in Greek drama you had men dressing up for the female roles, and these actors were highly celebrated. Certainly the Romans had very strong ideas about Roman manliness as opposed to foreign effeminacy which must have derived at least indirectly from the Greeks, if only to then be applied to them!

    Thanks so much for the comments, I look forward to reading more on your blog!

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