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Sappho's Heart and Plato's Mind: Critical Analysis of Plato’s Symposium

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When contemplating the opposing perceptions of two prominent Greek thinkers; Sappho and her descriptions of Eros are regarded as an overwhelming, intense, emotional response felt throughout her entire physical body, a feeling worth dropping anything for to be felt in all of its wholeness that can lead to dropping anything in the present moment for what one truly loves. Additionally, we confront Plato’s effects of Eros – wherein he assigns the use of a narrator known as Apollodorus to begin the series of speeches to pass on to Glaucon – where he inadvertently assesses Eros as a tool to appreciate both the pursuit of wisdom and the experience of a known and naturally felt beauty – one that consists of a neverending aspiration or inclination to pursue what one wishes to know. Although the two interpret Eros in a way that suits their own individual human endeavors, the elucidations of Eros throughout both texts confirms that Eros is a known phenomenon experienced and conceptualized by humans. Eros in these contexts offers readers a fascination to evaluate Eros as a connection to meditate on this human aliveness as well as a potential for knowledge gaining that allows a conscious being, the reader to be introduced to this form of desire that is internal and intuitive.

In one of Greek’s most prominent female poet Sappho’s remaining pieces of writing, specifically 16 (L-P,) she measures the most shared and understood objects of desire in comparison to a masculine set of desirable pursuits from her own perspective. Likewise, she simply does not relate to these ideas as a woman that wishes to desire women. She writes, “Some say a squadron of horse, some, infantry, some, ships, are the loveliest thing on the black earth. But I say it’s what you desire” (Sappho, 74). She begins this passage with a desire that is commonly deemed erotic to men by describing masculine leisurely interests and then quickly states that desiring material objects with heavy weight, physically and metaphorically, is not the form of desire she relates to. From her perspective, desire should be experienced and felt due to the person being the object of desire. Sappho continues, “And it’s easy enough to get everyone to grasp this. For the woman who far surpassed all women in beauty, Helen, left behind the very best of husbands” (Sappho, 74). In this next line, Sappho provides evidentiary support by noting that even the most beautiful of women – Helen of Troy – values a human desire for love as an alternative of a craving that is associated with men at war. Eros in this perspective is in due part to more than man-made notions of conditional desire. What Sappho encourages is a love and desire felt for another person so deeply. Here, it is Helen’s desire for Paris and Sappho does not blame Helen; instead, she valorizes her as a woman capable of such desire that amounts to more than desires of associations deemed as masculine pursuits with a means to an end. For these reasons, desire to these women is unconditional and goes beyond the material world.

In Plato’s Symposium, Eros is discussed as to mean many different things to different characters, although they all share the underlying notion of Eros as the God of love and to experience this love consists of a quest to pursue enlightenment in the form of truth with hints of desire to guide this truth. More specifically, I will be focusing on Phaedrus’ speech and his interpretation of Eros. Further, Eryximachus asks everyone at the banquet to begin praising Eros as Eros offers those to have honor, loyalty, and goodness. Phaedrus is quoted as he asks, “Isn’t it awful, Eryximachus, that humans and paeans have been made by the poets for other gods, but for Eros, who is so great and important a god, not one of the many poets there have been has ever made even a eulogy?” (Plato, 265). Moreover, Phaedrus emphasizes that many other Gods receive recognition for their divine associations but not enough credit is given to Eros as it should be. In a pederastic framework, a lover that is pursuing a boy, he who wants to avoid dishonor, therefore, he will do everything he can to be a good person: eros makes people good, and people don’t want to be dishonored in their quests to love other people. For example, when a younger boy loves an older man, this is seen as more divinely inspired as this power imbalance embedded here is not explored at great lengths in Phaedres’ dialogue, but one can infer that Eros varies accordingly to the position, subjectivity, or placement of the couple regarding the dynamics of their relations.

Furthermore, because Phaedrus’ dialogue is a point of departure to explore Eros and considerably short within the Symposium, I will continue to note differing conclusions of Eros in Pausanias’ speech who interestingly enough considers Phaedres’ interpretation and argument for Eros to be unnoble as he claims, “It is not the noble the way the argument has been proposed to us–commanding us to eulogize Eros in unqualified fashion” (Plato, 269). Here, Pausanias appears to sound almost insulted by Phaedrus’ encouragement of Eros to be known in the way he understands it as an individual, noble concept of a love that offers one virtuosity, though Pausanias continues to say that Phaedrus’ simply lacks the qualifications to enlighten others on the subject of Eros as he writes that, “For were Eros one, it would be noble, but as it is, it is not noble, for he is not one; and as he is not one, it is more correct that it be declared beforehand which Eros is to be praised” (Plato, 269). Consequently, Pausanias shares his regard for Eros as an ambiguous objective as he distinguishes between two different kinds of loves: a heavenly Eros and a common Eros. Likewise, regarding common Eros, there is a notion of common Aphrodite, the mother of Eros, Goddess of love. This common love is noted simply as a love that is felt and expressed for another human being. Here Pausanias states that, “Those who are of the same sort as this Eros are, first of all, no less in love with women than with boys; secondly, they are in love with their bodies rather than their souls; and thirdly they are in love with the stupidest there can be, for they have an eye only to the act and are unconcerned with whether it is noble or not (Plato, 270). Here Pausanias’ describes the common love that is agreeable upon today’s standards in that people may love the outer-appearance of another and not so much as a heavenly love that consists of a love and admiration for another person’s soul. Whereas this Heavenly love or Eros, is a love for what is considered to be divine. This divine essence is the love that Socrates wishes to achieve and learn more about as we continue to explore the text, however, focusing back to Pausanias’ wish to tackle Eros since he is aware that Eros can mean anything to anyone from the position of their own life experience. He wishes to be specific when discussing Eros and continues to share what he deems unique about a pursuit of a Heavenly Eros which is a love that brings and inspires a pursuit of goodness in people. This goodness however, is what is lacking in the notion of common Eros. Although, this goodness is not unachievable in common love of course, let’s say if a lover and a boy wishes to be good and the younger boy seeks wisdom from the older man, this is a praisable form of Eros. He continues to share that in his experience, the Eros we should praise is the one in which where it encourages people to love in the right way, this way meaning it is to be directed toward being a good person.

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When referring back to Eros in Sappho’s written poetry, we can still agree that Eros in her own personal experience is unique as a woman writing about desiring other women. Eros to Sappho appears to overlay a love that is easily prioritized over the common masculine-deemed forms of “erotic” amusement. She writes further about Helen’s willingness to leave behind her husband Paris, as she “Gave no thought at all to child or loving parents, but . . . . led her astray. . . “ (Sappho, 74). In this piece of text, once again we see that this love can lead those who understand it to abandon their customary lives for erotic pursuits to continue to explore all that is left for those who wish to challenge what is expected of them. The next three lines of this poem are missing according to the series of intervals, however, Sappho continues to share that these pursuits, “reminded me now of Anaktoria who is elsewhere” (Sappho, 75). Further, one can infer here that Anaktoria who she speaks of must be a past lover of some kind as she describes Anaktoria’s physicality but emphasizing the value and preference of her mere presence in the next series of lines beginning with, “I’d rather see her comely step, the shining luster of her face” (Sappho, 75). Once again, this love that Sappho is describing here is presumably either a Heavenly Eros or even a Common Eros as described in Symposium. One can infer here that she could value a Heavenly Eros – although this is mostly assigned to pederastic relationships, younger male and older adult male citizens. Though, these dynamics aside, this underlying feeling of love is described to be more than a physical attraction as a common love would be. However, what suspects this to be a common love could be that her explicitly stating so is lacking and she could just value this assumed previous lover for nothing more than a physical attraction. This is not to say that it is either one or the other but could be assigned both in this circumstance. More importantly in this text is Sappho’s value of people over the “Lydians’ chariots and infantry in armor” (Sappho, 75). Moreover, because most men valorize and eroticize these groups and activities, she emphasizes that her desire for women, or people, rather, is what is truly valuable and desirable. What is desirable and loving to Sappho are her embodied notions of love she feels because of another soul that she encounters. These encounters allow her to self reflect on the collective values for war tactics that she cannot relate to. In the same way, this is why her poems appear to written accounts of her own experiences as she shares her perspective in comparison to what the majority of people are deeming as erotic and desirable when in reality they are quite the contrary because what is loving about the impacts of war?

Referring back to Plato’s Symposium, Phaedrus’ ideas of Eros are quite indeterminate in that although he acknowledges the benefits of Eros making one wish to do good deeds in the world, his interpretation still lacks a deeper meaning that we are able to interrogate further when piecing together Pausanias’ notions of Eros that require much more examination. Pausanias’ experience in grasping Eros has resulted in his concluding to the two branches of Eros that I mentioned earlier: Heavenly Eros and Common Eros. Moreover, because these two ideas of Eros have varying origins, they will inevitably have opposing meanings in the end. Accordingly, those who value a Heavenly Eros, wherein often younger boys look up to older men for inspiration to pursue wisdom and knowledge in their lives, however, still acknowledging physical attraction is to be taken into consideration: “the other Eros is of Uranian Aphrodite, [who] does not partake of female but only of male (and this is the love of boys); and second, is the elder and has no part in outrage” (Plato, 270). When looking to Common Eros or “Eros Pandemus,” we see that sexual fulfillment is in large part due to an underlying factor, which is why Heavenly love is more desirable and has to do with aspects that are due to divine nature.

Furthermore, because Sappho is a woman pursuing women, it might not be appropriate to reference her ideas of Eros within this framework, especially since there is no proof given here that exemplifies her relations offering a path of enlightenment and wisdom, not to mention, there is a balance between two women and both are seemingly benefiting from the relationship with power imbalances aside. Equally important is Sappho’s longing for her lovers wherein she is not wishing to pursue anything more or less than a love that consists simply of desiring another human being. Again, as seen in Plato’s work, the love that these characters write about in the philosophical text require deep thought whereas Sappho simply wishes to love in the present moment while remaining to feel what happens corporeally.

Finally, after comparing the two texts and their varying and shared ideas of Eros, we see in Sappho’s experience a present, conscious interpretation is vital – and this love that is felt is shared creatively and more comprehensively. Whereas in Plato’s Symposium, Eros is shared to mean something differently to the knower and the experiencer. Phaedrus’ account of Eros is brief and concrete in the sense that it offers one a love that will reward one with honor if it is done well. Moreover, Pausanias’ speech gives a much more abstract account of Eros where it takes a lot of intellectual unpacking. Further, what is understood as a Heavenly Eros consists of a sexual love that is easily understood in a pederastic framework: when boys look to wise men on their journey to pursue their own subjective truths – and eventually those boys will be men in time to reciprocate the truth they too wish to pass on to their young lovers. Similarly, as we looked at a Common Eros, which is associated with the human instinctive, physiological sexual attraction that can be nothing more than such and does not have a divine purpose, nor does it lead to anything that can serve one a lifelong pursuit of love and commitment.

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Sappho’s Heart and Plato’s Mind: Critical Analysis of Plato’s Symposium. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 2, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/sapphos-heart-and-platos-mind-critical-analysis-of-platos-symposium/
“Sappho’s Heart and Plato’s Mind: Critical Analysis of Plato’s Symposium.” Edubirdie, 27 Sept. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/sapphos-heart-and-platos-mind-critical-analysis-of-platos-symposium/
Sappho’s Heart and Plato’s Mind: Critical Analysis of Plato’s Symposium. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/sapphos-heart-and-platos-mind-critical-analysis-of-platos-symposium/> [Accessed 2 Feb. 2023].
Sappho’s Heart and Plato’s Mind: Critical Analysis of Plato’s Symposium [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 27 [cited 2023 Feb 2]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/sapphos-heart-and-platos-mind-critical-analysis-of-platos-symposium/
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