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Anastasios Makratos–Makropoulos – writer,
Byzantinologist – Medieralist – Researcher,
University of Athens, Greece

Plato’s “SYMPOSIUM”
Eros of the body - eros of the immortality

Plato’s “Symposium” was written circa 388 B.C. and refers to the Symposium held by the dramatic poet Agathon for his friends to celebrate his victory in the Lenaia dramatic contests in January 416 B.C. The dinner guests were among the finest representatives of the Athenian intellect and politics and some of them were still quite young. Victorious Agathon himself had just turned twenty, Aristophanes was slightly younger than thirty, Alkiviades was approximately thirty-five and so was Pausanias. Socrates, now mature, is in his fifty-fourth year of age.

Symposiums in Ancient Greece constituted an important social institutionand were already known as early as the Homeric era. Nestor mentions in “Iliad” that a good symposium creates an atmosphere of familiarity so that controversial subjects can be discussed. In “Odyssey”, symposiums in the Palaces of Alkinoos and Ulysses are mentioned. In Ionia and Athens, a more refined form of the Symposium evolved. At first, the dinner guests ate (“δείπνον” or “σύνδειπνον”). Later, during “πότον”, they drank watered wine and the discussion started after its subject had been defined.

In Plato’s “Symposium”, the subject is god Eros, for whom, as pointed out by Phaidros, not even one encomium has been composed by poets and this seems unacceptable to him. , «Ου δεινόν, …., άλλοις μέν τισι θεών ύμνους και παίωνας είναι υπό των ποιητών πεποιημένους, τω δε Έρωτι, τηλικούτω όντι και τοσούτω θεώ, μηδέ ένα πώποτε τοσούτων γεγονότων ποιητών πεποιηκέναι μηδέν εγκώμιον;» (177α)  (*)

Phaidros makes the introduction as the “father of the speech”, i.e. as the one who has defined the subject and the others follow, each one of them presenting his encomium and praise for Eros, his beauty and charms, his traits and the passions he generates. Phaidros extols Eros as a great god «ότι μέγας θεός είη ο Έρως και θαυμαστός εν ανθρώποις τε και θεοίς» (178α). The sense of honour is owed to Eros (178d and further), as well as disregard before death (179b and further). According to Pausanias there are two types of love, the «πάνδημος», the sensual (181α and further) and the «ουράνιος», the spiritual (181c and further). Eryximachos proceeds to point out that Eros does not only reside in the human soul but constitutes a general, metaphysical principle, which permeates all beings and all events of human life (186α and further). In his speech, Aristophanes, starting from the mythological androgynous gender («ανδρόγυνον γένος») and its separation by Zeus, interprets the mutual attraction of sexes as the struggle of the human being - male or female - to seek and find its “other half” («έτερον ήμισυ») (189d and further). Then, Agathon proceeds to extol the qualities of Eros, namely that he is beautiful, therefore he has youth, softness, fluidity, symmetry, multitude of hues. Also, Eros is perfect since he is governed by justice, prudence, bravery, wisdom (195α and further).

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(*)  This extract as well as all that follow comes from the Academy of Athens publication: Plato’s “Symposium”, text, translation and interpretation by Io. Sykoutris, Athens, “Estia”, 101990 (11934). In this article, for practical reasons, we use monotonic system.

When it is Socrates’ turn to speak, he states that he will share with the other dinner guests everything he had been taught about Eros by the oracle Diotima, who hailed from Mantineia. We are not sure whether she is actually a historical personality. What does matter though, is the reason why Plato indirectly placed her in “Symposium”. And it appears that the philosopher chose this narrative device to lend religious and prophetic atmosphere and language to what Socrates expounds on, which, eventually exceeds reason and reaches transcendental faith and the vision of absolute beauty and absolute truth. Furthermore, Plato’s belief that the limits of truth exceed the limits of logical proof is well known. In essence, Diotima impersonates Socrates as the teacher, who engages into conversation with Socrates as the student. It is the philosopher’s debate with himself.

Socrates believes that Eros is not a god, because gods, being blissful and handsome, do not need to seek bliss and handsomeness. Eros is something between gods and humans, he is a “Great Demon” («Δαίμων μέγας») (202d) and therefore, constitutes a means of communication between divine will and human requests. Since he lies in the midst of the two existences, he spans the void between them, reverses the chasm, and contributes to the cohesion of the universe. «εν μέσω δε ον αμφοτέρων συμπληροί, ώστε το παν αυτό αυτώ ξυνδεδέσθαι» (202e).

Besides, since Eros is - mythologigally speaking - the child of Poros and Penia, he has all the traits of his parents. Because of his father he is a charmer, a hunter, a trapper, brave, vigorous, extremely enchanting with herbs and words, «δεινός γόης και φαρμακεύς και σοφιστής» (203d). From his mother, he has inherited want and deprivation. Therefore, «ούτε απορεί Έρως ποτέ ούτε πλουτεί» (203e), he is always between wealth and poverty.

Eros is also love for what is beautiful , «Έρως δεστίν έρως περί το καλόν» (204b), and since wisdom is one of the most wonderful things in the world, it follows that Eros is a philosopher «ώστε αναγκαίον Έρωτα φιλόσοφον είναι, φιλόσοφον δε όντα, μεταξύ είναι σοφού και αμαθούς» (204b).

Therefore, Eros is presented by Socrates to possess a nature that is extremely dynamic and always in motion, never static and still. It lies between wisdom and ignorance, between the beautiful and the ugly, between the wealth and the poverty. Every lover wishes to acquire what is beautiful so that he will be content, «ερά ο ερών των καλώνΓενέσθαι αυτώότι ευδαίμων έσται» (204de ), and within this acquisition («Γενέσθαι») we believe that the very essence of the nature of Eros lies: that Eros perpetually strives towards the acquisition of goods and their everlasting possession. «Έστιν άρα ξυλλήβδην… ο έρως του το αγαθόν αυτώ είναι αεί» (206α).

When human nature fully develops, it desires to bear children «τίκτειν επιθυμεί ημών η φύσις» (206c). This desire illustrates the immortal, divine element that exists within the mortal human entity. As ugliness is incompatible with the divine element, birth is only appropriate in an environment of beauty, therefore, Eros is the desire to be born within beauty «Της γεννήσεως και του τόκου εν τω καλώ» (206e). Consequently, desire and love and children, and the concern for their development and upbringing are explained by the fact that «η θνητή φύσις ζητείαεί τε είναι και αθάνατος» (207d), the mortal seeks immortality. The desire for immortality appears in what seems at first sight as the absurd («αλογία») tendency of certain people who defy death in their powerful quest to become famous and acquire immortal glory. «ονομαστοί γενέσθαι και κλέος ες τον αεί χρόνον αθάνατον καταθέσθαι» (208c). Socrates mentions the examples of Alkestis, Achilles and Kodros. However, we believe that in the first two examples, what played a major part in the act of sacrifice was conjugal and friendly love respectively.

Other people are pregnant “in terms of their bodies” («κατά τα σώματα») and they create children along with their wives, hoping “through childbirth to acquire immortality and memory and bliss”, «δια παιδογονίας αθανασίαν και μνήμην και ευδαιμονίαν» (208e). Others, however, are pregnant “in terms of soul” («κατά την ψυχήν») and they bear “prudence and the other virtue”, «φρόνησίν τε και την άλλην αρετήν» (209a), as is the case of poets and the worthy plastic artists, who create spiritual and artistic offspring. According to Plato, the supreme form of prudence, and therefore, the supreme form of birth is the one related to the management of the state and household affairs, «η περί τας των πόλεών τε και οικήσεων  διακοσμήσεις» (209α), which is called “prudence and justice” («σωφροσύνη τε και δικαιοσύνη»).

We see that love, as a factor of immortality starts from the biological event and extends to spiritual and artistic creation and even further, to political practice, a function of the citizen. Homer, Hesiodos and other great poets are mentioned as parents of exquisite spiritual offspring whereas Lycourgos and Solon are brought up as examples of parents of superb governance. Monuments and shrines had been erected in their honour, but never for those who had only given birth to physical offspring, «ων και ιερά πολλά ήδη γέγονε δια τους τοιούτους παίδας, δια δε τους ανθρωπίνους ουδενός πω» (209e).

Now Socrates is ready to talk about the levels of love: In his words, a young man as a lover should come into contact with beauty and be in love, at first, with only one body. This contact will lead to communication between the lover and the object of his love. This will give rise to beautiful views and thoughts, «ενός αυτόν σώματος εράν και ενταύθα γεννάν λόγους καλούς» (210α). Since the beauties of the bodies have an internal relationship, and therefore the beauty that resides in all the handsome bodies is, in essence, only one, «το κάλλος το επί οτωούν σώματι τω επί ετέρω σώματι αδελφόν εστι» (210α), the young man, in the next level of his erotic pursuits, will become a lover of all the handsome bodies, «καταστήναι πάντων των καλών σωμάτων εραστήν» (210b).

At a higher level, the lover must learn to regard the beauty of the soul as more valuable and more worthy of love than the handsomeness of the body, so he will give his love to beautiful souls «το εν ταις ψυχαίς κάλλος τιμιώτερον ηγήσασθαι του εν τω σώματι» (210b), even if the beauty of the body is only moderate «καν σμικρόν άνθος έχη» (210b). Then the lover must generate reasons that will elevate people, especially the young. The consequence of this effort is that he will discern the beauty in the acts and the institutions «εν τοις επιτηδεύμασι και τοις νόμοις» (210c), i.e. in the virtuous relation between the young citizen and the state, as well as his fellow citizens.

The next level inevitably leads the lover to the world of knowledge and its beauty, «επί τας επιστήμας αγωγείν, ίνα ίδη αυ επιστημών κάλλος» (210c). Then, an ocean of spiritual beauty will lie before him, and he, himself will generate splendid philosophical reflections and speeches that are wonderful and magnificent «επί το πολύ πέλαγος τετραμμένος του καλού και θεωρών, πολλούς και καλούς λόγους και μεγαλοπρεπείς τίκτη και διανοήματα εν φιλοσοφία αφθόνω» (210d).

We have already entered into the realm of metaphysics; the ascent from the physical to the spiritual and, even further, the intellectual creation has been completed. Next comes the participation and contribution to public affairs and then follows the vision of science («επιστήμη»), which reaches the supreme knowledge of the world and the universe, at a divine level we might say. Then, Diotima says to Socrates, the initiate to Eros will suddenly gaze upon a miraculous beauty, for the sake of which he has laboured so much in his effort to attain it. The absolute beauty is eternal, it is not born, neither does it disappear, it does not increase or decrease, it continually has the property of the absolutely beautiful without being subjected to changes, everything that is beautiful in the world and in life participates in its beauty, but it remains unaffected by anything, «πρώτον μεν αεί ον και ούτε γιγνόμενον ούτε απολλύμενον, ούτε αυξανόμενον ούτε φθίνον, έπειτα ου τη μεν καλόν, τη δαισχρόν?, …, αλλαυτό καθαυτό μεθαυτού μονοειδές αεί ον, τα δε άλλα πάντα καλά εκείνου μετέχοντα» (210e, 211ab).

When the lover reaches this level of intellectual and spiritual exaltation, he has almost reached the end of his initiation, «σχεδόν αν τι άπτοιτο του τέλους» (211b). We must stress the “almost” («σχεδόν») which has been inserted in the sentence. We are of the opinion that Plato wants to point out the structural inability of the human intellect, however developed it might be, to conceive the transcendental, the complete, absolute essence of divinity. However, the initiate receives a taste of the absolute, and this is what makes human life worthwhile. «Ενταύθα του βίου… , είπερ που άλλοθι, βιωτόν ανθρώπω θεωμένω αυτό το καλόν» (211d). Compared to the sight of this beauty, which is guileless, pure, unadulterated, «αυτό το καλόν ιδείν  ειλικρινές, καθαρόν, άμεικτον» (211e), material goods, gold, luxurious clothes, physical beauty and love seem infinitesimal. Having reached this highest point, and having tasted the absolute beauty, the lover will generate and develop the actual virtue, and not the false one, which is the reflection of the former, because he is already in contact with the truth, «ορώντι ω ορατόν το καλόν, τίκτειν ουκ είδωλα αρετήςαλλά αληθή, άτε του αληθούς εφαπτομένω» (212α). Then he will become the beloved of the gods, «θεοφιλής», and, considering human measures, immortal. So, Eros is the best supporter in the human’s effort to touch the absolute good and immortality. Therefore, all of us must honour and worship Eros, «χρήναι πάντα άνδρα τον Έρωτα τιμάν» (212b). This is exactly why Socrates, as he states at the end of his speech, appreciates and honours the works of love and always extols the power and the valour of love, «και αυτός τιμώ τα ερωτικάκαι νυν τε και αεί εγκωμιάζω την δύναμιν και ανδρείαν του Έρωτος» (212b).

The Platonic view and ascent of the erotic from the aesthetics of the body to the aesthetics of the soul, and from there to the gnoseology, ontology, philosophy of action and ethics, essentially includes the outline of Socrates’s philosophical thought. Man, as a mortal being, but with an innate potential for immortality, bears his physical offspring through Eros the Demon — “Our blood our sperm and / Projections of our bodies in the future”, Mystic Loves II, 1068-9 («Αίμα μας σπέρμα μας και / Προβολές των σωμάτων μας στο μέλλον» (ΜΕ ΙΙ, 1068-9), according to the poet — but he can also generate spiritual and artistic creations, cultivate knowledge and virtue, participate wisely in the public affairs of the state, and therefore contribute to the common good, which constitutes the paramount act and obligation of a citizen.

Towards all these Platonic ideals, which remain imperishable through time, the contemporary man must advance. These timeless values of life unite humanity towards the pursuit and fulfilment of a better and fairer society.

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