ARISTOPHANES’ SPEECH IN PLATO’S SYMPOSIUM: A presentation
1) SITUATING THE SPEECH
Just as Socrates covers up his physical ugliness through his unusual use of “fancy slippers” (174a), so Aristophanes covers up the tragic nature of his brief speech on the nature of human erotic longing with the temporary soothing elements of comic myth. In this sense Ar. shares, as we shall see, Freud’s own pessimism regarding the search for human happiness through a life centered fundamentally on the erotic intermingling between lovers. For Freud, as we already know, “the weak side of this technique of living is easy to see … it is that we are never so defenceless against suffering as when we love, never so helplessly unhappy as when we have lost our loved object or its love” (CiD, 270). But before looking more closely at the way this pessimism finds expression in Aristophanes’ speech, we must seek to briefly situate the comedian’s words within the whole of the Platonic dialogue. In doing so we should keep in mind the fact that it is not Aristophanes the author of The Clouds who speaks, but rather Plato appropriating the comedian’s way of life for his own purposes.
That this concern is central in trying to understand the comic’s speech can be clearly seen in that Ar. is mysteriously silenced by Plato at different crucially climatic points of the dialogue. The first of these occurs just after Socrates has finished recollecting Diotima’s complex words concerning the possibility of an ascent to “the beautiful in itself”. Diotima’s speech not only explicitly mentions and rejects Aristophanes’ myth ———due to its distancing itself, allegedly, from the goodness of the lovers involved (206d-e)——– but also involves a starting point in the ascent that stands in outright conflict with the comedian’s understanding of what is involved in the erotic interrelation between lovers. For Diotima the initiate in erotic understanding “first of all … must love one body and there generate beautiful speeches. Then he must realize that the beauty that is in any body whatsoever is related to that in another body; and if he must pursue the beauty of looks, it is great folly not to believe that the beauty of all bodies is one and the same. And with this realization he must be the lover of all beautiful bodies and in contempt slacken this erotic intensity for only one body, in the belief that it is petty” (210a). For the Diotimian lover the uniquely beautiful body of the loved one is not only interchangeable with others, but is linked to a kind of brutishness unworthy of those engaged in ascending towards “higher ground” (and those who believe this bodily interchangeability is not so problematic, must grapple with the fact that it also holds for the individual soul of that human being which we love as no other (210d)). Now, what is extremely suspicious from the stance of the defender of Ar.’s speech lies in that, once Socrates has finished speaking, we learn that the comedian does not only NOT praise it, but moreover is just about to speak when Plato silences his reservations via the entrance of the bodily beautiful and drunken Alcibiades. (212c). Perhaps Alcibiades’ speech will retake elements of Ar.’s myth, but perhaps too Alcibiades will not fully express the comedian’s deepest reservations. Now, however that may turn out to be, it is likewise suspicious that towards the end of the dialogue Plato once again is quick to silence Ar. In the culminating conversation between Ar., Agathon and Socrates, conversation in which the latter is trying to “compel” (223d) the other two to admit that the tragic poet is also a comic poet, Ar. , by the magical hand of the author, is the first to be “put to sleep”. Socrates, in contrast, goes on sleepless to the Lyceum. How to understand this? Is their a hierarchy between the different speeches, Socrates’ being the culminating one? Does Socrates speech take up and complete Ar.’s, just as Pausanias claimed to complete Phaedrus’? Does Ar.’s speech present itself not as a dialectical “stepping stone” for what is to follow, but rather as a sort of broken bridge which divides two different ways of living one’s erotic life? Could one then not say that Ar. sleeps first for he somehow knows that his speech has already accomplished what Socrates is trying him to compel him to admit, namely, that comedy and tragedy are two sides of a circle eternally split for us humans who are continually torn between the bitterness of tears and the sweetness of laughter.
The competition between Socrates, who is characterized by his ‘strangeness’ (215a), ‘outrageousness’ (175c) and ‘oddness’ (175a), and Ar., is further made clear by the starting point each takes up in order to the clarify our erotic involvements. While Socrates, unlike in the Apology, claims to have “perfect knowledge of erotics” —— a knowledge expressed not by him but by Diotima (177d) ——– Ar. speaks from his own personal, perhaps lived-through, opinion (189c) (although it is also important to remember that Ar., of all the speakers, is the only not paired with any other as lover to beloved). Moreover, both speakers seems to hold allegiance to very different gods. Socrates lets us know that Ar.’s “whole activity is devoted to Dionysius and Aphrodite” (177d). Ar. is concerned with two very particular Olympians: on the one hand Dionysius, the only god who knows of death and a subsequent rebirth, the god of wine and music (music being “exiled” from the dialogue, while wine is “moderated”), the god of excess which Agathon calls upon to judge the rivalry between him and Socrates (175e), and on the other hand, Aphrodite, the beautiful goddess of delicate feet born asexually from the genitals of Uranus after having been conquered by Cronos, the goddess who commits adultery with Ares, god of war, and is made to pay for it by Hephaestus, to whom we shall return. (It is noteworthy that Ar. seems to avoid Pausanias’ clever and complex split between the Uranian and Pandemian Aphrodites, a split which leads to controverial dualities such as those of beloved/lover, passive/active, body/mind and, their social expression in conventional roles such as those of the “machismo/marianismo” dichotomy in a Latin American context). These two gods, which are mysteriously absent from Ar.’s speech itself, stand in outright contrast to the Apollinian values of self-knowledge and moderation, values which partly characterize the behaviour of Socrates.
Aristophanes’ linkage to the love of wine, and thus to Dionysius, is made clear from the very line which marks his entrance. Celebrating Agathon’s victory he drank not moderately, but rather like a human sponge, taking in so much that he has become completely soaked. (176b). Aristophanes is not by any means a measured Athenian gentleman. His disordering presence becomes even more evident precisely when his turn to speak arrives. If Socrates rudely interrupts by his bodily inacitivity the dinner to which he is invited (174d), Ar. rudely interrupts by his bodily activity the original order of the speeches. Just when Pausanias has finished his sophisticated speech on pederasty, Ar. reveals that hiccups have gotten the best of him. Hiccups, we are mysteriously told, due to “satiety or something else” (perhaps wine?) (185d). Eryximachus, the physician who had played a key role both in ordering the whole banquet (177d), and in moderating the dangerous effects of wine (176d), sets out to cure the poor comedian’s sudden illness. Medicine rescues the comedian by putting forward the strongest of cures known to hiccuping, the soaking outbursts of sneezing. Once Eryximachus’ “doctoral” speech come to an end (presumably with Ar. hiccuping and sneezing throughout), the comedian ironically challenges the doctor’s claims to understanding the nature and erotics of the body. He says: “so I wonder at the orderly decency of the body, desiring such noises and garglings as a sneeze is; for my hiccuping stopped right away as I applied the sneeze to it” (189c). That Ar. is not by any means thanking his doctor, is made evident by the laughter of all those present; a laughter which comes into conflict with the seriousness of the doctor who fights back by way of an aggressive challenge. Eryximachus will become the guardian of comedy; “you did have the chance to speak in peace”, he tells Ar. (189b). The comic poet becomes now the doctor who must cure the excessive anger which bursts easily from the moderate physician. Ar. seeks a truce (as in his work Peace), claiming to want to start from the beginning: “let what has been said be as if it were never spoken” (189b). (An apology which seems to imply that the previous speeches have somehow gone wrong.) Eryximachus, in turn, demands that the poet give a rational account (‘logos’) of eros; a demand which, if fulfilled, would reduce the speech of the comic to pure silence. Ar. will speak in another vein, it is one which involves story-telling, imaginative interaction and poetic creativity; much the same things we feel are neccesary in speaking about one’s love for that other who makes us feel “head over heels”. Finally, the comedian shares with us his one big fear; Ar. is not afraid of saying laughable things, that is to say, things which can be shared by all of us who somehow feel ourselves identified with what is said —–things which, besides, represent a gain for the poetic Muse (189c)—— but he is afraid of saying things that are “laughed at”, that is to say, things from which we think we can distance ourselves and judge from a higher plane than that of our vulnerable and tragic condition (189b).
2) ASPECTS OF THE SPEECH
At the outset I argued that Freud and Ar. investigate the viability and shortcomings of the highly risky human possibility which centers the attainment of happiness on a radical emphasis in the life of erotic sharing between two individuals. But besides this similarity, what is more amazing still, is that we find in Freud a passage in which he makes us recollect Ar.’s own mythological comprehension of the power of Eros in our lives. For Freud: “ a pair of lovers are sufficient to themselves, …… in no other case does Eros so clearly betray the core of his being, his purpose of making one out of more than one … (thus) we can imagine quite well a cultural community consisting of double individuals like this, who libidinally satisfied in themselves, are connected with one another through the bonds of common work and common interests …. but this desirable state of things does not, and never did, exist” (CiD, 298). For Ar., once upon a time, such state did “exist”, and his story stands as imaginative “proof”. It is a story which allows us to re-’collect’ the genesis of human erotic longing. Only through its understanding can we come closer to comprehending that force in us which strives to reach out for another’s physical and psychical partnership.
The brevity of the speech stands in stark contrast with its complexity. Too many issues are brought together and unfortunately, I cannot, nor know how to, deal with many of them. Therefore, I propose first to put forward some questions regarding a few of the most relevant aspects within the myth, and second, to zero-in more closely on one of these aspects, namely, the central issue which links Ar. to Freud’s ‘community of double individuals’..
Some of the questions one could consider in trying to begin to understand the comic speech by Ar. are: i) Why are the circular gods of nature ——– the sun, the earth and finally the moon as intermediary between both—— gods from which the circular beings are born (male, female, androgynous respectively) (190b), quickly transformed into the anthropomorphic gods of Olympus whose origin is not even discussed (190c)? How to understand the needy nature of the Olympic gods (particularly Zeus) who wisely, after being perplexed, come to realize that by destroying the circular race of protohumans they will end up destroying their ‘other half’, namely, the one which honours and praises them? Is the Zeus mentioned here identical with the Olympian Zeus of tradition? And if so, then why so much emphasis on his deliberation (190c), his perplexity and his pity (191b)? Moreover, why, if Socrates has told us that Ar.’s god’s are Dionysius and Aphrodite, do precisely these gods not appear in the mythical narration of the genesis of eros and our permanent illness? Furthermore, why is Zeus made to speak three times in the present “says” (190c), “supplies” and “rearranges” (191b), while the rest of his speech is in the past? Does this imply, as in Freud, that somehow the process of civilization, although comprehensible to a certain extent regressively, is nevertheless a process which has constituted us in a radically imperfect and incomplete way, a process that is, in other words, ‘here to stay’? Finally, is the process of what Ar. considers the unjust splitting up by Zeus, a split which seems to link sexuality to shamefulness, comparable to the “unjust” process of religion in Freud’s own perspective, a process which links sexuality to guilt? How could one link this new reference to shame, to the shame of the lovers of honour which one finds in Phaedrus’ speech? ; ii) How to understand the fact that the circular beings, who seem complete in themselves, nevertheless are, from their very mysterious conception, made to lack something so that they are taken over by “proud thoughts” which make them try to overturn, not the natural gods, but the anthropomorphic gods of Olympus (190b)? How do they end up getting this overwhelming desire for power into their heads in the first place? And if not their own fault, then why are they punished for something which presumably is not in their power to modify? Moreover, what is one to make of the status of the ‘androgynous’ original kind which has mysteriously disappeared, leaving only its reproachable name behind (189e)? Is it reproachable, not for Ar. who in the Lysistrata reaches peace through a Panhellenic strike of wives, but for the Greeks in general due to their view that men are superior to women? Could one link this ‘androgynous’ type to Freud’s views on bisexuality, particularly as it finds expression in each individual?; iii) How can we understand Ar.’s intention of including in his speech a concern for all human beings by focusing on human nature in general (189c-d, 190d, 191c-d), and not just a few who have the ‘real’ key to loving? Does not Ar. then miss the fact that loving IS somehow or other inevitably linked to the customs (‘nomos’) within which it develops; so that for instance loving between Canadians, Latin Americans and Japanese is really quite different?; iv) What is the relationship between the, ironic, yet serious reference Ar. makes to pederasty as the only activity which prepares men to political office, but does so by setting aside the very procreation of the species and thus endangering the very subsistence of the city (192a)?; v) Is Diotima’s critique concerning the ethical nature of lovers one that radically undermines Ar.’s position? (For instance, we think there is something odd in saying that Eva Brown was the ‘other half’ of Adolf Hitler) Moreover, don’t we conceive of lovers likewise as somehow seeking out to become friends in terms of character?; and finally, vi) given that each half of the circular beings, I think, must have been generated simultaneously in time, and that in their original form they each had their own set of everything, except for the head which was shared by the two opposing faces, could one not then somehow link these creatures to Freud’s notion of narcissim by looking at the following passage in which he discusses the relationship between love and hypnosis: “we see that the object is being treated in the same way as our own ego, so that when we are in love a considerable amount of narcissitic libido overflows onto the object. It is even obvious, in many forms of love-choice, that the object serves as a substitute for some unattained ego ideal of our own. We love it on account of the perfections which we have striven to reach for our own ego, and which we should now like ro procure in this roundabout way as a means of satisfying our narcissim.” (GP, 143). (one could also look at the Phaedrus (252e) where the beloved becomes a mirror image of us, a divine mirror image that is) Would one not have to consider then the complex relation between self-love and the love of others?
Not having the space, nor the understanding to even start to provide some answers to these questions, I would like instead to focus now on Ar.’s claim that the power of Eros lies in its providing us with the greatest possible happiness any human being could ever expect to achieve in this world. As he puts it: “Eros is the most philanthropic of gods, the helper of human beings as well as a physician dealing with an illness the healing of which would result in the greatest happiness for the human race” (189c-d)”. According to Ar. we humans can allegedly reach happiness via erotic involvement, but it seems, not just with anybody. Eros represents this regressive possibility by allowing us to catch a glimpse of our ancient nature (also, but differently, Phaedrus 250 ff). Unlike the tragic results of the first operation by Zeus, operation which culminated in the painful death of the two newly severed parts which were left to cling unto each other, dying “due to hunger and the rest of thier inactivity, because they were unwilling to do anything apart from one another” (191b), (a reminder of the cicadas in the Phaedrus (259b)), for us who are the “beneficiaries” of the second more complex Apollinian operation, sexuality has been brought to the fore. Having placed the genitals, the “shameful things” in Greek, in the front (191b), we can move beyond clinging by now engaging in sexual activity. Through the latter the previous oneness can be, only temporarily for sure, remembered once again. Eros’ power allows this, and it is because of it that we must thank, praise and sacrifice to this god’s, usually taken for granted, divine presence (189c). But sexual interaction with just anyone will not lead to the happiness which reminds us of our past protohuman “fulfillment”. We must permanently search for that other who matches the jagged features of our patched up bodies (191a). Eros is then “the bringer-together of their (that is to say, ‘our’) ancient anture, who tries to make one of two and to heal their (that is to say, ‘our’) human nature. Each of us is a token (‘symbolon’) of a human being ….. and so each is always in search of his own token” (191d). Ever since we become old enough to feel the erotic longing for another’s patches, we turn into permanent seekers of what in Spanish we call “mi otra media naranja”, that is to say, that “my other half-orange” who will complete our fruit like original nature in which we ressembled the natural gods. The Greeks here preferred to speak of apples (190e).
And if ever we are so lucky as to be allowed by Eros to find that other who strikes us wondrously with friendship and erotic love to the point that, now, we “are unwilling to be apart from one another even for a short time” (192c), then human bliss seems to reach its highest possible peak. The other’s presence modifies one’s own self-perception and that of the world in a way in which both are mutually enriched; we feel ourselves enhanced in a world which suddenly opens itself to new, previously unseen, possibilities. Nietzsche captures this optimism beautifully: “the lover is more valuable, is stronger …. his whole economy is richer than before, more powerful, more complete than in those who do not love. The lover becomes a squanderer, he is rich enough for it. Now he dares, he becomes an adventurer, becomes an ass in magnanimity and innocence; he believes in god again. He believes in virtue because he believes in love; and on the other hand this happy idiot grows wings and new capabilities, and even the door of art is opened to him” (WtP #808) (The very same wings that the lover of the Phaedrus will grow in one of the most beautiful passages of all the Platonic dialogues (255ff.))
But unlike Nietzschean optimism, Ar. and Freud seem to have reservations. Freud, as I have said from the outset, centers his critique on the loss of the beloved. Ar., though aware of this danger, provides a more devastating critique by looking at the problematic functioning of erotic desire itself. The lucky lovers who are finally able to reach each other, presumably following several painful misses and rather uncomfortable fits ——— for Ar. makes it clear that this reunion is not what normally happens at present (193b) ———- these lucky lovers nevertheless seem to desire something more. This something, Ar. jokingly says, one could not conceivably take it simply to be the delight of sexual intercourse with that other half which seems to fit, ‘just right’, in yourself: “as though it were for this reason —-of all things—– that each so enjoys being with the other… but the soul of each wants something else” (192c) But that ellusive ‘something else’ which the soul of each wants for him/herself, that cannot be easily put into words. Just as it so happens when one is asked why one loves his/her, hopefully, ‘real’ other half, there comes a point where you cannot quite “explain”, and instead just feel like saying, “Can’t you see why?, well that is really odd”.
Nevertheless Ar. challenges this silence, the same silence which Plato forces on him, by providing us with a riddle to be solved. The riddle, like Oedipus’, concerns humans, but unlike the King’s, Ar.’s concerns a dilemma which is brought to light by looking at our desiring nature. The riddle is spoken by yet another Olympian god, Hephaestus, the weak god of fire and crafts/arts (techne). It is he who chained Aphrodite and Ares for having committed adultery; chaining them, not to bring them eternal bliss, but rather eternal boredom. Hephaestus seems, tragically, to seek welding as punishment (Od 315). This god is made to ask us humans what we really want out of love, and, just as Zeus was perplexed with the attitude of the circular beings, so we humans stand perplexed by Hephaestus’ question (192d). He must therefore not only rephrase the question, but very directly answer it in doing so. Would we not really desire just to become one once again, our belly wrinkles giving way to a stronger sphericity? What more lovely than reaching this “golden state” capable even of denying the individual death of its members, so that even “in Hades you (that is to say, we) would be together one instead of two?” (192e). Would this not be the ultimate happiness, that which involved a shared immortality?
The riddle, and riddles one would think are so because they are, presumably, very difficult to answer, is to our perplexity immediately answered in the affirmative. It seems as though nothing would be more desirable for us, ill halves, than to permanently rejoin that other whom Eros has granted us, finally, to reach. However, we should remember that even the protohumans though fused to their extremities, nonetheless did not seem to have seen themeselves as part of a Paradise in which nothing was lacking. Even human sphericity finds itself lacking, striving to move beyond its original condition. Oneness reaches beyond itself, although of course it reaches out more powerfully with four arms, four legs, not just two of each. And moreover, what distinguishes our humanity lies precisely in that, like it or not, we will forever remain as halves in constant search for that which we lack. Desire flourishes precisely due to this incompleteness which moves us beyond ourselves. The feverish conditions which evolve out of the absence of the loved one seem to move in the same direction. If Hephaestus’ riddle were not only answered in the affirmative, but actually set in place, our human condition as we know it, fragile and ill as it may be, would come to a permanent end. Letting Hephaestus do his work would turn out to be a punishment much severer than that of Zeus who intended to break us down once more, leaving us “hopping on one leg” ( 190d). Seeking to become spherical again requires the death of Eros’ presence in our lives. And Ar. hints to this towards the end of his speech in a paragraph which links past, present and future possibilities: “our race would be happy if we were to bring our love to a consummate end, and each of us were to get his own favorite on his return to his ancient nature. And if this is the best, it must necesarrilly be the case that, IN PRESENT CIRCUMSTANCES, that which is closest to it is the best; and that is to get a favorite whose nature is to one’s tastes” (193c) (here a specific reference to the pederasts, but shedding light, I believe, into all the different kinds of relationships). Ar. qualifies his appeal to a return to oneness by continually using the hypothetical ‘if’, as in ‘if this is the best’. But as I have argued this undoubtedly is not the best desirable course for us humans to take. Our present circumstances cannot be done away with, no matter how hard we imagine ourselves to have been otherwise. At best we should seek out to reach the sweetness of that other who allows the growth of those beautiful wings characteristic of the highest kind of lovers in the Phaedrus (251e); but, at the same time bitterly knowing, or perhaps feeling, full well that Eros’ presence immediately sets us humans in the web of a dilemma which maybe Sophocles, a tragedian, can better help us to understand. Eros is like ice, we delight in having it, yet its presence is a reminder of a painful reality, that of our constant neediness:
“Like children that beneath a frosty heaven
Snatch in their eagerness at icicles
(First they are ravished with this latest toy;
Yet soon they find it hurts their hands to hold
That icy thing; and yet how hard to drop it!)
Even such are lovers too, when what they love
Tears them between ‘I would not’ and ‘I would’” (Lucas, 224)