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Plato Symposium Summary

by Kayla McCullough

Image Courtesy of LoveandBubblegum

He whom love touches not walks in darkness. —Plato

Because of the power and centrality that love has in the human experience, women and men throughout history have felt the compulsion that this mysterious force leads them to. From peaks of felicity to the depths of despair, love is the ultimate concern. It is undoubtedly the universal principle that wires all human activity, the object that one strives to obtain, and sometimes the downfall that one will suffer. Love is naturally the one thing that needs to be examined and discussed carefully and Plato does just that in his ancient treatise of speeches that convey the nature and function of love. For Plato, the best kind of friendship is that which lovers can have for each other. The Symposium is a philia that is born out of erôs, and that in turn feeds back into erôs to strengthen and to develop it.

This unique literary work is one of Plato’s masterpieces. Written on one of his most basic themes while at the peak of his powers as a philosopher and poet, this work of art aimed at transcending human existence to connect it with the eternal. With a strong understanding of philia, we can interpret that this work aims to develop erôs and uses it to transform lust for possession into a shared desire for a higher level of understanding of the self, the other, and the universe.

In his Symposium, Plato seems to say that sex is divine. Even more, it’s exactly because of its divine nature that sex does not belong to just the ego but is an outpouring that floods the ego and stretches its boundaries. So, why does our sexual appetite come and go? Is sex an activity that brings pleasure because it nurtures something else inside of us? Or is it so good that it disrupts something and blinds us to the catastrophic endings that most relationships come to? Philosophy gives us an answer to these questions.

Plato’s Symposium: The Philosophy of Love.

Honorable guests were invited to this banquet (symposium means banquet) to happily drink together and tell their wonderful love stories. None of these stories was in defense of a view of erotic love as individualistic and ego-centered. The poetic story of Aristophanes splits the person into two perfect halves bound to find each other forever – here the story between your higher-self and soul was born; Phaedrus speaks about a kind of love that is all about sacrificing our self for the beloved one, like Alcestis with Admetus, or Achilles with Patroclus; Eryximachus speaks about erotic love as a force that moves the universe and keeps its elements together.

In present time, symposiums would be formal discussions lead by experts on topics of great importance. Like a teacher passing down their knowledge to a student. But Plato saw the humanism and honesty of a group of friends gathered around drinking and talking into the night. And with his unworldly view of humanism, he found that the central figure of our existence is trying to escape a default state of loneliness by joining with something or someone else to try to complete our emptiness and mask our vulnerability. Which then brings in the question, is sex really something that humans crave, or is it there to mask something else?

In our sexual life we can (and sometimes want to) lose our identity to be in contact with an absolute one that has the taste of the divine; we abandon ourselves in that absoluteness and in that loss we feel complete. You see this ebb and flow of power and control throughout history. You can spot it in the stories of kings and queens, merchants and peasants, and even in modern-day history when two people meet in a bar. With sex, we do not come back to that ego-centered structure but continue to bathe in the vital flow of erôs.

The story of mythical love by Aristophanes.

During the tale, Aristophanes – one of the six special guests – offers an unordinary tale of love that’s centered around humans spending their whole lives trying to fill a void within themselves by finding ‘the one’– one that many know in modern-day as finding our ‘soul mate’. He describes how humans are spiritually connected to another person – their soul mate – from birth, and not born as separate entities that have been isolated by their ego. This tale goes on describing how the human was born round, having four legs, four arms, one head that had two faces that looked both ways. These fictional people could perform like modern people in the sense that they could walk and talk, but if one would get too far ahead of the other, they would roll over and flip throughout the air with legs and arms flailing. Today, this phenomenon can be described as relationships ending poorly because of the lack of communication. A relationship without communication is doomed to spiral out of control until both people meet in the middle and start working together. Funny how this ritual can date back into 385 BC.

Much like Christianity and the fall of Adam and Eve, the humans in their arrogance attacked the gods, and Zeus – without wanting to disrupt sacrifices and worship – thought of a way to humble and humiliate humans. After much deliberation, he decided to cut them in two, forever leaving humankind lonely and isolated, endlessly searching for their other half to complete them and extinguish the sense of lacking forever.

Aristophanes poetically explains: “…when one of them finds his other half, … the pair are lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy, and one will not be out of the other’s sight. …For the intense yearning which each of them has towards the other does not appear to be the desire of intercourse, but of something else which the soul desires and cannot explain. … Human nature was originally one and we whole, and the desire and pursuit of the whole is called love. There was a time … when the two were one, but now because of this wickedness of men and gods, they have separated us… (pg 157)”

As Aristophanes’ story has endured eons, it has brought most lovers today seeking their soul mate. However, to love only exists when it has an object to bestow it upon. It exists in relation to another. For example, it exists when you tell your mother you love her, or your dog, or your friend or some simple object around the house. So, Socrates analyzes love by analyzing the true nature of it and explains that “love is the love of something because to love nothing means no love at all.” Which ultimately goes on to mean that love is something of a desire for something that is lacking. If I’ve lost you there, here is another interpretation – if a poor man desires to be rich, he does so because he is not rich. A rich man cannot willfully say he desires to be rich, because he already is, but if he were to say that he wants to continue to be rich well into the future, then he is implying a sense of love for it. This idea is the same as love. We can only love something that we want but don’t have. Diotima explains the mystery of love as “…love is only birth in beauty, whether body or soul. There is a certain age at which human nature is desirous of procreation, and this mystery is seeking as far as is possible to be everlasting and immortal: and this is only attained by generation because the new is always left in the place of the old” (pg 168-170).

Today and in history, humans want to give birth so that life inside of them can make them feel whole. We have an intuitive sense to want to give birth to beauty. Most wonder if their life means anything. If they're doing things right. If they are a good person. If anyone will remember them when they're gone. If they’ve done enough to be remembered when they leave. And when you ask yourself these questions, what you are really asking yourself is whether you are giving birth to beauty? Philosophy has a way of making one dive deep into their soul to muster up answers only a few would be able to interpret, and Socrates is one of those people. However, because different desires drive people, the answers to those questions will be slightly off from one person to the next. But, because of the power and centrality of love, we all end up giving birth to something – whether that is ourselves, to another human, or the world. We all procreate beauty to motivate and inspire others around us.

However contrary to what people might think, today’s society has polluted our minds into having us seek something superficial and shallow – of which can be seen in most relationships, song lyrics, books, teachings, and because of the normalization of safety and security, instinct. It has become the norm to sexualize everything, even if you are attractive, and play on the notion that one could only be interested in shallow and superficial things. These ideas have led most to a sense of emptiness, which can be temporarily filled by sex and drugs.

Love drives everything we do. Even if most feel as though it is unattainable, it is the desire for good, beauty, and truth. Plato tries to teach us through his Symposium that if we try and satisfy the desire for it through shallow and superficial things - yes, sex can be shallow - then we will spend our entire lives trying to fill a void that will never be satisfied. Though beautiful and simplistic in view, the struggle and yearning created within the Symposium, has somehow created the foundation of human motives and desires, for “he whom love touches not walks in darkness.”

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