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Use of myth in Plato’s Symposium

This is a chapter from my book, Socrates – moral philosophy in everyday life

Symposium, part five – Agathon’s encomium and Socrates’ comments

“To be in love is merely to be in a perpetual anesthesia – to mistake an ordinary young man for a Greek god or an ordinary young woman for a goddess.”
Henry Louis Mencken, Prejudices (First Series)

Agathon[1] turns to theology for his own encomium on love (click here and here for some of the previous ones of Plato’s Symposium). “The previous speakers did not praise the god, but felicitated humanity for his gifts. But no one spoke of the nature of the god who gives these gifts”194e. Agathon eulogizes the god himself, speaks of his own mythological characteristics and virtues and then of the things he blesses humans with. The correct encomium, he says, firstly explains the nature of its object and then its benefits, a method that Socrates will be using later on as well.

“Eros is the happiest of all because he is the most beautiful and the best one. He is the most beautiful, Phaedrus, because he is the youngest among the gods…By nature he hates old age and keeps away from it as much as possible. Young men always accompany him and he remains always young, like, as the saying goes, the like keeps company to its alike”195a-b.

Τοιχογραφία στην Πομπηία
Fresco in Pompeii (photo)

Agathon comes in complete contrast to Phaedrus and his lover Pausanias, who had said that the proof of Eros being the most supreme god is his antiquity. And he continues to justify Hesiod’s and Parmenides’ narratives on the creation of the gods and the world, claiming that the true cause of these is “Ananke”. Ananke was the personification of the relentless law of nature, fate or necessity (her Roman counterpart was “Necessitas”). The ancient Greeks thought that even the gods were prey to Ananke, which they could not control or influence. “Against necessity not even gods make war” says Simonides in Protagoras345d. It acts beyond reason and morality, miracle or chance. If Eros was involved in all these (cosmogony and theogony), the brutalities we come across while reading the myths would not have taken place, but love and peace would prevail, like they do now that Eros rules the gods. “And he is not only young but also delicate…He builds his nest in the emotions and the souls of men and gods, but not to all indiscriminately. When met with an emotionally rough soul he retreats, but in the soft ones he settles for good…Because how could he go in and out silently in the souls, which he engulfs, if he was not pliable?…Because between ugliness and Eros an unending war rages on”195c-196a. To describe the delicacy of Eros, Agathon uses Homer’s words when he was describing the delicate nature of Ate[2]:

“Yet delicate her feet, not stepping on the ground
only on heads of mortal men she balances”195d

He ends his description of the god by saying that he only lives in beauty, in places inflorescent and fragrant like the flowers or inside good souls, because Eros cannot reside in a body, a soul or anything else which cannot blossom.

After describing the great beauties of Eros, Agathon moves on to his virtues. Eros neither commits injustice nor does he fall victim to it, he doesn’t act violently nor is he harmed by violence, because everyone falls into him voluntarily. Laws ratify all that the lovers confess to each other; but other than just, he is also moderate. Since moderation is to rule your desires and pleasures, and since no pleasure is superior to Eros (let’s remember that Eros means “love” in Greek), Eros rules and controls all of them, and so he rises to the absolute holder of sophrosyne (here meant simply as moderation). He proves also to be courageous, since he rules the bravest one of all, the god of war Ares, who is a prisoner of his love for Aphrodite. But apart from his virtues of justice, sophrosyne and courage, Agathon praises Eros’ wisdom, maintaining that he was the inspiration of every creative expression belonging in the sphere of the Muses’ influence and can make a poet out of anyone as long as he touches him. “Who doubts that the creation of living organisms is the result of the wisdom of Eros, to which every form of life owes its birth and existence?”197a Technicians too (practitioners of a tecnhe), even gods themselves, used him as a guide to devise their techne; Apollo’s archery, medicine and clairvoyance, the Muses’ artistic creation and Zeus’ governing. “This is why things calmed down in the kingdom of the gods from the moment Eros showed up among them, obviously the Eros [love] of the beautiful – a god wants nothing to do with ugliness”197b.

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 (photo)

Eros calms nature by bringing peace to the oceans and slowing the winds and to humans by uprooting hostility from their hearts, filling them with friendship. He sends away the roughness and brings meekness, provides courage in struggle, pain, fear and battle, and takes the lead in dances, feasts and sacrifices. He is a balm and a joy of life.

So, for Agathon, Eros is the most happy, beautiful, good, loved, peaceful, delicate, soft and pliable. His virtues are justice, sophrosyne, courage and wisdom, and he inspires all the virtues that gods and men acquire. Agathon reminds us of Eryximachus, both trying to ascribe to love a stack of characteristics and qualities, to make him fit into every span of human endeavor and even into nature itself. But where Eryximachus shows himself a shallow and cold encomiast, using scientific language and a speech without substance, Agathon proves to be a better operator of rhetoric, using beautiful phrases and descriptions; but only to become extraneous, since he continues to speak after the point he stopped being coherent or interesting. In contrast to Eryximachus, he makes use of myth, which is not enough, though, to salvage a preferable assessment of his speech, since it is filled with inconsistency (the fact that Hesiod says Eros precedes the gods does not necessarily mean that he also ruled them, therefore the inconsistency in Hesiod’s narrative, that demands Ananke’s role to explain the mythological brutalities, does not seem to be there) and doesn’t endure Socrates’ dialectical criticism (we will see it later). At the same time, concerning his utilization of myth, he counters previous speakers, not just in narrative but also in essence, beginning with Phaedrus.

The difference between Agathon and Phaedrus is not only superficial. Phaedrus takes a clue from Hesiod’s Theogony and uses it as unquestionable evidence of a quality of Eros. In particular, he uses the mythological “fact” that Eros was created before the other gods as proof of a quality of Eros (his superiority). Eros’ antiquity is seen by Phaedrus as some kind of knowledge, or as an axiom, that, through deduction, implies excellence. Aristophanes did a similar thing when he used the myth of the bi-gendered beings to praise unadulterated relationships and the function of the loving emotion in men, as a necessary conclusion of his mythological narration. But Aristophanes created his own myth for the sake of his encomium –and this was obvious to all. We cannot then say that he used the myth as fact, knowledge or as an axiom or any other kind of authority that led him to a binding conclusion. Aristophanes simply has his own convictions to share with the others and in order to make them comprehensible to us, if not to force us to experience them, he creates a story. His narrative is poetic (he was a comic poet after all); therefore we can say that there is a kind of symbolism or transcendence in it. Aristophanes starts backwards, relating to us a myth which is created in such a way so that it leads us to what he already meant to postulate. He is also the only one who doesn’t refer to theogony (the creation of the god Eros). His myth refers only to the creation of men by the gods; we could then say that he introduces anthropogony in the Symposium, which is becoming to the content of his encomium and his use of myth, since Aristophanes centers on man and his emotions, on man’s sensuality and on the irrationality of love, as necessary implications of the myth, while the other speakers describe benefits and attributes that arbitrarily ensue from Hesiod’s work.

Αυλήτρια σε συμπόσιο
Flute-player in a symposium

Agathon shows another particularity in the use of mythical narrative. He corrects Hesiod, not just in ascribing youth to Eros, but also introducing Ananke (today we would say the laws of nature) as being responsible for the theogony instead of Eros, because he considers that if Eros existed in those ancient times of the creation of the gods, and since he was superior to them (something that doesn’t become irrevocably evident in Hesiod’s work anyway), he would avert the battles of the Heavens as Hesiod describes them, since the offerings of Eros are harmony and love. He therefore ascribes the aforementioned qualities of Eros (beauties and virtues) on the one hand despite the authority of Hesiod’s Theogony and on the other because of the content of the existing mythology, when he mentions that even Ares (the bravest of gods and men) is imprisoned by his love of Aphrodite (and is therefore at a disadvantage compared to Eros) to show that Eros is the most courageous of all. He uses myth and negates it at the same time[3].

So, the objects of Agathon’s speech are the attributes of those in love (lovers and loved ones), whose virtues and beautiful characters he merely wants to symbolize with the use of the being he thinks “god Eros” is. But this symbolism is dry and unavailing. There is no actual mythological narrative in Agathon, only a description of the deity (besides, this was his stated goal all along). But in this way his speech does not reach to a conclusion and becomes void of meaning, and he can’t see that it cannot stand to criticism, whether in narrative or in essence.

This criticism comes from Plato speaking through the mouth of Socrates who makes a brief comment on what Agathon has said, opening a conversation with him before he actually starts his own encomium. So, he does not comment with the use of myth or with analysis in the form of a monologue, like the others did, but dialectically.

In his usual ironic tone, he claims ignorance and an inability to offer praise on an equal level as the others did, in the characteristic for Socrates “passive aggressive” manner he used to negate his opponents: “I realized how ridiculous I was when I agreed to make an encomium of Eros, pretending to be an authority on matters of love, whereas I was a complete ignoramus, and ignorant of the way to compose an encomium in general. Because I, obviously out of naivety, thought that one should speak the truth about what he praises and that this is a basic prerequisite”198c-d. Instead, the correct method, according to what he has so far heard, Socrates says, is to load the object of praise with the best qualities, whether they actually exist or not; “it is of no consequence if they are untrue”198e. (We will see this again in Menexenus).

Σκηνή συμποσίου σε τοιχογραφία από τάφο στο Paestum Ιταλίας, 475 π.Χ.
A fresco taken from the north wall of the Tomb of the Diver (from Paestum, Italy, c. 475 BC): a symposium scene (photo)

He continues to a short but devastating ‘interrogation’ of Agathon to draw conclusions he will later use in his own encomium. He starts by saying that love can only be understood as something that aims at an object. Eros is love for something. This something, that Eros falls in love with, is something he desires. But that which someone desires is something he certainly doesn’t have, something he lacks. He would not feel this lacking if he had it, and therefore he would not desire it. And when someone says he desires to have health and riches while being healthy and rich, what he means, and what he should be saying, is that he also wants to have these commodities in the future, that he has not secured them. Therefore, if someone says “I want something” he means that he wants something he doesn’t currently have, something that is not secured or certain, something that he himself isn’t or something he is lacking.

So, love is the desire for something one lacks. And as Agathon said previously, Eros has nothing to do with ugliness, but only with beauty and virtue. Therefore, Eros is the desire of beauty and the virtues, which implies that Eros is not himself virtuous or beautiful. How can then Agathon call Eros beautiful while he desires beauty, which means he lacks it? So, already Socrates has rebutted Agathon and all the previous speakers, who also said Eros is beautiful, good, young, wise, strong…

In this way, although Socrates started his speech claiming ignorance and inability to speak as beautifully as the others did, he more or less disproved everyone. Agathon admits defeat saying: “I, Socrates, am unable to contradict you. So let’s admit that it is as you say so”. The philosopher continues saying he himself is not important (besides, he knows nothing); that what actually led them to this conclusion is reason. “Against the truth you have no chance; against Socrates it is almost a piece of cake”201c, he replies, and immediately starts describing his meeting with the wise woman Diotima, to impart what he learnt from her about love.

References:

Plato – Symposium (or on love)

Notes:

[1] Tragedian whose works are lost. He also appears in Thesmophoriazusae by Aristophanes. Probably Pausanias’ lover.

[2] Ate: Daughter of Zeus according to Homer, daughter of Eris according to Hesiod. Secondary daimonic deity of injury and corruption, she causes blind passion and confusion in men without them knowing it, by stepping lightly on their heads.

[3] As we’ll see in the next chapter, near the end of the Symposium Socrates also uses a myth that comes to “justify” the claims he has already made. Eros cannot desire beauty and be beautiful at the same time, since what we desire is what we lack. But he can neither be ugly –he is something in between. This is explained in myth, from the fact that he was conceived by the ugly Penia and the beautiful Porus. After completing the myth Socrates goes on with his dialectic method to more conclusions. So he uses myth to prove the correctness of what he said, and then to come to the conclusion that Eros is the subject of desire, not the object. Since he is the object, he has a subject, which he explains to be immortality.

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