A Time Traveler at Plato’s Symposium

It really was ridiculous, the entire thing was ridiculous. Nearly one and a half hours in, everything was ridiculous to Henry. The lights were too bright, the makeup too itchy, the table too big and too short, the marble floor too uncomfortable, the couches even, so luxurious to look at, were itchy and lacked proper back support. But it was almost over: that was what most consoled Henry, but also what most concerned him.

If he failed, if he jumped over a line, if he stuttered, even if he said a sentence or two out of order, the entire thing would have to be redone. Lord Above! Whose crazy idea was it to shoot an entire damned two hour movie in one take?!? Probably that “artsy” director’s idea, accused Henry. He was some famous foreign director, long Greek name that didn’t make any sense, thick indecipherable accent, curly mustache, even that ridiculous beret; he fit the fancy director archetype to a T. Yet, he couldn’t really hate the director too much, Henry was no film critic, but he understood the importance of his own role. The director had taken liberties with the source material; Henry’s character was a new addition to the classic Symposium, endowed with the knowledge and expertise of the modern philosopher. His character was meant to represent the modern attitude, to breathe new life into a work that many believed had lost its relevance. On the other hand, Henry wasn’t one of those ridiculous “method” actors; he didn’t know and didn’t care how he was supposed to bring about this modern spin.

Henry continued his reflection, until he noticed something had changed. Some constant noise that had been droning on for the last 25 minutes had transformed into what sounded like… applause?! Smacked with an overwhelming tide of anxiety, Henry realized that Christopher (who was playing Socrates) had finished his speech and that he, like his companions, should be clapping. Henry froze. He couldn’t move. Thousands of thoughts raced through his head. Without his will, his body stood erect. He looked at the director, saw his concerned stare, turned to the camera, blinked, and by some miracle induced by incessant practice, his lips and voice began working to form his speech.

“A beautiful speech, dear Socrates! You have proved yourself a masterful teacher in a room full of novice students once again. To rise and speak against you would be pure intellectual suicide. Yet, what am I to do? I have been doomed by my own personal Fury of Tardiness to speak after you. All of you, I hope will forgive me, but I have no choice but to concede to our teacher that he has truly hit upon the core truth of Love. All I can do is present a makeshift excuse of a dialogue, and add some modifications to his discourse.

I must say I was quite upset when I heard our good teacher prove to Agathon that Love is no god, and not because I disagree! Alas, it was the very point I had been developing during his speech. I was quite proud of it too, until our teacher cruelly snatched it from me. Yet, some god (or perhaps our teacher himself) was kind to me, and though the flower was picked, the root was still in good condition. Yet, as any gardener knows, a flower cut will not grow in the same direction. The idea began to rise again, this time sown with new insights from sources best left undisclosed; lest I fill our teacher with jealousy. And so I come to challenge our teacher’s claim that Love was the child of Poros and Penia.

In fact, I have concluded that Love originates in humans themselves. That which we call Eros is an evolution of a love that is innate to every human child. Because human infants do not fully develop in the womb and require additional parental care to survive, a strong relationship between parent and child has become necessary to the survival of our species. During development, a child forms an attatchment to the parent, much like a duck imprints onto the first thing it recognizes. However, once the child has fully developed, there is no reason to retain the parental attatchment. Yet, for all its desire to break the parental bond, a human is not meant to be without attatchment. Thus, the innate attatchment to parent evolves into a desire for attatchment to a similar being. In this way, Eros comes about, to bind two similar humans together.

Accepting ourselves as the parents of Eros may seem like an arrogant stance. After all, can we truly give birth to something that exists on plane above our own? I don’t think so. Instead, I believe that Love is mortal. Now you may think this ludicrous, but our own teacher was exasperated when Diotima revealed that Love was no god. Is it so hard to believe Love is mortal? After all, being mortal only means we come to an end. And in my mind I stand convinced that love can indeed be killed. My sources revealed to me a society that may exist in nearly two and half thousand years, in which Love is completely eradicated. Most citizens are indoctrinated from birth to resist love. The very essence of the society screams the message: “Eros is the enemy” and children are brought up to consider Eros as an unfortunate but necessary part of life. The result is best exemplified by Katherine, a woman who even in marriage recoils at the touch of her husband, and considers marriage her “duty to the Party.” Those who resist this indoctrination are tortured and forcefully brainwashed into rejection of love. I was told the tale of just such a man named Winston. His secret love was eventually discovered and to break him of it the Party forces him to face “Something unendurable – Something that cannot be contemplated:” his deep and instinctual fear of rats. Cowering before the hungry rats, he desperatly demands that Julia, his former lover, be subjected to the torture. With this betrayal, any love between him and Julia is decisively slain, and in their next meeting they bitterly admit this fact to each other. With such consistent cauterization, the capacity for love is slowly but surely wiped from this society, never to be restored as long as the seemingly immortal Party rules.

Now I wish to preempt another objection. You might say that despite my examples to the contrary, Love cannot be born of humans and be mortal, because that would imply that Love is essentially identical to a human, and of course we know of no man named Love. To this, I respond that while Love is not phsyically human, it does indeed share our nature. Our teacher, has characterized Love as always being between two extremes. Whether he is “between wisdom and ignorance” between ugliness and beauty or between god and man, Love is always struggling to reach the good while never completely falling into the bad. In this same way, man is always placed between two extremes. No man is completely ignorant but even our teacher will be the first to tell you that he is far from all-knowing. Because of his placement, man, like Love, is constantly struggling to reach for an extreme which he cannot possibly reach. We see this in the human pursuit of living a good life. Though we may chase the ideal of the good life our entire lives, it is impossible for us to truly have lived a good life until we die, for our life is incomplete and therefore cannot be judged until it is over. In this way, we are effectivly engaged in a never-ending pursuit. The same way Love desires to “possess the good forever,” we wish to live a good life for as long as we live. Accordingly, we can see that the “in-betweeness” that our teacher assigns to spirits is in fact a human quality. So, if Love’s nature is like our own, if Love’s mortality is like our own, and Love’s origin is like our own, would it be irrational to say that Love is merely mortal?

I hope that, by now, I have convinced you that Love is no god or spirit, but akin to us mortals. However, I do not begrudge any dissent; it is hardly a sin to prefer the immortal to the mortal. In fact, if I were spouting these theories without proper introduction, I would accuse my own self of sacrilege, for I say that because love is mortal, we are in fact its equals. Love is not, as our wise Socrates framed it, a guide that, like a staircase, propels us ever upward to immortality and divinity. Rather, Love is our partner; he is not above us, but abreast with us, matching our paces in the journey of life. As our partner, we guide and form him, just as much as he guides and forms us. I could not deny the existence of guidance, for without it, humanity would be no different from goats, wandering aimlessly, and accomplishing only that which is necessary for survival.

Instead, I suggest that each man collaborates with love to guide his life. Each man plays a key part in constructing his own staircase, his own path through life; the constituent steps and the destination are all motivated by love, but ultimately decided by the man himself. Thus, each man can create his own unique path.

Perhaps the most unique of paths was blazed by Alcibiades. He began with unusual clarity for his youth: he deeply admired and loved Socrates, not for his body, but for his soul and wisdom. In this way, Alcibiades seemed to bypass the first step of “love [of] one body.” With age, Alcibiades continued to diverge, rather than expanding his view and becoming as Socrates suggested “a lover of all beautiful bodies”, and subsequently of all beautiful souls, he spurned all but Socrates. In fact, he “reverenced Socrates alone, and despised the rest of his lovers.” Finally, Alcibiades, no longer a youth, did not “gaze at the beauty of activities and laws… [and] of knowledge.” Instead, he pursued power in government. Using his proficiency in oratory, and mastery of leadership in warfare, he rekindled a war between Athens and Sparta, simply to increase his own standing to general. Throughout this war, he would constantly change sides, from Athenian general, to Spartan politician, to Persian counselor, and finally back to Athenian politician, always willing to shift loyalties to retain power. Through his infamous journey for power, Alcibiades reached the same destination of “immortality” that Socrates proposed, in a radically different way.

In the end, though his ascension was unique, Alcibiades ended in the same divine destination Socrates spoke of. Not all are so lucky. I speak of the pitiful Medea. We all know of her incurable infatuation with Jason. She fell so much in love with him, that she was willing to even kill her own brother. I would speak more of what steps she took towards divinity, if it had not all come to nothing. For, Jason betrayed her and the bitterness of his villainy burnt the very capacity for love out of her heart. With this tragedy, the stair that could take her to divinity was demolished. Forever afterwards she was cold and remorseless, killing her rival for Jason’s love, her own children, and later on attempting to poison Theseus himself, a man she barely knew who had done her no wrong. In Medea we see the weakness of our partner Love. Just as we can be irreversibly damaged, so can he.

Socrates, our dear mentor, has given us an excellent blueprint for a grand staircase, but as you can see, there are alternatives. We must be careful not to be blinded by Socrates’ genius and to dismiss approaches that conflict with his formula as wrong. For, every man has his own unique path to walk, and if we attempt to use an irrelevant formula, we risk losing happiness, that final and most important goal.









Works Cited:
Daniel L. Schacter, D. T. (2009). Psychology (1st ed.). New York, New York: Worth Publishers.
Hamilton, E. (1969). Mythology. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company.
Orwell, G. (1949). 1984. London: Signet Classics.
Plato. (1989). The Symposium. (A. N. Woodruff, Trans.) Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company.
Plutarch. (1959). Lives of the Noble Greeks. (E. Fuller, Ed.) Garden City, New York: Nelson Doubleday.

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