This is a chapter from my book Socrates – moral philosophy in everyday life
Symposium, part four – Aristophanes’ encomium
“To be perfect, you have to feel perfect about yourself – avoid trying to be something you’re not”
Rick Riordan, The Lost Hero
After the shallow and pseudoscientific speech by Eryximachus, Plato passes the torch to Aristophanes who speaks in complete contrast to his antecedent. His speech is vivacious, purposeful and concise, while his use of myth is not to evoke authority, like Phaedrus’, but to demonstrate his convictions. The jocular nature of the mythical origin of the necessity and the value of love transforms with ease into a meaningful comment on the human condition.
Aristophanes describes the now widely known myth of the bi-gendered beings. “In the beginning of creation the genders of humans were three and not two like today, meaning male and female”189d. The three genders were double in size in relation to today’s. There was the double male, the double female and the hermaphrodite (part male part female). This third gender survives today, says Aristophanes, only “as a name of reproach”. The three genders had four legs and four arms, two faces on a round head and double the genital parts. The male was a progeny of the sun, the female of the earth and the hermaphrodite of the moon, which has elements of both the sun and the earth.
These complete beings had great power, which antagonized the power of the gods. They had great endurance and speed, but also arrogance. They dared to challenge the gods, attempting to rise to the heavens and abolish their rule. Due to their many abilities the gods wanted to punish them and limit their powers, but they didn’t know what kind of punishment to inflict on them since they didn’t want to kill them so as not to lose their sacrifices. “But they also could not tolerate their provocative behavior. In the end, Zeus, after thinking hard about it, found a solution: ‘I think I found a way for both humans to survive and their unacceptable shenanigans to stop. I suggest they lose a part of their power. With a vertical cut I will dichotomize them all. Thus, they will be less powerful but more useful to us, since their numbers will double. They will walk straight, on two legs. If they still don’t respect anything and don’t unwind, I will dichotomize them for a second time, so that they walk on one leg, hopping about’”190d-e. In this way, their power was mitigated and their numbers doubled -and so did their offerings.
Doomed in their new, incomplete nature, these beings spent all their time looking for their other half, and when they would find it “they clenched their hands around each other in embrace craving to rejoin”191a. So they would die of hunger and inaction since they were not willing to do anything else other than being with their other half. When one of these half beings would die, its corresponding surviving one would frantically look for any other half, even one that originated from a differently gendered complete. But in this way, they were nearly led to extinction, as with the dichotomy the genitals were placed in the back of the body and there was no procreation through their embracing. Zeus felt pity for them and moved their genitals to their front, giving them the ability to procreate when they join with their opposite gender and perpetuate the species. But when a man embraced another man “there was saturation from the copulation and they could therefore stop for a while to work and take an interest to their ordinary lives” 191c. The means by which the correct joining between two men took place was love. “Since that distant time, love is inherent to human nature and aims to recover it into its original complete form. The goal is to form a complete out of the two halves and reinstate human’s health”191c-d.
This is why Aristophanes extols Eros by saying: “I am under the impression that humans have not realized at all the power of Eros. If they had truly realized it they would have built the most glorious temples and altars and offer the greatest sacrifices to honor him. Not like today when none of this happens, while normally more than the offers to all the other gods are due to him”189c.
So, all of us are halves of a whole being, and this is why we search all our lives for our other half. Men and women who come from hermaphrodites fall madly in love with the opposite gender, because that one was the original that completed his or her ancestor, and, Aristophanes says, they usually cheat on their spouse. Men who come from double males are attracted to other men and respectively women to other women. These men “happily embrace each other tightly and sleep with them”191e and “are distinguishable among other children and teenagers, as they are by nature more manly. Some think they are shameless, but they are mistaken, because this behavior does not result from shamelessness. On the contrary, it is due to daring, courage and manliness that they welcome their alike. And the greatest proof for this is the fact that they are the only ones who when they reach adulthood develop into capable politicians”192a. When they grow mature they become lovers of young men and by nature don’t care for marriage and children.
This love, Aristophanes tells us, the one that brings those who are meant to be together close, does not make mistakes. Whoever experiences it can only be benefited, and benefit will be gained for both the lover and the loved one. Because when someone “meets that which truly was his other half, it is impossible to describe the emotion he feels, thrilled with affection, intimacy and love, and doesn’t want even for one second to be separated from him. These people are tightly bound together throughout their lives, even though they would not be able to express what they hope to gain from each other. Because nobody believes that the motive that guides them to rejoice and look forward to their companionship with such yearning is the sensual pleasure. No, it is obvious that it’s something else that each other’s soul yearns for, something they cannot express, but feel it and say it suggestively”192c.
Aristophanes doesn’t leave room for half-measures, restraints or rationalizations. Eros (love) comes when you have found your other half, whether you originate from a double male, a double female or a hermaphrodite. None can explain why they are attracted to their object of love, and reason cannot describe what the gain from the relationship will be. No one knows even what to hope for in their love, therefore utilitarianism doesn’t suit it either. All there is are emotions, love, affection and indiscriminate attraction. It is not limited to the physical pleasure (without denying it) nor can it be clearly defined, but only suggestively and intuitively. Nor can anyone join with someone who does not come from the original whole being of their gender; this behavior had nearly led those who tried in agony to find any other half to their destruction. So, for Aristophanes there is neither a choice nor an alternative. There is only the inborn companionship everyone feels for their other half, whichever that person might turn out to be, whichever gender that person might be.
Aristophanes continues to say that what all of us want is reunification, and if Hephaestus appeared and asked us if we would like to be melted on the kiln and forged as one, even if that would mean we’d have a common life but also a common death, no one would deny this offer and no one would claim to desire anything different. “On the contrary one would have the feeling he heard what he always desired, to join and merge with his loved one, to be one instead of two. This has to do with our ancient nature, with the fact that two of us were once one being. Therefore, love is the desire and the aspiration to rejoin and to be completed”192e.
The comedian offers a poetic narrative about the human nature, and he does it, as might be expected from a satirist, using a myth of his own creation (at least in the context of the Platonic text) that on occasion sounds farcical. Because the image of the bi-gendered beings, as is described in detail, might indeed strike as comical, and his “justification” of the homosexual relationship –or, better, the explanation of its nature- through this mythological origin, as well as his comments, suggesting that men who are attracted to men are more masculine that the rest and that they make the best politicians and the most loyal husbands, are exaggerations that push the limits of facetiousness. This must not impel us to ignore what he says as being ridiculous (like others have done, as we said earlier). Aristophanes does what he always did; he uses a jocular narrative to draw our attention to an aspect of human behavior – here, the sexual behavior. It is reason (however much reason can fit in a myth) that becomes his tool to show us that a loving affair cannot be deemed vulgar if it truly involves two halves of one complete being. On the contrary, it is the denial of this reality -meaning to deny one’s nature- that will lead us to calamity if we search any other half available to join with.
His use of myth obviously does not constitute an effort to explain the homosexual relations in biological or naturalistic terms, but an effort to define it as a moral choice. Not a moral choice in the sense of picking the appropriate lover among the many suitors using criteria of quality, like Pausanias did. Because you cannot choose which your other half will be –that is prescribed by one’s gender of origin (we might say it is written, it is your fate). Morality lies in the acceptance of this very fact, that only our true other half will lead us to virtue and happiness. This is the good choice. The denial of one’s nature (the denial of truth – a kind of anti-knowledge) will lead to an impasse of imperfection and misery. That is why Aristophanes does not bother with discriminating between virtuous love (Heavenly) and vulgar love (Pandemos), as Pausanias and the others do. Love is virtuous by definition, because it doesn’t limit itself to the physical pleasures but it de facto includes mental unification and communication of souls. If it doesn’t, it is not love.
“It would be fair to dedicate an encomium on Eros, which benefits us generously, since it guides us to the ones who befit us and, at the same time, if we are pious, gives us many hopes for the future that he will restore us to our ancient nature, he will grant us health in order to become fortunate and happy”193d.
Plato – Symposium (or on love)