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Symposium | Study Guide

Plato

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Symposium | Aristophanes's Speech | Summary

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Summary

Having finally recovered from his hiccuping fit, Aristophanes offers his own speech on love, beginning with a mild joke at Eryximachus's expense. Because he is famous as a comic playwright, Aristophanes's listeners likely expect his speech to be funny. Instead he uses a strange but moving fable to explain the origins and nature of love.

In former times, Aristophanes says, people were shaped differently, with "four hands and the same number of legs ... two faces (which were on opposite sides), four ears, two sets of genitals," and so forth. Powerful and proud, these ancestors attempted to wage war with the gods, and as punishment for their presumption, they were split in half by Zeus. The resulting "half-people," who resembled today's men and women, were lonely and diminished, but they hoped to find happiness by reuniting with their missing halves—a process which, Aristophanes suggests, continues to this day. Love, in his view, is nothing more or less than a quest for a lost wholeness.

Analysis

Aristophanes's speech, with its fanciful imagery and poignant moral, is likely the most famous in the entire dialogue. Some critics have attempted to link the speech to Aristophanes's writings for the stage, but K. J. Dover (1966), in an influential article on the topic, argues that the origins of the love fable lie in "unsophisticated, subliterate folklore" rather than in literary comedy. Plato, Dover points out, was not the only philosopher to make use of such material: Anaximandros (c. 610–546 BCE), Empedocles (c. 492–432 BCE), and Protagoras (5th century BCE) all offered similarly farfetched biological explanations for "modern" human traits, including sexual dimorphism.

Whatever its source, Aristophanes's tale of divided lovers is a refreshing change of pace from the prescriptions of Eryximachus and the theorizing of Pausanias. Within the dialogue as a whole, the speech might be seen as a sort of "palate cleanser" before the main course is served. Agathon's speech, which comes next, leads directly to a rebuttal from Socrates, who will offer the most elaborate theory of love, leaving Alcibiades's somewhat gushy speech as a kind of dessert. At the same time, Aristophanes's speech offers some important contrasts with Socrates's: the playwright's story is concrete and focused on the human dimension of love, where Socrates is characteristically abstract and wants to broaden the discussion to love of all kinds.

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