Love in the time of Socrates


(My pre and post-class notes on The Symposium).

Long before I had ever heard of the Symposium, a reading of Voltaire made me aware of the speech of Aristophanes which occurs about halfway through the text. Immortalized in many media forms (not the least of which is Hedwig’s heart-rending version above), it is a story that resonates with me. Not only is the idea that we are searching for our other half familiar (cliche yet somewhat comforting nonetheless), but I’ve always appreciated a myth that makes room for the diversity of loves which might exist (between men, between women, between those of opposite sexes). Although it’s not the pinnacle to which we can experience love (as Socrates points out in his throw-down), this speech is one which has a high degree of emotional resonance to readers of The Symposium.

Told in a humorous form, this speech is anything but comic in its tale of punishment and subsequent yearning, and reminds us of the loneliness we might feel when in the world solo – as well as the sense of recognition that exists in our “match” when we meet them (not to mention that desperate staying up all night talking that happens in the beginning as though we are trying to fill our other halves in on everything that has happened in their absence).

Love is the name for desire and the pursuit of wholeness…. If we are friends of the gods and have him on our side, we shall do what few people now do — find and become close to the loved ones who are really our own.

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But of course, the speech of Aristophanes isn’t exactly the point of The Symposium – though it may be the point at which many of us find ourselves in our navel-gazing about love (navels being a product of Zeus’s punishment). Rather, it is the super-hero Socrates (who never gets tired or drunk or falls in human-like love or is dirty or makes a wrong argument – and is also the best soldier, the toughest man and the most admired of all) who draws the debate to its crescendo.

Desire and love are directed at what you don’t have, what isn’t there, and what you need.

And more to the point, says Socrates, love of bodies and love of individuals are only a pathway (a paltry one at that) to realizing perfect forms, and perfect beauty in a state of enlightened purpose. He recounts the teachings of Diotima:

Instead of this low and small-minded slavery [love of a particular person], he will be turned towards the great sea of beauty and gazing on it he’ll give birth, through a boundless love of knowledge, to many beautiful discourses and ideas. At last, when he has been developed and strengthened in this way he catches type of one special type of knowledge…… Like someone using a staircase, he should go from one to two, and from two to all beautiful bodies, and from beautiful bodies to beautiful practices, and from practices to beautiful forms of learning. From forms of learning, he should end up at that form of learning which is of nothing other than that beauty itself, so that he can complete the process of learning what beauty really is.

Love, then being the purpose of all living. A portal from the (base) physical, through the tender emotional search for our other half, toward becoming a friend of God – immortal in being if not in body. Trust Socrates to get to the real truth! And this is obviously where he believes it lies – in divine communion.

But! For all of that noble talk, in walks Alicibiades – as if to show us all the ways love masquerades in the mortal and vain humans who populate the world. Alcibiades immediately begins poking at Socrates for turning down his advances, stirs up jealousies and promotes heavier drinking. For all the learning of the men in the room, the rapid drinking that follows devolves their previously restrained dialogues into childish and pettty name-calling. Even Socrates gets catty! After such a lofty speech, this closing episode seems to indicate that while we might understand love as a road to the divine – most humans are a long way off from communing with the Gods.

One thought on “Love in the time of Socrates

  1. The Symposium was the first book I read in an undergraduate Rhetoric class. It was one of the books that heavily influenced me during my youth. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, great men and thinkers. The Greek culture was truly remarkable. If you look at art, literature, architecture, and culture from certain periods in the past and then compare it to our present circumstances, you come to realize that time doesn’t necessarily equate to progress.

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