Many of the world’s historians believe that the bulk of Western thought can be traced back to the peculiar writings of the enigmatic philosopher known as Plato. This is of tremendous significance because the following essay is a critical analysis of the Symposium, which happens to be one of these classic dialogues.
This all too important text is about the origin and nature of love. Of course we must remember that the Symposium was written 385 years before the common era in ancient Greece, but the principle still applies. In fact, whether metaphorical or not, this tale was presented in the form of discussions given by a group of prominent and renowned men, told as a sort of story within a story within a story.
These speeches were allegedly given at a stag wine party, or symposium, hence the name. This supposedly took place in Athens at the house of Agathon, where it is said that the guests included Phaedrus, Pausanias, Eryximachus, Aristophanes, Alcibiades, and of course Plato’s mentor Socrates, to name but a few.
This is of particular interest to the feminist scholar because if the setting of the Symposium is in any way realistic and the historical context is even slightly credible, then this text serves as a way to explore Athenian social history through each individual person’s account of gender, based on his own sexual beliefs. To do this, it is necessary for a researcher to identify some, if not all, of the issues that are commonly and currently associated with gender studies.
To begin this, or any other kind of literary evaluation, it is necessary to look at a text by examining its’ basic building blocks — first and foremost. This is because the most obvious indications that the men of ancient Greece were in fact sexist can be found in their specific use of words. This is particularly true of something like pronouns as in the case of the generic use of the term “man” in referring to any human regardless of their being male or female.
Right from the start of this story, we find one of the guests proclaiming that, “there will be no lack of conversation…each of us in turn, going from left to right, shall make a speech in honor of Love. Let him give us the best which he can; and Phaedrus, because he is sitting first on the left hand, and because he is the father of the thought, shall begin”.
Throughout the course of this, Pausanias, being an expert in legality, gave a discourse by comparing and contrasting local laws asserting that the love that deserves attention is not the kind associated with the common form of Aphrodite whose object may equally be a woman or a boy, but that of the heavenly Aphrodite which “springs entirely from the male”. According to this argument, the object of this kind of love is not a child, but that of a young man who has begun to display his intelligence.
As the story goes, Pausanias claimed that Athenian law held that when a boy surrenders to sex in the hope that he will get something material in exchange, he will suffer abuse from the lover because his surrender is contemptible. He goes on to say that only when a boy is hoping to become virtuous is his surrender to the older man in any way justified. Pausanias thought that a boy who does this is not foolish, but has shown himself to be someone who does so “for the sake of virtue”.
When the floor was yielded to Aristophanes, he gave an account of human genesis that was an obvious attempt at explaining and justifying heterosexual and homosexual orientations through mythological satire. According to the Five Great Dialogues, Aristophanes described this as follows:
“… the original human nature was not like the present, but different. The sexes were not two as they are now, but originally three in number; there was man, woman, and the union of the two…round, his back and sides forming a circle; and he had four hands and four feet…and the remainder to correspond…Each of us…having one side only…is but the indenture of a man, and he is always looking for his other half. Men who are a section of that double nature which was once called Androgynous are lovers of women…the women who are a section of the woman do not care for men, but have female attachments…But they who are a section of the male follow the male, and while they are young, being slices of the original…hang about men and embrace them, and they are themselves the best of boys and youths, because they have the most manly nature” (Plato).
Although the astute scholar might assert that men and women are both mentioned throughout this text, it is obvious that the men of this day and age were far more concerned with the relations between males and other males than that of the relations between men and women. There was definitely an all too familiar bias that dominated the scene throughout this part of history, and one can’t help but see that this simply perpetuated the socio-religious patriarchy behind it all. In spite of their best efforts to do what they felt was right, the men of ancient Greece were simply too caught up in their own sense of entitlement to notice that women were, and are, as equally deserving of their identity in society as well.
In fact, it is only in the very end, when Socrates takes his turn to speak that the voice of women was ever even really addressed throughout the entirety of this erotic debate. According to the author’s account, his mentor said to the esteemed guests “…taking my leave of you, I would rehearse a tale of love which I heard from Diotima of Mantineia, a woman wise in this and in many other kinds of knowledge…She was my instructress in the art of love, and I shall repeat to you what she said to me…”.
Socrates then goes on for quite some time revealing what it was that she had told him. Then, in concluding, the noble philosopher explained that it was not a man, but a woman who finally gave him the insight that he needed.
“Such, my dear Socrates, is the nature of the spirit Love. The error in your conception…was very natural, and as I imagine from what you say, has arisen out of a confusion of love and the beloved, which made you think that love was all beautiful. For the beloved is the truly beautiful, and delicate, and perfect, and blessed; but the principle of love is of another nature…” (Plato).
This last piece is of crucial importance to the authorial intent because the thing that Plato valued most in this world was the words of Socrates.
As such, it would seem that although most Greek men were in fact sexist toward women, this was not necessarily the case with all of them. It is obvious from Socrates’ praise of Diotima that not everyone at the time was convinced of the notion of female inferiority. In contrast to this, the Socratic view seems to have been the opposite, in spite of his being a man who openly appreciated sexual intimacy with other males. All in all, it would seem that even the most open-minded lovers of wisdom cannot help but succumb to the norms and values of the culture in which they live, whether they agree with them entirely or not.