The Effects of Eros


Prologue(172a —178a).

The setting for the Symposium is expressed in a complex structure of recollection. Apollodorus is met by some acquaintances. They enquire about a banquet attended by Socrates in which the theme of Eros was discussed (172a —b). He informs them that he had heard the tale from Aristodemus who was actually present at the drinking feast. The story he will tell is a recollection of Aristodemus’ remembrance of the party (173a- b). The significance of this play on memory is bound up with Plato’s theory of recollection (anaimimnesis) and is brought prominently into view when the dialogue as a whole is seen. In anticipation, we can say that the speech of Socrates is itself a recollection of a discussion he had had with the priestess Diotima in which the theme of Eros had served to provoke a "recollection" of the human condition or, in terms of the Phaedrus, a "recollection" of the divine banquet. This whole structure, initially set into play during the prologue, exhibits the following progression: Apollodorus recollects Aristodemus’ recollection of the banquet in which Socrates had recollected a conversation with Diotima which was at bottom a recollection of the Banquet of Being. The unfolding of the initial setting eventually evolves into an unfolding of the human condition. It is towards a completion of the whole that the remembrance begins.

Aristodemus had met Socrates while the latter was on his way to a banquet at Agathon’s. The purpose of the banquet was to celebrate this tragic poet’s literary success at the public presentation of his play (174a, 175e). At the party, when all the initial participants had arrived, where Phaedrus, Pausanias, Aristophanes, Eryximachus, Agathon, and Socrates. The arrangement of the seating order probably resembled the following sketch (cf.175a, 175c, 177d, 185c,d):



As Aristodemus recalls the situation, Pausanias opened the conversation by pointing out the sorry condition that most were in due to the over-indulgence of wine the night before (176a). The others concurred with him and Eryximachus proposes a change of pace for this evening’s activity. The drinking will be moderate and the flute girl will be dismissed. Instead of heavy drinking, the party should devote itself to a conversation (a logos). The content of this discussion should center upon a favorite topic of Phaedrus’ viz., Eros. It is proposed that all present compose a fitting song (GREEK) to Love(177c). Everyone agrees to this idea and the theme of the dialogue is established.

Prior to the beginning of the speeches, which will move from left to right, Socrates again asserts his familiarity with Eros. "I could not decline such an offer," he says, "for I claim to know nothing else than erotica (GREEK)"(177e). Now in light of the Lysis and Phaedrus we can begin to see how Socrates can make such a hubristic statement. Socrates can understand erotica because he is essentially an erotic person. Eros is part of the very nature of Socrates, for the very nature of Socrates is to be a love of wisdom. Furthermore, this love for wisdom has led to his peculiar kind of self-knowledge which can [use?] his essential identity with Eros to the level of awareness. We do not have a transgressing of limits(hubris) here, but rather another instance of awareness of limits–for Eros will be seen to be a striving based upon a lack and hence a profound expression for the human condition.

The Speech of Phaedrus(178e — 180b).

The speeches in general fall into two approaches to the phenomenon of love. The first group of speeches describes love in terms of the effects it produces: that is to say, they describe the acts, deeds and consequences that result from the presence of Eros. In this group we have the descriptions of Phaedrus, Pausanias, Eryximachus and Aristophanes. The second group of descriptions approach love through its nature or essence. Here we have the speeches of Agathon and Socrates. It is only in these latter speeches, and most especially in the speech of Socrates, that we achieve the central point of the dialogue.

Phaedrus sets out to describe love as a great god born with Earth (GREEK) after Chaos(GREEK)(178a —b). Its effects upon mortals are most praiseworthy since it causes a lover to strive towards noble and good deeds. At bottom, love causes one to become "heroic" (GREEK) (179b). Under its power a person does not fear death, but strives to do whatever is noble and right before the presence of the beloved. This, for Phaedrus, is the proper praise of love. He sings to its power by recounting the stories told of those who, under the influence of love, performed great and noble deeds (179b —180b).

The Speech of Pausanias(180c —185e).

After Apollodorus notes that Aristophanes had forgotten the next several speeches, he begins to relate the speech of Pausanias. Here Pausanias rebukes Phaedrus for not noticing how love manifests itself in the twofold nature of Aphrodite (180d). There is an elder love, daughter of Heaven and thus celestial (GREEK) and a "younger form of love," child of Zeus and Dione and called common (GREEK). Now this distinction will form the background for the proper kind of love that should obtain among mortals. Love is not a neutral passion but one that is right or wrong depending upon the intent and kind of relation that is present (181a).

The common form of Aphrodite shows itself in a passion that is indiscriminate, seeking either male or female, elders or youth, wise or ignorant. The elder, celestial form of love seeks a discriminating relationship: all male companions, the elder being conjoined with the youthful, the learned with the one striving to learn. It is a love which respects the soul of the beloved and seeks to lead it towards virtue (181b —e, 184c). Upon these two forms of love Pausanias proposes a legal structure which tradition and convention attest to. This law would sanction the elder form of Aphrodite as right and honorable (183c —184c).

The criterion for this would be the union of two rules viz., the passion for boys (GREEK) and the love of wisdom and virtue (GREEK) (184d). These rules can only be combined in an elder/youth relationship between males in which the elder contributes to the intellectual and virtuous education of the younger. Only here is it right for both to engage in erotic passion for only here is the proper intent involved in the love relationship (184c —e).

Thus, for Pausanias, only that love is proper and lawful which serves to be the cause of virtue (GREEK)(184c). And it is this love, viz., the celestial kind, that we ought to offer our songs to (185b —c).

Interlude: Aristophanes hiccups (185d — e).

At this point an interruption occurs. Aristophanes, who was to be the next speaker, comes down with the hiccups (185d). Eryximachus, to his right, suggests a cure for this intrusion and then offers to speak first (185e).

What is the point of this interlude? We might say that it is Dionysus’ way of rebelling against Pausanias’ attempt to subsume Eros under law. There is, at this point, the beginning of Dionysus’ restlessness that will build throughout the dialogue. After all, the Symposium is a dialogue devoted to Eros and as such is one most appropriate to the god Dionysus. Agathon is explicit about this when he tells Socrates that they will be judged (GREEK) by Dionysus (175e). Yet it was Dionysus himself who was banished when the flute girl (and with her the Muses) was dismissed in favor of conversation (GREEK) (176e). That is to say, Dionysus seems to have been replaced by Apollo, who is the more appropriate god for speech.

There is thus a tension in the dialogue between Dionysus and Apollo. It is a tension that will finally explode with the garland-laden Alcibiades who enters the symposium in a state of Dionysian ecstasy. The room rapidly gives itself over to the wine and the flute girls: Dionysus will once again gain the reign over the rites of his festival.

The Speech of Eryximachus(186a —189b).

After the interruption, Erychimachus proposes to complete the speech of Pausanias. He will do this by expanding the thesis that love has a dual nature. More specifically, he presents the cosmic theory of Empedocles that sees all things in constant interplay between opposite forces (186b —c). This play of opposites is a general principle of the Cosmos and as such Pausanias was essentially correct. There is a good and bad love (opposites); so too, in the good love i.e., celestial (love) there is the opposition between age and youth, wisdom and ignorance.

Now Eryximachus incorporates this principle into his art of medicine by following the Pythagorean belief that the body’s well being rests upon an equal balance of opposites (186c). From this medical techne it then becomes possible to treat the effects of love through a proper balance of the parts, just as a musician achieves harmony in the tuning of his instrument (186e, 187d —e). The task is to balance the effects of love by seeing that the good love (GREEK) creates a temperate harmony while the wanton love (GREEK) is subdued (188a —b).

The image we have is one of Eryximachus the "scientist" trying to bring Eros under his art (or techne). Again, this poses the whole problem of whether Eros (and eo ipso Dionysus) can be subsumed (subdued) -- for while Pausanias attempted to subsume Eros under law, Eryximachus now attempts to subsume Eros under science. Yet the dramatic aspect of the dialogue has had Aristophanes hiccupping and gesturing throughout the entire speech. These comic eruptions of the Dionysian seem to run against this possibility of containment. Indeed, Aristophanes’ sneeze seems, in itself, the counter Eryximachus’ thesis (189a).

The Speech of Aristophanes (189c —189d).

Aristophanes, the comic poet, approaches his speech in a manner different from the other speeches. As a poet, he is going to tell a tale. The speech is essentially a mythological story about the original state of man and of how he evolved into his present condition vis a vis the phenomenon of love (189d).

There were originally three sexes begotten by the Sun (male), Earth (female) and Moon (hermaphrodite). Each of these sexes was doubled and united as a whole (189e —190b). For example, a man was rounded with two sides, each one anatomically complete. Now this entire race had become hubristic and sought to assault heaven. In response to this, Zeus punished them by slicing each one in half (190c — 191a). This resulted in the three-fold forms of heterosexuality (from the hermaphrodite) and homosexuality (both male and female)(191d — e).

As a consequence of this split, each part began to crave for its "other half." It is this craving which we call love (192e). Ideally, true love is the recognition of one’s proper half and this is the greatest blessing that love can bestow (193c —d). In this manner, Aristophanes explains the effects of love viz., by explaining our original state.

One should note how the speech of Aristophanes provides a transition from the first sequence of speeches (concerned with the effects of Eros) to the second sequence of speeches(concerned with the nature of Eros). In the speech of Socrates, the nature of love will be seen to involve the notion of craving or desiring. Now the effects of the gods’ punishment of morals, for Aristophanes, leads to the nature of love as involving a desiring for one’s other half. Thus the speech is anticipatory and provides and indication of the upcoming discourse of Socrates (cf 205e).

Interlude (193e — 194e)

Socrates ironically humbles himself in the face of Agathon’s upcoming speech, to which the latter chides him for building up the audience’s (GREEK) expectations (194a —b). This leads both to comment upon the different kinds of audience one can have. Specifically, there is a difference between an undifferentiated multitude and an intelligent few. There is a difference between the crowd and the individual. "An intelligent speaker, " Agathon says, "is more alarmed at a few men of wit than a host of fools" (194b). What this interlude brings into view is the fact that Agathon’s speech making is again on stage. This time, however, it is not the Athenians, but a few intelligent ones, who will be the judges of his speech.


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©Robert Cavalier, Carnegie Mellon