Friday, January 17, 2014

From Plato's Symposium

Plato's Symposium is one of the Socratic Dialogues in which the philosopher and mentor of Plato serves as a literary character and historical figure teasing out philosophical discussions with other historical characters of ancient Athens in a journey to understand the world. The Symposium is a series of speeches on love presented at a dinner party in honor of a playwright's victory at the festival. It's very fascinating and for a philosopher who lacks divine revelation it seems to approach what Love is.

There are four speeches in the dialogue that really impress me. Each is a development from the prior speeches, correcting, refuting, and adding something to what love.

The physician Eryximachus delivers a speech comparing love to medicine, seemingly equating Love with the order that governs the universe. "Yet even so it is far greater when Love is directed, in temperance and goodness, toward the good, whether in heaven or on earth: happiness and good fortune, the bonds of human society, concord with the gods above-all these are among his gifts."

Aristophanes is a bit of an enigma. He's the comic playwright, highly critical of Athenian government during the Peloponnesian War, and his play the Clouds caricatures the historical Socrates: Plato in his Apology says this contributed to the man's downfall and execution. In the dialogues he seems to provide comic relief of sorts, but here Aristophanes provides a really well-thought examination of love. He provides a mythology which is remarkably similar to the Genesis account of the Fall of Man, at least thematically. "Love is born into every human being; it calls back the halves of our original nature together; it tries to make one out of two and heal the wound of human nature."

Now here it should be said that Aristophanes articulates we have "other halves," and the Symposium is very much in favor of pederasty. BUT, if one changes the pronouns and also realizes that these relationships were not (should not be, if one reads the Laws) necessarily consummated, then these statements make perfect sense and are fundamentally true.

"And so, when a person meets the half that is his very own, whatever his orientation, whether it's to young men or not, then something wonderful happens: the two are struck from their senses by love, by a sense of belonging to one another, and by desire, and they don't want to be separated from one another, not even for a moment." Personally, I think this and the following passage makes much sense in light of St. Augustine's teaching that we are naturally made for God, and we are restless until we rest in Him.
"Love does the best that can be done for the time being: he draws us towards what belongs to us. But for the future, Love promises the greatest hope of all: if we treat the gods with due reverence, he will restore to us our original nature, and by healing us, he will make us blessed and happy." 
Now here Agathon contemplates the qualities of Love, a discussion which was missing on the topic of virtue in the Meno. One's discussion on a topic (e.g. love, virtue) is in trouble if they can't find its nature or what is common to everything that is said to be a thing.
"After this we should speak of Love's moral character. The main point is that Love is neither the cause nor the victim of any injustice; he does no wrong to gods or men, nor they to him. If anything has an effect on him, it is never by violence, for violence never touches love. And the effects he has on others are not forced, for every service we give to love we give willingly...and because he has power over pleasures and passions, Love is exceptionally moderate." 
Rather reminiscent of 1 Corinthians 13, no?

Socrates presents his speech, and he also includes a dialogue with Diotima, "the one who taught me [Socrates] the art of love."
"First it always is and neither comes to be nor asses away, neither waxes nor wanes. Second, it is not beautiful this way and ugly that way, nor beautiful at one time and ugly at another, nor beautiful in relation to one thing and ugly in relation to another...It is not anywhere in another thing...but itself by itself with itself, it is always one in form; and all the other beautiful things share in that...This is what it means to go aright, or be led by another, into the mystery of love: one goes always upwards for the sake of this Beauty, starting out from beautiful things and using them like rising stairs: from one body to two and from two to all beautiful bodies, then from beautiful bodies to beautiful customs, and from customs to learning beautiful things, and from these lessons he arrives in the end at this lesson, which is learning of this very Beauty, so that in the end he comes to know just what it is to be beautiful. 

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