Love can be interpreted in many various ways, depending on the mindset and worldview of the interpreter. One can interpret the love between a man and a woman, a man and a man, or a woman and a woman. This love can be romantic or friendly or even a love of something abstract. Love is found everywhere, and in widespread forms. These endless and variable expressions of love are what lead to such skewed perceptions and definitions of the true meaning of the word. In Plato’s Symposium, various characters deliver speeches on their interpretation of love while at a drinking party. Each speech given demonstrates new ideas and perspectives on the concept of love and how it should be expressed. These views on love can be shown as a direct result of the worldview of the characters delivering them, and allow readers to experience and identify with each of the differing characters.
Aristophanes begins his speech on love by showing off his comedic personality. He discusses his theory on how people used to be circular beings with two faces and two sets of arms and legs. According to Aristophanes, the gods became worried that these people were too powerful, and decided to cut them in two, causing them to “lose their strength and also become more profitable” (Plato, 26). This cutting of humans, according to Aristophanes, caused them to become obsessed with finding their “matching half,” or lover. Upon finding this other half, people would become intimate with them and feel whole, committing an act that humans describe as beautiful. Aristophanes points out in his speech that if humans distance themselves, their desperate desire for love and sex, and the act of sex itself, both look rather silly from the point of view of the gods. After this, Aristophanes continues to discuss love from a very tragic point of view. As pointed out by Dr. Lucht, he dramatizes human vulnerability, pointing out how humans can’t live full lives due to the distraction of the need for love, and how the possibility of finding such love is incredibly slim. When Aristophanes says, “And so, when a person meets the half that is his very own, whatever his orientation, something wonderful happens: the two are struck from their desire, and they don’t want to be separated from one another, not even for a moment,” (Plato, 28) he shows the tragedy behind the fact that even people who connect with their other half cannot live a life of constant bliss because they will not be able to be with that soul mate nonstop. Aristophanes also continues to point out the tragedy behind the inability of humans to be happy on their own, without having love in their lives. He makes humans out to be very dependent and obsessed with the concept and pursuit of love. Aristophanes’ speech overall primarily shows that he believes in love and that every person has another that is meant specifically for them. This belief is shown when he exclaims, “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” (Plato 27). Aristophanes’ reference to the “wound of human nature” also reflects his feelings of pity towards people not being able to help but fall into the constraints of needing another person to feel whole. While Aristophanes begins his speech lightheartedly with his entertaining myth and casual humor, he shows throughout the remainder of it that love is a serious topic and a cause of upmost tragedy.
Socrates delivers his views of love reflecting those he learned from a wise woman named Diotima. In his speech, Socrates touches on his theory of forms, which says that everything in time and space is really just an attempt to match the “ideal type” or perfect form of that object. He relates this idea to the meaning of love by initially pointing out the flaws of the speech given before his. He proves to Agathon that love of something means that the original being is lacking that something that they so love. This shows that love cannot be beautiful or good. From here, Socrates goes into the different stages of love that people experience. He begins by talking about how people start off loving the beauty of a body. From there, people grow to appreciate and love the beauty of multiple bodies, realizing that “this wild gaping after just one body is a small thing and despise it” (Plato, 58). After seeing the beauty in all bodies, Socrates goes on to describe how that love turns into a love of the soul, and then transforms into an abstract love; a love “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” (Plato, 59). From this point, Socrates is implying that the greatest and wisest of loves are the most abstract. He shows through the given stages that what people really love is that ideal type of beauty that is reflected through the body, soul, and abstract concepts. Socrates suggests that this love allows one to assent into a position where they become less vulnerable and achieve a position of emotional detachment. He describes how this love will never alter, and will be eternal. Socrates’ idea of this abstract form of love reflects his clear belief that people should not allow themselves to become so attached to others, but should look for love in different areas and prove to be self- reliant. Socrates clearly lives his life this way, which is shown by his ability to go without sleep and drink all night without becoming sick. His personal detachment from the world is also shown by his lengthy pondering and disinterest in traditional love. This personal detachment allows Socrates to function independently and live the philosophical life that he was so known for.
The speeches of all of the characters in Symposium differ according to the personality and experiences of that particular character. Aristophanes’ speech shows that he believes in love and in soul mates, and believes, while pointing out its tragedy, that people are dependent on finding their perfect match and feeling whole. This directly contrasts the speech of Socrates, which shows his belief to be that people can achieve a detachment where they do not need to be dependent on others, but can find love in abstract ways and never be disappointed or hurt by that love. While these two speeches, along with the others given in Symposium differ greatly, they add to each other and allow readers to see reasoning behind all various opinions on the true meaning of love. Aristophanes’ and Socrates’ speeches, in particular, give two contradicting beliefs on the topic at hand, while never being able to prove the other inaccurate. The speeches show that love can be defined in all sorts of ways and that while one viewpoint on the best way of obtaining love may have many pros, it may have many flaws as well. The most accurate and truest description of the meaning of love lies within the individual evaluating such meaning based on their own personal worldview.
Plato, Alexander Nehamas, and Paul Woodruff. Symposium. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub., 1989.