This is a chapter from my book Socrates – moral philosophy in everyday life
Symposium, part three – Eryximachus’ encomium
“A heart that loves stays young forever”
In Plato’s Symposium, one after one the symposiasts make a speech praising love. Pausanias (third in line) finishes his encomium having separated love in two kinds, the vulgar love and the virtuous love. The doctor Eryximachus complements him, thinking that Pausanias started well enough but didn’t analyze the issue completely.
“Eros is not limited to the souls of men…but can be traced in animals, the earth’s plants and all the beings”185e. Love, with its two sides, is the natural legacy of all bodies. And since health is different than sickliness, and since the unalike things desire and fall in love in a dissimilar manner (meaning different beings have different desires), the love born in healthy bodies is different than the love born in sickly ones. And as it is good to correspond to worthy men and shameful to yield to the vile, the same applies to all organisms. In order for someone to be healthy he must satisfy the good and healthy elements and battle the bad and sickly ones. Therefore, medicine is the science of the loving relations in the body that are intended to saturate and relieve. “The doctor’s mission is to reconcile the most contrary elements of the organism so that they feel mutual love”186d. The best representative of practiced medicine aims at that interference which will discard the vulgar love, in order for the decent one to be adopted, and will inspire love in a body that lacks it.
Contrasting elements in the organisms are the directly opposites: hot-cold, bitter-sweet, dry-wet etc. Asclepius, the god of Medicine, placed the inspiration of love and harmony in these elements as a cornerstone in his science. “Medicine in its totality functions under the direction of god Eros, of gymnastics and of agriculture”186c, but also of music. Harmony in music is created by the accordance (‘symphony’) of high and low tones, and rhythm is created by the accordance of speed and slowness. This accordance is created by music when it inspires love and concert among the tones and the rhythms. Therefore, music is the science of the loving relations in harmonies and rhythms.
So far in his encomium Eryximachus doesn’t raise an issue of love having two natures. This arises when the need for the cultivation of man comes up, by utilizing the rhythm and the harmony either through composition or through execution. Pausanias is right, says Eryximachus, to say that we must satisfy desire and preserve the love of the decent men and those who want to become decent. This is the Heavenly Love while the Pandemos Love must be offered only with caution, so that one can enjoy desire without falling in debauchery. In the same way, in medicine too we must ensure the correct way of the tasting pleasure is followed, so that we can taste pleasurably without the negative consequences. “Therefore in music also and in medicine and in everything else, earthly and godly, as much as possible, we must insist in the distinction of the two forms of love because both exist everywhere”187e.
The dominance of Eros extends to all of nature. When the opposing elements (hot-cold etc) meet the decent love and harmonize, the seasons of the year bring abundant crops and health to people and to animals, but when the arrogant love persists, catastrophes are caused, and bereavements, famines and illnesses. “The frosts and the haze and ergot strike the plants and animals, because in this kind of love affairs the balance is overthrown, and the violation of measure predominates”188b. The orbits of the stars which astronomy studies, the seers’ sacrifices and the communication of men and gods in general, they all aspire to the care of Eros. “Because impiety results usually from the one who denies responding to the decent love’s calling”188b.
Eros then, with his two makes, is, some might say, all-mighty. “The Eros being served by men with sophrosyne and justice, both in the world of men and of the gods, is truly all-mighty and provides us with every happiness, while at the same time he secures unimpeded communication and mutual love, even with the gods who are our superiors”188d. Like medicine harmonizes the organic parts of the body, so will Eros harmonize the relations among men and those between men and gods.
Eryximachus proves to be shallow, since the only thing he seems to add with his encomium is that in love we must maintain measure, like in all other things; describing an image of the world that is rather metaphysical, with language that is scientific on the surface, in an encomium without in-depth analysis or particular interest. Many times he results to the praising of medicine rather than love (or Eros), clearly driven by his professional occupation. Love, finally, to Eryximachus, is the measure itself (or, anyway, the harmony which measure achieves); more of a quantitative value than a self-subsistent concept or a process. He makes love dominate and ‘explain’ every single thing in the world; men’s relationships with gods and each other, the health of humans, animals and plants, nature and the weather phenomena, music…He transformed it into some kind of cosmic force that can be applied to all things, and therefore is lost in the totality of everything; because only nothing fits in everything. In short, Eryximachus reminds us of the vague words and the void promises of a Paolo Coelho or a Deepak Chopra; big words covered in beautiful images, good intentions and pseudoscientific pomposity. One only wonders whether Eryximachus ever, even once, fell in love.
As for the Platonic narration throughout the dialogue concerning the procedurals of the symposium, Eryximachus is shown to be rather conservative, since he proposes for everyone not to drink a lot, regulating the amount of wine each of them should consume, and is the first, along with Phaedrus, who leaves the company of the others when they start to overdo it in having fun. He avoids enriching his speech with mythological narration (that the others use), his speech is dry and austere, and he shows self-complacency (at one point he even tries to correct the Presocratic philosopher Heraclitus). Careful in the choice of his words, he fails to mention the love for young men like the previous ones did (and the next ones will), abiding perhaps to what he preached, maintaining measure not just in his actions but also in his words. Even Leonard Bernstein, in the opus he wrote inspired by the Symposium (“Serenade after Plato’s Symposium”), dedicated to Eryximachus a mere one and a half minute.
Plato – Symposium (or on love)