Tag Archives: Praise

The Praise of Love, by Plato

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Love, probably one of the most consensual terms of our time, and which has occupied so many thinkers throughout history. A feeling so powerful that it is sufficient to explain the wildest reactions, the craziest attitudes. But is love a unique feeling? Can we compare the love of a parent for his child with the love of lovers? This emotion can take different forms, and despite its polysemy, all the praise went to a single god in Greek antiquity: Eros.

During a banquet organised at the home of the poet Agathon of Athens to celebrate his first victory at the tragedy contest during the Lenaia in 416 BCE, the physician Eryximachus suggests that each guest makes an improvisation by praising the god Eros. The Symposium written by the philosopher Plato tells the story of that night.

Plato’s symposium (Feuerbach 1869)

A variety of styles

Six guests will follow one another and share their thoughts: the aristocrat Phaedrus, the Athenian Pausanias, Eryximachus, the comic playwright Aristophanes, Agathon and finally the philosopher Socrates who reports the words of the priestess Diotima. The variety in the book is felt both in the number of protagonists and in the style they use to deliver their point of view on love. Aristophanes and Socrates choose to praise Eros with a mythological background, Pausanias and Eryximachus believe that there are two Eros analogous to the two Aphrodite, finally Phaedrus and Agathon present a single Eros and describe it depending on his seniority regarding the other gods.

Fresco of a symposium scene (Tomb of the Diver, Italy, 475 BCE)

A Russian dolls-like narrative

Plato has here chosen to transcribe the interventions of the guests of the banquet, without omitting the chain of transmission by which this event reached him. The Athenian Aristodemus, invited by Socrates to the banquet, tells the story of the evening to a certain Phoenix who himself reports the event to a stranger, who in turn transmits it to a certain Glaucon, who finally speaks to Apollodorus asking him to narrate the event to a group of anonymous people. I built the syntax of my last sentence in the image of the story of the banquet. We can arguably give credit to Plato for having accounted for the accuracy of the chain of transmission, but we can note that this apparent concern for honesty contradicts the very approach of transcribing this story since it is inevitable that this same story has lost its truth through the successive alterations at each stage of the chain of transmission. Therefore, and having barely entered the story, we are lost by such complexity and an avalanche of names without prior contextualisation. For my part, the story becomes clear from the dialogue between Socrates and Aristodemus who are going to Agathon’s house for the banquet, and I don’t see any particular interest in making the choice of a narrator anyone other than Plato.

A banquet (ancient Greek pottery)

Aristophanes and the story of the first humans

Aristophanes’ intervention is my favourite of the banquet. It offers a mythological look on the aspiration of humans for loving in the fashion of lovers. In particular, he explains that the first humans had two faces on the same head, four legs four arms as well as two sexes. Following their revolt against the gods, the god Zeus decided to punish them by cutting them in half, then asked the god Apollo to heal their wound with the navel being the final scar. From then on, these new humans, us, are in a perpetual incompleteness and desperately seek their other half. This expression of half is present in our collective imagination and very often used in a romantic way to describe this same lack that we can feel. Having only become aware of this mythology when reading the book, Aristophanes’ story gave substance in me to this familiar feeling which was until then only in the realm of the abstract, in the maelstrom of emotions. It also made me think about our own condition and our freedom in regard of this desire for wholeness that so many of us share, without however fully achieving it. It sent me back to the rare moments in my life when I wanted to be able to hug a loved one so tightly that we could merge, a desire tinged with desperation as the longing for wholeness inevitably collides with the finitude and impotence of our human condition. Here, the praise of Eros takes on its full meaning because he is the only god capable, through the love that lovers have, of relieving us of this lack and allowing us to temporarily reconstitute our ancient unity.

The first humans according to Aristophanes (ancient Greek pottery)

The common Eros and the heavenly Eros

For Pausanias and Eryximachus, Eros is double and each of them is associated with an Aphrodite. The common Aphrodite is the youngest. Daughter of Zeus, this Aphrodite Pandemos arouses in us the carnal desire, opposed to the love of the soul embodied by the Aphrodite called Urania, as she’s daughter of the god Uranus. The latter is the oldest and it was her who was invoked by courtesans who wanted to find a husband. This distinction between the two Eros gives substance to two types of feelings, instinctive on the one hand, a drive for a body and de facto related to its temporal aspect, to the finitude of all that concerns our human envelope, and noble on the other hand, timeless and divine as it encourages us to transcend our human condition. Here, the difference between the two Eros lies in the intention of the one who feels the love and in its transcendental potential. This notion is, in my opinion, one of the most intelligible in the book.