Plato’s famous piece of literature, The Symposium, is striking with its speeches of love, or eros, which translates to desire. While eros will refer to love in this paper, Eros is also the name of the Greek god of love. A Symposium is a semi-formal banquet consisting of only men, followed by ceremonial toasts and drinking. Taking place in Ancient Greece; one gets a taste for what formal drinking parties were like, as well as the homosexual or homo-erotic lifestyle of the men of the time. The guests that attend the specific symposium that Plato discusses are Phaedrus, Pausania, Eryximachus, Aristophanes, Agathon, and Socrates. Each guest attempts the challenge of giving a eulogy of what he believes eros is. While Socrates’ insightful speech on eros has been in the past, and is known today by philosophers as the most influential and motivational speech, it is not fully rational and is not without shortcomings of its own. This paper will attempt to analyze and discuss, using facts and evidence from each of the six speeches, why in fact it is Eryximachus’ speech that is the most rational in its explanation of eros with explicit references to the erastes and the eromenos as prominent individuals in Ancient Greece. The erastes is the older male lover, seen as the active and dominant partner and the eromenos is the male child, or the more passive partner. This paper is based on the consensus that rationality will be defined as the most logical case of what eros is, with the most reasonable claim.
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The first eulogy given is by Phaedrus, which is also the shortest and most simple. Phaedrus depicts eros as the most “great and awesome god” (9, 178A). Phaedrus believes that eros makes men and women lose control and do anything for their lover, for only lovers are willing to die for each other. Phaedrus supports this claim with several examples of brave actions performed by lovers, such as Pelias’ daughter Alcestis who was the only one willing to die for her husband. Because the gods admired her brave act, they released her life, valuing her commitment that came from eros (11, 179B). Phaedrus also believes that gods show the most admiration when a boyfriend shows “affectionate concern towards his lover than when a lover does towards his boyfriend. A lover is more god-like than a boyfriend because he is divinely inspired” (12, 180B). While these statements may have been profound in their time, there are many qualities that make Phaedrus’ speech irrational. Firstly, his entire argument is based on three historical tales in which there is zero evidence or scientific proof that the stories ever took place. In regards to the tale of Pelias, it is physically impossible and therefore irrational to bring someone back from the dead, “Biological death is brain death, and there’s no turning back from brain death. That is irreversible death” (Brouhard 2010). Also, Phaedrus is saying that the lover is divinely inspired by his boyfriend and therefore more god-like. The erastes were simply sexually attracted to the eromenos and it is an insult to classify this attraction as “god-like” for all it is is an erection. The eromenos, in hopes of gaining wisdom from their erastes, only engage in sexual activity because they were too young to understand such pleasures, and if they did think it was pleasurable, how can they know such pleasure in itself? There is no divinity in the inspiration that the erastes felt; it was simply the opportunity to take advantage of those who do not know any better.
The second eulogy given is Pausania’s speech. Pausania believes that since there are two types of Aphrodite, Heavenly and Common, there must also be two types of eros. Pausania states that Common Love is the kind of eros that inferior people feel, “People like this are attracted to women as much as boys, and to bodies rather than minds” (13, 181C). The reason for this unsophisticated type of eros is that it derives from the younger goddess who is inevitably part female. Conversely, the Heavenly goddess’s eros (who is strictly male) is directed at boys, therefore avoiding “abusive violence”, “those inspired with this love are drawn towards the male, feeling affection for what is naturally more vigorous and intelligent” (13 181C). This man-boy relationship would be illegal today, and would not only be classified as pedophilia and “abusive violence”, but would cause great apprehensions and lead to time in jail. Thus, the implication that those who seek a boyfriend for a lover are truly seeking the want to share their wisdom and virtue is an absurd implication and something that a pedophile can convince himself of to justify his actions. Also it is implied that due to the Common goddess being part female, this eros must be unsophisticated, which has implications for her lesser IQ. According to Stephen J. Ceci and Wendy M. Williams, “Overall, there are now more PhDs granted to women than men” and ones IQ cannot be determined from their gender, causing this belief of eros to be irrational (2010).
The third eulogy given is that of Eryximachus. Eryximachus’ belief is that eros does not only apply to humans, but as well as “every kind of animal, in plants growing in the earth, in virtually everything that exists” (18, 186A). As a doctor, Eryximachus can relate to his eros towards medicine, but is also able to see eros in music as well as many other aspects of life. He agrees with Pausanias in the belief that it is right to gratify good people and wrong to gratify bad people. He believes that eros is expressed through self-control and justice, giving each individual responsibility of their own eros which produces good actions. There is no reason to believe that what Eryximachus is saying about eros is incorrect because his reasoning’s are rational as well as logical. He does not need to reference historical tales to justify his argument but bases his eulogy off of facts and personal experience and leaves all individuals responsible not only for their own fate, but for their eros as well. It is not fair, let alone realistic, to state that any person who has not found another person whom they feel eros, or love, for has lived a loveless life. I believe Eryximachus’ description of eros is the most rational because not everyone will fall in love, but they may still live a happy and fulfilling life due to their love for friends and family, hobbies, sports and other enjoyable activities which he could relate to through his love of medicine.
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The forth eulogy presented is by Aristophanes, which begins with the myth that there was once three human genders; male, female, and androgynous. He further develops this idea by saying that every human was a rounded whole, with “four hands and the same number of legs, and two identical faces on a circular neck” along with two sets of everything else (22, 109A). Since humans were so powerful, they made attacks on the gods, threatening their superiority causing Zeus to cut each human in two. Eros fits into this tale because, “each one longed for its own other half and stayed with it” (24, 191A). As romantic as this idea may seem, stating that eros is two lost bodies finally embracing each other, is completely untrue and physically impossible. Even if this story did take place as Aristophanes believes, after the first generation this idea would be lost because once those mates reproduced, this idea of eros being physically from another half would be gone, and love or eros would be extinct. Also if there was a true threat that the gods would further split us if we did not show order towards them in the future, we would all be hopping around on one leg by now. This idea also implies that opposites cannot attract, which has been proven to be wrong by lovers over the centuries.
The fifth eulogy is that of Agathon. He believes that Eros is the happiest and most beautiful of all the gods. Eros is the youngest god, which is why he only attracts the young. Agathon believes this because he is so attracted to young boys, that he sees this as an explanation or excuse for his desires. This is a very biased opinion and without basis for any age can love and be loved in return. Agathon states a wide range of adjectives which he believes that eros embodies, such as pleasure, courage, wisdom, “luxury, elegance, delicacy, grace, desire, longing; careful for good people, careless of bad people” (32, 197E) and more, however he fails to go into great detail to explain what any of these qualities truly mean. It is one thing to state a fact, but without valid supporting evidence and reasons, it is not rational for one to believe this to be true just because Agathon said so. He finishes his speech saying that every man should follow Eros “singing beautiful hymns of praise”, which is not only impossible since this god is not a solid matter, but also sounds too much like a fairytale to be taken seriously (32, 197E).
The sixth and last speech of the Symposium is that of Socrates. He states that all of his knowledge came from a woman from Mantinea called Diotima, and that he is only reciting what he was once told. Socrates states that, “Desire and love are directed at what you don’t have, what isn’t there, and what you need” therefore eros must be neither beautiful nor good or else it would have nothing to need, nor is it strictly ugly and bad, but something in the middle (35 200E). Since eros is none of these things, it cannot be a god but is in fact between mortal and immortal; it is a spirit. As a spirit, eros acts as a messenger from the gods to the humans. Socrates concludes that eros is that of immortality, causing humans to want to reproduce as a means of becoming immortal by living through their biological children. If this were true, it is implying that those who adopt and who cannot conceive a child will never feel eros for they are not immortal. If it was simply everyone’s wish to reproduce in order to remain immortal, then one must ask why Pelias’ daughter Alcestis was the only one willing to die for her husband even though his father and mother were still living. One would think that if Socrates’ story were realistic and rational it would be the parents risking their lives trying to save their mortality through their son and future grandchildren. Alcestis could have found a lover elsewhere, she did not need this particular male to reproduce, and therefore she must have sacrificed her life for something that Socrates was clearly unable to comprehend.
Euripides would disagree with Eryximachus’ argument because Euripides is known primarily for writing about complex tragedies whereas Eryxmachus’ euology of eros has a simplistic and happy ending, believing that one is capable of finding love in anything and living in harmony. In the “Bacchae” written by Eurpides, Pentheus’ mother, Agaue arrives carrying the head of her son. In her possessed state, due to Dionysus, she believes it to be the head of a mountain lion that she had proudly killed. Cadmus sees his dead grandson and is horrified which leads Agaue to slowly realize what she has done. The family is ultimately destroyed and Agaue and her sisters are sent into exile. Unlike the pleasant euologys written by Plato, Euripides sees eros with suffering and pain, resulting in his tragic play rights.
Plato’s Symposium is admirable with its speeches of eros told by the guests: Phaedrus, Pausania, Eryximachus, Aristophanes, Agathon, and Socrates. From these speeches there emerges a complex philosophy of love and the theme of progression through the developing speeches. Taking place in Ancient Greece, one is provided the opportunity to begin to understand the lives of the homo-erotic males of the time through explicit references to the erastes and the eromenos, and through the beliefs surrounding eros, or love, as written in the eulogies of the six men. With the consensus that rationality is the most logical case of what eros is, with the most reasonable claim, this paper is able to prove through fact and evidence that Eryximachus’ eulogy is the most rational and that the others are not.
Brouhard, Rod. “Is it possible to bring someone back from the dead?” About.com. First Aid. N.p. 20 April 2010. Web. 1 Dec. 2010. http://firstaid.about.com/od/cpr/f/10_Reviving_the_Dead.htm
Ceci. J. Stephen, Williams. M. Wendy. “Sex Discrimination Go Bye-Bye; Gender Differences In Math A Choice, Not Social Pressure Or Ability.” Scientific Blogging. N.p. 28 Oct. 2010. Web. 1 Dec. 2010. \http://www.science20.com/news_articles/sex_discrimination_go_byebye_gender_differences_math_choice_not_social_pressure_or_ability
Euripides. The Bacchae and Other Plays. Davie, John. Rutherford, Richard. New York: Penguin Books, 2005. Print.
Plato. The Symposium. Gill, Christopher. New York: Penguin Books, 1999. Print.