’s Symposium Essay, Research Paper
Ideals of Love in Plato’s Symposium
As much as our society has become involved in the advancement of feminism and the equality of the sexes, there is one fact that neither gender can ignore; none can survive without the other. Love and the want of a soul mate keeps each member of man and womankind in the constant search of the perfect person with whom to become one. Yet if this bond is a necessity of the human race then why has the meaning, purpose and pursuit of it eluded us for so many generations. There has yet to be a one universal explanation of love and there has yet to be one who understands its powers fully. As we see from Plato’s Symposium, even to the wisest of men, in a time when the search for knowledge was seen as the pathway to enlightenment, love was still a concept that was not understood and unknown. Though many of their guidelines and characteristics of love are wise, some may not apply to modern society.
Plato’s Symposium serves as a pamphlet that depicts some of the guidelines of love as the philosophers of Plato’s time saw them. The intervention of the Gods in the speeches of the philosophers can be interpreted to mean the different aspects of love and their affects on people. It seemed as though in each of the lectures given, Plato put a message into each one. Each man brought up valid guidelines for dealing with love and each should be concentrated on.
The speeches started with Phaedrus, who began to state many of the powers of love. He spoke about the honor between one and their beloved and how it was a great virtue in a relationship. The point that Phaedrus made was that a man of any nature would rather suffer humiliation in front of a great mass of people or all of mankind itself than to suffer the loss of respect or the loss of dignity in front of their lover. This point is definitely true, yet Phaedrus failed to make a definite cause as to why this was prevalent. It may pertain to modern society that to suffer indignation in front of a lover as seen by the male would be to suffer the loss of one’s masculinity and the inability to protect their lover, whereas for the female it may be the fear of inferiority that keeps the strive towards honor a constant venture in the relationship. In any case it seems that the main reason Phaedrus’s point is valid is because in one of the driving forces in a relationship is the fear of inferiority, fear of humiliation, and fear that they may lose the other person’s respect.
Phaedrus soon builds on this point by stating that a true test of one’s love for their mate is the value of their life. Comparisons between the fates of Achilles and Orpheus are brought up to emphasize his point. As we learn from the legend of Achilles, a man was rewarded for the value he put on his friends life. Achilles sacrificed his own life in an attempt to obtain revenge for his friend. For this act Achilles was rewarded and seen as a hero. Yet on the opposite side of the spectrum we learn of Orpheus who was punished for his selfishness in that he would sooner have his loved one die than threaten his own existence. Because of this, Orpheus was punished. These examples help Phaedrus to show how the bonds of love can make a man dare to die for another.
Later on in the text we find a less dignified motive behind the sacrifice of one’s self for another from Diotima, the woman who teaches Socrates the meaning of love. We are once again faced with the idea of respect as one of the driving forces in love. Diotima proposes that the main motive behind the sacrifice may be that it is a way to gain immortality. By dying for another they would be considered a hero. This may have been a valid reasoning during Plato’s era because virtue and honor were seen as great characteristics of men. People were judged daily on these credentials and thus it is important in that era. Yet today our values of honor have changed. Honor is still a superior quality, yet the degree to which someone will go to gain the respect of another seems to be more relative to what the relation is between them and the person to be impressed. We are generally more concerned with gaining the respect of those who have an actual relation to us (Father, friend, acquaintance, etc.) than to the average stranger. Therefore I believe that this idea of sacrifice in the name of honor seems an invalid argument
Soon Phaedrus concludes his oration and Pausanias steps up to deliver another set of guidelines for love. Pausanias believes that honorable and noble love should only apply to that of the good and that the opposite would apply to love that concerned itself with evil. He believes that love should be done in an honorable fashion and that a person of noble love would not be compensated in any way other that virtue or knowledge from their beloved. To this he adds that evil love is that of the body and not the soul. Evil love is one that concerns the love of money, wealth or power. Following these guidelines, Pausanias makes the conclusion that a dishonorable act would be to lie about one’s status and intentions to obtain love. If he is rejected for what he truly is than he is disgraced for lying about it, yet if he is lying about his knowledge or virtue in attempt to gain more virtue or knowledge than he is noble for the effort. This double standard seems to also concern itself with a value of honor and virtue thus substantiating earlier notions of the value of honor and virtue to the philosophers of this time.
Next, Aristophanes is heard. Aristophanes relays a legend to the group on the beginning of the world and the creation of man. In this myth we learn that through these beliefs man and women were once created as one being. The two were joined back to back with two faces, four arms and four feet. We are told that the beings grew to be very powerful and became a threat to the gods. Because of this, the beings were split in two, or Aristophanes says, “like a sorb-apple …or as you might divide an egg with a hair,” (Nehamas & Woodruff, 26) and because of this they became irate in search of their other half. To prevent further gaining of power the gods gave them the ability to procreate and thus create more confusion and uncertainty as to who their original mate was. The pursuit of the other half is what Aristophanes designated love. The legend as Aristophanes portrays it is much like that of the modern new age philosophy of the soul mate. Many modern faiths and cultures believe that each person is originally a part of on being that is split in two and that their other half is their one true love. This idea may be a basis to explain the need for humans to find one person that best suits them and their needs thus the commonalties could be interpreted as such a concept. Aristophanes continues and states an idea that in itself is a troubling double standard that is proof that even philosophers were blinded by sexual prejudices. Aristophanes states that the separation of the beings that were like women don’t care for men and have a female attachment and were lewd and adulterous. Where as the men that followed other men were not shameful. “It’s not because they have no shame that such boys do this you see, but because they are bold, brave and masculine and they tend to cherish what is like themselves,” (Nehamas & Woodruff, 26). These remarks I consider a double standard because as stated before the beings were once a singular entity, which was identical, both front and back. Aristophanes has said that they were divided like an apple or an egg, which even the mathematical oriented philosophers would agree, are symmetrical. So why then are the rights of the women less than that of the rights of the man if they were begotten from the same being? Why are the women criticized and the men praised? This idea is unsettling due to the fact that in most of the articles that have been written on human and social cooperation, the idea of female inferiority never seemed to be a problem. If the philosophers truly thought that beings were identical in creation then why are the rights of one half greater than those of the other?
Eventually Socrates begins to convey his philosophy on the idea of love, yet he goes about it in a different way than his predecessors. In the earlier speeches each of the men had thought of love as a god and gone about praising this god and giving their ideas as to what this god were like. Socrates, only speaking of things that he knew of through fact relays his story of his trip to Diotima from which he wished to learn what love was. Through his story Socrates tells us that he believes love to be not a god nor is love a mortal. Socrates learns that love is a spirit that is neither rich nor fair as the others had thought, but in fact normal. The being is the mean between ignorant and wise and between good and evil.
Socrates goes on to question what the nature of love is. After much deliberation Socrates comes to the conclusion that love is the everlasting possession of good things. Yet in the reasoning that comes about from this idea I found a few faults in what Plato depicts Socrates to have said. After Socrates came to his conclusion the deliberation continued by saying, ” ‘And what does he gain who possesses the good?’ ‘Happiness,’ I replied ‘there is no difficulty in answering that.’ ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘the happy are made happy by the acquisition of good things.’” It is this statement that I find problem with. In other readings we have heard that one cannot become truly happy through other people or from the acquisition of material possession. If Socrates and Plato followed this philosophy then why does this idea of love hold true.
Diotima also goes on to insist that the idea of procreation is just another attempt at mortals to come close to being immortal. By carrying on their name or traits they are in essence carrying on themselves. Once again this idea of immortality, I feel is outdated and does not apply to modern society.
I believe that these ideas about the characteristics of love and the ideas that coincide are outdated and are not relevant to today’s society. In our modern monotheistic society the idea of love as a god is certainly invalid. Also the ideas of actions done out of virtue and respect rather than love also seems to be a dated concept. Whether our motives for actions such as self-sacrifice or procreation have gotten more respectable or less remains to be seen, yet it is evident that they have changed since Plato’s era. Thus if the characteristics and motives of love have changed then the concept of love must have evolved as well. This evolution of love may be a characteristic of the concept itself. Love may be an ever-changing concept that adapts itself to the society in which it exists. Our concepts of love and what is noble are undoubtedly different than those in Plato’s Symposium showing that the concepts of love definitely change with time. Therefore the concept of love may have no exact meaning except for that which the society in which it exists perceives and accepts it to be.
Nehamus, Alexander & Woodruff, Paul. Plato: Symposium. Hackett
Publishing Company, Indianapolis. 1989.