Friday, 5 August 2011

Symposium - Plato

Genre: Literature & Fiction
Author:Encomium to the Holy Spirit of Love
The reader might be tempted to dive into a book in search for truth just as a gold-miner hunts for treasure or a bee for nectar, waking up before dawn and setting to work at a furious pace for a few hours before hurrying away, arms filled with booty, tracks concealed, only to return again the following morn and so continue until either the work is finished or the rewards no longer exceed the effort, and then move on. Such a reader has a selective eye set on capturing beauty and possessing it: the image, story, or turn of phrase, the cherished seeds of truth that please the senses and out of which all good things might grow. Yet what we read might instruct us to dive into our own mind, as Ella Wheeler Wilcox urges us to do in the following beautiful poem.

Hidden Gems

We know not what lies in us, till we seek;
Men dive for pearls–they are not found on shore,
The hillsides most unpromising and bleak
Do sometimes hide the ore. 

Go, dive in the vast ocean of thy mind,
O man! far down below the noisy waves,
Down in the depths and silence thou mayst find
Rare pearls and coral caves. 

Sink thou a shaft into the mine of thought;
Be patient, like the seekers after gold;
Under the rocks and rubbish lieth what
May bring thee wealth untold. 

Reflected from the vastly Infinite,
However dulled by earth, each human mind 
Holds somewhere gems of beauty and of light
Which, seeking, thou shalt find.

Plato’s Symposium forces us to look within as to the nature of Love, for the dialogue is unsatisfactory in providing the answers we seek. There is a distinct absence of absolute truths, and all attempts at absolutism are soundly rejected within the context of the whole. So the reader must rather uncover its meaning like an archaeologist, each layer carefully peeled back, each stone examined and preserved, however worthless it may at first seem. The gems of truth find their value not in themselves, but within their greater context.

The Symposium tells of a banquet which was held at the house of Agathon, a writer of tragedy, in celebration of his first play, a resounding success, which has just been performed before thirty thousand Athenians. But instead of descending into drunken revelry as was usual for such occasions in honour of Dionysus, the participants decide instead to make speeches in honour of Love, or to use the more precise Greek term — Eros. The Symposium consists of seven speeches by: the aspiring young sophist Phaedrus, the old lawmaker Pausanias, the doctor Erixymachus, the comedian Aristophanes, the aforementioned tragedian Agathon, the philosopher Socrates and finally the gate-crashing ambitious rabble-rouser Alcibiades. We hear all this at a distance twice-removed from Apollodorus, who heard it in turn from Aristodemus who accompanied Socrates to the banquet and memorized the events of the evening. But there is even a further removal within as Socrates recalls the speech that he once heard from a wise woman of Manitea by the name of Diotima who taught him on the subject of love.

Why all this removal of the subject? By introducing Diotima, Socrates, who always likes to talk in dialectic, is able to criticize Agathon (and to a lesser extent Aristophanes) whilst standing in his shoes, thus empathizing with his wounded pride. There are also reversals. Agathon, the host, tells the slaves to “imagine that we are all your guests, myself included”. Meanwhile, Phaedrus, the youngest of the group is made “father of the speeches”, when Erixymachus suggests on his behalf that each make an encomium to the god of Love, citing Euripides’ Melanippe: “Not mine the tale”. But there are hints that Agathon and the rest are prepared for what is to come and this is no impromptu suggestion. For when Socrates makes his delayed entrance and is mocked by Agathon for having seen the light, praise which Socrates turns back on him in a sign that he’s back in good form, Agathon tells him not to exaggerate and forebodingly, “Dionysus will soon enough be judge to our claims to wisdom.” He is more prescient than he could have possibly realized, for once the speeches are finished, a living embodiment of Dionysus bursts through the door in the form of Alcibiades. Perhaps all the reversals and removals of subject and removals in time are for the purpose of escaping judgment and absolving responsibility.

Why the absolving of responsibility? Perhaps because if we are to be responsible to Dionysus, god of drunken festivities, and be judged by him, then we might find our concepts of things taking on opposite meanings. Perhaps, it is because each speaker is inspired by their own Muse, or by the god of Love himself, impersonal forces that possess them to say the things they do. When Erixymachus dismisses the flute-girl before the speeches begin, saying, “she can play for herself, or for the women if she prefers”, he pointedly ignores the possibility that a flute-player could simply not play. It is as if the flute-player could not exist without her function. Perhaps the same is true of man with respect to Eros. Does Eros absolve man of responsibility? Or can man be responsible for directing Eros? Let us keep these questions in mind.

In some ways, the first praise of Love does not come from the speeches, but in the offhand remarks of Apollodorus when he tells his friend how philosophy, that is love of knowledge, gives life a sense of direction, that the greatest pleasure is derived from discussing or even listening to it, and that whilst before he drifted aimlessly thinking that what he did was important, now he knows for a fact that it wasn’t. “Perhaps, you think I’m a failure, and believe me, I think what you think is true. But as for all of you businessmen, I don’t just think you are failures — I know it for a fact!” Apollodorus, like Socrates, has found that only love for philosophy, even to the point of mania, is what gives life meaning. So saying, he proceeds to recount what Aristodemus had recounted to him.

We have an image of Socrates out of his comfort zone to begin with, freshly bathed and wearing shoes, on his way to Agathon’s party, and rather putting his foot in it as he uses a saying from Homer to convince the uninvited Aristodemus to join him, unwittingly comparing the latter to the weak Menelaus. Thankfully for the reader, Aristodemus comes nonetheless, but curiously he never recounts his own speech in praise of Love at the Symposium. Whether overlooked, or omitting himself in embarrassment, he is our silent witness.

Socrates is an eager participant of the proposed speeches, declaring Eros to be the only subject of which he has any knowledge, an unusual boast for in Plato’s dialogues he normally claims to know nothing. Yet he also recognizes the difficulty he will face in speaking last when there might be nothing left to say.

And so the speeches begin! Phaedrus praises Love as the most ancient of the gods, alongside Chaos and Earth, thus implicitly a harmonizing force in the world, a theme which will be developed further by Erixymachus. Love’s power is to inspire man with fearless courage, to “breathe might” into the ordinary mortal and make one like a god. Love of honour and shame of disgrace elevate the lover to even die in the name of love, and be rewarded an after-life in the Isles of the Blest. The lasting image from his speech is that of the “army of lovers”. Love for Phaedrus is powerful and righteous. It binds lovers against foreign enemies outside the state and against disgrace within it. Phaedrus’ speech is essentially utilitarian. Love is good because it is useful to man, and the measure of its usefulness is its power.

When Aristodemus says that there followed several speeches which he could not recall later, we are inclined to think that they were philosophically uninteresting, perhaps variations of a traditional view of Love already expressed by Phaedrus. Socrates, in a later aside to Agathon, will hint at a problem with this view of Love. The feeling of shame and honorable courage which empowers it derive not from loving but from wanting to be loved, and moreover is dependent entirely on appearances, or imagined appearances. This is Love borne of childhood. The baby’s love is one of complete trust to be fed, cared for and protected, the child’s love rebels against these and is rather to be cherished, supported and guided. while the adolescent’s love rebels once more and is rather to be loved for what one loves oneself. The Arthurian knight inspired by the love of his princess to do great deeds is in fact inspired by his own concept of love, for his princess might not be much interested in his displays of bravery, but he must pretend she is if Love is to be useful to him. This Love could end up being quite narcissistic. The Beloved is merely a shadow, the appearance of what one would like to believe. A similar idea can be found in Oscar Wilde’s play “The Importance of Being Earnest”. Earnest is loved for who he is, Earnest. When it turns out that his name is not Earnest, then as the Beloved he is emptied of all identity. If Love is to be real, and not a mere love of shadows, then it is time to rebel again, and recognize a higher ideal of Love, not the asymmetric heroic egotistical love that gratifies the self and renounces the other, nor one that renounces the self and gratifies the other, both of which impose a forced passivity on the Beloved, but rather a Love of mutual ascension.

Pausanias, in true Socratic fashion, says that Love has not yet been properly defined. He proceeds to distinguish between honorable and lustful Love, corresponding to Heavenly Aphrodite and Common Aphrodite, and then attributes the worthiness of an action to the form of Love that inspired it, and the regulations and customs of society as designed purely to inhibit the Common form of Love and thus promote the Heavenly. So long as the lover is motivated by honorable Love, that is not by money or power, and the beloved is motivated by wisdom, or more generally virtue, such love is divinely blessed and even if lover or beloved were deceived in this relation, then they would suffer no blame so long as their own intentions were good. The lasting idea from his speech is of lovers being the greatest protection against the lawlessness of tyranny.

Pausanias is still utilitarian in his praise of Love, but his measure of usefulness is not by honour in appearances, but by virtue of intentions. To shun measuring utility by wealth, power or even honour and instead embrace virtue appears to be a “good” move. But it also seems to mask a subterfuge. For having started so seemingly well in putting forward a dual nature of Love, Pausanias goes on to implicitly define virtue from this same duality as dependent purely on the form of Love which inspired it, thus emptying out all virtue from actions in themselves into the intention and manner in which an action is carried out. Also, he does this in true sophistic fashion, firstly by putting forward his idea as if there were no reasonable alternative, and then secondly convincing us of it. The Socratic way would be to work towards what we believe to be true from what we all know, and then still to be open to exploring the viability of contrary beliefs. Disregarding the deceptiveness of the manner of this manoeuvre, let us satisfy ourselves with examining its outcome — it is a utility of intentions. One might object that this is meaningless, for how can one know the minds of men? But what it inevitably leads to is a belief in divine karma. Ironically, Pausanias, the expert in law, seems to advocate that the only justice is divine justice. The lovers inspired by Heavenly Aphrodite will be rewarded by the gods for their good intentions, while the vulgar kind of love will get no more than it deserves. The role of law is reduced to a secondary means of encouraging virtue, and because all intentions lack concreteness, the good speaker could manipulate such law to justify their own virtuousness. One suspects that this is exactly what Pausanias intends. His idea of Heavenly Love, regulated by law, demands of us a faith in divine karma.

Through the end of Pausanias’ speech, and the beginning of the next by Erixymachus, Aristophanes has been overwhelmed with a fit of hiccups, so he yields his turn, following the medical instructions of Erixymachus and speaks after the latter once they have subsided. Symbolically, his hiccups wordlessly critique these two speeches as representing sophistic air.

Erixymachus universalizes Pausanias’ argument. He extends the idea of harmonious and inharmonious Love to agriculture, music, the universe and even the gods themselves, and in so doing, in effect, dispenses of the gods as final arbiters. As a doctor, knowledgeable in medicine and the ways of nature, he prides himself in being able to distinguish between the two types of Love. His measure of utility is not honour or virtue, but vitality, health and pleasure, as opposed to death, disease and pain. Just as one must regulate the appetite by eating good food without over-indulging, so Erixymachus believes that Love in all its forms must be regulated. We have reached a culmination, from the Love that through shame regulates the lovers, to the Love that is regulated by the laws of the state, to the Love that I through my own knowledge must regulate.

Aristophanes’ hiccups have now been cured by a simple sneeze as Erixymachus had recommended as a last resort, and Aristophanes cutely suggests that the sneeze must have been just the right kind of Love that the hiccups required. Of course, we usually associate a sneeze with illness, so we are led to conclude that Erixymachus’ two kinds of Love are not absolutes but things in relation, and also to contemplate because Pausanias equates Love with virtue and Erixymachus with scientific knowledge, both of which have little bearing on our actual experience of Love. The thought arises that the first three speeches could be adapted to any subject whatsoever. Phaedrus says that X is good because it maximizes our potential. Pausanias cautions that X is sometimes good, sometimes bad, and that the good and bad kinds of X must be distinguished and regulated so as to promote the good and extinguish the bad. Finally, Erixymachus points to natural and universal principles which underlie a general science which we must master in order to know good forms of X from bad, for ignorance is the cause of all our suffering. These three approaches to X are increasingly generic, and they fail to provide the means by which we might attain the wisdom we need about X itself. Yet it could well be that once we truly know X, each approach is equally and essentially true.

Indeed, on the subject of Love, Ramon Llull writes the following in “The Art of Contemplation”:

Virtue, Truth and Glory met in the thoughts of Blanquerna, when he contemplated his Beloved. Blanquerna considered to which of these three he would give the greatest honour in his thoughts and will; but since he could conceive in them no difference whatsoever, he gave them equal honour in remembering, comprehending and desiring his Beloved. And he said: “I adore thee, O Virtue, that hast created me; I adore thee, O Truth, that shallt judge me; I adore thee, O Glory, wherein I hope to be glorified in Virtue and Truth, which will never cease to give glory without end.”
If we are to realize a higher insight into the first three speeches, then the Erixymachean ego that claims the possibility of mastering the Truth of Love must itself be overturned. Love is not an object of Knowledge, but a relation. The self that knows cannot be separated from the rest of the universe, but must be re-absorbed into the unitary whole in order to participate in that relation. So we are led to the necessity of self-knowledge. Instead of praising the ancient origins and useful consequences of Heavenly Love, we must ask, “What is the meaning and means of knowing Love for the Self?” This is the question that the first three speeches have been avoiding.

Aristophanes will tell a vivid tale of how men were once spherical like the Earth, Sun and Moon, but they rebelled against the gods and so were split in two. Love then is the seeking of our other half to regain original wholeness of Self. The gods are portrayed not as good, but as greedy and wilful, yet they must be obeyed out of fear that they will split us again. Love is then a movement towards that original unity, a movement against separation and specialization, and an act of man’s defiance. The tale is pessimistic, but comic. Ironically, Aristophanes, the comedian, wants very much to be taken seriously. By contrast the next speaker, Agathon, the tragedian, will be optimistic, but ask not to be taken seriously. He will bombastically equate Love with Good, and the gods as harmonious since Love came into being.

Socrates then, through the words of Diotima, will seem to bridge Aristophanes and Agathon, just as Plato in the Symposium bridges comedy and tragedy. Both Aristophanes and Agathon are partly right. The wholeness that Aristophanes would seek is to be found in Agathon’s divine Good, but Love itself is not good or beautiful, but (born of poverty and resourcefulness) is rather a bridge, a holy spirit between man and the divine, between good things and the everlasting Good. The trinity in Hesiod’s cosmogony of Chaos, Earth and Eros is being replaced by one much closer to the Christian tradition. There is only one thing needed to make the separation of this trinity complete, and that is that we are not gods ourselves — the Self is distinct from the Good. It is this final argument which Alcibiades will provide in his double-edged praise of Socrates.