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.
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.
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.
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.