The idea and feeling of love can be a controversial part of life to many people due to the many ways of interpreting it. Throughout Plato’s Symposium, the account and nature of love and what it means differs between speakers. The speeches of Aristophanes and Socrates vary as Aristophanes focusses on human nature and takes a mythical approach to define love whereas Socrates focusses on the idea that love is bad and ugly but is then questioned by Diotima.
Aristophanes begins by explaining that at one time, there were three different types of human beings. He wants us to understand that humanity has physically changed over time as this idea is what he bases his explanation on. The three human beings were said to be male, female, and “androgynous” which means a creature made up of male and female elements (Symposium, 189e). He begins to further describe the physical appearance of the androgynous creature and explains the meaning and reason for each species. Some key physical features are 4 hands, two faces, and two sets of sexual organs. The reason why there are three kinds is because, “The male kind was originally an offspring of the sun, the female of the earth, and the one that combined both genders was an offspring of the moon, because the moon shares in both” (Symposium, 190b). In strength they developed by having double the limbs, the androgynous creatures began creating havoc so after much consideration, Zeus decided to cut them in half to minimize their strengths and increase the population which would give the gods more worship and praise. After the cut, Apollo reminded the halves that the other is missing by having them stare at the wound. Although this is cruel it’s also compelling because each half started to become determined to find their other half which in today’s version of love, is what we long for as well. There is a sadness to the idea of losing a part of our selves, similar to the feeling of the death of a loved one, since some halves might not find their other and would end up alone for eternity. In today’s way of love, our mission is to find our other half and actually fear being alone. This idea proposed the idea of connecting with our soulmates since according to Aristophanes, we technically share a soul with our other half, and we were split to find our way back to each other.
Though Aristophanes describes love as a physical separation with our other halves and our purpose is to find the other, Socrates talks about love more realistically. Socrates’ views on love begins when he questions Agathon’s speech and continues into a conversation with Diotima. He says that firstly, love is the love of something and secondly, love itself loves things that have a present need. Socrates says that love is “ugly” because it’s not considered “beautiful”, but Diotima contradicts him and says that if something isn’t beautiful, it doesn’t automatically make it ugly. She explains the middle ground between wisdom and ignorance as, “judging things correctly without being able to give a reason. […] Correct judgment, of course, has this character: it is in between understanding and ignorance.” (Symposium, 202a). She then continues, “don’t force whatever is not beautiful to be ugly, or whatever is not good to be bad. It’s the same with Love: when you agree he is neither good nor beautiful, you need not think he is ugly and bad; he could be something in between” (Symposium, 202b). After the discussion back and forth about this, it is said that the main point of love is that the desire for happiness is “the supreme and treacherous” love but it can be pursued in other ways, i.e. through money making, hobbies, and subjects. People who possess this love are not considered lovers because they aren’t ‘devoted exclusively to one special kind of love that we use these words that really belong to the whole of it: ‘love’ and ‘in love’ and ‘lovers’” (Symposium, 205d).
The speeches of love told by Aristophanes and Socrates through his dialogue with Diotima agree and disagree in various ways. The way they are similar is that when we love, our purpose is to be devoted to our loved one. In Aristophanes’ speech, he says that we we’re split from our other half and that we’re meant to find our separated half— our soulmate. This says that our overall mission in life is to find our source of love but similar to Socrates, this love is not a hobby or source of income, but who we devote ourselves to exclusively and who we can share love with and in turn, be “lovers”. The way they are different is that Aristophanes’ speech is physically unrealistic but ideologically speaking, his theory makes sense. It’s very abstract and we wouldn’t actually be cut apart from our soulmate, but it does address the idea of “what’s meant to be will find its way back” in terms of love. It also talks about the sadness felt when losing a loved one by explaining it as us losing a part of ourselves. His speech overall is very abstract but when connecting it to real life, it’s actually very understandable and compelling. This differs from Socrates’ speech because he doesn’t really address the physical parts of love, unlike Aristophanes, but instead, he argues whether or not love is good or bad, and desirable or undesirable. His ideas are more realistically however much less relatable and fascinating. Aristophanes’ ideas make us think deep about love whereas Socrates’ ideas discuss its goodness or badness and the overall meaning of love, which is something that can vary between people.
In my opinion, Aristophanes’ speech and perspective offers the best account of the nature and being of love due to its imagery and meaning. As mentioned earlier, he makes us deep think about our overall purpose and the happiness we find when finding our soulmate or the sadness we feel when losing our other half. It describes love as not only an emotional connection to our soulmates, but also a physical connection which is why feelings of love are stronger than other feelings. It makes sense of the idea of how we hurt when our loved one hurts and that we share pain because we once were an androgynous being. His concept is extremely fascinating and helps us makes sense of certain feelings of love.
The speeches of Aristophanes’ and Socrates’ take different approaches when discussing the account and nature of love and what it means. Aristophanes uses a mythical and abstract approach while Socrates uses a realistic and simpler approach. Ideas and the meanings of love can be quite a controversial topic as it can be interpreted in many ways.
- Plato, Symposium, 172-223d, pgs. 458-505